This Saturday the University of Rhode Island and Providence College basketball teams will square off for the 128th time in the history of both programs. Players, coaches and fans have come and gone over the past 25-plus years of Rhode Island’s premiere sports rivalry, but one thing has stayed the same: the radio voices of each team.
For the last 29 seasons, both Steve McDonald and John Rooke have served as the play-by-play voices of the Rams and Friars radio networks. Painting the picture and telling the story of Rams and Friars games for nearly three decades.
McDonald started his tenure as the voice of URI 30 years ago. For seven seasons McDonald was the television voice of the Rams. Then in 1995 he moved to the radio voice of the URI football and basketball teams and had occupied that roll ever since.
Rooke has spent the last 30 seasons working with the Friar program and the last 29 years behind the mic as the play-by-play man.
Both men share much more than just a common occupation. They have both become two of the most recognizable voices in Rhode Island and New England. McDonald, a member of the class of 2010, and Rooke, a member of the class of 2011, are both members of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame.
You can hear Rooke’s voice on football Sundays in New England as he serves as the public address announcer for the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. McDonald goes by his alias as “Jim Shorts on sports” on 94.1 FM HJY, providing the sports updates during the weekday morning commutes.
Both men represent and cheer for different teams, however they have formed a friendship on respect. “He’s a great friend,” McDonald said about Rooke. “It is a great friendship and there is a great comradery there. It makes it fun and that is what college basketball is all about.”
Rooke, a native of Austin, Texas and a graduate of the University of Texas, expressed high regard to his counterpart. “Steve is such a nice guy,” Rooke said. “Even if he were the voice of the Oklahoma Sooners I’d like him. Does that tell you something?” True praise from a born and bred Longhorn.
The two men for 25 years lived streets apart from each other. They also were in the same neighborhood as Brown University play-by-play voice Scott Cordischi and Providence Journal columnist Kevin McNamara. “You put my face, Cordischi’s face, McNamara’s face, and McDonald’s face up there and we could be the Mount Rushmore of Rumford,” Rooke said with a chuckle.
Both Rooke and McDonald share a mutual respect for the URI-Providence rivalry. For Rooke, growing up in Texas, football was the king sport. Over his time in Rhode Island he has seen the rivalry grow into something similar to what football is to his home state.
“There were two sports where I came from, football and spring football,” Rooke said. “I had that drilled into my head at a very early age. When Texas played Texas A&M, or Texas played Oklahoma, or Texas playing Arkansaw it was blood.”
Rooke said that he had seen the rivalry develop during the 1990-91 season when a fight broke out between both teams. “That night I knew there was something to this,” Rooke said about the rivalry. “I can relate to that because I know how people feel about growing up and being apart of something for a long time.”
McDonald, a Providence College graduate Rhode Island native, has been emerged in the rivalry for most of his life. He said that no matter what the PC- URI annual match-up is always a fun game but lately with the emergence of both schools as top 30 programs in the country, the game have gotten that much better.
“It is always a great game,” McDonald said. “They say throw away the records no matter what. That is true to a point. But, it is often the case that one team is up and one team is down, or the other team is chasing the other team and it would be an upset if they got it. Now, both teams are way up. It has been going that direction since Dan [Hurley] got here and since Ed [Cooley] got there.”
When the ball tips-off on Saturday afternoon, both men will provide the voice to their respective fanbases. It is clear who they will be pulling for.
“Do I wish the Friars well all year? Absolutely,” McDonald said. “But come Saturday it is all URI. That is my team. That’s my family. I am a Rhody guy true and blue, that’s for sure.”
“I root for Rhode Island all but in one game; when they play Providence,” Rooke said.
On Saturday afternoon both men will be 35 feet apart from each other, bookending the scorers table at the Ryan Center. Each man with his own vantage point, perspective, and place within the rivalry.
Both John Rooke and Steve McDonald have become synonymous with the Rhode Island and Providence basketball programs. Fans appreciate their work as they welcome their voices into their homes and cars each time the Rams and Friars hit the court. For the past 30 seasons, college hoop fans in the state of Rhode Island have had two great storytellers, voicing their beloved programs and that’s the way it should be.
“I am in the business of storytelling,” Rooke said. “How well I tell them is based by how the audience reacts. You have to grab onto the audience, hold onto them, and when you’re done with them you’ll see them next time.”
McDonald and Rooke are CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies in the world of sports storytelling. For both men, they just do exactly what they love to do.
“It sure beats working for a living,” McDonald said.
I am sure Rooke would agree.