Tom Jernstedt, Bob Robertson: Twin towers of a different kind

Apparently without a heart, the year 2020 just keeps dealing out haymakers. Two more came the other day, in less than 24 hours, with the passing of two iconic figures whom I knew well – Tom Jernstedt and Bob Robertson.

(This space normally is about Gonzaga basketball, but many Zag followers were inevitably familiar with Bob-Rob’s immense contribution, while Jernstedt affected them in ways they might not even realize.)

For most of the 38 years he worked at the NCAA headquarters, Jernstedt’s role was the guardian of March Madness. In the early years – back in the mid-‘70s -- that didn’t mean so much, but he shepherded the event to its larger-than-life status of the late-20th century and beyond. I won’t bother here to unearth the figures – the uptick in TV revenue, the sonic boom in fan interest – but it was colossal. The tournament went from cozy little curiosity to mega-happening.

Close to home, the tournament got a significant shove forward in 1984 when Seattle’s Kingdome hosted the Final Four. Jernstedt ramped up the hospitality, visitors noshed on salmon and cruised Puget Sound, and the weather cooperated spectacularly. The weekend took March Madness up another notch.

Jernstedt came from Carlton, Ore., near Salem, to the University of Oregon. I first knew him as a young events manager at the UO in the early ‘70s. In 1972, when the Ducks hosted an NCAA track meet, he found himself in the middle of a kerfuffle between the body’s track and field committee and Bill Bowerman, the legendarily gruff UO track coach who doubled that year as Olympic coach.

It seems an NCAA official was alleging that the lane markings for the relay handoffs were measured incorrectly, and it fell to Jernstedt to inform Bowerman of the breach. Only in his mid-‘20s, Jernstedt recognized that telling Bowerman something was amiss with the track at Hayward Field would be like impugning his first-born son.

“I was fearful of him,” Jernstedt told me in an aside when I interviewed him in 2017 for a book due out next month. “I was with the NCAA 38 years, but I never felt the kind of pressure I felt with Bowerman over that.”

Jernstedt withstood a fusillade of spittle and F-bombs, and went on to what he assumed might be a relatively short stint with the NCAA, a waystation on returning someday as Oregon athletic director. But Oregon’s clumsy chain of command to the president discouraged him, and instead he built a sterling career at the NCAA. That ended a decade ago when NCAA president Mark Emmert launched his reign of error by offing Jernstedt from the organization’s rolls, not face-to-face but with a phone call.

Jernstedt was one of those people whose style makes you check your own hole card – low-key, even-tempered and perpetually guided by common sense.

It was other qualities that distinguished Bob Robertson. The man was unfailingly convivial and kind. In some extended conversations I had with him, I always had the feeling he wanted them to go longer. He liked people that much.

Much has been made of the range of Bob-Rob’s microphone, from Notre Dame football in the mid-1950s to Seattle Totems hockey to roller derby to soccer – and of course, his five decades watching Washington State football, much of it not very memorable. But you don’t know the half of it.

Bob’s love for the mike was absolutely immutable. I was driving in Spokane in late winter maybe 15 years ago, flicking the radio dial, and here came Bob-Rob, describing a State B basketball game at Spokane Arena. You know, Pateros, Curlew, St. John-Endicott, those schools.

Similarly, I’m in Phoenix 15 or 20 years ago, headed out to dinner. The car radio gives voice – Bob-Rob’s – to a high school state-tournament game. An Arizona state high school tournament.

You never knew where Bob Robertson might track you down. Motoring toward Pullman late one night in August about a decade ago for WSU’s football fall camp, I picked up Bob-Rob, doing a Spokane Indians game with Tri-City, Class A Northwest League baseball. The game was scoreless, and, swear to God, it would go 19 or 20 innings before somebody pushed across a run.

I figure Bob-Rob was 82 then.

Mount Rushmores make for trendy debates these days, and if you carved one for Washington State – not just athletes and coaches, but presences – wouldn’t Bob Robertson have to be on it?

It’s what we argue in 2020, the year without a conscience.