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My Conversation with Greg Heister

Funny, friendly and frank; Greg Heister opens up about his career, his critics and his love for all things Gonzaga

Greg Heister is a really nice guy. How nice? He accepted a text from a perfect stranger for an interview then, worked out the details during commercial breaks while calling the WSU/Utah basketball games. He then conducted the interview while awaiting the “shoot around” prior to calling the WSU/UW Women’s game. “Ya gotta see Charlisse Leger-Walker play”, he told me, “She’s incredible.”

Despite seeing almost every televised Gonzaga game for the past two decades and almost every Mark Few show, I knew little about Greg Heister before I researched and conducted this interview. I knew he called games on other networks and there was something about a fishing show, but he did so much more than I ever imagined. I ended the interview not only being impressed, but more than a little bit envious. Here’s our conversation:

Where are you from Greg? I grew up in a small town in Western New York called Portville about 7 miles from Olean (and 3 miles from the Pennsylvania border).

Did you play any ball growing up and if so what? Yeah, like most young men at that time I played a little baseball, football, basketball, I was never very good at any of them. I did play some golf in college (at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio) but ended up talking about sports instead of playing them.

Growing up, who were your sports heroes? I grew up a huge fan of Terry Bradshaw. I’m really looking forward to the new documentary about him on HBO Max. I was a big Steelers fan, I won a 35 cent bet in third grade and loved the Steelers ever since. In baseball, I was a Reggie Jackson Fan.

When did you realize you wanted to go into broadcasting? I read a book either my sophomore or junior in high school called So You Want to be a Sports Broadcaster by Ken Coleman who was the voice of the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Browns. I used to record the audio from all the Super Bowls and thought that was a great way to leave a legacy, to have your voice associated with a great sporting event. To come full circle, I ended up in Cleveland working at the CBS affiliate for a guy named Casey Coleman who’s father was Ken Coleman. It’s pretty crazy.

Who were your 3 favorite broadcasters and biggest influences? I loved Brent Musburger he had a great voice, still does. I loved Don Criqui who did a lot of regional games, the Bills and the Browns. Charlie Jones on NBC, in those days there were only three stations. The biggest might have been Curt Gowdy, a super broadcaster who did MLB, the NBA Finals, the Super Bowl. He was also the host of a show call The American Sportsman which was one of the first outdoor television programs. So, when I went on TV, I wanted to be Curt Gowdy, call play-by-play and do outdoors television. I currently have a show on Sundays on the Discovery Channel called Seasons on the Fly and I produce videos on the Iditarod (the annual 900-mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska) and that was spawned on the career of Curt Gowdy.

Did you get into fly fishing and the Iditarod while living in Alaska? No, fly fishing has been a lifelong passion and a family activity I did with my father. I tied my first fly when I was seven. The Iditarod started in 1991 when I worked for the ABC affiliate in Anchorage who were the official global broadcast station for the race. I feel in love with the race and have been out there almost every year since.

Do you do a live Iditarod telecast or just an after race, overall video? I do the live start, the live finish and we do daily feeds to a subscription audience of about 1 million viewers. We broadcast to the world on Iditarod.com. I have a team of guys and we follow the race on snow machines, helicopter, light aircraft. We’re out for 10 days, no shower, little food and we cover the race.

So how did you get to Spokane? I spent six years in Alaska, then in 1997 was hired as the sports director at KHQ. I anchored the 4:30 newscast, did anchor fill-ins and transitioned to news but the opportunity to do play-by-play came my way. That kept me in sports until the Zag opportunity came my way. I then formed my own production, call games for Root, ESPN and a lot of work for the PAC-12 Network. Calling the Zag games opened up a lot of doors.

How much traveling did you do with the team and do you still go on the road? We were supposed to do fifteen games this year with four on the road but unfortunately the road games were interrupted by COVID. I do well over 20 games for the PAC-12 network doing basketball, so it keeps my winter full. I also do baseball, football, volleyball, soccer and golf for PAC-12 so it’s a busy year.

You started at Gonzaga in 2001, when did you realize Mark Few and Mike Roth were building something special? The first year I got to do the games was Dan Dickau’s senior year (29-4 record), his All-American year, so I thought the team was something special immediately. They had Turiaf, Blake Stepp, Violette, Alex Hernandez…they were electrifying and won games they shouldn’t have. They got off the bus looking like nothing special, then carved the opponents hearts out so it was special for me from day one. Dan lit the world on fire and I had a front row seat.

Even after LMU victory, the talking heads on the CBSSN were downplaying WCC competition and Gonzaga’s ability to match-up against Auburn. Do you get as frustrated as we fans do when you hear this year after year? It’s an interesting narrative for the television audience but the argument just doesn’t hold water. If you look at what Gonzaga’s done the past 10 years how can you say anything about the team not being ready in March. The WCC looks like they’ll get three teams in the tournament this year and I think the Zags are well prepared.

I remember how impressed I was with Hunter Sallis on your recent interview. Even these 5-star guys seem selfless, ego-free and team-first. Tell me a little about the quality of the young men Gonzaga recruits? Yeah, I’m totally impressed with the caliber of the players. Of course, they’re brought here to play basketball, but Mark Few and his staff do a great job of ensuring they fit into the system. They recruit winners and guys who are good representatives of the program, the university and the community. I’ve been around the program for 21 years and can tell you honestly there hasn’t been a player I haven’t liked. I’ve done the sit-down interviews for 20 years, get to ask them anything and really get to know them. They’ve been great players but above all what they have done for the university and to make their families proud, that makes it really special.

Which player has been your best interview? (Laughing) I’ve been asked that before…..I love Jeremy Pargo, he was funny and constantly talked trash with me, so much fun. Rob Sacre was the same way, Ronny Turiaf, Morrison. I’ve loved the opportunity to talk with all of them and always try to get them to laugh cause now I’m just some old guy trying to relate. When I started, I was 30 so I could relate a little better.

Coach Few always seems a little hesitant in front of the camera, have you gotten him to warm up over the year’s while doing the Mark Few shows? (Laughing again) He’s always been warm, I think you’re seeing consternation about the interviewer and what silly question I’m about to ask him. He’s saying to himself, “oh no, it’s Heister.” He and I have been good friends for a long time, he’s my fishing partner. He’s not uncomfortable, just worried about me so don’t misread that.

What’s your opinion of NIL (Name, Image, Likeness)? I can see both sides of the argument. I think it’s great these kids can make some money, I just worry about what this may do to the game. Will major market schools have an unfair recruiting advantage and will the kids pick a school based on the right reasons? Will it be about their development, a coaching staff, the academic environment or just the place who’ll drop the most coin in their pocket?

Best player development: Someone you didn’t think would ever play when they were a freshman then surprised you the most by the time they graduated? Mike Hart is the first to come to mind. He arrived as a walk-on but ended up starting for a team ranked #1 in the nation. Kelly Olynyk had obvious potential but I don’t think anyone knew he’d be an NBA player, even during his sophomore season. Coach Few and his staff have made their living on player development over the years. That’s what you get when you come to Gonzaga, a place to develop and possibly make it to the next level.

Can you tell me how Dickau and Fox got hired in 2011? (Laughing) We were in desperate situation, Ehlo left to coach at EWU. Dan’s goal was to get into broadcasting and Richard was doing radio so when both expressed interest, a light bulb went off in someone’s head at Root Sports or KHQ on trying a three-man booth. It’s been that way ever since and it’s been great.

Do you miss broadcasting the more competitive Gonzaga games and find it hard to fill the airtime once the games are no longer in question? The close games are much easier to broadcast but sadly we don’t get to do many of those anymore. The LMU game was a 34-point win, Portland 32. Calling 40-point wins is extremely difficult and puts a premium on the ability to tell stories. It also gives you an opportunity to go too far over the edge and get away from the game and a lot of people only watch to hear you call buckets. The standard criticism over the years is we get too far off-topic and there are some fans who just want us to call the game. It’s fine, I’ve called games with Bill Walton and he’s never on topic.

Do the critics bother you Greg, have you ever thought about changing you approach to calling a game based on fan feedback? No, no, I bring my style to the game and if people don’t like it there’s nothing I can do about it. Who doesn’t want to be loved, if the criticism didn’t bother you you’d be pretty heartless. The only thing I can tell you is I’ve given 21 years of my professional career to calling those games. I have a tremendous respect for the opportunity, a tremendous amount of respect for the fact I get to sit courtside and talk about this amazing basketball program and the fact I get to be in people’s homes when I call those games. I prepare, try and be professional and am really close to the program. Did I go to Gonzaga, no, but Mark Few is one of my closest friends on the planet and some of my other closest friends are part of the university. I want everyone to be successful. Sometimes I’m unable to figure it out, I’ve been called a homer, then not enough of a fan. Social media has made it so easy to hear from those people but I think it’s part of this business. Remember I started this interview talking about Brent Musburger and I also loved Howard Cosell, they were two of the most hated broadcasters around. Cosell spent years as the most loved and most hated. Check twitter, Joe Buck is hated and I happen to think he’s one of the best. Yet, he takes a beating every time he calls a game. So, when people are critical of me, I kind of tip my cap because I know I’ve hit a nerve and am doing something right. There’s a lot of people who don’t like Greg Heister and I sometimes take them to lunch. (True Story: My son knows someone who ran an anti-Heister website. Heister took him to lunch and the guy took the site down and he and Heister remain social media friends). I learned early in my career there are a lot of love ‘em or hate ‘em guys but the bottom line was they never quit being themselves. I’ll never quit being me calling these games. If someone forces me to, I’ll hang it up. I love calling Gonzaga games, I love calling all the games. I try to prepare, be professional and earn the spot I’ve been given……like me or hate me, you just can’t question some of those things.

Tell me about Seasons on the Fly, how long have you been doing it and how many episodes a year on the Discovery channel? Where’s your favorite place you’ve filmed? I try and do 10 episodes per year and I think I’m in my 17th year. I think it’s the longest running fly fishing show in television history. I’m pretty proud of it and it airs on Sunday on the Discovery channel. It’s in almost 90 million homes and it’s the other passion my life. I’ve loved filming in the Amazon, Belize, Iceland, Russia but my favorite place is my Seasons on the Fly fishing lodge in Alaska. That’s the beauty of the sport, you get to go to wonderful places and get fish to eat something you’ve created.

I never understood why the Tom Hudson did the Mark Few show for Selection Sunday until I researched this interview and discovered you were in Alaska for the Iditarod. When do you get back and do you get to see any of the NCAA Tournament? Yeah, I usually get off the trail in time for the Sweet 16 and travel to where the games are played. I do the best I can following the games while in Alaska via internet so I’m tuned in.

Greg, if I were to visit the Heister household, how many Emmy’s would I see displayed, I heard you had fourteen? (laughing) I hide most of them, but there are six or seven displayed, the others are in the basement or in the closet. It’s a little north of fourteen now.

Lastly, after 25 years in Spokane have you, hopefully like Mark Few, established roots and will make this your permanent home? Well, I have a daughter born here who’s going through school and you never know what the future brings but I’m pretty sunk into Spokane. I’ve got it pretty good, I own my own production company, travel the globe, get to hit the Iditarod Trail and talk about athletic events for a living. It’s a pretty good life Spokane has given me.

I want to express my gratitude to Greg Heister for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to me and to tolerate my “silly questions.” Here are the websites for some of the topics discussed in this interview:

https://www.soflodge.com/the-lodge The Seasons on the Fly Lodge

https://www.discovery.com/shows/seasons-on-the-fly Seasons on the Fly on Discovery

https://iditarod.com The Iditarod