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By BOB YORK
Sometimes, those “father-knows-best” moments aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be. Sometimes, the adviser and the advisee just aren’t on the same page – at least not at the outset.
Mike Lynch saw that scenario play out during a dad-and-lad moment his senior year at Swampscott (Mass.) High School. The younger Lynch was a three-sport standout – football, basketball and baseball – at the school and was no slouch in the classroom, either, as a diploma from Harvard University in 1977 will attest. His plans to obtain that Ivy League degree and compete in the Ancient Eight in football and baseball were put on hold for a year, however, when his father, Dick, deemed a post-graduate year at prep school would be more beneficial to his son.
“I disagreed with his decision … at that time I felt as though I was ready for college,” said Lynch, whose exploits would later earn him induction into the school’s athletic hall of fame along side his father. “When I asked him, however, why he felt I needed a year of prep school, he responded, ‘because you’re not as smart as you think you are … because you’re not as mature as you think you are … because you’re not as good an athlete as you think you are.’
“Like I said, I disagreed with the decision back then,” added Lynch, who recently retired from WCVB Channel 5 following a 37-year career that made him the longest tenured anchor in Boston television sports history. “Today, though, as I look back, my father was one hundred percent right … spending a post graduate year at prep school was one of the best things that I could have ever done.”
With Lynch’s switch from public to private school, his athletic wardrobe underwent a radical color change – from the Big Blue of Swampscott to the Big Red of Phillips Exeter Academy. The academics at Exeter proved to be quite challenging, too, and in Lynch’s case, he pointed out one course in particular he took at Exeter that he felt played an integral part in his success as a sportscaster.
“Needless to say, being able to communicate is key to being successful in that kind of job,” said Lynch, who won an unprecedented 16 Massachusetts Sportscaster of the Year awards while at WCVB, “and if it hadn’t been for my year at Exeter, I honestly don’t know if I would have made it in this field.
“I took a public speaking course while I was at Exeter,” added Lynch, “and every day we’d have to stand up in front of the class and give a speech. As time went on, I began feeling more and more comfortable speaking in front of people and the more comfortable I got, the more confident I got. That one course helped me immensely over the past four decades.”
Lynch was pretty much of a known commodity when he arrived at Exeter, at least as far as his prowess in the athletic arena was concerned. In a word, he was a winner. In football, this triple threat – quarterback, defensive back and placekicker – helped lead Swampscott to a pair of Eastern Mass. Class B championships during the pre Super Bowl days. He also helped the Big Blue to two Northeastern Conference titles each in basketball, where he earned All-Scholastic honors, and in baseball, where he was a pitcher/shortstop and led the league in batting his senior year.
“Mike came to Exeter with a great reputation as a student/athlete” said Bill Dennehy, who was the Big Red’s football athletic trainer as well as its baseball coach and the 46-year veteran of the school started there the same year that Lynch showed up at its door. “He also came to Exeter with the reputation as an all-around great guy, and he didn’t disappoint in any of those characteristics.”
Being a “great guy” is a trait that seems to run in the family, as Lynch’s father, Dick, a former assistant football coach and head basketball coach at Swampscott who passed away in 2018, is considered by this community of roughly 13,000 to be one of its true legacies – just like his son has become.
While Lynch spent just one year at Exeter, he made the most of it by chiseling his name into Big Red football lore. He did so by helping Exeter grab a three-way share of the 1971 New England Prep School Football Championship and would later be named the team MVP.
Heading into that season’s finale, Exeter had a shot at the crown, but needed to beat undefeated archrival Phillips Andover. The other school in the mix was Deerfield Academy, which had handed Exeter its lone defeat. So, prior to the existence of the Super Bowl format and titles were determined on regular-season play, Andover was 7-0, while Exeter and Deerfield were both 6-1. And the way Dennehy remembers it, it wasn’t a day that started out well for Exeter.
“We were down, 20-3 at halftime,” remembers Dennehy, “with Mike accounting for our only points with a field goal. The second half was all Exeter, though, as Mike came out and put on an aerial show you wouldn’t believe … Andover just couldn’t stop him and he sparked an unbelievable 30-20 come-from-behind win. I bet I’ve seen around 45 Exeter-Andover football games in my time, and that one was the best ever.
Lynch, who took a pass on playing basketball at Exeter, and described the decision, “as something I’ll always regret,” resurfaced in the spring to serve as the Big Red’s No. 1 pitcher and played third base when not on the mound. He led the team in hitting – but unfortunately gave up one of the longest home runs ever hit at Exeter, a clout both he and his coach can both chuckle about now.
“We were playing Andover,” remembers Lynch. “We were up, I think, 3-2 in the top of the ninth. They had a runner on second and I think there were two outs and up to the plate comes their best hitter, a guy named Greg Cronin, who would go on to play football and baseball at Dartmouth.”
“Mike got him to pop up, but our first baseman dropped the ball and gave Cronin a second chance,” said Dennehy, “so I walked out to the mound to give Mike a little advice. I said ‘just be careful, don’t give him anything good to hit,’ he already had three hits on the day and I said, ‘if you want to walk him, go ahead.’"
“I told Bill not to worry, that everything was under control and that I could get him out,” remembers Lynch.
“So, I headed back to the bench,” said Dennehy, “but just before I got there, I heard the sound of a bat hitting a ball that I’d never heard before or since … I mean he got every bit of that ball. Making matters worse, we didn’t have fences at Exeter back then and this ball must have traveled 450 feet in the air and probably another 100 feet or so rolling along the ground.”
“I think it probably ended up down by the Hampton Toll Gate,” quipped Lynch. “But anyway, the ump tossed me a new ball and I’m all ready to pitch again, when I hear someone yelling from the outfield. I turned around and its my centerfielder, he hadn’t even got back onto the field yet after chasing down the ball.”
As the baseball gods would have it, this wouldn’t be the end of the Lynch-Cronin long-ball odyssey, however. Four years later, Lynch was playing for Harvard against Dartmouth in Hanover. Lynch is standing in the batter’s box while Cronin is in left field.
“I hit a fly ball over the leftfield fence for a home run that put us ahead for good late in the game,” said Lynch. “Later, after the game, the two teams lined up to shake hands and when I greeted Cronin, he hands me the baseball. He’d retrieved it after the inning ended and as he handed it to me and shook my hand, he said, ‘there, we’re even now.’”
The highlight film of Lynch’s collegiate heroics would undoubtedly include that home run, as well as another he hit to beat Yale. The reel would have to be led off, however, by the highpoint of his football career: a 26-yard field goal he kicked in the waning moments of The Game in 1975 to give Harvard a 10-7 victory over archrival Yale for its first outright Ivy League title in 26 years.
“There were 68,000 people in the Yale Bowl that day, but I just tried to put that all out of my mind as best I could,” said Lynch. “I just concentrated on making the kick and I remember telling the holder, ‘just get it (the ball) down and I’ll get it up.” And he kept his promise.
For a guy who had originally “penciled in law school,” as his go-to profession, Lynch was never quite able to get sports out of his blood and with the help of some hard work and a couple of breaks, he never had to.
As Lynch put it, “I started cozying up to Ned Martin, who broadcast the Red Sox games back then. He also broadcast the Harvard football games on the radio when I played there and he’d stop by practice once a week and when he did, I began asking him all sorts of questions about the broadcasting business. It intrigued me, so I talked the station (WITS) into letting me serve as Ned’s assistant the season after I graduated.”
Lynch enjoyed his broadcasting gig and the following fall, became Martin’s color man. The recent Harvard grad, who was making ends meet as a substitute teacher, high school basketball ref and bartender finally grabbed a full-time job on WITS doing pre-and post-game broadcasts for the Red Sox and Bruins.
Lynch’s big break came on the Friday night of March Madness weekend in 1982. He was asked by Jim Thistle, who was in charge of hiring at Channel 5 back in those days, to do an audition tape, “and to be totally honest, I didn’t feel as though I did very well,” admitted Lynch. “Jim still hired me though … he told me I’d be doing the 6 p.m. sports segment the next night.
“After I’d been at Channel 5 a while and after Jim Coppersmith hired me full time, I finally worked up the courage to ask Thistle why he hired me … that I felt as though my audition hadn’t gone well,” admitted Lynch. “ He said, ‘I just had a gut feeling you’d work out.’”
As for career highlights, right up there at the top has to be those 16 state sportscaster awards, “because those awards are voted on by your peers, so that means a great deal to me,” said Lynch.
His job also allowed him to meet two presidents: Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, “and who would ever believe a kid from Swampscott would grow up and have the opportunity to do that,” he added. Then, of course, there are all those championships the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics chalked up during his tenure in Boston.
“I not only feel fortunate for being able to do what I did for so many years,” said Lynch, “but I also feel very fortunate to have been able to do that job here in Boston. When you’re a sportscaster in Boston, you never have to worry about what you’re going to put on during your sports segment, you have to worry about how you’re going to fit it all in.”
Lynch will still be seen on Channel 5, however, as “I’ll remain in the sports mix at the station working on special assignments, major sporting events, the ‘High 5’ segments, which honor high school players and teams from throughout the Boston area, as well as our annual tribute to high school football with the ‘Salute to Thanksgiving Heroes’ segment on Thanksgiving eve.”
Mike Lynch was big on promoting high school sports because he never forgot his roots … he never forgot his days of playing for the Big Blue and the Big Red and it’s back then, according to Dennehy, that Lynch, in a very subtle way, may have received his highest compliment of all.
“While Mike was at Exeter, he worked in the equipment room with Ed Wilbur, our long-time equipment manager,” said Dennehy. “Now, you have to understand, Ed was a man of very few words. In fact, I don’t think he ever spoke unless it was absolutely necessary. He was very astute, though. So, right after graduation that year, I remember walking past the equipment room and mentioning something to him about Mike. I remember the moment well, because Ed said something in return. He said, ‘That’s a good kid!’”
Just four words, but when you’re talking about Mike Lynch, they say it all.
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