Spotlight: Rod Smith on the art of timing

Rod Smith at work on SportsCentre.

Photo courtesy of TSN

TSN sports anchor and CFL host Rod Smith (Artsci’83) has always loved the sound of voices, and his own voice has been a favourite of audiences for the better part of 30 years.

Mr. Smith's booming and distinctive style exudes the qualities of the man: passionate, intelligent, and excitable.

“Whether it was playing sports, or sitting around a pub and swapping stories, I've always been loud,” Mr. Smith recalls with a laugh at a midtown Toronto coffee shop.

One of the most trusted voices in broadcasting today, he is also a master of great timing and finding the right fit.

As an offensive lineman, Mr. Smith played with the Queen's Golden Gaels for a couple of seasons, helping the team climb to within a game of reaching the Vanier Cup championship in 1979 and 1981.

Although he dreamed of playing in the CFL, the 6’1”, 240-pound lineman realized his chances were slim, and he didn't know if science was the right program, so he turned his attentions to a broadcast career.

He enrolled in Ryerson's radio and television arts program, graduating in 1986, and found the right fit as a broadcaster.

But his first TV gig wasn't what he had signed up for. When Mr. Smith took his first TV job, he soon found out that he was to install personal TVs at the bedsides of hospital patients. He quit after six months.

But his timing wasn't that far off. Specialty sports broadcasting was in its infancy when Mr. Smith landed a job in 1987 as an editorial assistant with TSN.

“We were a mom-and-pop shop,” he recalls. “It was really small.”

Rod Smith not only hosts the 6 p.m. (Eastern) edition of SportsCentre, but he is also the host of the CFL on TSN, anchoring a panel of football experts that includes Matt Dunigan, Jock Climie (Artsci’89, Law’94), Milt Stegall and Chris Schultz.

Rod Smith at work on SportsCentre [photo courtesy of TSN]

But it's been his play-by-play coverage where he has received the most acclaim.

In 2010, he was nominated for a Gemini award for his work in long-track speed skating at the Olympics in Vancouver.

In 2013, he won a Canadian Screen Award for his work calling aquatics at the 2012 Olympics in London. To prepare for those games, he studied aquatics and attended events for a year in advance.

“It was the hardest I ever worked,” he says with pride.

Growing up in the Ottawa bedroom community of Nepean, as the youngest of three children, Rod Smith discovered a love of football and a love for voices.

He would spend hours taping the voices of NFL Films narrator John Facenda (known as the Voice of God), former Canadian broadcaster Don Chevrier, and ABC News anchor Peter Jennings. He loved how each voice resonated differently. He listened to their rhythms and their timing.

“All the different styles of delivery fascinated me,” he says. “Some deep and resonant. Some more smooth, extremely articulate and flowing. I would imitate them for friends.”

It all came back to timing, when he watched Queen's win the Vanier Cup in 1978. Although he was recruited by other schools, he was determined to suit up in Queen's colours.

“I called them,” Mr. Smith says, explaining that he was influenced in his decision after meeting Jim Muller (BSc’80), who later had a pro career, and Gaels co-captain Randy Edgeworth, Ed’79, PHE’80.

“These were real role models. At that time, a lot of people wanted to play football at Queen's. I wanted to go there academically too given the school's reputation.”

It was at rookie orientation in 1979 that the Gaels got to see the kind of talent that TSN would soon discover for themselves.

During a 15-minute stand-up, he re-enacted the voices from the movie “Rocky,” including that of Rocky, Mick, and Apollo Creed. The veteran players were blown away.

Both the CFL and sports broadcasting has changed a great deal over the years he's been in the business.

The CFL has become more of a passing game and the league has finally found stable footing with a lucrative TV deal with TSN, and many teams, including the Toronto Argonauts, are drifting towards smaller, more intimate stadiums.

Mr. Smith finds that sports broadcasting has improved greatly since those early years at TSN. The announcers are less formal, more conversational, and there is more detail in the storytelling, he says.

His connection to Queen's has lived on far beyond his playing days. He has gone back to Richardson Stadium to do play-by-play on football broadcasts in a regular-season game in 1995 and a 2009 playoff game.

“It was the stadium I played at. And seeing my old coaches. That was beyond thrilling,” Smith says.

“The experience I had there, even though I didn't get the formal education, the passion for the game was fueled there.”

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