March 26, 2017 (Above) Notre Dame Monogram Club president Dick Nussbaum presents Jeff Jeffers with an honorary monogram.
By John Heisler
The University of Notre Dame has played a dozen football home games over the last two seasons combined, and those Saturdays might have been the most painful 12 days Jeff Jeffers ever had to endure.
The pain had nothing to do with the health issues that during that time prevented the former WNDU-TV sports director and anchor from covering the Irish.
It came simply from the idea that Notre Dame was playing a football game just a few miles north of where Jeffers and his wife Leslie and their family lived on the southern edge of South Bend–and Jeff couldn’t be there to watch.
Not that he didn’t follow all of Notre Dame’s sports teams, coaches and players–but he particularly loved football. Between Jeffers’ long-time role as host of the half-hour weekly Irish coach’s show and the fact that WNDU for so long was owned by the University, with offices and studios on the west edge of campus–it wasn’t hard to understand how Jeff and Notre Dame football became joined at the hip.
Don’t misunderstand–Jeffers was a pro when it came to his craft. He earned a master’s degree in communications from Notre Dame in his early years in South Bend. Yet there was a passion that infused everything he did–in great part because he came to know all those individuals he covered so well.
Jeffers, who died this morning at age 64, did not just cover Notre Dame at arm’s length over the last four decades. He invested himself in the emotional cauldron of Notre Dame football on a day-to-day basis. When the Irish had a good day, it was a good day for Jeff. When things didn’t go so well on the field, it almost seemed to pain Jeff as much as it did Dan Devine, Gerry Faust, Lou Holtz or anyone else on the long list of Notre Dame athletics personnel with whom he rubbed elbows.
Those who worked with Jeffers, whose passing was noted by ESPN announcers during the Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA Elite Eight women’s basketball game Sunday, witnessed that devotion every day:
“Small market sports anchors are some of the true gems in that industry, and there may never have been a better one than Jeff,” said Jim Daves, former assistant sports information director at Notre Dame and now assistant athletics director for media relations at the University of Virginia.
“He had it all. A keen sense of humor, well liked in the community, hard worker and great passion for his craft. Most importantly, he kept it all in perspective. He knew he was covering sports. Big business, indeed, but also entertainment.
“In my 30-plus years in this profession, I don’t know if I have ever dealt with a group the likes of Jeff, Jack Nolan (now with Fighting Irish Media) and Chuck Freeby (now with WHME-TV). They were (are) the absolute best. A combination of the Three Stooges and the Three Tenors. And Jeff was the ringleader.
“I always felt like Jeff was sort of the local Walter Cronkite. You wanted to watch every night to see what he had to say and how he said it. It felt like a member of your own family was reporting the sports.
“The best thing about Jeff was that he cared. Sure, he wanted to get it first, but he also wanted to get it right. He cared about his profession. And he cared about the teams, coaches and athletes he covered because he knew they were more than just subjects to fill air time. They were people first.
“He had a big personality, but he had a bigger heart.”
Added former Notre Dame sports information intern Scott Dupree, now executive director of the Greater Raleigh (North Carolina) Sports Alliance:
“He was one of the funniest, friendliest people I have ever known, with one of the most unique personalities. He commanded the room when he entered. You could hear him coming from a mile away.
“When I was working in the SID office and would hear Jeffers’ booming voice down the hall, I knew it was only a matter of minutes before he would be in my office, trading barbs and jokes with the new kid from North Carolina–who he had only met a few weeks prior. But that was Jeff.
“He was naturally friendly and he loved to talk … to anyone and everyone. My two favorite things about Jeff … he had a good heart and he never took himself too seriously. He loved to laugh, he loved his job and he loved Notre Dame.”
In his spare time Jeffers perfected imitations of former Irish basketball coach Digger Phelps and Faust, among others. He loved any sort of conversation that involved Notre Dame sports, and he reveled in the fact that he lived most of his professional life right in the middle of it all.
Mike Collins (public-address announcer at Notre Dame Stadium) worked side by side with Jeffers as the longtime news anchor at WNDU. They spent literally hundreds of nights on the set together.
“When Jeff’s sister called early this morning with the news there was the inevitable sadness,” said Collins. “Then, within minutes, it all turned around. First, I started to smile, then chuckle and finally a hearty laugh. How can that be? Because during those years when he was sports director and I was news director at WNDU we sure had a great time. The days and nights could be long, but Jeff had a talent only those on the inside could appreciate.
“You might know him as the dean of local sportscasters, we knew him as the prankster-in-chief. It might have been an otherwise miserable day, but Jeff had a real talent to brighten things up. His main foil for years was legendary WNDU meteorologist Dick Addis who would fall for Jeff’s `tricks’ over and over again. We would just sit back in the newsroom and watch it unfold. There hadn’t been a duo like this since Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Jeff was our Jerry Lewis.
“But there was another side to Jeff, the journalist who was going to get the job done no matter what.
“Case in point, the 1978 Final Four in St. Louis. For Notre Dame that was a big deal and along with a photographer, Jeff and I set out in our first WNDU live truck. Around Joliet we ran into a horrendous ice storm, but Jeff would have no part of getting off the road and waiting it out, so he took over as driver.
“It was harrowing and it took us 16 hours to get to St. Louis. We were gassed and needed rest, but Jeff said `no way’ and off we went, no sleep, no shower, no shave. Jeff pulled it off and did his reports as if it were just another day at the office. Now that is a real pro.
“Our bosses at the station liked to call it the WNDU family. It was–and now the family is smaller because I have lost my kid brother.”
Nolan shared the sports assignments with Jeffers for many years at WNDU.
“I arrived at Notre Dame in September 1982 as a 22-year-old sportscaster fresh off a nine-month stint at CNN,” said Nolan. “I was outwardly confident but inwardly more than a little in awe of being at Notre Dame. Jeff immediately went out of his way to make me feel welcome, first inviting me to stay with him and Bill Thistlethwaite at what they affectionately called `The Little House on the Prairie’ on Douglas Road until I found a place to live.
“Then on my first official day of work, Jeff personally took me to meet Gerry Faust, Digger Phelps, Lefty Smith, Joe Piane and many other Notre Dame coaches. He made it clear to me that I was already a part of the WNDU and Notre Dame families and wanted all the coaches to feel the same way. To this day I remain grateful to Jeff for that wonderful welcome, one that allowed me to have some success in my new job right from the start.
“I have never met anyone who had more love for Notre Dame, and more passion for Notre Dame sports, especially football, than Jeff Jeffers. “
Notre Dame graduate Jim Corgel was a close buddy of Jeffers dating back to the late 1970s.
“We were friends since his first summer in South Bend, which was my first summer working at IBM,” said Corgel. “Jeff had a great way of quietly keeping his personal friends `inside’ his professional life. From meeting him early on football Saturdays outside at Stadium stand-ups–or catching your eye before and after sideline reports. I always felt invited into the Notre Dame sports reporting world, because of Jeff.
“My favorite story was meeting Jeff one Sunday afternoon at a White Sox game when the Yankees were in town. We visited our good friend Mike Reilly, who was one of the umpires, postgame, deep inside Comiskey Park.
“And then it happened. Yogi Berra got fired. Right then, right there. Billy Martin would meet the team on Monday. It happened 30 yards away from us in the visitors’ clubhouse. Talk about `Breaking News.’
“So we raced to the Yankee clubhouse, with Jeff throwing WNDU credentials around my neck, saying, `Act like you know what you’re doing’. . . and `we’ were among the first of the media to be there. While Jeff chased (Ron) Guidry and (Dave) Winfield and (Don) Mattingly, I bored Billy Sample and Don Baylor.
“It was a wild scene, to say the least. But Jeff got another scoop.”
Added Mike Enright, former Notre Dame assistant sports information direction and current Connecticut senior associate athletics director for communications:
“On the surface, Jeff took the results of Notre Dame games, especially football, as life and death. In reality, I think what he enjoyed most was his relationship with all the various members of the Notre Dame community. . . coaches and athletes from all sports, administrators . . . the big and the little people.
“He really cared about people and loved to laugh and tell a great story. Jeff always asked about my family in Connecticut or called me after a big Red Sox win.
“Jeff was a unique character and his career bridged eras in journalism, but it seems to me that his personal relationships were the most important thing. We are losing far too many people of that ilk, it seems.”
Tim Bourret, now assistant athletics director and football communications director at Clemson, worked with Jeffers in the 1970s as both an undergraduate and then a graduate assistant in sports information at Notre Dame.
“I was amazed at his knowledge of Notre Dame sports and history when he first got here,” said Bourret. “We challenged each other all the time on sports trivia and had great respect for each other’s knowledge.
“The thing I remember most about Jeff was that he was willing to do anything to help promote the best of Notre Dame in its student-athletes. When we gave him a story idea, he went the extra mile to get it done. He was a journalist, but he also looked for the good side of everything he reported.
“Jeff was close to all of us in the SID office because, quite frankly, he wasn’t much older than us when he started. With just six students in the office at the time, we spent a lot of time with him at Notre Dame sporting events.
“Chip Scanlon, one of our other students, was a practical joker. He was interning at WNDU and worked with Jeff and we all lived together at the time. We played golf one Saturday at the Burke and Chip decided he was going to call Jeff after our round and tell him that I had made a hole in one on one of the par threes. I came close, but it did not go in.
“Well, we were watching Channel 16 sports that night and, believe it or not, Jeff mentioned it in his sports rundown. Must have been a real slow day. I still have the audio tape of it. That was Jeff just being a nice guy.”
Added another former Notre Dame sports information intern, Doug Tammaro, a long-time member of the Arizona State media relations staff:
“Jeff was the most patient person when I helped with football interviews back in 1992. He always asked how I was doing, and he treated me like I was a 20-year pro when, in fact, it was my second year in a full-time position.”
Eddie White, currently the NBA Indiana Pacers’ post-game show host and a former assistant sports information director at Notre Dame (1982-86), was a kid when he first encountered Jeffers.
“I first met Jeff when he walked into my office at Notre Dame my first week on the job to introduce himself,” said White. “He immediately wanted to reinforce to me how important Notre Dame is, what it stands for, what it means to him and what it means to the world.
“He then did something I will never, ever forget. He must have borrowed keys from Roger (Valdiserri) or John (Heisler) because he walked me across the street to the football stadium. Up the stairs, into the press box, to the roof of the box. Please note I had not been in the press box yet–I had only been in South Bend a few days.
“He took me out on the roof and said, `See that?’ He was looking at this majestic, beautiful view of Our Lady on the dome and to the right was the Hesburgh Library with Touchdown Jesus seemingly welcoming `me’ to this wonderful place. Yes, it was a glorious landscape, even though the campus was empty at this time of year. It was Notre Dame.
“`See that?'” said the voice of Notre Dame, the face of WNDU sports. “‘That’s what it’s all about.'”
“He got emotional.
“I got emotional.
“It hit me. Yes, I was at Notre Dame. And it was special.
“And, as anyone who ever met him knows, Jeff Jeffers was special. And Notre Dame was special to Jeff. My, how he loved the school of Our Lady!
“`See that?'” Indeed. We did, Jeff. We did.”
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.