LAWRENCE — Max Falkenstien, whose voice became synonymous with University of Kansas football and men’s basketball broadcasts for six decades, died Monday afternoon at age 95.
Falkenstien — the No. 60 banner bearing his name hangs in the south rafters of Allen Fieldhouse with the KU men’s and women’s basketball standouts who have had their jerseys retired — covered more than 1,750 men’s basketball games and 650 football games — a span that included every game played in the fieldhouse until his retirement in 2006.
Falkenstien, who started broadcasting KU games in 1946 after returning from World War II, is one of Kansas’ most decorated broadcasters. He was presented the Curt Gowdy Media Award by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September 2004.
“Max was a member of the greatest generation. A pioneer sports play-by-play broadcaster in Lawrence and Topeka, and just a fun guy to be around,” said Bob Davis, Falkenstien’s broadcast partner for two-plus decades, in a release from the athletic department announcing his death.
“In the years we worked and traveled together we spent much of our time laughing. ... We had some great times together. I loved him.”
In 1998, the College Football Hall of Fame honored Falkenstien with the Chris Schenkel Award for long and outstanding merit in sports broadcasting. Falkenstien also won the Distinguished Service Award by the Kansas Association of Broadcasters and the Ellsworth Medallion — the highest award of the KU Alumni Association.
Falkenstien was the first inductee into the Lawrence High School Hall of Honor, the first media member of KU’s Athletic Hall of Fame and is a member of the Kansas Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
He was the first appointee of Governor Mike Hayden to the State of Kansas Sports Hall of Fame Board of Trustees and served as Chairman of the Board for eight years from 1988-96. Falkenstien was inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
He also was named Kansan of the Year by the Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas, which was formed to preserve state history. And he won the Lifetime Achievement Award from Baker University, And he was awarded an honorary “K” by the Kansas Lettermen’s Club.
“I’ve known Max since 1985, and back then, even being young in the profession, I quickly realized that Max was as big a part of the great history of KU basketball and football as the players and coaches were. He was an absolute joy to be around, and he will be remembered as an absolute treasure,” KU basketball coach Bill Self said.
“He was loved by everyone. His personal touch made every fan, player coach and administrator feel they were part of the KU family. I hope Max realized the positive impact he had on KU and everyone connected with it. He’ll be missed, but his legacy will never be forgotten.”
Falkenstien, a retired senior vice president of Lawrence’s Douglas County Bank, was born in Lawrence on April 9, 1924 and lived in Kansas virtually his entire life except for his years of U.S. Air Force service during World War II. He was a 1947 graduate of KU and 1942 graduate of Liberty Memorial High, later named Lawrence High.
He began his broadcasting career while in high school. After serving 35 months in the Air Force, he broadcast his first college game, a basketball matchup between Kansas and Oklahoma A&M in the 1946 NCAA Tournament.
Shortly thereafter, Falkenstien originated the KU Sports Network, which later was taken over by the university. He broadcast KU’s 1952 and 1988 NCAA men’s basketball title games and also eight KU football bowl games.
On March 1, 2006, his jersey was unfurled in the fieldhouse rafters at halftime of the KU-Colorado men’s basketball game.
“I thought it was fabulous,” Falkenstien, who was 81 at the time, said of the jersey-retirement honor on that night. Former KU basketball players who attended that game included Sean Alvarado, Jeff Gueldner, Greg Gurley, Bill Hougland, Monte Johnson, Bill Lienhard, Mike Maddox, Roger Morningstar, Patrick Richey, Ryan Robertson, Bud Stallworth and Jerry Waugh.
“As my good friend Larry Brown taught me to say, ‘Gosh, this really is special,’” Falkenstien added, displaying his quick wit. One of Brown’s favorite words in interviews with Max and other media members was “special.”
“I thought this day would never come, but since it has, I’m glad I was here to enjoy it,” he added, the fans roaring in laughter.
After the game, Robertson presented Falkenstien with his own special gift. It was a picture of him and Falkenstien taken during Robertson’s own Senior Day.
“Max means so much to everybody who’s played at KU,” Robertson said at the time.
Announcer Dick Vitale said: “He may not have been a player, but Max still ranks as one of the greatest people to grace that arena. When someone tests time, that’s a sign of greatness. Obviously, this is a man who has tested time beyond the norm.”
On that night Falkenstien thanked his wife, Isobel, who lives in Lawrence, and other family members and spoke of his KU broadcast partner of 22 years, Davis.
“My wife packed my travel bag for 60 years. She has been my pal, my partner, a great mom and listened to more games than anybody in this building,” Falkenstien said of Isobel. “Bob and I have broadcast games from the Hawaiian Islands to New York, from Anchorage to Miami, and in 22 years never had a disagreement. We had thousands of laughs, a few tears, great victories, crushing defeats. I’ll miss Bob Davis.”
Then Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said of Falkenstien: “He’s done a terrific job and is known all over the country for being the voice of the Jayhawks.”
Self said: “I’ll look back at this as one of my favorite nights, not because we won the game, but I was here when Max got his name dropped (from rafters). That is special, and he deserves it.”
Falkenstien told The Star of his passion for broadcasting in a 1993 profile.
“It’s still fun to suffer the agonies of defeat and enjoy the fruits of victory with the team,” Falkenstien said. “I try to make it fun. People like to be entertained and have a good time and listen to the broadcast. I like to tell things about the kids that I’ve learned personally and not be completely engulfed in statistical data and all that sort of thing but to talk about the people themselves and convey the excitement and enthusiasm of the game.”
He added to The Star: “I can go through my life without being in broadcasting, but I would miss it. My wife has always said, ‘You’ll do it until they carry you away. ...’ I hope I’ve brought the listeners some pleasure, and I’ve brought them the character and enthusiasm of the team. I tried to paint the picture of the kids so the listeners feel they know them and they’re not just a number out there.”
Falkenstien did not miss a football broadcast until the 2005 season when he was sidelined a few weeks after undergoing emergency surgery for an intestinal blockage.
In 1993, he scheduled a minor surgery between the Feb. 1 Missouri and Feb. 7 Nebraska games so he wouldn’t miss any basketball broadcasts. When a stomach virus caused Falkenstien to miss Kansas’ game at Oklahoma in January 1993, he said it was the third or fourth basketball game he has missed.
Falkenstien was Kansas’ play-by-play voice for 37 years before the Jayhawks’ rights were sold to Learfield Communications in 1984 and Davis was hired. Falkenstien then was shifted to the role of commentator.
Former Kansas forward Chris Piper, a member of the 1988 NCAA championship team, grew up in Lawrence listening to Falkenstien, and after playing for the Jayhawks, worked as an analyst for KU telecasts.
“On the team bus or plane, you could talk to him about anything,” Piper told The Star. “He talked to you as a person, not as somebody looking for a scoop or for something to say on the radio. You could complain about a coach or a player, talk about this or that or talk about nothing that concerns basketball, and you don’t have to worry about where it’s going to go. Players joke with him, mess with him. He was part of the atmosphere, and being that way, he picks up on a lot of things and is able to translate that to people.”
Falkenstien started in broadcasting as a high school student when he worked part time as an announcer for WREN radio in Lawrence, where his father, Earl, was the longtime business manager for the Kansas athletics department. Falkenstien was rehired after his discharge from the Air Force in March 1946, and his big break came shortly thereafter.
Kansas was playing Oklahoma A&M in the NCAA Midwest Regional at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, and the station manager asked Falkenstien whether he’d like to try broadcasting it.
“Hank Iba’s Oklahoma A&M team with Bob Kurland beat KU on their way to the 1946 national championship,” Falkenstien recalled. “I came back, and people said, ‘Hey, that was pretty good. We enjoyed the broadcast.’ That’s how my sportscasting career began, with an NCAA playoff game. I never took a course in broadcasting. I never had a sportscasting lesson or critique of any kind. I made it up as we went along.”
The next season, WREN began carrying some Kansas football games and most of the basketball schedule. WREN — and Falkenstien — moved to Topeka in 1948, and for the next 20 years, he ascended from announcer to program director to general manager, a position he held for 14 years before shifting to Topeka’s WIBW in 1968 as manager of news and sports operations for three years. He also handled the play-by-play for the Big Eight basketball television package during 1966-70 and worked as the first general manager for Lawrence’s Sunflower Cablevision.
A pioneer in broadcasting, Falkenstien assembled Kansas’ first network for Jayhawks broadcasts in 1949, with stations in Colby, Wichita, Coffeyville, Topeka and Dodge City.
“It always amazed me as I traveled throughout the state the vast interest in Kansas basketball, and a great deal of that had to come from radio coverage,” said former Kansas coach Dick Harp, who died in 2000. “People couldn’t get into the games, and Max became their primary source for information.”