May 4, 2009
FORT COLLINS, Colo. - Rich Bircumshaw himself would not have believed it.
Humble to the core, Bircumshaw would have greatly underestimated the number of lives he touched, manifested in the more than 500 people from all across the country who turned out for his memorial service Monday afternoon at Blessed John XXIII University Center.
Current and former head coaches and athletic directors, student-athletes, colleagues in the media from across the region, and friends - many of whom considered themselves his best friend -- all made their way to Fort Collins Monday to say goodbye to the man many of them knew as the King.
"He was like a rock star," said master of ceremonies Gary Ozzello, CSU's senior associate athletic director. "He was truly an icon in our building, when he walked in the front door of the McGraw Athletic Center. Everyone liked him. Everyone loved him. He truly was the King."
Bircumshaw, who passed away Wednesday night after suffering a stroke, was the Voice of the Rams since 2002. With half a thousand potential speakers in the audience, four were chosen to eulogize CSU's fallen ambassador.
The first speaker was Sonny Lubick, who recalled the first time he talked to Bircumshaw, well before their paths would cross at Colorado State decades later. Lubick, then a member of the Stanford coaching staff, was in Lander, Wyo., on a recruiting trip. Very few people knew the coach was there, or so he thought.
"I got about five or six phone calls from this guy wanting to interview me!" said Lubick, referring of course to Bircumshaw, then a broadcaster in Riverton, Wyo.
In fact, Bircumshaw's Wyoming roots, which included several years as a prominent member of the Wyoming Cowboys radio team, were a hurdle that needed to be cleared 10 years ago, when Bircumshaw applied to join CSU.
"Our athletic director came in to talk to me," Lubick said. "'Well, we have about three candidates, and the one that everyone seems to like is this guy, Rich Bircumshaw.' I said, `Well, why don't you hire him, then?' He said, `Because he's from Wyoming.'"
His previous employer aside, Bircumshaw quickly established himself in Fort Collins and within the CSU athletic department. Lubick noted that he used to rub Bircumshaw's shiny cranium days before big games because he "had heard it was good luck to rub a baby's head," accused him of blatant homerism for how he ripped officials for their calls during basketball broadcasts, and remembered that he could feel Bircumshaw's presence long before the announcer stopped into his office.
"In my office on the second floor, you could hear him coming," Lubick said. "You could feel the buzz when he was up front talking with the ladies, 20 minutes before he got to my office. Rich was coming."
Lubick closed his remarks with what quickly became the theme of the day, noting that Bircumshaw would never have guessed that 500 people would have shown up for his funeral.
"He would not expect this in 100 years," said Lubick, pointing to the audience. "Whenever you threw an accolade in his direction, he was out of there. He didn't want any part of it.
"He taught us about respect and making people laugh, and that's why we all gravitated to him."
Ozzello then recalled the story of CSU's 2005 football trip to the Metrodome, where the Rams lost to the Minnesota Gophers. With all but a handful of individuals from the large CSU travel party on their buses ready to go, waiting for the radio crew to finish its postgame broadcast, the equipment truck was sent by accident back to Colorado.
Bircumshaw, flustered and sweaty, with a large case of broadcast equipment in tow, asked Ozzello for the location of the truck, which was to have transported the radio gear back to Fort Collins.
"Well, Rich, it's about three exits down I-80," Ozzello said. "He didn't talk to me for another 10 days."
Next up was legendary Wyoming radio personality Tim Ray, who brought Bircumshaw from Riverton to Casper, where he gave Bircumshaw a new radio responsibility: news.
"He said, `huh? You want me to do what?'" Ray said.
After several months on the newsbeat, Ray noticed that Bircumshaw seemed to be arriving at the station later and later, and finally confronted him. Bircumshaw said that he had been meeting a lot of probationary officers and sheriff's deputies.
"I said, that's a good place to hang out, Rich," Ray said, feciciously. "But it was there where he met Wendy, the love of his life. And all of us could breathe a sigh of relief. We were happy that he finally had someone else to gripe to."
Ray said that when Bircumshaw, who had been a fixture on the Wyoming sports radio network, made the unconventional move across rivalry lines to join the Cowboys' counterparts at Colorado State, many fans were skeptical - on both sides of the rivalry. Ray said he knew Bircumshaw was one of few who could make such a seamless transition.
"I'm convinced that Rich never paid attention to colors," Ray said. "He had a passion for people and relationships. I know he loved the Cowboys from Wyoming, where he spent so many outstanding years. I know, having been born in Park City, he also loved the Utah Utes. And, obviously, so many people in this room know he loved the Colorado State University Rams. I think despite having all those ties, he still had something in common with all of us in this room: He hated the Cougars."
Ozzello remembered an early season football road trip three years ago, when the two friends were in Bircumshaw's room watching baseball. On his way out of the room, Ozzello took the room-service order card from Bircumshaw's bed, proceeded to check off everything on the menu, then on his way out hang it on Bircumshaw's door for a 5:30 delivery the next morning.
"I had a thought that I should call down to the front desk and cancel it, but I forgot and fell asleep," Ozzello said. "I got a call the next morning that woke me up about 6 a.m., and I knew before I answered, it was Rich. He tore me up. `Do you know how much this is going to cost me?' I told him I would come down and pay for it, but he told me not to worry because he finished every little bit."
The next eulogist was Stu Haskell, Bircumshaw's supervisor at Clear Channel
"His heart was true gold," Haskell said. "He could think on his feet better than anyone I knew. Some people have asked me in recent days how we will replace him. I said, `We will never be able to replace Rich Bircumshaw.'"
Haskell remembered the last time he saw Bircumshaw, Tuesday morning. The two left on good terms, but Haskell, like most everyone at the service, knew the humble Bircumshaw would've shrugged off the turnout Monday.
"He made such a difference in people's lives," Haskell said. "I'm not sure he ever understood that. He was extraordinary. He was the magic. He was so unbelievable. He would've been blown away to see this outpouring of people today."
Bircumshaw's brother, John, was the last speaker during the 45-minute service. On behalf of the family, he thanked everyone for their support. John had his own stories, one in which his brother, less than 10 at the time, had all of his baseball cards laid out in the family living room, calling his own imaginary all-star game. His mother, concerned for Rich's health, ran to John and told him she thought something was terribly wrong with Rich's breathing, because he was making several "haaaaaaww" sounds. John quickly relieved his mom's stress, explaining that Rich was only simulating crowd noise.
"He loved baseball," John said. "The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have lost their biggest fan. Vincent Van Gogh was his favorite artist and he loved music. He had an estimated collection of CDs that numbered in the 2,000s.
"But his dream was to be the No. 1 guy, the voice of a Division I college athletic department, and he did that here."
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