Copperas Cove community prepares to celebrate the life of "Big Joe" Lombardi
By LYNETTE SOWELL
During the past week Copperas Cove and the rest of the Central Texas community has been mourning and processing the loss of “Big Joe” Lombardi, recollections and stories are being told of the lifelong impact that one man can have on thousands of people, simply by leading by example and being among the best in his field.
The life of Joe Francisco Lombardi Jr., known as “Big Joe” Lombardi, will be celebrated on Monday, March 20, at 7 p.m. in a setting that was familiar and comfortable to him for decades – Bulldawg Gymnasium, on the campus of Copperas Cove High School.
Those who attend are requested to wear Bulldawg Blue and Gold, and all should come prepared to celebrate, although his loss is still keenly felt.
Lombardi made radio his passion, and radio enabled him to touch the community in many ways.
For decades, KOOV Radio was one of the media hubs in the community, and Lombardi and his cohorts there were at the center of it. After KOOV closed its doors as a station, Lombardi continued his media work as the Voice of the Bulldawgs, and lent his voice at other venues.
Ronnie Witcher with KACQ in Lampasas, also spoke of Lombardi’s work.
“In his many years of service to area radio listeners, first at Copperas Cove’s KOOV and then with Lampasas’ KACQ, he was the best. In my 40-plus years of working with radio l am convinced that he was the most talented radio announcer I have ever known,” Witcher said. “Part of that was natural talent and a great voice, part was his detailed preparation, and part was his partnership with wife, Sherry. She was also a lifetime member of the media business and shared his love for it. Joe worshipped her, and she was his biggest fan.
“Big Joe was one of the few radio DJs to have been honored in Nashville as the Country’s Best of the Year, and I can attest that he deserved the honor. He was good!
“Aside from work, Joe was a welcome friend to me and many others, even casual acquaintances. Whether it was a local businessman, a high school coach, a young athlete, a waitress or the postman who brought the morning mail, Joe was always quick to become a friend, and he was mine. I, like many others in the area, am glad I knew Big Joe Lombardi.”
Russ Cochran worked side by side with Lombardi in Bulldawg Radio for 20 years and the two developed a close friendship.
“Joe was very complex and simple at the same time. He loved what he loved, and he loved with everything he had,” said Cochran. “He wouldn’t let us start a broadcast without prayer, but never once did he ask for a Bulldawg win. One time, the Desoto basketball coach noticed our prayer and asked if he could join, and Joe was so proud of that moment. He talked about it often.
“His memory and preparation for games was amazing, He was loyal to a fault. I find it hard to put my friendship with Joe into words, but I think the words unconditional love comes to mind.”
Fellow announcer Ben Petet also broadcast with Lombardi and Cochran for the past five years on Bulldawg Radio.
He knows the exact date he met Joe Lombardi for the first time – Feb. 12, 1999 – when Ben married his wife, Robyn.
“We were married live on the radio in an airplane. Joe was working at KOOV, and we were picked for their Valentine’s wedding giveaway and Joe was broadcasting it. Lord James and Judge Price were in the plane as Robyn and I said our I-do’s.”
Like, Cochran, he and Lombardi would swap stories when they rode together to different stadiums to announce for the Bulldawgs.
“Joe will be missed, as he was the biggest supporter of all Dawgs athletes and students.”
Lifelong Covite Peter Simpson has announced with Lombardi, and likewise has vivid recollections of his friend. When Simpson was six years old, he was on the radio with Joe and that stuck with him.
One of Lombardi’s loves was racing, and Simpson attended or raced in hundreds of the races that Lombardi announced at Texas Thunder Speedway.
“Joe was always a professional, whether with a six-year-old on air, a fill-in radio guy or a Heisman trophy winner. He treated everyone the same,” Simpson said. “To me, Joe was always about the show. He took whatever event he had to work with and made it more exciting than it probably was.
“On the radio, he painted a picture of the scene that you could see in your mind. He’d tell you what the Bulldawgs were wearing, what the opponent was wearing, and that ‘the Dawgs are moving from left to right on your radio dial.’ He would describe the formation and the action of the play, hopefully ending in ‘It’s another Bull-dawg touchdown!’ Joe could make a forward fall for a yard sound like a fifteen-yard sprint into the open field.
“Joe was a shameless Bulldawg homer and he was proud of it. He always focused on the positives in a game, even if there were far more negatives. He treated the team and players like they were all Heisman winners, but he was certainly proud of Robert Griffin and Charles Tillman and those teams that played in state championships.
“I am so glad he got to experience those things because he was as consistent a fan as there was and he certainly suffered through some really tough times.
“When Joe started out at Texas Thunder Speedway, he was way out of his element. He knew nothing at all about dirt track racing except that cars were involved. That first night, it was obvious. He didn’t know the people, he didn’t know the rules, and he didn’t understand the format.
“But Joe was a professional. He asked questions and he studied. He learned the names of the drivers and began to win the fans over. He brought out some of his own sound equipment and began to play music. He turned it into a show.
“Joe soon had made racers and race fans another family, just like his KOOV colleagues, just like his Leader-Press colleagues, just like his just like the Bulldawgs, and just like the citizens of Copperas Cove. Joe became educated and passionate about racing the same way he was passionate about those other areas of his life. He jumped in with both feet and gave race broadcasting 100% of his effort.”
Jason Minnix worked at the Copperas Cove Leader-Press during his junior and senior years of high school as a general assignments and sports reporter and photographer. He covered many of the Big Joe Victory Corner arrivals in Desert Storm.
Minnix, a 1991 CCHS alum, has worked in San Antonio radio since 1993, and has called high school football play in San Antonio for 25 years. He has been at ESPN San Antonio for 15 years. He didn’t originally intend to work in radio, but Big Joe played a role in that decision.
After a post-high school enlistment in the Navy as a public affairs officer on the U.S.S. Seattle, Minnix had a job at the San Antonio Express. But, he’d also been offered at job at KTSA Radio.
“I had never done radio before and I asked Big Joe about it and he told me, ‘Radio guys can make more money, have a lot more fun and they don’t work as hard.’
“Years later, Copperas Cove was playing a neutral site playoff game in San Antonio. After the game I went up to the press box to say hello to Big Joe, and he said, ‘Do you remember what I told you?’ I said, you have told me a lot of stuff. He pointed to the writers in the pressbox and he said, “I will be halfway home before they are done writing their stories.’
“When I got the job with ESPN, he was very excited, telling me, ‘Big Time, Big Time,’ and we talked a lot about the differences between music radio and talk radio. He told me the basic premise is the same: ‘connect with your audience.’”