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Hall of Fame broadcaster Pat Sweeney calling it a career

Jan. 19—GRAND FORKS — The 1975 yearbook at Cretin High School in St. Paul, Minn., posed a question to each graduating senior.

What would you like to be?

"My ambition was to be the announcer for the Minnesota Fighting Saints," Pat Sweeney said. "Obviously, that didn't work out. The Saints folded in 1976 and again in '77. But I ended up announcing for the Fighting Sioux."

Sweeney, who became one of the region's most known and trusted newsmen for more than 40 years, retired on Jan. 1.

Sweeney spent over 32 years at WDAZ-TV, anchoring newscasts and providing play-by-play commentary for UND sports and high school events. He spent the last six-and-a-half years at KNOX radio and had a three-year stint at UND in between.

"He's about as professional as they come," longtime WDAZ anchor and producer Terry Dullum said. "All of the accolades apply to him. He was pleasant, fun and funny. I enjoyed his company at work.

"When he started, the first thing that struck me was how good his delivery was. But that was just a fraction of it. I had no idea, when he first started, that everything else would follow as well. I think a lot had to do with his work ethic and personality."

Sweeney was inducted into the North Dakota Sportswriters and Sportsbroadcasters Hall of Fame in 2018.

He also won the state's sportscaster of the year award three times — 1985, 1989 and 2005.

"He was quite organized," former WDAZ news director Mike Brue said. "It was a balancing act to give coverage to a lot of different sports and levels of sports. He was great at making contacts. He was very good and cool under fire when he was on camera. He was sharp, quick-witted and his sense of humor certainly helped him out."

Sweeney started in the broadcasting industry when he was 16 years old and a student at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul. He did behind-the-scenes jobs at KTCA-TV, a St. Paul-based PBS affiliate.

"I worked for nothing, just to get my foot in the door," Sweeney said.

After graduating from the College of St. Thomas in 1979, Sweeney dabbled in several media jobs.

He was a copy desk intern at the Minneapolis Tribune. His first sports broadcasting gig was doing play-by-play of community college football for KDAN radio. He also worked as a cartoonist for a Black newspaper, the Twin Cities Courier.

Sweeney moved to North Dakota in February 1980 and briefly worked in Williston and Dickinson.

He started his lengthy run in Grand Forks in June 1982. A year-and-a-half into his tenure, Sweeney was elevated to sports director after Dale McCabe left.

"I didn't think I'd be here more than a few years, honestly," Sweeney said. "I didn't expect Dale to leave. That was one thing. When he took a radio job, they moved me up. WDAZ wasn't the biggest station, but they did so many (live) sports. . . probably did more sports than any other station in the country that size. We did live sports, coaches shows. . . that was one of the things that kept me here."

Sweeney was the play-by-play voice for UND hockey for decades. He also called UND football, men's and women's basketball and high school state tournaments.

He covered UND's NCAA hockey championships in 1987 and 1997. He was in Florence, Ala., for UND's lone football national title in 2001. He covered women's basketball Elite Eight games in 1997, 1998 and 1999. UND won all three national championships.

Sweeney said UND's football win over NDSU in 1993 was one of the most memorable games he called. UND ended a 12-year losing streak to NDSU after Mike Mooney forced a fumble and ran it back for a touchdown late in the game.

"I was so stunned when that play happened," Sweeney said. "It was going to the right, then all of the sudden, it was going to the left. We never did get a clear shot of Mike taking the ball out. It was just this mass of people, then all of the sudden, he's taking it in. The celebration that ensued was just. . . it was like a monkey off the back of all the UND fans. People were rushing the field. They didn't have the lights on. It was getting dark. . . it was a big, big party."

Sweeney's sportscasts were known for being both newsy and fun.

He had a segment called Sports Minuses, where he showcased the goofy side of sports.

"People looked forward to that," Dullum said. "That was a thing for years and years. He was just good at his job."

It wasn't all sports for Sweeney.

When the 1997 flood hit, Brue moved Sweeney to the news side.

"I drafted him early on because of his ability to talk on his feet and speak live," Brue said. "He took on that challenge and he kept in check, as most of us did, the emotions."

WDAZ won an Edward R. Murrow Award for its coverage.

"Our phones were ringing off the hook," Sweeney said. "I used to think our phones rang a lot on Friday nights when people were calling in sports scores. It was nothing compared to the flood. It was nonstop. People were offering rooms. They'd call and say they've got room for four people. We'd go on the air and we were just giving these phone numbers, 'This family has room for five.'

"It was a surreal experience. To think we got through that without any loss of life is just amazing."

Sweeney mentored many young, up-and-coming sportscasters who went onto careers in different markets, most notably, Marney Gellner of Bally Sports North.

Sweeney left WDAZ for UND in September 2014. After about three years there, UND eliminated several positions, including Sweeney's. His last day was June 30, 2017. He started less than a week later at KNOX.

"The best part of that job was working with Doug Barrett," Sweeney said. "He's a very dedicated professional. If he's not the best radio news reporter in Grand Forks history, he's right up there. We never had an argument in six-and-a-half years. We were on the same page from the beginning. We're both old school, both trained the same way. We had so many laughs. It just worked out so well."

Sweeney said the sudden deaths of two friends played a large role in his decision to retire now.

"Travis Dunn died suddenly in Iowa," Sweeney said. "He was 65 years old. We worked together for 12 years on games. After Travis died, I started thinking of this (retirement). Two months later, Denny Johnson, the longtime morning man on KNOX, died. That's when I really started thinking about it.

"I was never going to work until I was 100 like Sid Hartman, but the loss of those two friends to sudden deaths really accelerated things."

Sweeney said he will look back upon his career with fondness.

While he never became the voice of the Minnesota Fighting Saints, he did what he set out to do.

"I've been very blessed," Sweeney said. "I was able to do what I always wanted to do. When I was a kid, I was hoping for a career like this in this field."