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South Florida loses media ‘icon’ as former Hurricanes, OB executive Larry Wahl dies

Susan Miller Degnan
·7 min read

Longtime Miami Hurricanes broadcaster Joe Zagacki had just gotten out of the hospital after a plane crash in which he broke every rib and shattered his right leg, when a buoyant Larry Wahl came knocking on his door.

This would be Zagacki’s first and only time he couldn’t broadcast a UM football game, and Wahl, then Miami’s senior associate athletic director of communications, knew the pain-stricken Zagacki would be emotionally wrecked. Wahl insisted that he keep Zagacki company while the two watched that 1992 season opener at Iowa — despite Wahl’s house being destroyed by Hurricane Andrew 12 days earlier.

“A hell of a thing to do for a guy who had a family but didn’t have a house anymore,’’ Zagacki, still known as “Voice of the Miami Hurricanes,” recalled. “I called kickoff from my couch and Larry was thrilled. I can still see it. It was one of the kindest things anyone ever did for me.’’

Wahl, the highly respected and loved former spokesman for the Orange Bowl, Hurricanes, New York Yankees, ABC Sports and more, died Wednesday night of complications following his 2018 diagnosis of multiple myeloma — a blood cancer.

He was 67.

Dennis Erickson, Jimmy Johnson remember

“Larry didn’t have a bad bone in his body,’’ former UM football coach Dennis Erickson, who won two national championships (1989 and 91) while Wahl was at UM, told the Miami Herald from his home in Coeur’d Alene, Idaho. “Larry was about protecting the coaches and players but he also was loved by the press. Not only that. He had to keep [former UM athletic director] Sam Jankovich calm, a job in itself.

“As you recall, we had quite a reputation in those days. It wasn’t easy.’’

Fellow UM coach Jimmy Johnson, who won a national title in 1987, Wahl’s first season during his 12-year tenure with the Hurricanes, was saddened by the news of Wahl’s death.

“Just a great, positive guy,’’ Johnson told the Herald. “Larry completely loved the Hurricanes and we helped him as much as we could by winning it all in ’87. I loved working with him.’’

Wahl, vice president of communications for the Orange Bowl from 2007 until he retired this past January, had the rare gift of making long-lasting friendships and securing the trust of those within every angle of the sports media spectrum — from reporters digging for information to high-profile coaches withholding it to athletic directors to Olympic executives to the late, cantankerous Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

‘Iconic’ insight

“An icon,’’ said Wahl’s close friend and Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms, who hired Wahl in 2007 and said he was affectionately called “Senator Wahl’’ by his coworkers. “At work he was as good as they come, and an even better person. Because of his high intelligence, he had so much experience in different types of situations and a tremendous analytical ability and insight — he thought in a three-dimensional manner.

“So loyal, so trustworthy, so intellectually honest. He was interested in learning and in people and of course his children. You could see the love in that family.”

Wahl was divorced and is survived by a son, Alexander, who moved to Fort Lauderdale from New York to be close to his father, and daughter, Mindy Darwish, who lives in New York and has twin 3-year-old boys whom Wahl adored. He was predeceased by his parents, Saralee and Ronald Wahl.

“Obviously a great, well-known man,’’ Alexander, known as Zander, said of his dad. “Consummate professional and beloved in the sports space. I mostly learned how to work the room and treat everyone the same way, with respect, from the janitor to the CEO.’’

Wahl is also survived by his companion and partner, Demetria Robinson, who he said in late December on Facebook had “been my rock.’’

“She didn’t sign up for this but has stood by my side and right now is waiting on me hand and foot,’’ Wahl wrote after spending 51 days in the hospital “due to a myriad of complications’’ that developed into kidney failure. “Thanks also to my kids...for their support and concern.’’

George Steinbrenner era

Before he came to South Florida in the mid-1980s, Wahl — who most recently lived in Pompano Beach and grew up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of Little League Baseball — served as public relations director for the New York Yankees and quickly became Steinbrenner’s prized confidante. Turns out Wahl, at age 26, was one of the first people Steinbrenner called after legendary Yankees catcher Thurman Munson died in a plane crash in 1979. Wahl was loyal to Steinbrenner to the end.

Wahl packed his bag and headed with another Yankees employee for a flight to meet with Munson’s wife, Diana.

“I was helping her and the family with what they wanted to do as far as media and the funeral,’’ Wahl told the Miami Herald in 2019. “...George wanted us to do our best to find out exactly what happened. ... The media horde was massive,’’ he said of the funeral. “It was covered like a major sporting event.

“Working with the Yankees,’’ Wahl said, was “incredible.”

“That was the Bronx Zoo — Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin and George. Every day in many respects was a crisis. It was the biggest media market in the world, so as a young guy I got a major indoctrination. You learn that you’ve got to stay calm, put a plan together and execute the plan. And you have to be truthful when you’re dealing with the media.’’

Poms said Wahl told him only half jokingly that Steinbrenner had fired him multiple times and then the next day would call Wahl saying, “Where are you?” Said Poms: “He was a New York Yankees diehard through and through. That was probably his dream job.’’

College fun with Harvey Greene

Harvey Greene, also a former Yankees public relations director and former Miami Dolphins senior vice president and spokesman, had a friendship with Wahl that began when they broadcast football and basketball games together for the University of Pennsylvania, where Wahl earned his degree in economics from Penn’s Wharton School of Business. Wahl later got his master’s of education with an emphasis on sports administration from Ohio University.

“I did play-by-play and he did color,’’ Greene said. “We were roommates in Yonkers (New York) before he got married. The odds of us both winding up as PR directors for the Yankees is pretty astronomical. Larry was always upbeat and had great stories to tell. But above all he was liked and respected by people who knew him.

“Working for George Steinbrenner wasn’t always easy, but Larry bridged a very difficult divide. He was loyal to Steinbrenner, who liked him, but he developed great personal relationships with the New York media — some of the toughest people in sports. Larry loved telling stories and just enjoyed being around people, which is part of what made him so good.

“We all knew what he was dealing with and that it was a struggle, but all of a sudden. ... Wow, how did this happen?’’

One of Wahl’s biggest fans, Rich Dalrymple, is the Dallas Cowboys senior vice president of public relations and communications. Dalrymple, now 60, had been named by Jankovich the UM sports information director going into the 1987 football season, but he was in his mid-20s and Jankovich wanted someone a little older with experience to help Dalrymple grow into his role.

Enter Wahl.

‘Quiet, little’ UM athletics goes big

“What Larry brought to the University of Miami was a major league background in sports publicity,’’ Dalrymple said. “He worked at ABC with Howard Cosell. He worked with the New York Yankees and George Steinbrenner, he worked for one of those cable companies [SportsChannel New York] that was responsible for [NBA broadcasts],’’ as well as for Monday Night Football, the New York Jets, the Olympics and CBSSportline.com.

“UM had recently exploded on the national scene as a big-time program,’’ Dalrymple said, “and God knows we had a lot of situations there — good and bad. All of a sudden this quiet, little athletic department in Coral Gables was in everybody’s face and on the front pages everywhere in the country.

“Larry taught me that if we don’t have the media we don’t have a job. Always had a smile on his face, always looking forward to the next game, next cocktail reception, next time we were all hanging out in the press box with beat writers. He was a great storyteller and selfless person.

“It breaks my heart that he went through what he did because this is South Florida’s loss. He helped the university become better, he helped the Orange Bowl become better and he knew that life is all about relationships.’’