Fred Cowgill is WLKY-32’s sports director and he has been covering Louisville sports for 26 years. He’s witnessed 25 Kentucky Derbys, eight Breeders Cups, two PGA Championships and 13 Final Fours, including the most recent one, in New Orleans. So how did he rate that UofL–UK basketball game?
“It was one of the most special moments of my life, and the biggest story of my career,” Cowgill said. “It was history in the making and we [WLKY’s Rick Van Hoose and the sports crew] got to be a part of it. The feeling was so special, it was indescribable.”
Cowgill said his favorite moment of the tournament occurred right before the National Semifinal game, “when I started looking around at a crowd of 75,000 with the majority being Cards and Cats fans.”
He thought that the Cardinals played UK as well as anybody.
“It was neat because passions were put aside and all we saw was really great basketball,” Cowgill said. “The right team won, but even in defeat, the Cardinals came away with their heads held high.”
He felt as if Kentucky was the best team in the tournament “and it showed.” “The Cats met every challenge that they had faced, almost all season,” Cowgill said. “It will go down as one of the best teams in Kentucky history.”
Cowgill was also favorably impressed with UK coach John Calipari and his teaching methods, this season.
“I thought he did an incredible job,” Cowgill said. “What I like is his ultimate measure of success for himself, is the quality of men and players he produces, not the number of championships.”
Cowgill believes that this Final Four will help both UK and U of L in the long run. “The preseason rankings are out and both are in the top five,” Cowgill said. “You get the feeling this will be a great building block for the future of both programs.”
As for the championship game, Cowgill likened it to a UK home game. “Of the 75,000 fans [in attendance], I bet 50,000 were Kentucky fans,” Cowgill said. “It felt like a coronation ceremony and in the end, that is exactly what it was.”
Covering one of the most memorable Final Four’s in Louisville’s and Kentucky’s histories is a long way from the humble origins of Fred Cowgill, who was born in Johnson City, NY, a town three hours northwest of New York City, some 54 years ago.
Cowgill attributes much of who he is today to his father, Ralph Cowgill. Cowgill said his morals, beliefs and passions are all largely due to his dad. Talking about sports with his dad is where he first got the idea of becoming a sports broadcaster.
"The Yankee games, the Mets game, the Giants games . . . we attended. It was just natural to talk about sports,” said Cowgill.
“It became something of a dream, but it was such a big dream, I never thought I could achieve it. So I was going to do radio. And through a variety of events in my life, doors opened in my life that were clearly orchestrated by the ‘big guy upstairs,’ to where suddenly, that dream became a reality.”
Cowgill received two bachelor’s degrees, in broadcasting and management, from the University of Tennessee and his master’s in broadcast journalism, from Boston University. He has lived and worked in Atlanta, Ga., and Rochester, Ny., before moving to Louisville, in 1986.
Cowgill absolutely loves Louisville and Louisvillians.
“It felt like home, from the first day I was here for my job interview,” Cowgill said, “And I really did not understand why. People here are nice. They are genuine. They are accepting of outsiders. It goes back 400 years to when this was a river town [and the falls of the Ohio River]. Thousands and thousands of people would visit here . . . It opened people’s eyes about giving a wide berth to outsiders, that continues to this day . . . It’s really hard to break into a market. ]Yet) I was accepted the very first day.”
Cowgill also loves the sports that are here, as well as the weather. He said it is no coincidence, that by far, he has lived in Louisville the longest.
Cowgill even met his wife, Cindy here. He was teaching a class, at U of L, in the late 1980s and Cindy was in the class. Nothing happened at that time. Several years later at a Rolling Stones concert, [a concert Cowgill said he wasn’t even supposed to attend] at the old Cardinals Stadium at the Fairgrounds, he ran across her.
That started a friendship and then later, dating and they would ultimately marry, in 1993. They have been married now, nearly 19 years and they have two sons, Freddie, 18, and Christian, 15, and two daughters, Gracie, 14 and Scarlett, 12.
But getting back to sports, before the most recent Final Four, Cowgill said that the event he enjoyed covering the most was Louisville’s hosting of the 2008 Ryder Cup, at Valhalla. When interviewed, just prior to the most recent Final Four, Cowgill said, “I’ve done television sports for 32 years and been a broadcaster for 37, and it’s by far the largest single event I’ve ever covered.” He remarked that it was one of the biggest news events in the history of Kentucky because it was an international event that only happens every other year, Louisville is only ranked 50th out of 220 television markets in the United States, and the United States won and with the help of two Kentuckians and without Tiger Woods.
But of all the sports he covers, Cowgill admitted that horse racing is his favorite. He said the sport is “closest to his heart” and that as a boy, he grew up watching, and imitating the legendary sportscaster, Jim McKay. Cowgill said he always dreamed of covering the Kentucky Derby and that became a reality in l987, a Derby which saw Alysheba emerge victoriously.
Cowgill said his most memorable Derby is either his first one in 1987, with Alysheba, or in 2006, with Barbaro. He said he was extremely impressed with the appearance of Barbaro as he got off the truck, at Churchill Downs. “To see him get off the van and see this uniquely beautiful athlete and specimen,” Cowgill said.
“It’s the only time in my career where I saw a horse and immediately changed my Derby pick to him.”
Cowgill not only loves racing, he also loves Churchill Downs. “Churchill Downs to me is the heart and soul of the sport, and the iconic representation of everything I believe is good and true about the sport,” Cowgill said.
Cowgill reported that he often goes to the track just to watch the races, not even bet. He does so because he enjoys the ambiance of the Downs.
Cowgill has covered three Super Bowls in his career with WLKY.
Cowgill’s most memorable Super Bowl, was his first, in l987, when his beloved New York Giants beat the Denver Broncos. He had just arrived in town, the Giants were his favorite team since childhood and Phil Simms [the Giants quarterback] provided an ideal local angle.
Cowgill even relayed how Simms sneaked him up on to Simms’ hotel room on the eve of the Super Bowl. That night, Cowgill witnessed Simms, Lawrence Taylor, and others playing two-on-two, tackle football in the hotel’s corridor; on the night before the Super Bowl. After the game, Cowgill said he got to host a special, televised homecoming for Simms, the Super Bowl’s MVP, in front of 3,000 to 4,000 fans at Louisville Gardens.
Cowgill’s most memorable NCAA game, prior to this year’s Final Four, was the championship game between Syracuse and Kentucky, in l996. Cowgill said it was because it was the first time WLKY got to televise the National Championship that involved a local team. Also, Rick Pitino had a unique team that year, and the weather was quite bizarre with rain, snow and hail, during the broadcast. Cowgill related how the three cameras started failing, and they ended up having to manage with just one.
“It was in New York City,” Cowgill said. “I grew up outside of New York City. I saw a lot of my friends, and had a great time. . . It was a uniquely one-dimensional, special time for me, both personally and professionally.”
But nothing was as fulfilling as the 2012 Final Four, for Cowgill. This year’s Final Four helped Cowgill put things in perspective.
“I am reminded of how lucky I am to have a job like this. I’ve seen four [local] national titles in 26 years here: Indiana in 1987, Kentucky in l996, Kentucky in l998 and Kentucky in 2012. The only thing I am missing from my resume is a Cardinal national championship. I look forward to seeing that before I retire.”
Photo: Ryan Armbrust