The first voice of county sports
By KARL PEARSON
How many people do you know who could handle more than two decades sharing
time with a lawyer on one side and a person who is generally considered one
of the reigning experts in his field on the other?
Such a person does exist. His name is Jim Cordell. And to hear his
colleagues on area high school basketball and football broadcasts for WREO
and WFUN radio stations, he not only held his own, but thrived under those
If you listened to what Cordell has to say, you might not believe it. As he
puts it, "I didn't play and I didn't coach."
But talk to his broadcasting buddies, Gene Gephart and Pat Sheldon, and they
will tell you Cordell was every bit their equal, if not the leader, of their
team. They reported the exploits of area basketball and football players
from 1970 through the early 1990s for basketball and into the latter part of
the '90s in football. As years went, they were joined by retired Kingsville
High School basketball coach and Edgewood High School athletic director Ed
Batanian with halftime conversations.
"Jim was the dominating personality of our team," Sheldon said without
hesitation. "We were the only broadcasting group in the Ohio Association of
Broadcasters that was strictly volunteer. He was professional in every way."
"Jim made us into a great team," Gephart said. "I think Jim could have, and
did, succeed at anything he put his mind to."
Ask most any basketball coach around in that span why their game received
the recognition it did, and they'd probably get around sooner or later to
listing the contributions of that radio team. Ask their listeners, and
they'd probably speak to the word pictures they presented, with Cordell's
rich tones providing many of them.
For all those reasons, Cordell is a logical choice to be the first media
member to enter the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame. He
will be inducted Sunday at 6 p.m. at the ACBF's annual awards banquet at the
Conneaut Human Resource Center.
True to his nature, Cordell accepted word of his induction with a deep sense
of humility that even bordered on embarrassment.
"I'm flabbergasted," the 78-year-old Cordell said by telephone from his
winter home in Aiken, S.C. "I'm totally surprised and very honored. To be
selected just because of what we did on our broadcasts is just amazing."
Cordell's statement that he never played the game isn't completely accurate.
He first came in contact with football and basketball as a high school
student in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
"I played football at the JV level and basketball at the club level," he
said. "I did play basketball when I went to junior college in St.
Petersburg, Fla." Cordell was also fortunate to be in the perfect spot to
see some of the greatest basketball players of the late 1940s when they came
through Niagara Falls.
"I always enjoyed basketball," he said. "When I was growing up, there wasn't
a lot of emphasis on the NBA. The college game was always the attraction
back then with teams like St. Bonaventure, Niagara and Canisius around.
"A lot of the eastern schools stopped off in Buffalo when they making a
western swing or western schools would stop through on their way east. Every
top team in the country would stop. I had the chance to see players like
(eventual Basketball Hall of Famers) George Mikan and Dolph Schayes and
(Hall of Fame) coaches like Clair Bee, Joe Lapchick and Hank Iba."
Cordell spent from 1947-49 furthering his education in Florida. In the
summer of 1950, the lure of employment at Hooker Detrex brought him to
Ashtabula. Little did he realize that it would a relationship that has
extended more than half a century since, as he met Ashtabula High School
graduate Barbara Warren, who would become his wife in 1952.
He finished his education at Denison University in Granville in 1951. With
that in hand, he found a job waiting for him back at Hooker Detrex, a firm
which produced trichlorethylene, a degreasing solvent, and perchlorethylene,
a dry cleaning fluid.
Again, Cordell's contention that he didn't have much to do with basketball
proved to be not entirely accurate.
"I became a basketball referee in 1951," he said. "I was called back into
the Navy from 1954-56. While I was in, I worked a lot of high school games
in the Washington, D.C. and Norfolk, Va. area."
Returning to Ashtabula, he stayed in the officiating game until 1958.
"I worked with men like Ange Candela, Lou Pavolino, Jim Holub and Naz
Servidio," Cordell said. "I stopped officiating because I had other things
His return to Ashtabula also brought about a job change.
"I worked at Ashtabula Bow Socket from 1956-77," Cordell said. "Then I went
into the scrap business from 1977 until I retired in 1988 with Bob Weiner at
He never lost his interest in the game, though.
"I used to go to a lot of the Harbor and Ashtabula games," Cordell said.
It was at the urging of long-time family friend Sheldon that Cordell got
into broadcasting when they were recruited by WREO station owners Dave and
Dick Rowley. Sheldon said Cordell was a natural for the job.
"Jim brought a great voice to the team," he said. "With his officiating
background, he had a real knowledge of the game.
"He also brought a great deal of confidence to the role. He always knew what
he was talking about."
"Jim has a natural speaking voice for radio," Gephart, who has preceded his
colleague into the ACBF Hall of Fame as a player and coach, said. "Neither
Pat nor I have a great voice, so Jim was the voice we really needed."
Cordell and Sheldon were two of the initial elements of the broadcasting
trio, starting with the 1970 football season. The basketball broadcasts did
not start until 1971, when Gephart retired from his job as the Ashtabula
High School head basketball coach.
"Pat and I were interested in doing basketball, and Gene's retirement gave
us a natural entry into the sport," Cordell said. "Dick and Dave Rowley were
happy with what we had done in football, so they said to go ahead when we
brought up doing basketball, too."
Prior to their collaboration in 1971, Gephart and Cordell did not know each
other. It didn't take long for Gephart to develop a healthy respect for
Cordell's abilities, though. They arrived at a very effective system of
broadcasting the games.
"Gene would do the play-by-play for the first half and I'd keep the
statistics," Cordell said. "Then I'd do the play-by-play for the second half
and Gene would do the statistics.
"Gene would do the first half because he was around the schools and was more
familiar with the players. I'd use the first half to get familiar with the
names and faces."
Actually, Gephart claims Cordell really didn't need a half to get
"Jim has a fantastic memory," Gephart said. "His intelligence and his
ability to memorize is amazing. The reason I did the first half was because
I also had the time to go scout games. Jim was on the road a lot, so he
wasn't able to scout as much."
"His knowledge amazed us," Sheldon said.
Attention to detail was another of Cordell's strengths upon which the team
came to rely through the name board and scorekeeping system that was
"We had the board with name tabs and the height, weight, class and
statistics of the starters and the substitutes," Cordell said. "I developed
the scoresheet and did the scorekeeping for the first half. We had the
ability to know right away how many points a player had scored, along with
Gephart had another explanation for how the team divided the duties.
"Jim did the play-by-play for the second half so if the game got down to the
end and it was close, I would be able to talk about what the coaches were
thinking and the strategies that were being used," he said.
The team came to rely upon other Cordell skills.
"Gene and I are the worst mechanical people around," Sheldon said. "Jim had
the technical mind and the ability to fix things if something went wrong. He
could set up the equipment if we needed it and he could fix anything. He was
able to troubleshoot for us and get us on the air and keep us there many
Cordell wasn't willing to just settle for being a run-of-the-mill
broadcasting team. He took steps to make sure the threesome was as
professional as possible.
"It was through Jim that we got into the Ohio Association of Broadcasters,"
Sheldon said. "He wanted to be as educated as he could be in the craft, so
we went to several seminars to learn all we could."
Because of his officiating background, Cordell brought a definite respect
for coaches, players and officials to the broadcasts. Many of the games'
participants were spared being placed in a negative light because Cordell,
in particular, refused to criticize them, which in turn created great
respect from the coaching and officiating fraternity for the broadcasters.
"Jim never spoke negatively of coaches, players or officials," Sheldon said.
There are a couple highlights Cordell holds dear from his basketball
"I think the top memory was broadcasting Harbor's game against Akron St.
Vincent-St. Mary in the regional finals (in 1984), and also the game before
it against Warren JFK," he said. "I also remember when Ashtabula lost to
(current CBS basketball analyst) Clark Kellogg and St. Joseph at Eastlake
North (in 1978)."
As the team moved into the 1990s, some changes began to occur. Gephart
struggled with a pair of detached retinas and Jon Hall moved into his seat
temporarily to share the play-by-play duties with Cordell.
The lure of a warmer climate moved Cordell out of the basketball
broadcasting chair after the 1991-92 season as he and Barbara built their
winter home in South Carolina. Hall assumed the position on the team.
But the Cordells still pay close attention to what's going on in the area,
spending their summers back in Ashtabula. Their sons, Stuart and Bradford,
still reside in the area, with the latter living in Ashtabula with his wife
and sons Alan and Brian, and the former residing in Perry with daughters
Elise, Bethany and Hannah. Stuart Cordell will represent his father on
Apparently, Cordell has never completely lost the officiating bug, although
he now channels it into a different sport.
"I'm a rules official for the Northern Ohio and South Carolina Golf
Association," he said. "We help run a lot of college and (United States Golf
Association) qualifiers and other events down here. I've also helped
(retiring Geneva boys golf coach) Dennis Jarvi with the NEC championships
The Cordells are always keeping track of the area basketball and football
"I enjoyed my broadcasting career and watching all those great area athletes
and coaches," he said. "It's an honor to be recognized for that."