“Mad Dog” Moves On – Indianapolis Monthly

DEspite nearly four decades representing some of the biggest brands in his home city, Jimmy “Mad Dog” Matis is retiring without much fanfare. From playing a key role in the rise of The Bob & Tom Show, to one of Q95’s most prominent voices in his heyday, to his final professional chapter with the Indianapolis Colts, “Dog,” as he’s affectionately referred to, deserves celebration. If you ask him, though, his career has mostly been the result of good fortune. “God takes care of the stupid people,” Matis says.

While the Indianapolis lifer may shrug off credit for his local fame, it was his Hoosier authenticity that helped him forge a lasting bond with listeners. Whether it be at Holy Name, Roncalli, Beech Grove, or his Colts, Matis wore his Indy pride on his sleeve. Unlike many local figures who have risen to prominence, Dog’s career never expanded beyond the boundaries of the metro area, making his run unique.

THE ORIGIN OF THE “MAD DOG” MONIKER

Before comedy or radio came into the picture, Matis’s first love was professional wrestling. As a kid in Beech Grove in the 1970s, he would come downtown to attend World Wrestling Association shows, often headlined by Indianapolis native and wrestling legend Dick The Bruiser. “I just loved it,” Matis says. “We went to every match.”

Matis was so taken by the sport that he wrote his first school paper on the topic: “The History of Professional Wrestling,” which he claims to have turned in several different times over the years. With the help of some neighborhood friends, he even erected a makeshift ring behind his childhood home. Organizing your own wrestling promotion is one thing, but any aspiring wrestler who hopes to make it big requires a memorable nickname, and in that southside backyard, “Mad Dog” was born.

“A buddy of mine started calling me ‘Mad Dog’ when I was around 13, and it just stuck,” he says. “Just about everyone calls me Dog to this day, even my wife.”

DISCOVERY AND RISE

While the moniker may have stuck, the off-the-top-rope aspirations shifted from the ring to radio after Matis graduated from Indiana University in 1980. Hoping to land a spot behind the microphone in his home city, Matis’s first few radio jobs instead came in tiny markets like Franklin, hardly garnering him any attention. Frustrated by several years of small-market anonymity, Dog knew he needed to change course. “I just wasn’t getting anywhere, so I told my wife, ‘I’m going to try this stand-up thing and hopefully somebody will see me,’” Matis says, then pauses. “That was it…that was the whole plan.”

Amazingly, the timing of “the plan” couldn’t have been better, as Matis jumped headfirst into hosting comedy shows around Indianapolis in 1985. It was the middle of The Comedy Boom, a roaring time for comedy clubs across the country, when local comics had packed houses in stitches virtually every night. One of those nights ended up being a fateful one. Dog was working a show at the Indianapolis Comedy Connection that included a young Bob Kevoian, former host of The Bob & Tom Show and future member of the national Radio Hall of Fame.

“Dog was obviously funny, but when he got up on stage, he just had this presence about him,” Kevoian says. “When the show was over, I had to go over to meet him. We were just starting to invite comedians on The Bob & Tom Showso I thought, What could be better than a local guy to really get us rolling?

“Bob asked me if I’d come be on their show on Thursday, so I did,” Dog says. “Then I did it the next Thursday, and the Thursday after that.” Those guest spots developed into expanded opportunities with the show, and his Bob & Tom presence continued to grow. “I don’t exactly know how it happened, but all of the sudden, Dog was a regular,” says Tom Griswold, Kevoian’s longtime radio partner and host of the show. “He gave us the local flavor that Bob and I didn’t yet have. He was like ‘The Guy From Here’ that the show needed.”

“He’s just one of those special people that wander into your life and you don’t want them to leave,” Kevoian adds.

With Matis in tow as a regular guest, singing songs like “When the Beer Runs Out,” wrestling bears, and jotting down skits on napkins with fellow show members at lunch, Bob & Tom‘s ascent continued. The show topped the ratings for the first time in Matis’s first year as a regular, and went on to dominate the Indianapolis radio landscape as the No. 1 morning show for the next decade-plus. The show’s flagship station, WFBQ-FM (Q95), earned Radio Station of the Year honors from RollingStone magazine in 1990.

Dog’s presence on Q95 grew, leading to a full-time DJ slot middays and a memorable run as drive-time host starting in 1995. In “The Doghouse” every afternoon, Matis had the audience entirely to himself, using his comedic talent, inimitable voice, and southside credentials to further endear himself to Indy listeners as a solo act of sorts. Griswold credits Matis’s radio success to him not trying to be anyone other than himself. “He’s an extremely gifted joke-teller, but Dog’s best quality is he’s a very real person. What you hear is exactly what you get,” Griswold says. “He exudes this ‘Hoosier-ness’ that shows right through.”

Matis’s quarter-century tenure at Q95 ended in 2010 when his contract wasn’t renewed. In the immediate aftermath of his departure, he was working through a six-month non-compete clause on the graveyard shift at a FedEx warehouse, occasionally signing autographs for coworkers who had heard that “Mad Dog” had clocked in. At 52 years old, his on-air career was abruptly put on hold, but once he was off the conveyor belt and back on the market, his phone started ringing again.

ONE MORE RIDE

By summer 2011, Matis had spent about a year in sales for the radio flagship of the Indianapolis Colts, Emmis Communications (owner of Indianapolis Monthly). So it was no surprise that the team itself came calling for him. A new role as corporate partnership manager extended Dog’s existing ties with the Colts, which dated back to the late 1980s when he led the team out of the locker room tunnel on a motorcycle prior to each home game.

“There’s no question the Colts took a chance on me,” Matis says. “I was going from on the air and partying and all of that to big corporate partnerships. I knew my name might get me in the door some places, but they’ve still got to say ‘yes’ to you.”

“So many people around here grew up with Dog in one way or the other,” says Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay. “They broke the mold when they made Jimmy. I’m just glad I had the chance to have him be part of the Colts family for so many years.”

The gig also allowed Matis to continue to dabble in his former profession, hosting specialty shows on the Colts Radio Network, and helping mentor Matt Taylor, the play-by-play voice of the team and a fellow native southsider and Roncalli graduate.

“No one has done more for me in my professional career than Dog,” says Taylor. “He’s a big deal, but he never took himself seriously. He always brought energy and insight to everything, and I’ve lived by his motto: Never cut out funny.”

Dog’s humor and love of the Colts shone through on those team-specific shows, allowing his career to come full circle, three decades after his Harley’s rubber hit the AstroTurf at the old Hoosier Dome.

BACK HOME AGAIN

Nearing his 65th birthday and with multiple high-profile phases of his career behind him, Matis is finally retiring. A father of five grown sons with their own kids, he’s back to where he all started in Beech Grove, trading in his Dog moniker for a title more important to him: Grandpa. Because of that, Dog isn’t hesitant about stepping out of the public eye. “I don’t look at my career with those guys [The Bob & Tom Show, Q95, Indianapolis Colts] as the best days gone by,” Matis says. “Sure, that was a magical time, but now here comes the really good part of my life.”

When I reached out to Dog for a final time last week, I did so through text message, earning a tongue-in-cheek reprimand for it. “Hey, make sure you call me next time,” Matis says. “You know me—I love talking to people.”

There’s no doubt the city will miss hearing from Jimmy “Mad Dog” Matis, too.

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