With the Super Bowl now behind us, sports fans are turning their attention to the next great spectacle in sports: March Madness. And over the past year, no topic aside tournament expansion has been debated more among college basketball fans than replacing Jim Nantz on the Final Four broadcast with cult hero Gus Johnson. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’ll never happen. Here’s why. – Jim Weber
There was a time when Gus Johnson was seen as a nuisance to announcing, a Stuart Scott clone that used his microphone to broadcast himself instead of the games he was covering.
But at some point over the last decade, the public perception of Johnson changed as he put together a highlight reel of calls that has defined some of the greatest sporting events in recent history – especially NCAA Tournament games. In an era where sports announcers are always searching for the next great sound byte and one-liner, Johnson never fails to provide a call that fits the moment perfectly and seems completely off-the-cuff. People are often left wondering how Johnson always ends up being a part of the most exciting moments in sports, when in fact Johnson is part of what makes moments like these so memorable with his exhilarating calls.
With the rise of YouTube and the blogosphere, a cult following has been established that worships Johnson and paid homage to him with a hilarious soundboard, endless YouTube compilations of his greatest calls and Facebook groups for him.
Over the last year, Johnson’s followers have turned into an angry mob that wants to see him replace Jim Nantz as the play-by-play announcer of the Final Four. And they’ve only been empowered by the fact that unpopular curmudgeon Billy Packer was axed as the color man of the broadcasts in 2008, giving fans a sense that their voices were being heard.
They now turned all their attention – and criticism – to Nantz.
Johnson’s fans bemoan the fact that Nantz never displays excitement during his March Madness broadcasts, that he’s better suited to be calling golf than hoops and that his hokey style doesn’t connect with young viewers that tune in for the tournament.
I can’t disagree with any of those.
In particular, when watching the last 30 seconds of last year’s epic national title game, you never would have known a national championship was on the line when listening to Nantz’s call of the action. And yes, the man was born to broadcast golf, particularly the weekend after the Final Four in Augusta, GA. In fact, I often wonder if that’s Nantz playing The Masters piano music in the background of telecasts. And lastly, his trademarked intro of “Hello, friends” and victory calls like “Duke is the king of the dance 2010” come off as contrived and hollow.
And I’ll be the first to admit that nothing gets me pumped up for March Madness like listening to Johnson’s soundboard or YouTube clips which always give me goose bumps (Johnson’s 2006 UCLA-Gonzaga “Heartbreak City” call is my favorite).
That being said, as someone that worked at CBS College Sports for two years, you should know that Johnson will never replace Nantz at the Final Four.
Let me count the reasons why.
#1: The decision is not a popular vote, it’s the decision of the brass at CBS Sports – most especially president Sean McManus – and they love Nantz. You can call them old fashioned and stuck in the past if you want, but the suits at CBS Sports care about public cries for flashier broadcasts and opinion polls as much as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
#2: To understand their love of Nantz, you must first know that he is the Golden Boy of CBS Sports. He was the prodigy that was hired by the network at the age of 25 and tabbed to replace Brent Musburger as lead voice of the network in 1990 at the age of just 30. While people have recently bashed Nantz for an ugly divorce in which allegations of cheating with a woman 20 years his junior surfaced (the two are now engaged to be married), he is beloved within the sports industry. When his memoir climbed the national bestseller list in 2008, the Washington Post’s Leonard Shapiro wrote it was “proof positive that nice guys can finish first.” In the eyes of CBS, Nantz can do no wrong.
#3: While you and I want more enthusiasm in our broadcasts, the higher-ups at CBS love Nantz’s soothing voice and the way he takes a back seat to the action instead of becoming a spectacle himself. Sports fans love to joke about Johnson’s crazy antics like saying Chris Johnson has “gettin’-away-from-the-cops speed”, but those at CBS certainly weren’t laughing when Johnson said that. If something like that was said during the Final Four, McManus might have a heart attack.
#4: There’s a perception that Nantz just strolls into March Madness between his other duties as lead CBS Sports voice for NFL and PGA coverage, but the public doesn’t realize that Nantz’s work ethic is legendary. There’s a reason he was hired by CBS at the age of 25. Even though he only does college hoops broadcasts for about a month leading up to the tournament, you would never know that by listening to him in March. On the flip side, Johnson’s work ethic is questioned inside the industry and he’s seen as someone that doesn’t do his homework before his calls. Johnson is still living down his 2008 MMA call on CBS when he declared Seth Petruzelli’s knockout of the vastly overrated Kimbo Slice in a mere 14 seconds, “the greatest upset in the history of MMA.”
#5: Here’s another misperception: People think that Nantz couldn’t care less about college basketball and that Johnson lives and breaths the game. If anything, the opposite is true. Nantz loves the college game and his history with it goes back to the days of being the Houston Cougars PA announcer where urban myth has it he coined “Phi Slama Jama” and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler. Johnson is actually a huge NBA fan that grew up idolizing Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons while being raised in the Motor City. Yes, Johnson just doubled his duty for the Big Ten Network’s basketball coverage this year, but it’s not because of his love of the game; it’s because he was let go of MSG’s coverage of the New York Knicks.
As I said, I’m a Gus Johnson fan myself and hope to see another network give him a chance to broadcast higher profile games in the near future. But sorry sports fans, it won’t be CBS.
Jim Weber is the president and founder of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each Monday.