Jim Nantz will be calling the Final Four this weekend on TBS and the National Championship Game on CBS on Monday night. He will be working with Grant Hill and Bill Raftery for the first time. I caught up with Jim at a recent March Madness media day, and we discussed how he approaches calling the Tournament and some memorable moments.
A Nantz tradition with the Championship Game is that he gives one of the players in the game the necktie he wore during the broadcast. Nantz said of it, “It’s something I try to do almost after every show. The criteria is a kid has to come up to me, and it just has to be a young person, and I’ll take the tie off every time and give it to him. And, it’s borne out of my youth when I used to run around and watch the broadcasters that I admired up in the tower and just watch them walk around and was in awe of them and then thought, it would be nice to take back what I saw in my mind and make a bigger connection than I got, and that’s not to disparage guys, i just didn’t approach them, I was probably too timid. Kid approaches me, I take the tie off. But in the championship game, I give my tie away every year to the kid that, it’s not always the M.O.P, but it’s just kind of a tradition.
“It kind of started with Corey Brewer, you’re right it’s in the book (“Always By My Side”), at Florida, Mario Chalmers, through the years, Kyle Singler off the Duke team in 2010, and, you know, it’s just something I take a lot of pride in doing. Half the time you think, don’t let me give myself too much credit, they think it’s a big deal, so I don’t want to say ‘hey, want my tie?’ but what I do is I just take it off and say ‘hey, this is the tie I wore to call the National Championship Game. That game is going to be talked about every day the rest of your life, and if you ever have a reason you want to wear a tie that was there that night, this is the tie that was on CBS.’ I will continue that tradition in Indianapolis,” said Nantz.
How do you prepare for March and April like with the NCAA Tournament followed by the Masters? Sometime, I wish someone would either write a book or follow me around and see the different emotional kind of peaks and valleys you go through. and how the preparation really drives everything. I just came off the busiest NFL season that anybody’s ever had, and by the way so did Phil Simms and Tracy Wolfson. We did 30 games, and…there was a website that showed it was the all-time record by a lot and people think ‘oh, that’s cool, you did 30 games.’ It was demanding, I’m not complaining, it was fulfilling, and I’m so happy I get to do it again. When I got through the AFC Championship game, it was like ‘wow, for the last four-and-a-half months, I’ve basically been every day waking up and reading and putting things on a board and watching video…Well, I went straight into a golf event, went to four straight golf tournaments, you don’t do a board, you don’t do a spot board, you basically talk from your heart and from out of your head, from all the things you’ve catalogued throughout the years. It’s not easy, in fact you say so little there, your commentary is more spare, every word is that much more important and measured. You come out of that and here you are in March Madness and now you’re back into that warp-speed preparation mode. I can’t even begin to tell you what the next couple of weeks, the first two weeks are pretty hard, and I mean this weekend, the Big Ten and Week One, because the time I get to the regionals, I only have four teams waiting for me in the regionals, I’m probably going to know three of the four, and by the time I get to the Final Four, I’ve taken one team with me to the Final Four out of the regionals and there’s a good chance I’m going to know the coaches and I have the history in my head about their program and all of that…Sunday night when the Selection Show comes out and I look at brackets and I wait for the phone call and they say ‘you’re going to Charlotte,’ and I stay up Sunday night until I get the last team down on my board. That’s eight different teams, four boards, all kind of theoretically set up, so that I’m ready Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, on the phone and reading, reading, reading. Then opf course you walk into doing four games on Friday. It’s a lot of ton-age and a lot of fun-age, never said that before, but it works.”
On the differences in calling three different sports, basketball, football, and golf, similar to Al Michaels of NBC and Joe Buck of FOX: “I’ve got the real, you know Al’s done’s a lot of things through the years, Joe has baseball and football, and I’ve got football, basketball, and golf, and it’s not that you have to be somebody you’re not on one of those sports, change your voice. Your vibe lends itself to the arena it’s in. So, golf, naturally, I’m not going to be pitching my voice like I’m in a frenzied football stadium. It just comes naturally. A lot of people say ‘how do you do the Monday night championship game and your voice is almost shot like you heard on the tape calling the Aaron Harrison plays, and then next thing you know, you’re at the Masters and it sounds like you’re whispering.’ Naturally, I wouldn’t be calling it the same way.”
The 2010 Championship Game ended with a buzzer-beater by Gordon Haywood, and that is used in the opening of CBS’ college basketball coverage. Was that the most thrilling moment? “It’s kind of a ‘what if?’ moment. Had he made it, it would have been the greatest finish in the history of any sport. I look at it as what it could’ve been. I wonder what I would’ve said. My call was ‘It almost went in! It almost went in!’ and then I had to say, ‘well, Duke’s won the championship.’ It was wild, and you have these videos that are rewinding in your head, and as you say that, I’ve kind of like cued up that video. He was as close to me as that camera is when he launched it, because he took it from the midcourt stripe on my side of the floor and I had the perfect angle on it, and I could tell when it left his hand it had a chance.
“It was a thrill, I’m not sure my (most thrilling moment), you know, last year, I had Aaron Harrison (of Kentucky) hitting shots at the buzzer to beat Wisconsin, to beat Michigan in the regionals, to beat Louisville in the Sweet 16, to beat Wichita State, the year before Aaron Craft hit a buzzer-beater in a Tournament game, I liked that call, I remember that. But to me, it’s more than just those moments, it’s the overall broader view of the broadcast and working with your partner.
Toughest Tournament games? “The toughest Tournament game – you know, when they’re not interesting, when they lack excitement. I can tell you a few that just popped to mind, Kentucky-Syracuse ’96 comes to mind. North Carolina-Michigan State 2009 was not close. The one in Houston in 2011 when UConn beat Butler and Butler shot 18 percent, that was a hard one. You love, anybody in our businees, they love close games. They love good excitement.”
How does the emotion of this Tournament compare to golf or football? “It’s hard to compare it to anything else, obviously it’s closer to football than it would be to golf. It’s a faster pace, it’s a two-hour window, it’s up and down the floor, and so often it comes down to those last minutes. It’s exhilirating, and particularly you get in the Tournament, the whole season’s on the line, powerful combination of things coming together.”
On witnessing Kevin Ware of Louisville’s injury in the Elite Eight in 2013: “That was on the far side of the court. it was to my left on the far side, not a good memory, very sad, tragic. I didn’t realize what had happened at first, I saw three players from Louisville just fall to the floor like, for some inexplicable reason, they fell down. They had seen Kevin over there and they had seen his leg snap, and then it took me a second to focus in on it, and Clark (Kellogg) and I handled that in as proud a fashion as maybe anything I have ever been a part of. We didn’t say anything. There’s nothing, you don’t speculate over injuries, and very little said, and i think that was the right way to go about it.”
The one difference with basketball is Nantz is right on the floor: “That’s true, but you get to the Championship Game, you’re actually below the floor, so you have a hard time seeing the three-point stripe because you’re in these football stadiums where the court is raised. It’s a little hard, but the angle is a little weird at times for me to get accustomed to because I’m used to watching games on TV like this (gestures left) and the angle helps that you can see more of the formations and what they’re trying to do. When you’re down low, you’re just seeing a mass of people.”
On working with Grant Hill for the first time: “One thing I don’t have to concern myself with – A) he’s going to be very prepared. You can tell that’s the way the great ones do things, nothing happens to them by accident. And Number two, there is an appreciation and an excitement that he’s actually got this job…When that opening tape played today in the room and no one clapped, pretty darned good tape I thought, and I know nobody wants to clap to start a press conference (I told Jim also that media aren’t used to clapping at things), so I was thinking of Grant as that was playing, about what that must feel like to him now, for his life to come all the way, full-circle. For as long as he was an NBA star, what did he play in the NBA, 17 years, he’s a college guy. He is so identified with this tournament, and now he has a chance to be a voice of the tournament. It’s a big deal, he’s not taking that lightly. He’s gonna work at it, you’re gonna hear his gratitude, you can hear his appreciation. I think it’s kind of cool when you’ve got a guy who’s lived it who also wants to protect it, who wants to be a part of the future of college basketball, an important voice for the game, and that’s what Grant’s going to be.”