I had the pleasure earlier today to speak with Bill Raftery of ESPN, CBS, and Westwood One where he will be announcing the Final Four this weekend around the country on radio with Kevin Kugler and John Thompson. With trademark catchphrases like “ONIONS” and “man to man,” Bill Raftery has become one of the most popular analysts in all of sports. In addition to his humor and energy, Raftery also brings a wealth of knowledge as a basketball lifer. In our latest Q&A, Bill talks to Awful Announcing about how he got into broadcasting, what VCU and Butler’s run to the Final Four mean for college basketball, his response to Jay Bilas’ Tweets, and of course, ONIONS!
Q: Tell us a little bit about your basketball background and how you got into broadcasting.
A: Well I wasn’t a good player, Matt, and then I wasn’t a good coach, so it was an easy slide. In the early days of my college career I met a man by the name of Bob Wolff and my coach asked me to show Bob around and he’s a Hall of Fame announcer in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was doing a CBS game with us in the NIT. Bob said, would you want to try and get in my business someday. And that always stuck in my head, I ended up coaching for 16 years and just thought, let me give this a shot. Dave Gavitt (former Big East commissioner) was nice enough one late October calling me at Seton Hall and saying look, you’ve got two days to let me know if you want to do this.
I had two weeks of practice in in ’81 and fortunately there was a Dave Gavitt in my life because the Big East was starting to mushroom and philosophically Seton Hall really wasn’t ready for it. A few years later PJ (Carlesimo) came in and worked hard and struggled and they finally stepped up and did the things everyone else was doing in terms of support and we ended up in the Final Four in ’89. So, that was sort of a tumultuous road to broadcasting.
Q: Everyone will want to know the origins of “Onions!” Ian Eagle has put the story out there on the internet, is it true?
A: Ian’s the one that says Kevin Edwards made a jumper in Miami (for the Nets). It’s something in that head of mine that popped out. I was trying to be as descriptive as I could about how tough kids are and making big plays and finding ways to win the game and that sort of popped out. Ian’s got the memory man, I never question him, he’s the vault.
Q: So that was something spontaneous that just happened to come to mind?
A: Yea. In those days a win for the Nets was unusual. They were struggling and winning in Miami on the road made it sweeter with all the New York and Jersey people that live down there. It was something that made sense at the time and I never said it for a while. I guess it popped in once on one of the college games and fortunately it’s part of the lexicon, or unfortunately, I’m not sure which.
Q: How have you been able to connect with the younger crowd especially and across generations as an analyst?
A: I don’t know if I give it much thought. It’s just sort of the way you are. I’ve always thought young. My parents said I act too young. I have children that certainly keep me young, we’ve got four, and I just enjoy young people. They give me a lot of juice and I think there’s so much good in them that they can teach us a lot. What some of these kids do with their difficult situations whether it’s home or how to overcome something in basketball or academics and become students and get a degree… I can’t imagine some of the heartaches that some of these kids have that they are able to put it aside when playing the game and still move ahead. I think all of that helps you appreciate them, feel good about them, and feel good about this generation.
Q: You work across many different platforms. What are some of the challenges of working with so many different partners on so many different assignments?
A: I don’t think it’s really a challenge, Matt, everybody is so professional in what they do. I’ve been blessed… and that’s the other end of the young question, a lot of these young people that I started with are now bosses of mine that have moved into administrative areas. We’re always around young, exciting, creative people that love what they’re doing and they energize everybody too. Every game is important to somebody and we certainly hope that we treat it the same way.
Q: You’re known for your energy and humor, but also for your meticulous preparation. As an analyst, what will go into your preparation for the Final Four this weekend for Westwood One?
A: Pretty much the way I approach every game. You know, the NIT was important too. You watch tapes, get ready, have all the info sent to you. The Final Four is a year long prep because I had Kentucky and Connecticut in Maui. I’ve had 7 or 8 Connecticut games, I guess 3 or 4 Kentucky games, and plus getting ready for other games you see these two teams playing against them.
I’ve been watching Butler all year and I must admit I didn’t watch VCU until the tournament started but Butler I’ve watched from the Duke game on periodically. One, they sort of captured my imagination. Brad Stevens to me is one of those future Coach K types. That’s a guy I enjoy watching, his kids respond to him, and the interesting challenges they’ve had this year with not playing well for a while and getting these kids off the deck after they lost to Youngstown State. With VCU, Shaka Smart I actually met when he was with Billy Donovan and he worked for Oliver Purnell. I can see a mix of those coaches. The full court pressure and speed of Oliver, and Billy incorporating a lot of ball screens like he does with Rodriguez. That helps in your preparation and then we get tapes. I have them sent to me and I’m up to speed on both of them before I get here.
Q: There’s been some talk of having two mid-major teams in the Final Four about a ratings dip or even the randomness of the tournament crowning a champion. Is having both VCU and Butler in the Final Four good for college basketball, and what would a win by either do for the sport?
A: Shaka would shock the world, right? I think any time kids start in October, the aspirations are “how good can we become and can we progress towards getting in the tournament.” Then, as that goal is accomplished, how much damage can we do in the tournament. That’s what everyone is excited about in these two teams in particular getting here. It’s going to make people very aware nationally, that their team, if they lose, it’s not that big of a shock anymore if someone is home because of these two teams getting to that level.
They’ve accomplished so much that can be realized by so many now. Years ago this couldn’t have happened. You’re talking about guys leaving early, kids staying four years and getting better, things of that nature. I think it’s a wonderful thing for the game of basketball. I think everybody can start next year saying, you know what, if we work hard, who knows?
Q: Do you have a favorite moment or a favorite game as a broadcaster?
A: There’s so many moments. The one game that sticks out recently was that UConn/Syracuse 6OT game. For the NCAA, I think the George Mason/Connecticut game was something extraordinary. Verne Lundquist and I had that. That was special. Pitt/Villanova up in Boston for the right to go to the Final Four when Scottie Reynolds got the pass and went the length of the floor. Those jump out. As a spectator and fan, 1985 Villanova/Georgetown because all of us were so into the early days of the Big East, to see three teams get to the Final Four with St. John’s, that was a particularly special moment.
Q: Jay Bilas has had a lot to say about you on his new Twitter account…
A: I’ve heard from my kids. I’m not a Twitter maniac, but I’m glad I can help a disenfranchised Duke graduate do well with his life and add some humor to his life. I hear it’s pretty comical. He’s such a talented kid and he’s extremely witty. I’m glad I’m giving him some new material to enhance his existence.
Q: Any chance that you’ll open your own Twitter account to respond?
A: I doubt it. I’m too laid back I think. I’d rather live vicariously through my “older” friend Jay Bilas.
Many thanks to Bill Raftery and the folks at Westwood One for setting up this interview on a very busy Friday in Houston. You can catch Bill working with Kevin Kugler and John Thompson on Westwood One’s nationwide radio coverage of the Final Four.