It was Roy Williams in 2021, then Mike Krzyzewski to great fanfare and Jay Wright in significantly more quiet fashion a year ago. Now, in 2023, another fixture of college basketball bids farewell when Jim Nantz says goodbye, friends at the Final Four.
Nantz has provided the soundtrack to March Madness and the Final Four every season for 32 years as of the 2023 NCAA Tournament. Nantz has called more than half of the National Championship Games ever aired nationally on television.
Commentating almost a third-of-a-century’s worth of championships leaves Nantz with more memorable calls than one could list with every ounce of bandwidth Awful Announcing has at its disposal.
So, let’s pare it down to 10 of the best Final Four plays, games and calls that reflect the incredible tenure of Jim Nantz as the voice of March Madness.
The Start of Two Dynasties (1991)
Once upon a time, Duke basketball was not the most prominent villain of college basketball — quite the opposite. Heading into the 1991 Final Four, the Blue Devils were forerunners to the Buffalo Bills of the ‘90s as perennial title contenders who repeatedly fell just short.
Duke reached four times from 1986 through 1990, a stretch bookended with National Championship Game losses to Louisville and UNLV. The latter marked the peak of the Jerry Tarkanian era at UNLV, with a Runnin’ Rebels program that in many ways revolutionized college basketball decimating Duke by 30 points to claim the crown.
That a team from Las Vegas reached its zenith at the same time Brent Musburger called his last Final Four game feels like the universe leaving an Easter egg for sports fans. And, in the same way that the king of slipping betting references into play-by-play generations before we were inundated with sportsbook advertising exiting after a Vegas team won it all feels downright serendipitous, the voice of the Masters calling the start to a Southern private school’s lengthy dynasty seems too perfect.
Duke exacting revenge for the previous year’s bludgeoning came in the semifinals. It’s rendered the National Championship Game against Kansas a footnote in the same vein as the 1980 US Olympic hockey team’s finale against Finland existing in the shadow of the medal-round defeat of the Soviet team in the Miracle on Ice.
Nantz’s call as Duke’s upset neared reality was understated and subdued in a way that added gravity to the moment. In particular, as the score went final and the Hoosier Dome audience erupted in cheers, a moment of pause without commentary actually enhanced the moment.
Mental Mistakes in New Orleans (1993)
In a city the damned call home, as Chief Wiggum once crooned about New Orleans, Jim Nantz narrated the hellish rondelet of basketball’s most infamous timeout.
The Superdome hosted its third Final Four in 1993, and the venue where the Saints of football play already had established a reputation for thrilling finishes. The first title game there launched Michael Jordan into the national spotlight, while the return in 1987 ended in Keith Smart sinking another of the Final Four’s most famous shots.
The third installment lived up to the standard set in the first two Superdome Final Fours, but it wasn’t a baseline jump shot like its predecessors gaining NCAA Tournament immortality: It was Chris Webber calling for a timeout Michigan didn’t have near his own bench that decided the championship.
Kudos are in order for Nantz immediately making reference to that first Superdome Final Four from 11 years prior upon Webber’s ill-fated blunder — and not in reference to Jordan’s iconic jumper. Rather, he made quick note of Georgetown’s possession following Michael’s make, wherein Fred Brown — looking to feed “Sleepy” Floyd, who hit the shot to give the Hoyas the lead on their prior time down the court — threw to the wrong team.
Nantz’s ability to call upon history in pressure-packed moments often enhanced the gravity.
Unrivaled Pun Game (1999)
Nantz gained a reputation for delivering dad-puns at the conclusion of the Championship Game — and the label dad-pun isn’t meant derisively. His quips may seem corny in a vacuum, but like “One Shining Moment,” the campiness is an endearing part of the fabric of March Madness. Plenty of fans associate those puns with their teams’ titles — though in the case of Arizona’s 1997 run, Tucson’s revered hymn of “Simon says: Championship,” actually came from Billy Packer — but the first of Connecticut’s titles was pure Nantz.
By the end of the ‘90s, Duke was firmly positioned as college basketball’s villain and in the role UNLV played eight years prior. UConn, a downtrodden program before Jim Calhoun’s arrival after a wildly successful tenure at Northeastern, was the upstart that had come close to reaching the Final Four in the years prior but repeatedly fell short.
The Huskies were significant underdogs facing the Blue Devils in the 1999 National Championship Game — the 9.5-point spread remains the largest for a title matchup still to this day. However, Richard Hamilton concluded an unforgettable March run that set the template for future UConn Tournament legends Emeka Okafor, Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier with 27 points, seven rebounds and two steals.
Hamilton’s effort led the Huskies to a 77-74 win over a loaded Duke team with Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Shane Battier and Trajan Langdon. The performance marked Hamilton’s sixth straight dropping at least 21 in the 1999 Tournament, and prompted one of Nantz’s most memorable puns.
After noting fan favorite Khalid El-Amin’s pronouncement of “We shocked the world!,” Nantz dropped: “Folks, you’ve got to believe, because just when people say, ‘You can’t,’ you can. And UConn has won the national championship!”
Hakim’s Block Party (2003)
New Orleans again welcomed the Final Four nine years later, and again, the National Championship Game delivered with a classic.
Fifteen years after its last championship, and 12 years into Roy Williams’ outstanding head-coaching tenure that lacked only a national title, Kansas battled Syracuse through one of the best finales of the 21st Century.
The 2003 Final Four is noteworthy in retrospect for the outstanding performances of players who would become either longtime fixtures in the NBA – Kansas’ Nick Collison – or superstars – Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony.
But part of March Madness’ mystique comes from those players who never quite make a mark at the pro level earning basketball immortality all the same. Hakim Warrick, a four-year starter at Syracuse who was both a dependable running mate alongside Carmelo and every bit as responsible for the Orange winning more than “10 f***ing games” as Gerry McNamara, became a legend in the 2003 National Championship.
Warrick’s rejection didn’t close out the game, but the Orange big man again come through with a huge defensive stop in the ensuing 1.5 seconds. He altered Kirk Hinrich’s shot attempt to seal what, with his retirement this year, was the only title of Jim Boeheim’s illustrious career.
Whereas Nantz made reference to the devastating Georgetown turnover of ‘82 when calling the ‘93 National Championship, he again pulled from Superdome lore with a shoutout of Adam Vinatieri’s field goal to cap the New England Patriots’ first Super Bowl crown.
Super Mario World (2008)
Foreshadowing the biggest game-tying shot in Final Four history, Jim Nantz let out an astonished “Wow!” when Derrick Rose missed the first of two, potentially championship-sealing free throws for Memphis.
Queue up the “What did he know?” meme; Nantz’s exasperation from Rose’s missed foul shot built the appropriate attention for Mario Chalmers’ overtime-forcing 3-pointer in 2008.
“That’s called pressure,” Nantz responded to Billy Packer’s observation about Rose’s footwork. The repartee between the two remained sharp for almost two full decades, with the ‘08 National Championship Game marking the end.
And what a way for Packer to go out as the lead color commentator of the Final Four. He and Nantz bellowed, almost in unison, “Got it!” as Chalmers’ 3-point attempt splashed, sending Kansas to overtime and the Jayhawks’ first title since Danny & The Miracles in 1988.
The Greatest Near-Miss Ever (2010)
If Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer to beat North Carolina in 2016 isn’t the best finish ever (more on that in a second), it’s certainly tops of the Tournament in its current form with expansion to 64 teams in 1985. But Villanova’s first title under Jay Wright was nearly a distant second.
Butler knocked on the door of college basketball’s elite for a decade by the time it went on its 2010 Final Four run. The Bulldogs almost derailed Florida’s journey to the 2000 National Championship Game, then in 2006, won the NIT Tip-Off championship when that was still the preeminent early-season tournament.
So, Butler advancing to a Final Four wasn’t necessarily out-of-nowhere, but the 2010 Bulldogs still came just inches from becoming maybe the most improbable champions ever.
Facing blue-blood Duke, in the same city where Nantz called his first Final Four, Butler pursued an upset of magnitude matching the Blue Devils’ defeat of UNLV 19 years prior. The final two minutes produced some of the most white-knuckled action, more than compensating for an offensively challenged first 38 minutes.
Gordon Hayward’s midcourt heave at the buzzer, and Nantz’s declaration, “It almost went in!” are unforgettable. However, Hayward also very nearly hit another go-ahead bucket in the closing seconds when he made a brilliant move through the lane, jump-stopped and had a high-rising fadeaway rim out.
Not Playing for a Tie (2016)
The Final Four returns to Houston in 2023, a fitting spot for Nantz’s swan song.
He attended UH, his Hall of Fame career launched in Houston, and the last time college basketball’s championship visited the city, Nantz was on commentary for arguably the greatest finish in NCAA Tournament history.
The broadcast call is somewhat overshadowed both by Jay Wright’s ultra-cool mouthing “Bang” as Kris Jenkins fired the game-winning 3-pointer for Villanova. However, the overlay of Nantz and Raftery’s commentary with Charles Barkley’s reaction beautifully represents the emotions of millions watching live that night.
The 2016 Final Four was the first time much of the nation was exposed to a tradition of Nantz’s, in which he presented his necktie for the National Championship Game to a standout performer.
I was fortunate enough to be among a handful of reporters speaking with Nantz in the aftermath, as Villanova cut down the nets at NRG Stadium. He explained the tie as a gift to “a player who, I’m inspired by everything about them: What they do on the floor, what they’ll do in the future.”
“That was an easy one tonight,” he added.
Most Outstanding Player selection Ryan Arcidiacono received the tie in ‘16 after dishing the assist that facilitated Jenkins’ bucket. Other recipients, Nantz said, include Chalmers, Duke’s Kyle Singler in 2010, and Florida’s Corey Brewer during the Gators’ repeat run of ‘06 and ‘07.
“The tie was something that, for whatever reason, they love to have in their closet as a keepsake,” he said.
“All-Time Turnaround” (2019)
Eleven years passed between overtime title games, and the winners of both found a measure of redemption in those additional five minutes. For Kansas, it was finally getting over the hump after past Championship Game defeats against Duke in 1991 and Syracuse in 2003.
For Virginia, an unprecedented loss as a No. 1 seed to 16th-seeded UMBC the year prior loomed over the program throughout an outstanding 2018-19 campaign.
Sure, coach Tony Bennett’s defensive-oriented strategy and methodical offensive approach built a perennial regular-season winner, but the UMBC loss fueled a narrative that Virginia’s ceiling was limited come March.
The Cavaliers’ run to the Final Four dispelled such criticisms, while a thrilling title-game win over Texas Tech – and a nail-biting semifinal defeat of Auburn – solidified Bennett’s place among some of the sport’s top coaches.
“Virginia with the all-time turnaround title!” Nantz called, putting a stamp on the moment’s magnitude.
While overtime proved somewhat anticlimactic, De’Andre Hunter’s 3-pointer and Braxton Key’s blocked shot at the buzzer combined two finishes from a pair of the previous best games in Nantz’s tenure.
An Unprecedented Finish for an Unprecedented Final Four (2021)
The 2021 NCAA Tournament had lost time to account for following the cancellation of the previous year’s Big Dance. While normalcy hadn’t exactly arrived that spring, the return of March Madness marked a significant cultural milestone in the road back.
The Indiana bubble brought enough Cinderella stories for two postseasons and gave us a Final Four for the ages.
Attendance at Lucas Oil Stadium was limited to handfuls of family members and support staff. However, the broadcast booth of Nantz, Grant Hill — the man whose alley-oop dunk in 1991 defined Nantz’s first title game — and college basketball icon Bill Raftery came with enough energy to make the audience feel like they were commentating amid a crowd of 60,000.
Nantz so notably deviating from his usual, even-keel broadcasting style as Jalen Suggs sank one of the greatest shots in Final Four history let you know this was a moment unlike any before — and, hopefully, any to follow — for multiple generations.
Bidding Farewell (2022-2023)
Jim Nantz’s penultimate Final Four will forever be memorable for marking the final games of coaching luminaries Mike Krzyzewski and Jay Wright – or, perhaps the last game at the program with which he’s most associated, in Wright’s case.
Nantz called each of the seven combined national championships Coach K and Wright won from 1991 through 2018, so it’s only fitting he was on the broadcast for their last games with Duke and Villanova.
In Wright’s case, his retirement was not public knowledge until five days after the Wildcats’ national semifinal loss to Kansas. We didn’t get to hear Nantz say goodbye to Wright as a result, but a fortunate bit of role reversal means Wright will be part of Nantz signing off this year.
Coach K, however, concluded the most iconic coaching tenure since John Wooden with a yearlong tour that ended in New Orleans. As rival North Carolina put the finishing touches on a surprise win over the Blue Devils, and Kryzyzewski lined up to shake hands with Hubert Davis and his Tar Heel staff, Nantz put the final punctuation on a remarkable career.
Nantz was present for other landmark farewells, including Dean Smith in 1997. These moments, just as much as his call of countless iconic March Madness moments, cement Nantz’s importance to the legacy of the sport.
Successor Ian Eagle has been terrific working NCAA Tournament games, and will establish his own signature style as the lead voice of the Final Four. Eagle is an inspired choice, but make no mistake: He has a long way to go to match Nantz’s stature.
For the millions who have enjoyed the Tournament and its championship rounds for these last 32 years, we bid Jim Nantz a heartfelt and well-deserved: Goodbye, friend.