As announced last fall, this NCAA Tournament will mark Jim Nantz’s 32nd and final appearance as the tournament’s lead TV play-by-play voice for the Final Four and the national championship game. That was an obvious subject of discussion on a NCAA Tournament media preview call Tuesday, with Nantz and many of his colleagues from CBS and partners from WBD Sports discussing his upcoming farewell.
To start with, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said there are some mixed emotions for the network, with Nantz (who is staying with CBS in other roles) meaning so much to their college basketball coverage over the years. But he said there are some factors here that could make this a special last call for Nantz, including the Final Four being in Houston, and the possibility of his alma mater, the University of Houston, getting to that stage.
“It’s a bittersweet tournament for us,” McManus said. “This is Jim’s 32nd, if you can believe it, Final Four and championship game as lead play-by-play announcer. His first was in 1991 with Billy Packer. Jim, as everyone on this call knows, has meant so much to the game of college basketball, to CBS Sports, and to the growth in popularity of this great event. Fitting another good storyline, he’ll be able to sign off from Houston, and on CBS. And he can’t root because he’s an objective broadcaster, but if the Houston Cougars happen to be in Houston that weekend, that would be a pretty cool storyline for Jim also.”
Nantz said he and McManus came to this decision that 2023 would be his last tournament back in 2021, and even at that point, he was already thinking about the chances of the Cougars being a big factor in that final tournament.
“I thought about it, actually, since Sean and I first agreed that this would be the best time for me to hand it off to Ian Eagle. It’s a couple years in the making. And already at that point, back in 2021, we catalyzed things during the tournament in ’21, it was already obvious that Kelvin Sampson had built a program that was going to last. And there was a possibility years down the road that Houston would be part of that equation. And don’t forget, 2021 was the COVID year where we had the entire tournament in Indianapolis, and Houston made the Final Four that year. That was the dream two years ago.”
He said if Houston did get back to the Final Four, calling them would be one of the most special moments in his career.
“There’s a long way to go. But I think there’s a possibility that could happen. And I don’t want to overthink it right now, there’s a lot of games to be played. But that would be…listen, I’ve always been asked what’s the favorite moment in my career, I’ve broadcast some of the best with 37 Final Fours, eight Super Bowls, this will be my 38th Masters. My favorite memory ever was being able to call Fred Couples’ win at the 1992 Masters, my college roommate. We always practiced that scene in college in our dorm room. I’d wanted to work for CBS since I was 11, and all Fred had wanted was to win the Masters. We obsessed about it when we were kids, and then fast forward, almost a decade after graduation, that moment actually happened. And I realized that the world was watching.”
“But Houston, if they made it to the Final Four, if they won the national championship, then this would be right up there as one of the top two moments of my career. Because a lot of people don’t know that the basketball program really was my entrance into the business. I was completely tied to the Houston basketball program, more than anything else, to get me launched. Back as a kid, I was the public address announcer, I was the host of the Guy Lewis Show, our Hall of Fame coach, his television show that ran on the NBC affiliate. I was just a kid living in the dorms.”
Nantz said he’s grateful for everything Houston basketball has brought to him, and he and fellow Houston alums have tried to give back to the program.
“But I went to practice every day, and I was around for the start of Phi Slamma Jamma. I got to come up with nicknames like Clyde ‘The Glide’ Drexler, created that. And these were my lifelong friends, guys like Clyde have been a big part of my life. Along with my roommates, a bunch of golf guys; Freddy, Blaine McCallister, we endowed the first basketball scholarship in school history. We wanted to lead, we wanted to show people how moving forward, how that works for an athletic department, that people that have been blessed and have been fortunate with their careers can come back and do something that’s lasting, that makes a difference. It takes off the books one obligation that the athletic department has. And we wanted to be leaders, so we stood up and endowed the first basketball scholarship.”
“It’s very personal for me. This team is not just my alma mater, it runs a lot deeper than that.”
With all the discussion of Houston here, fans of who the Cougars play might have some questions about Nantz’s objectivity if he’s on the call. And he did slip up with a couple “We” references later in this call when discussing the Cougars, but then corrected himself. He said he thinks he’s quite capable of calling a Houston game fairly, though.
“And Sean said it well; I’ll be able to be a neutral observer of that game,” he said. “I would definitely be able to call that game, and be objective, and observe, and tell people what I see.”
Nantz certainly has a long history of calling these games, and of working with many of these analysts. Long-time CBS analyst Bill Raftery said Nantz was impressive with his knowledge of both the college and professional game right off the bat.
“What’s amazing to me, if you go back to the studio, I did his first studio with him,” Raftery said. “From the beginning, he was fresh, prepared, enthusiastic. …It was interesting to me, he had done some pro games with the Utah Jazz, so he had the Houston background and the pro background. And in those days, I was doing the Nets’ games, and he knew more about the NBA than I did. …And fast forward a couple of years later, CBS put us together for a couple of college games, and so we spent like three days together, and I was enriched by his knowledge and his love of the sport.”
And long-time TNT analyst Grant Hill said Nantz’s moving away from this role brought back plenty of memories for him. That started with him watching taped games on Betamax in the late 1980s, where Nantz was working as a CBS studio host for the Final Four.
“I would go home and study the games, and that’s when I was first introduced to Jim, and to his professionalism, and to his ability to present this amazing Final Four. And then fast-forward, to be able to play in games in Final Fours and national championships where he was on the call, even regular-season games during my college experience, when you looked over and saw Jim Nantz, you knew it was big.”
Hill’s first Final Four was in 1991 as a freshman at Duke (where he and the Blue Devils won the national title), the first year where Nantz was doing Final Four play-by-play. He said he had some interactions with Nantz then, and those grew through his playing career.
“That relationship was unique and special, and at a young, sort of impressionable, formative years if you will, those interactions we had were special, and were things that I recall and remember. And even my last experience as a senior, losing to Arkansas [in the national title game in 1994], a very talented Nolan Richardson team, and sharing a moment with Jim walking out of the stadium after we lost that game, who knew years later that we’d be in this situation now?”
He said his experiences with Nantz have only gotten better from working with him on CBS/WBD NCAA Tournament coverage.
“To fast-forward to the last seven to eight years, to work with him, to really get to know him, to consider him a friend…this month, it’s always special. As Sean alluded to, it’s bittersweet; our friend, our leader, our mortar, the guy I feel kind of keeps this whole thing together and has done it so eloquently and masterfully and respectfully for so long, it’s crazy. It’s still surreal that it’s come to an end.”
And he said he’s looking forward to this final run with Nantz.
“But I do think, looking back to my last year as a player and knowing that that was my last tournament run, selfishly, I just wanted to enjoy every minute. And I think that’s my approach to his last run, and hopefully Jim and the others will just cherish every minute, every game, every late night watching games, dinners, all of that, all of the magic that exists for us to be able to work with Jim Nantz. It’s truly something like that moment walking out of Charlotte Coliseum; I’ll have many moments that I’ll cherish, and that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
[Top photo of Raftery, Hill, and Nantz at the 2019 Final Four from Robert Deutsch/USA Today Sports]