On the day we caught up with sports broadcasting legend Jim Nantz, he was coming off, for the very last time, what has been an annual scheduling gauntlet, transitioning from CBS play-by-play of men’s college basketball’s Final Four to pro golf’s The Masters.
In the midst of all this 24/7 busyness, Nantz bumped his elbow. Real hard. The affable broadcaster just officially stepped away from the March Madness tournament after decades of leading CBS’s coverage. He’ll have a bit more time to spend with a family that features two young kids, but Nantz will remain very active, still spearheading the network’s golf and National Football League play-by-play, the latter alongside Tony Romo. When we got him on the phone from his hometown of Houston, he was on his way to have a doctor finally look at that aching elbow.
Despite the injury, make no mistake: Nantz, who will turn 64 in May and is certainly among the most decorated on-air personalities in sports broadcasting history, continues to enjoy one heck of a charmed narrative.
Take his days in the early 1980s at the University of Houston, where he managed to letter on a vaunted golf team that featured Fred Couples and Blaine McCallister.
“That was awful kind of them to do,” Nantz quipped of his letter offering, remarking about his humble place in a program that captured 16 NCAA titles over 30 years.
But Cougar Golf, and the relationships he formed within it, were among a number of sports-related experiences that were life-changing for Nantz.
“Every day, I was around people who set goals and achieved them,” he explained.
It was at Houston that Nantz set his own set of goals: To become the best sports storyteller he could be; and to ply his trade at CBS, the broadcaster on which he’d avidly observed pro golf coverage dating back to his days as a two-sport athlete (golf and basketball) at Marlboro High School in New Jersey.
Truly charmed is the man who knows exactly what he wants to do and who he wants to do it for while still in college. And keeps doing it through four decades.
But becoming the public address announcer during the nascent days of Houston basketball’s iconic “Phi Slama Jama” era? And being the one to coin the nickname for future NBA Hall of Famer Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, while still just an undergrad?
Come on. This man’s life and career are off the Zelig charts. Even in the earliest of beginnings, he was intersecting, in a meaningful way, with athletes at the very highest of levels.
‘So Many Amazing People’
Zelig is actually an imperfect simile. It implies that Nantz has connected with so many zeitgeist shifters, across multiple eras, by happenstance.
Intimately familiar with the sports and athletes he’s covered, he’s probably one of the more gifted improvisational journalists of our time, always adhering to the core job requirement — “forming sentences and phrases and storylines in real time, and doing it quickly and succinctly.”
He’s called so many Final Fours, so many Super Bowls, and so many Masters, and made us feel connected to the athletes and their games so many times, because he’s the best there is at doing this.
We know this. In a broadcast business in which everything else has been washed away by the erosive forces of digital disruption, the championship games and matches called by Nantz, still seen by mass audiences of tens of millions of viewers, stand ever taller and ever more resilient.
What is surprising is the sheer volume of interesting relationships this man has formed. Asked who he’ll remember most, Nantz can spend minutes rattling off the personal bonds he’s formed with the athletes and coaches he’s covered extensively: “Belichick and Brady” … “Peyton Manning” … “Arnold Palmer.”
Career Built on Relationships
Folks who work in sports routinely say it’s about the people you meet and the relationships you make. And dude could rattle off names all day.
You want to talk charmed? That’s when you call your first Final Four for CBS in 1991, and the title game features a spectacular Duke forward named Grant Hill. And this kid — now a retired NBA legend — ends up becoming your March Madness broadcast partner.
Legendary former Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who won five NCAA men’s basketball championships that were called by Nantz, called the announcer “the voice of the Final Four,” noting that basketball fans can’t recall any of the tournament’s biggest moments over the past four decades without hearing Nantz’s play-by-play in their heads.
“You’re the best who’s ever done this,” Krzyzewski added in a video tribute posted on Twitter, calling the announcer a “special friend.”
Pretty, pretty cool tribute to get.
Or when your profession falls under a new kind of intense viral scrutiny in the social internet era, and talented peers like Al Michaels start getting skewered by “influencers” simply because they’re not calling the games with enough “excitement.” (Oh, boy.)
As for Nantz, he remained charmed enough to be able to call his last NCAA title game a few miles down the block from his home, at Houston’s NRG Stadium, his network running a star-studded, tear-jerking career retrospective narrated by Ron Howard, and his 9-year-old daughter among those in attendance to watch it all.
Nantz says he doesn’t have — or want — a Twitter, Instagram or Facebook account. But leaving the stadium after UConn defeated San Diego State that night, his daughter gave him the “score,” anyway.
“You’re trending No. 1 on Twitter. They love you.”
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Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!