Last Shining Moments?

Jim Nantz and I were born in the same year.  He has been the voice of the NCAA basketball tournament since 1991, taking over for Brent Musberger, who was shockingly fired on this very weekend the year before.  I loved Musberger, reveled in his impassioned “you are looking LIVE!” openings, and laughed every time local sportscasters in Los Angeles mocked him as “Burnt Hamburger”.

But over the years, Nantz’ folksy charm and his own signatures grew on me, and apparently the management of CBS Sports, who eventually gave him responsibility for the network’s other two signature sports properties, the NFL and the Masters.  While he’s not planning to leave either of those any time soon, he is signing off as the voice of the Final Four this weekend.   And as Madison Williams of Sports Illustrated reported earlier this week, it’s because, well, he’s winding down:

The longtime announcer revealed back in October that this year would be his last NCAA men’s basketball tournament. He explained at the time that he made the decision because he wants to spend more time with his kids.

Nantz expressed just this week that another reason for ending his 32-year run at the Final Four was so he could focus on Masters coverage. Normally, Nantz would broadcast the Final Four and championship game on Saturday and Monday, and then fly to Augusta National on Tuesday for a full week of Masters coverage.

“Listen, it’s always been a bit of a conundrum for me,” Nantz said in an interview with GOLF. “When I’m at the Final Four, all anyone wants to talk to me about is the Masters. I get reminded of it just walking through a restaurant, walking down the street, walking through a lobby—‘who’s gonna win the Masters next week?’ Usually I’m walking around trying to catch up, trying to get some face time with the top players, but all they want to talk to me about is the basketball. It’s never in sync.”

The CBS broadcast this weekend will likely talk about Nantz’s longtime career with the NCAA men’s tournament. To start, Nantz got his name on a commemorative street sign ahead of this weekend’s big games.

When someone you share a birthday with reaches a point where he’s getting street signs dedicated in his honor, and he is at a comfortable enough point in life to dictate his terms, it’s a little sobering.  He’s yet another link to better and more prosperous times for me.

I’ve never met Nantz, but I know plenty of folks who have and they’ve assured me that when he intones his typical opening line of “Hello, friends” (and if you’ve ever heard Rich Eisen imitate him, I defy you not to chuckle), he’s sincere about it.  He respects and admires his audience, and while he’s excitable, he’s never overwhelming, and always has gotten the best out of his partners.

His beloved Houston Cougars didn’t quite make it to having a hometown advantage this weekend, and Nantz was criticized in the earlier rounds of covering their eventual loss to the University of Miami with a bit of bias.  Though I’m an unapolgetic ‘Canes lover, I immensely respect his loyalty.   I sure hope he doesn’t favor UConn too much tonight.

Ian Eagle will replace him next year, and, like Nantz, he apprenticed with earlier round broadcasts before his ascension.  Eagle is an equally hard worker, who endures the drama of broadcasting the Brooklyn Nets on the side, and he has similar intonations to Nantz.    I equate Eagle to a Marv Albert, who also once called Nets games (I think he spent some time across the Hudson as well?).

Nantz has always reminded me more of Dan Rather, folksy but authoritative, a calming influence amidst the chaos of an always unpredictable fortnight, this year perhaps more exemplary of that than ever.

If you want a clue as to how much I respect Rather, just click on the bottom of this column (if you’re on a PC).

I respect Nantz just as much.  And he’ll be missed.  Although he’s reassured Williams’ readers that he will have some role in future coverage, a cameo presence won’t be the same.   And, to be sure, their 14-year joint deal with Warner Brothers Discovery (nee Turner) sports expires next year, and while I know Yosemite Zas is a supporter and fan, his appetite for a higher price in light of all else going on may not be sufficient.  This has been perhaps the one significant college event that ESPN has had no part of, and at this rate they and ABC could potentially accommodate both men’s and women’s tournaments, and grow the total package far more than the now-dinosaur like Turner networks can.   I mean, have YOU watched truTV any other time in the last few years other than for their first round games?

So while he will be far from retiring, a part of a reassuring world will end this weekend.  No doubt a few more shining moments for Nantz before that sweet song is played Monday night.  And, yep, I’ll be watching.

Goodbye, friend.


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