Postscript: Later on Selection Sunday, we learned that Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery had been assigned to Buffalo with Villanova and Saint Joseph's. Hopefully that makes this story a little bit more worthwhile.
NEW YORK - It's Selection Sunday, one of the most special days of the year for college basketball fans. To get the party started, I'd like to share one of the most fun interviews I've ever been a part of.
Every year on the Tuesday of Championship Week, CBS invites college basketball writers to Manhattan for breakfast and interviews with the network's executives and NCAA tournament broadcasters. I was there this year for the first time in a few seasons, and it was a terrific occasion.
Since CBS teamed up with Turner Sports, the event has become even bigger. You look around the room and see Charles Barkley, Bill Raftery, Ernie Johnson, Jim Nantz and so many other people whose voices form the soundtrack of March Madness.
Veteran CBS play-by-play man Verne Lundquist was also there, and I spotted him holding forth with a few reporters. This year is Lundquist's 50th in broadcasting, his 30th calling NCAA tournament games for CBS, and his 15th with Raftery. They form one of the network's best tandems, renowned for their quick wits as much as their game analysis.
So I pulled up a chair and joined in. I ended up sitting there for almost half an hour, and it was the best half-hour I've spent in a while. The reporters at the table - myself, Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com and Brendan Prunty of the Newark Star-Ledger - said next to nothing. We let Lundquist do all the talking. He had plenty to say, and some wonderful stories to tell.
Here's a transcript of the conversation. It is edited only slightly, to provide a little bit of clarity where there weren't full sentences. I've also adedd some footnotes to provide some historical context on the games we discussed.
We pick things up with Lundquist in the middle of talking about the things that help him prepare for the four-game marathon in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Lundquist: I want a guy wearing a brace [to make a player stand out]. Preferably two braces. Something.
Prunty: The guy on Saint Louis with the blue hair last year [Cody Ellis].
Lundquist: Exactly. You do hope for some distinguishing characteristic that makes him different, when you look at him, from the other guys. Because you don't have time to really get deep into memorization. The first day is a challenge. I'll tell you a quick story. I worked with [legendary former Marquette coach, then broadcaster] Al McGuire his last year of the tournament *.
And Coach McGuire was never known for the depth of his preparation. As in, "I'll react to what's going on."
* - 1999 was the last year before McGuire died in 2001 that he called NCAA tournament games. His final game on TV was a regular season contest in 2000 with Dick Enberg, his former partner at NBC, who was hired by CBS when it won the AFC NFL contract away from NBC.
Norlander: That's how he coached, too.
Lundquist: Oh, my God. And that Thursday or Friday is the longest day in broadcast television. It is. It's a grind. I can still tell you the teams. We were in Charlotte. We lead off with Delaware and Tennessee. Get that done. Then we've got Southwest Missouri State and Wisconsin, in what I would still argue is one of the worst college basketball games I've ever done. Like, 42-31, and that was at the end of the game.*
So now we get a short break. My pile [of papers] is going down. You take half of it and throw it away. The evening game was Mississippi Valley State and Duke, and Duke was a 48-point favorite, and they covered. So the last game of the night is College of Charleston and Tulsa.
We're taking a break and I said, "Coach, anything I can do you for you in this last game?" And he said "No, no." We get back and sit down - he doesn't have a note. He doesn't have a roster. And I said, "Is there anything I can do to help you out? He said, "No, no - they'll take their warmups off and I'll get the names and numbers, and I'll listen to you for the first five minutes, and I'll pick things up and I'll be fine."
Charleston comes out and they have maroon warmups. They take them off and they have no names, just numbers. Tulsa, with Bill Self as the coach [he's now at Kansas], comes out in blue - no names. He [McGuire] looked at me and said, "Son, you might have to help me - I think I'm screwed."
We worked the next weekend, but that was his last year. He was sick, and we knew he was sick. We didn't know that it was an aggressive leukemia, but it was his last year. Then Billy [Raftery] and I were put together in 2000, and we've been together ever since.
* - 43-32, to be precise, but that was a pretty good guess. We can only imagine just how bad it was to watch live.
Prunty: When you can kind of tell that a game is going to come down to the final possession or two, are you coming up with ideas if it's a long three, or are you just going as it happens?
Lundquist: As it happens. No. There are guys who do plan, and then hope to God. I've been very lucky over the last 50 years to be at some major events. I got to call Tiger's chip shot [on the 16th hole of the final round at the 2005 Masters].
I had a guy call me the Monday after the Sunday, and he said, "I'm just curious - did you plan that?" And I said, "Yeah, I couldn't go to sleep on Saturday night. If Tiger Woods pulls an 8-iron 180 feet away from the hole, and he chips it this way and it goes that way and it hangs there for 1.8 seconds and it goes in, I think I'm going to say: 'In your life, have you ever seen anything like that?' Yeah, I planned it."
[Here Lundquist dropped an expletive that equates to "Come on."]
You can't. I could not - I don't mean to be self-aggrandizing, but I couldn't do what I've done in the last 10 years, 30 years ago. I think it's comfort with the arena, I think it's comfort with yourself, I think it's an awareness that you've done it before. So you rely on all that experience, and then you react.
Prunty: That was my other thing. You have Bill Raftery, who has all these great insights. So if there's enough time when the ball's going to be inbounded and it's going to come up the floor, I have to imagine you're going to be thinking, "I want to give Bill the time to say they're going to Jones on the curl route in the corner and give his analysis," but have enough time to throw it back to you so that if the shot goes in, you get something. Is that just feel?
Lundquist: Yes, it is. And for us, it's a product of - this will be our 15th tournament together. I said at our seminar yesterday - they had Bill, Grant, Steve Smith and me to do a thing - we did Louisville-UConn on Sunday, and here's the other side of the coin we're talking about. What a comfort factor it is, when you're doing a game that's 81-48, to look over and see Bill Raftery sitting there. Holy cow.
Prunty: I'll take this play off.
Lundquist: Exactly. Exactly. If you don't mind, I'm going to the restroom. [Imitates his producer]: "But we're on the air." [Continues as himself]: "So what, you can handle it." But you're describing it exactly right.
Prunty: You've done 29 years of NCAA tournament games. This is your 30th. Is there one game that you'd put above the rest, or that was the most fun to call?
Lundquist: Well, it had to be Duke-Kentucky [in the 1992 East Regional Final at the Spectrum]. Yeah. I mean, all of a sudden, it's regarded as the greatest college basketball game ever played.
And here we are 22 years later. Although I will say this: Butler's Gordon Hayward, if he makes that shot [in the 2010 national championship game against Duke], we're second.
Tannenwald: How high up the list - I remember watching this game and thinking in the moment it was really up there among NCAA tournament games in our lives - was the 2009 Villanova-Pittsburgh East Regional Final in Boston?
Lundquist: That would be in my top five. Scottie Reynolds with the hook and ladder at the end. Yeah, that might be number two for me in the tournament.
But Duke-Kentucky. Me and Len Elmore called it. It was funny, because I was up on the stage yesterday with Grant, and was able to tell a story that he didn't know. Grant Hill's mom and dad are dear friends. His dad, Calvin* and Janet, his mom, was Hillary Rodham Clinton's roommate at Wellesley. And I was doing the Cowboys play-by-play. So I knew that she was pregnant and expecting. They didn't know if it would be a boy or a girl. I said, when the baby is born, give me a call.
So he called me the morning after Grant was born. I announced it on the 10:00 news that night, that Calvin and Janet Hill had a boy, Grant Henry Hill, and the family was doing fine. Because he was a public figure. Then, that Sunday, they were playing the Steelers. Calvin Hill threw a halfback pass 50 yards for the winning touchdown, and they won it 17-13.
So here we were at the Spectrum, and here's the baby boy, who's now 6-foot-8. He throws the pass to Laettner, and I didn't think it at the time, but as the celebrations were going on, I thought: it's like the circle of life, or something like that. I told that story yesterday, and Grant looked at me and he said, "I never knew that!"
* - I'm sure some of you know this, but for those who don't Calvin Hill played for Dallas from 1969 to 1974 as part of a 12-year NFL career that also included stops in Washington and Cleveland. The part you might not know: Grant was born on October 5, 1972, and that Cowboys-Steelers game took place on October 8 at the old Texas Stadium.
Norlander: Going into that game, was Duke considered a seven-to-10 point favorite?
Lundquist: Yeah, they were. They were the top seed. People do forget that Kentucky was the number two seed, and this was The Unforgettables, and they had been on probation, and all that.
Norlander: I wasn't sure if there had been anything along the lines of "this will be a good game, but Duke should win somewhat comfortably."
Lundquist: Yeah, I think we all thought that. And the other interesting thing is, the other two teams in the region were John Calipari and UMass, and P.J. [Carlesimo] and Seton Hall. So it was pretty power-packed. And because it was Thursday-Saturday, Lenny and I were assigned to it. Jim Nantz and Billy Packer, ironically, were in Lexington to do the Sunday game,* watching the game and the death throes of Kentucky.
But you're right about Scottie Reynolds.
* - Lexington hosted the Southeast regional final in 1992. Michigan beat Ohio State, 75-71.
Prunty: So what are the other three in your top five?
Lundquist: Wow. I've got to think about this. See, I could give you a top five of golf, football and basketball. But I don't know.
Tannenwald: Can I throw one more out there?
Tannenwald: Siena-Ohio State in the first round of the 2009 tournament in Dayton.
Lundquist: Oh, my God. And can I tell you a story?
Norlander [as all of us laugh]: You know what, Verne, we're going to let you tell a story.
Lundquist: Where's Raftery? This is my all-time favorite Raftery moment, and I've had a few. Siena-Ohio State, it's an 8 [Ohio State] versus a nine [Siena] in Dayton. So it's not like it's a huge upset - it's not like it was a 1 vs. 16 or a 2 vs. 15. But nobody thought Siena could hang with them, right?
So Ronald Moore hits the shot to tie the game at the buzzer. And my guy says, "Onions!" So now we go to overtime. Moore hits the shot to win the game. He said, "Onions! Double order!" I do a lot of speeches with a lot of video, and I use that video - I try to explain that if we've got an elderly female audience, just imagine what "Onions" means. You've got to kind of set the table for it, no pun intended.
I'll give you one. Northwestern State over Iowa [in 2006].
Norlander: 14 over 3. A three from the corner. The most overlooked buzzer-beater in NCAA tournament history. People forget about it - that was an amazing shot.
Lundquist: I agree. Because it was in the first round.
Prunty: And wasn't that a year when there were a ton of 13s over 4s and results like that?*
Lundquist: I think [yes]. So Northwestern State, from Nachitoches, La. Their play-by-play guy - who's still there, I think - was a young, heavy-set guy in his 30's. Patrick something.*
When they went into the locker room for the last pregame speech, coach Mike McConathy comes over and sits down and does the coach's show. You know, [then-Iowa coach] Steve Alford's got his guys in there, and you know [Lundquist pounds the table to demonstrate Alford's demeanor]. The coach from Northwestern State is sitting there doing his coach's show.
So we took a video of it, and I asked him about it later. I said, "That's unusual." He said, "What the hell am I going to tell them two minutes before the game. They know who we're playing. I'm going to get paid for my coach's show."
So that was one of my favorites. Now I've got to think of another. Help me.
* - Patrick Netherton, to be precise. Lundquist didn't realize it because he didn't have the name, but Netherton is more than just Northwestern State's radio guy. He's a big part of former CBS college basketball play-by-play voice Tim Brando's daily radio show that now airs on SiriusXM.
Norlander: Do you remember the first tournament game you called? What was it and what was your prep? At that point you obviously had been broadcasting, but were there any nerves? It was a different kind of tournament back then. Can you take us back to the year and the game.
Lundquist: It's a much longer story than you'd want to hear, so I'm not going to go down the whole path.
Norlander: Take us down the path, Verne. We'll walk with you. [Brendan and I nodded in agreement.]
Lundquist: Well, I was working at an ABC station in Dallas doing the Cowboys and working some regional stuff for ABC. I can't believe I'm going to get into this. At that time, I was represented by Barry Frank [of renowned agency IMG]. I'm not anymore - I haven't been for 35 years. But I got a call from ABC, right over here on Sixth Avenue. Chuck Howard called me, he was the executive producer. He said, "I've got some bad news: We're not going to renew your contract." Really? So I'm out at ABC.
I had a chance to do some peripheral work at CBS, but I'm working at an ABC affiliate. That's where the story gets really, really complicated. It would take a chapter in the book.
So cut to the chase. I was called by Kevin O'Malley of CBS* - this is 1982 - and he called my boss and asked for permission to work as one of the announcers for CBS' first year of the tournament. We were a dominant station in Dallas. We'd get a 60 share for the evening news. It was unbelievable, and we just had a damn good news staff and were good on the air. I had a reputation in Dallas that was pretty solid, and my appearing on CBS was not going to stain that.
My boss, Dave Lane, gave Kevin O'Malley permission to use me as an announcer in the tournament as long as the game was not televised in Dallas. You guys probably don't remember that one of the great broadcasters then was one of my role models, Frank Glieber. Frank did [hole] 17 at Augusta for 17 years. He died of a heart attack when he was 51, and he was a dear, dear friend of mine. We both lived in Dallas.
[Glieber] called me the afternoon of the assignments, and he said, "I just called New York to find out where I'm going, and they said, 'We can't tell you yet, because we don't have the networks, and we're trying to fit Verne Lundquist in.'" And Frank said, "What!? No!" I held up the whole process because they had to figure out what site was not going to be televised in Dallas.
It finally ended up that ironically, I was assgined to Tulsa. My first partner was Dale Brown, who was still the coach at LSU at the time. The four teams we did [over] two games: We had Houston against Tulsa, which was [Hakeem] Olajuwon as a freshman, and then in the second game we had Marquette, with Doc Rivers as as sophomore point guard, against Missouri.
* - O'Malley was the network's executive producer for college sports at the time.
Norlander: And those games were live?
Lundquist: Yeah, they were live. And we were at eight sites. Gary Bender and Billy Packer were our lead guys, [Brent] Musburger was in the studio. I only worked the first weekend - I did get to the second weekend the next year. But that weekend was two games, the first of which was Houston and Tulsa. It was Phi Slamma Jamma. They made it all the way to the Final Four that year.
And over the years, back when the networks had money...
Prunty: Newspapers too.
Lundquist: Exactly. Back when newspapers were this thick. I worked with Steve Grote, he was a great defensive guy at Michigan, for a couple of years. I can remember when we did both weekends, they'd fly us: we'd do a Saturday afternoon, then get on a private jet. We went to Memphis, then to Milwaukee, and we doubled up. Gary and Billy would do that. We did Saturday and Sunday the first weekend.
Tannenwald: So let me ask this. Does anyone at CBS ever realize when they're giving you and Bill Raftery a Syracuse game? We all know Jim Boeheim's zone defense messes with Raf's signature "man-to-man" line off the opening tip. You guys made a pretty good joke out of it last year when Syracuse played in the East Regional in Washington.
Lundquist: Oh yeah, sure. And you know what he does: "Zone defense with man-to-man principles." He did it last weekend with Louisville. He is rare. I love him. He's one of my best friends.
I told this story at the CBS seminar too. In '83, they assigned us to a game in South Carolina in early February. It was such a natural regional matchup: Idaho against South Carolina. A lot of attention in the East for that national telecast. And then the next week, we were back there for Marquette against South Carolina, in Doc Rivers' junior year.
We really got along right away, and we got a call from the office in New York: "Boy, you guys really sound good together. We look forward to many years of pairing you up." It was 18 years later before we worked together again. '83 to 2000. We had a lot of regime change. And neither one of us can remember that we did a game together over that time. Then, when coach McGuire died, they put Billy and me together, and we've been together every year since.
Norlander: Have you got a few more years of you left for the tournament?
Lundquist: A couple. Yeah. I'm not sure how long.
Norlander: You seem like you've got gas left in the tank.
Lundquist: Yeah, I still do, and I still get energized by it. But I'm at an age now - I'm 73. And Raftery got outed by USA Today last week, because he never once has said his age, and there it was with a picture. 73 and 70. I still think he's hiding a year, by the way.
Prunty: One got lost in a bar somewhere or something.
Lundquist: Yeah, I think so.
Tannenwald: You talk about getting re-energized. The East Regional final is in New York this year, and it's the first time since 1961 that there will be games at Madison Square Garden. Obviously we don't know yet if you'll be calling those games, but you've covered the Big East for so long. What will it be like that weekend?
Lundquist: Oh, one of our sales guys yesterday, Chris Simko*, yesterday he got up and talked about how the anticipation has already started for having a regional final in Madison Square Garden. Holy cow. That is going to be an amazing thing.
* - Simko is senior vice president of CBS Sports Sales and Marketing.
Tannenwald: You could have some combination of Duke, Syracuse, Villanova, UConn, who knows.
Lundquist: Oh, absolutely.
Prunty: When do you find out what games you get assigned?
Lundquist: About two hours afterward. They get the field, and Sean [McManus, head of CBS Sports] and David Levy [head of Turner Sports] are very involved in this, which games go on CBS and which games go on Turner. It's more like an hour and a half. And we've all got our favorite places to go. The only time I've ever asked, and it was granted, was three years ago when there were first and second round games in Denver. I live in Steamboat Springs.
Norlander: I was at that. It was a great weekend. You had Morehead State.
Lundquist: With Kenneth Faried, yeah.
Tannenwald: And didn't you have Jimmer Fredette and BYU too?
Lundquist: Yes. I said, if all things are equal, and they said yes. So Billy and I got assigned there. But other than that, we wait, and then it goes back to what I was talking about. You'd better start doing your charts Sunday night. And we don't know - we're trying to speculate. Given a choice between San Diego and Buffalo, what do you think?
Norlander: Do you ever keep anything from any of these games? Do you have the roster sheet from Duke-Kentucky?
Norlander: Is it something you do frequently or do you only have a few select items?
Lundquist: I'm a rat-packer. My wife will tell you. Now, we don't have children. So when I go, she's going to throw that stuff in the burner. But I have kept a lot of things over the years, and I do have my charts from Duke-Kentucky.
Going back to that game, there are so many things that resonate to this day. Yesterday in the meeting hall, we had 200 people, probably, at the Museum of Modern Art. I look out, and there was Lesley Visser, who was the sideline reporter for that game, 'and] Lenny Elmore, my partner for that game.
But more significantly, there was Craig Silver, who was our producer. He's going to be Kevin Harlan's guy this year, and he's my SEC [football] producer. And Mike Arnold, who was our director, now directs the Super Bowl and has [Jim] Nantz and [Phil] Simms every Sunday. So here we were. You talk about experience, all of us are still doing this thing 22 years later.
[At the game] we had Lesley lined up 10 feet away from Cawood Ledford, the legendary Kentucky broadcaster of 39 years.
Norlander: That was his last game.
Lundquist: She was going to do a little profile of him. She stood there for the last seven minutes of the game, and we couldn't get it on because the game was so good. And then the overtime. So she never got it on.
Now the game ends, Krzyzewski is out there hugging people. The first thing Mike did was turn around and go on Cawood Ledford's postgame show live - before he ever went to the locker room to talk to his guys. One of the classiest things I've ever seen. Just to pay honor to the guy, and say thanks for all you did for college basketball.
And then the other thing was from Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe. Lenny and I, we didn't say anything to each other. We were just like [drops his jaw] "Wow." Bob Ryan came up and kind of broke the reverie. He said, "I was at North Carolina State-Maryland in 1974. I thought that was the greatest game ever played."*
Lenny was in that one [playing for Maryland, along with] Tom McMillen and [N.C. State's] David Thompson. And that's when the ACC and all conferences got just one bid each. Bob Ryan looked at Lenny and said, "Until tonight, that was the greatest game I ever saw. Now where do you put this one?"
You're asking a guy who played in that game. And Lenny said - I'll never forget this - he didn't just snap an answer. He finally looked up at Bob and said, "This one was better. There was more at stake." That one was to get into the tournament, this one was to go to the Final Four. That gave it context right away. Wow.