NEW YORK - Bill Raftery has always been one of the most popular broadcasters in college basketball. Even as he approaches his 33rd year as part of CBS' NCAA Tournament coverage, he has kept up his cult-figure status among college students far younger than he.
This year, the spotlight will shine brighter on Raftery than it ever has. For the first time in his career, he'll be part of the CBS/Turner broadcast crew that will call the Final Four and national championship games. The former La Salle player and Seton Hall coach will work with play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz and fellow color analyst Grant Hill.
Speaking with reporters yesterday at CBS' annual NCAA Tournament Media Day, Raftery admitted he never thought he'd get the opportunity to have the gig.
"I thought [Billy] Packer would be doing it forever, and then Clark [Kellogg] was the obvious choice" to succeed Packer, Raftery said. "I'm just happy to be along for the ride."
Although this will be Raftery's first year calling the Final Four on television, he is no stranger to the spectacle itself. He has worked on the national radio broadcast for 23 years.
While Raftery's promotion has been lauded, it did not come amid the best of circumstances. Nantz's previous broadcast partner, Greg Anthony, was arrested in January and charged with soliciting a prostitute at a hotel in Washington, D.C. CBS and Turner immediately suspended Anthony indefinitely.
It did not take long for the networks to agree on Anthony's replacement - even though the move meant breaking up one of the NCAA Tournament's most popular broadcast teams in Raftery and Verne Lundquist.
"That was a hard phone call for me," Raftery admitted.
Raftery didn't have to worry. Lundquist, who will work with former 76ers swingman Jim Spanarkel this year, was thrilled to learn of his close friend's promotion.
"He has deserved it for a long time," Lundquist said.
Nantz and Raftery called Sunday's Wisconsin-Ohio State game. It was not the first time they had worked a game together, but it was the first time in a long time - 30 years, to be precise. The previous occasion was the first year that Nantz, now 55, called NCAA Tournament games for CBS.
Nantz is not the most verbose announcer. So Raftery will have plenty of time for his trademark aphorisms, such as "Onions!" and "A little kiss off the glass!"
"His glossary of terms, I think I know them, because I watch games too," Nantz said. "Sometimes, though, he gets so excitable that I have to admit I'm not exactly sure what he just said."
Raftery's accolades won't end when the national championship trophy is raised. A week after the title game, he'll be inducted into the Big 5 Hall of Fame.
"It'll be nice to be in the Palestra and not cost our team a game, playing or coaching," he quipped. "They've got all these little museum areas for each team. I'm looking forward to [seeing] that, in the different corners as you walk around."