Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame 2018: Jim Nantz, the Family Man Who Became Sports TV’s Father
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“Hello, friends.” That’s far more than a calling card or a catch phrase. It’s a daily reminder that, in the sports-broadcasting industry, we’re family.
For 35 years, Jim Nantz has been family to millions of U.S. television viewers who have welcomed the legendary broadcaster into their homes for some of sports TV’s biggest events, including countless NFL and March Madness games, as well as thrilling major golf tourneys.
It’s a rare and special feat to achieve an entire career’s worth of successes at one network, but that is what Nantz has done. After graduating from the University of Houston and serving brief stints at CBS affiliates in San Antonio and Salt Lake City, he got his big break with the network. It was obvious from the get-go that he was where he belonged.
“He just blew everybody away with his audition,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Ed Goren, who was an executive producer at CBS Sports at the time. “The guy was 25, 26, and smooth as could be. It was a pretty easy decision to offer him the job.”
In his 34 years (and counting) at CBS, Nantz has, so far, been honored with three Emmy Awards and named National Sportscaster of the Year five times.
He started at CBS as studio host of the network’s college-football coverage in 1985. He moved to the booth to call play-by-play in 1989 before moving to the NFL scene in 1991. By ’93, he was on the No. 2 NFL crew before becoming host of The NFL Today. In 2004, he went out on the road as the network’s lead voice for The NFL on CBS, calling four Super Bowls (Super Bowl LIII in February will be his fifth).
Nantz’s class and style are forever engrained in the minds of fans of the Masters and the NCAA Final Four. It was fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductee Neal Pilson, then president of CBS Sports, who gave Nantz his shot at the tournament he loved, putting him up in the 16th Tower in Augusta to call the action in 1985. He has been an integral part of the iconic event’s coverage ever since.
As for the Final Four, Nantz has leant his voice to the crowning of a college basketball champion every year since 1991, calling the action for many years with his counterpart Bill Packer. Over the past four years, he has been teamed with former NBA All-Star Grant Hill and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Bill Raftery, who once compared Nantz’s style with that of Walter Cronkite.
“[Nantz] was the voice of reason on TV for the public,” Raftery said. “There’s a comfort people have.”
Nantz’s career has been marked by several extraordinary feats. Annually, he gets to take part in a week that any broadcaster would dream of: he goes straight from the Final Four to Augusta for the Masters. In 2007, in fact, he became the first broadcaster in history to complete what has been dubbed “The Triple”: calling the Super Bowl, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, and the Masters — all within about 60 days. He has done that three more times and will do it again in 2019.
His career has also given him the chance to call the shots at the US Open Tennis Championships for nearly a decade, broadcast from the booth of two college-football national-championship games (1996, 1997), and even host his network’s coverage of the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.
Nantz’s story is a charmed one, but, to him, it’s one highlighted not just by great accomplishments on the air but by love and friendships. There’s Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Jim McKay, one of his childhood heroes. In college, Nantz wrote him fan letters and then got to know him so well that he was asked to give the eulogy at his funeral. Jack Whitaker was such an idol that Nantz never imagined attending Whitaker’s wedding, but, today, Nantz says, if he’s within 50 miles of Whitaker, you can bet he’ll make the effort to go see him. Even former President George H.W. Bush called Nantz “one of the nicest and most generous people we know.”
“[These men are] one of the last links to my youth,” reflects Nantz. “[They] made such an indelible impression on me, and then to be able to have the gift of friendship from them, that’s a pretty amazing thing. I’ve never taken it lightly.”
And, of course, there was his father, Jim: the man who was Nantz’s real hero and inspired his son’s iconic phrase. Leaving a visit with his father to go call the 2002 PGA Championship, Nantz explained to his dad, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, that, when he opened the broadcast of that event with “Hello, friends,” he was talking specifically to him.
For years and years, Nantz has extended that kind of hospitality to all of us, making us feel like his family and making us feel right at home, even on sports’ biggest stages.