Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery on their favorite games, the origin of 'Onions' and 'Happy Gilmore'

Christopher Wilson
Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery on their favorite games, the origin of 'Onions' and 'Happy Gilmore'

NEW YORK — On the eve of the first NCAA Tournament games at Madison Square Garden in 53 years, CBS’s announcing team of Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery took some time to chat about their long history about a wide range of topics. The two men have a combined 62 years experience calling NCAA Tournament games, including the last 15 as America’s favorite combination. What can we learn from a morning with the duo? Quite a bit.

Uncle Verne and Raft’s Favorite Tournament Games They’ve Called Together

2000 Iowa State vs. Michigan State

Bill: “Interestingly enough, Iowa State – who’s playing here obviously – they played Michigan State at the Palace for the right to go to the Final Four, so that fits.”

Verne: “[then Iowa State coach] Larry Eustachy went nuts late in the game and was out on the floor, and Billy memorably hollered into the microphone ‘Where are the assistants?’ In other words, get out there and get the coach back.

2006 Northwestern State vs. Iowa

Verne: “Northwestern State over Iowa, down 16 in the fourth-quarter, kid cans a three from the corner. Mike McConathy was the coach – still is – at Northwestern State. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, five minutes to go before they come out, national anthem, they run in the locker room, Mike McConathy comes over and sits down with the radio broadcaster and he sits down and does the coach’s show live from the court and his team is in the locker room. So after the game, they win, great moment for this little school from Natchitoches, Louisiana and I said ‘Mike, what?...’ and he said ‘What am I going to tell them? Fives minutes to go until the game? I’d rather put 25 bucks in my pocket.’”

2006 George Mason vs. UConn

Bill: “This was the beginning of teams ‘They can’t be in the Final Four,” followed by the Butler, Wichita State, people are saying this is an even playing field. It makes it bizarre to a lot of people, but not us. You have kids leaving school, kids staying at another program, a little older, a little more mature, what we’ve got now clashing of pretty good levels of teams.”

Verne: “George Mason over UConn, in Washington, I’ll never forget that. That was the year Billy Packer had trumpeted the fact that mid majors didn’t belong in the tournament, probably rued the day…I don’t know if he did.”

 2009 Villanova vs. Pittsburgh

Verne: “We had Villanova/Pitt, Scottie Reynolds baseline to baseline. I’ll never forget it.”


The Origin of “Onions”

Raftery’s trademark catchphrase after a clutch shot – which he says is another way to say “toughness” – started back in the 90s, when he was paired with Ian Eagle for a Nets game. Raftery said it was following a Kevin Edwards jumper late in the game, but couldn’t recall if it was against the Heat or Magic. (Those Florida teams do blend together.)

Thankfully Eagle was also in the building and kind enough to delay his lunch to confirm it was Kevin Edwards of the Nets, although he also could only narrow it down to either Miami or Orlando. After poring through Basketball Reference and YouTube for the better part of the afternoon, I can’t find the specific game, but feel comfortable taking Eagle and Raftery’s word for it. Congrats to Edwards for this great honor.

Why does “Onions” exist? “The end of the game is really the play-by-play man’s domain,” said Raftery, “so if you’re going to say something, you should say something fast and disappear, so I think that all led to that. I have no idea where it came from, I don’t eat fried onions. I don’t mind onions, but not the fried ones.”

Onions That Stick With You

“One of my favorite Raftery stories,” said Lundquist, “We’re doing Siena/Ohio State and Ron Moore for Siena…this is an eight versus a nine, wasn’t 15-2 or 16-1, but with two seconds left, young man hits the three to tie the game, and he’s yelling ‘Onions’ with emphasis.”

“Same kid cans a three for the win, and he yells ‘Onions, double order!”.

That call, thankfully, is online:

Ranking Lundquist’s Favorite Sports Moments

Lundquist has been present at some of the greatest moments in sports history, but how does he compare the best of golf, basketball and football? After he called the end of last year’s Auburn/Alabama game, he slid it in at second in his all-time rankings of greatest events he’s attended, just behind Jack Nicklaus’s win at the 1986 Masters. But the next morning after he read Mike Vaccaro’s piece explaining why it was the best ending in all of sports, he reconsidered, citing the fact that “A.J. McCarron throws a 99-yard tie-breaking touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl, and no one remembers that” as one reason the ending was so epic.

The current rankings:

1) Jack Nicklaus’s win at Augusta at age 46

1A) The 2013 Iron Bowl

2) Kentucky vs. Duke in 1992 (the Christian Laettner shot) and Tiger’s chip-in at the 2005 Masters (a tie)

“Happy Gilmore” Lives Forever

Lundquist has a theory on how he connects so well with the younger generations:

“Honest to God, we’re doing Michigan State/Michigan, the night before Nik Stauskas, who’s the player of the year, comes in and he saw us having dinner and he said ‘Oh my god, I watched Happy Gilmore last night.‘ Aaron Craft last week in Buffalo, came over to me before the game and said ‘You remember four years ago when I met you for the first time and we talked about ‘Happy Gilmore?’’ I said ‘Of course.’ He said ‘Well I watched it again last night.’”

“Against all odds, here we are with a movie that’s one of the goofiest spoofs on golf ever that was filmed in 1996 and the kids watch it regularly. USA Network runs it once a month, so here I am the happy recipient of their interest in the movie and across two generations now it’s given me a contact with the kids.”

“The basis of what we’re enjoying now is born out of a friendship.”

Listening to Lundquist and Raftery work together, it’s clear their rapport goes far beyond two co-workers who enjoy working with each other on occasion. Lundquist gave the origins of their team, going back over three decades.

“In 1983 I was in my second year at CBS, Bill was in his first, they put us together in Columbia, South Carolina for a nationally televised game between these great rivals: the University of Idaho Vandals and the South Carolina Gamecocks. And we got along great, we’d never met, that was the first weekend in February. Week number two, we’re back there against all odds. Billy said ‘I’m going to bring Joanie [Raftery’s wife], you bring Nancy [Lundquist’s wife],’ so the two couples got together. We got a call from the executive at CBS and he said ‘You guys sound great together, can’t wait to have you paired together in the future. Well, the future was 17 years.”

What was the regional final the first year the two were paired together in the tournament? Iowa State vs. Michigan State, the same match up they could be calling 15 years later should the Cyclones and Spartans prevail Friday night.

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