As his Final Four sign-off approaches, Jim Nantz is the same eager fan he always was: 'He’s just a romantic'
HOUSTON — When his beloved alma mater ran and dunked its way to the 1983 national title game, Jim Nantz couldn’t bear to watch the seemingly inevitable coronation from his couch.
Nantz begged his bosses at a Salt Lake City TV station for permission to take off the following Monday so he could go watch the University of Houston in person.
With no game ticket or media credential, Nantz, then 23, flew to Albuquerque, went straight to Houston’s hotel and secured permission to ride to The Pit on the team bus. He then entered the arena alongside close friends Clyde Drexler, Michael Young and Hakeem Olajuwon, the players veering off to their locker room and Nantz going in search of a vacant seat.
“Instantly, I saw the CBS set in the corner of the court,” Nantz recalled. “Brent Musburger was going through a rehearsal for that night’s show.”
To Nantz, the opportunity to watch Musburger up close was goosebumps-inducing. Since age 11, Nantz dreamed of being a sports broadcasting giant like Jim McKay, Jack Whitaker, Pat Summerall or, yes, Musburger. He studied and emulated them as a kid. He even wrote letters to McKay and McKay would answer them.
Hoping to be as close as possible to Musburger, Nantz squeezed into an empty bench seat right next to the set. He listened intently as Musburger and his co-hosts went through their pregame, halftime and postgame rehearsals.
“I could have leaned over and shined Brent’s shoes, which I would have gladly done if he had asked,” Nantz said. "I was in awe — and am still in awe — of Brent. I was too nervous to even say hello to him.”
Only three years after he was too shy to introduce himself to Musburger, Nantz occupied the very same host’s chair on that set. Nantz first served as the host of CBS’ NCAA tournament and Final Four coverage in 1986. By that time Musburger had moved courtside to call the games alongside Billy Packer.
Since taking over as CBS’ lead college basketball play-by-play voice in 1991, Nantz, 63, has documented all the mayhem and magic of March. Monday night’s national title game between UConn and San Diego State will mark Nantz’s 354th NCAA tournament game — and it will also be his last one as anything other than a spectator.
While Nantz intends to keep serving as CBS’ lead voice on golf and the NFL, he decided two years ago that 2023 was when he wanted to say farewell to college basketball to spend more time with his wife and kids. Nantz, though nostalgic, seems at peace with the decision. Those close to him, however, say it’s bittersweet.
“[He is] our friend, our leader, our mortar, the guy I feel keeps this whole thing together,” said analyst Grant Hill, part of CBS’ top crew for the past eight years, alongside Nantz and Bill Raftery. “It’s crazy. It’s still surreal that it’s come to an end.”
It’s fitting that Houston will be where Nantz ends his basketball coverage. Nantz considers the city an adopted hometown and the birthplace of his broadcast career. As a student at Houston, Nantz served as the public-address announcer at basketball games, christening Drexler as “Clyde the Glide.” Nantz also hosted Houston coach Guy Lewis’ weekly TV show and became a trusted fill-in sports anchor at Houston TV station KHOU.
Nantz’s big break arrived in 1985 after a few years working in Salt Lake City as a sportscaster and doing Utah Jazz games alongside Hot Rod Hundley. CBS Sports execs were dissatisfied with their college football studio show and tasked producer Ed Goren with leading the search for a new anchor and analyst. Goren discovered a tape that Nantz sent months earlier and thought it showed enough promise to invite him to audition in New York.
At dinner at the venerable Russian Tea Room the night before auditions, the 25-year-old Nantz showed his youth. While trying to figure out what to order from the menu, he asked the table, “What’s this Chicken Kiev?”
“To this day we laugh about the fact that Jimmy was so green behind the ears,” Goren said. “Here’s the most famous dish at the Russian Tea Room and he’s asking, ‘What exactly is this?’”
The next day at auditions, the smirks about Nantz’s age stopped in a hurry. He expertly narrated a college football highlight package with no notes, outshining a candidate pool that included far more experienced sportscasters from bigger markets.
“He had a maturity about him that was beyond his years,” Goren said. “The only person I ever recall doing an audition without notes was Brent Musburger. He just blew everybody away.”
When Nantz was ready to buy a home in the New York area, he chose to move to Westport, Connecticut. Why Westport? Because that’s where Jim McKay lived.
“He’s just a romantic,” Goren said. “Some people say he sounds sappy, but that’s the real deal. That’s who he is.”
In 1990, CBS chose to part with Musburger after a disastrous contract negotiation. Nantz absorbed some of Musburger’s assignments and gradually emerged as the new voice of the network. He did college football, college basketball and golf. Then pro football, US Open tennis and the Winter Olympics. CBS was so eager to make use of Nantz’s talent and versatility that twice the network even had him host its coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
One place where Nantz shined was in building relationships. He was as unfailingly friendly, polite and generous with his time with the lowliest runners and production assistants as he was with high-profile coaches and high-ranking executives.
Len DeLuca, former CBS Director of Programming, said Nantz “always makes everyone he works with better.” He pointed to how polished the crew of Nantz, Raftery and Hill sound even though they only work together a few weeks every year.
“That’s not how you build great teams,” DeLuca said, “and that’s where Nantz is really called on to be the glue.”
A few years after DeLuca moved to ESPN, the network made a failed attempt in 1999 to outbid CBS for the broadcast rights to the NCAA tournament. It struck DeLuca as noteworthy that CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus brought Nantz to the negotiation.
“That tells you something,” DeLuca said. “That tells you that his connection with the people who were going to make this decision with the NCAA and the people who were on the committee was tight enough to matter.”
Nantz’s favorite moment of his broadcast career was calling Freddie Couples’ victory at the 1992 Masters. That was a scene the two former college roommates constantly rehearsed in their Houston dorm room, Couples sinking the winning putt and Nantz documenting the victory from behind the microphone.
When Nantz was asked last month about the possibility of his alma mater making it to Houston for the Final Four, he admitted that “would be right up there as one of the top two moments of my career.” At the time, Houston was ranked No. 1 in the country and poised to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s very personal to me,” Nantz said. “This team is not just my alma mater. It runs a lot deeper than that. If the perfect script comes together, if the stars are aligned, April 3 will be a magical night.”
Alas, Nantz’s fairytale ending didn’t come to fruition. Houston didn’t survive a Sweet 16 matchup with fifth-seeded Miami. Even so, this Final Four has still has produced some magic moments for Nantz. He blew kisses to the NRG Stadium crowd during Saturday’s first national semifinal after a tribute video aired and he received a touching ovation.
A standing ovation for Jim Nantz at the Final Four 👏
Well deserved pic.twitter.com/CmyBWsFT9o
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) April 1, 2023
Before the games began, Nantz barely had a minute of peace without a friend or colleague approaching to shake his hand or offer congratulations. Dick Vitale posed for a photo with Nantz, Hill and Raftery. Former North Carolina coach Roy Williams got Nantz’s attention from the crowd and pantomimed a golf swing with a huge smile on his face.
Maybe the clearest sign of how beloved Nantz is by those who know him was what Hill did just before tipoff. There was a seven-time NBA All-Star and two-time NCAA champion taking cell phone video of Nantz doing player introductions for one of his final times.
The relationship between Nantz and Hill and Nantz and Raftery dates back to before they became CBS’ top broadcast crew. Nantz and Hill used to play H-O-R-S-E after Duke practices on the eve of games that Nantz would call. And Raftery was Nantz’s broadcast partner for his first NCAA tournament game, a 1986 second-round clash between Duke and Old Dominion.
“Pretty fitting,” said Nantz, “that my first game and my last game, I’m sitting by Raft’s side.”