Jim Nantz always has a sense of the moment, including his own. He’s a nostalgic guy, after all.
“That’s 96 Final Four games and 32 championship games,” he continued, not hesitating on the math. “And then I’ll never call another basketball game. I’ve been doing this for more than half my life.”
Nantz, 63, will be part of his 37th Final Four on CBS — 32 on play-by-play after five in the studio — and it will be his sign-off. He got the job in his 20s, plucked from obscurity at a TV station in Salt Lake City, a baby face with a satin voice and a head of feathery hair that could have been concocted in a sportscaster lab. From the beginning, he was an all-sugar, no-spice kind of broadcaster. Al Michaels sprinkled in references to betting lines long before it was kosher; Brent Musburger noted the co-eds in the crowd; Joe Buck tried his hand as a talk-show host.
Nantz never had any hard edges.
“In a scene of unsurpassed splendor, the snow nestles up to the sky in the rarefied air of the Rockies,” he once said, welcoming viewers to the 1990 national championship game. "A majestic setting for college basketball’s final summit.''
The line prompted one sports columnist to opine about Nantz’s syrupy style: “Yuk!”
It didn’t take long, though, for Nantz to get his due. Rudy Martzke, the famed USA Today sports media critic, not long afterward called Nantz “the low-key Pat Summerall of basketball,” a nod to John Madden’s longtime partner. Martzke meant it as the sincerest of compliments.
Over the next three decades, Nantz’s voice became the soundtrack for a generation of sporting events: He has called the NFL, college basketball and golf, including five Super Bowls and the Masters. “He’s a very comfortable listen,” said Michaels, a good friend. “Whatever he’s doing, it feels good.”
These recent weeks have been emotional for Nantz. On a conference call with reporters before the tournament, he nearly teared up talking about what it might mean to call a championship for his alma mater, the University of Houston. Instead, the Cougars lost in the Sweet 16 with Nantz on the call.
On the phone this week, mortality was on Nantz’s mind. He mentioned his father, who attended his last Final Four in 1998 before passing away. His mother would have been in Houston this week, but she died last year. “October 3,” Nantz said. “Six months to the day of the championship game.” On the eve of the tournament, his longtime stats man, Pat McGrath, died after suffering a heart attack. “He was a silent soldier. He was ready to start scaling back and never got to ...” Nantz said, trailing off.
It was a warning to Nantz. He is on the road for some 46 weeks every year, and without the NCAA tournament he will cut that back to roughly 40 to spend more time with his wife and young kids. “I needed some relief,” Nantz said. “I call it the golden hamster wheel. I’m always on it.”
His departure from the job comes at a moment of transition for college basketball. Amateurism has been dismantled. NIL — short for name, image and likeness — is the sport’s new buzzword. Legendary coaches have retired, seemingly one after the next in recent seasons: Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jay Wright and Jim Boeheim, among others.
Nantz’s longtime partner, Billy Packer, was an outspoken opponent of college players getting paid. Nantz didn’t offer a judgment on the new landscape but said his job has always been the same, from the four-year stars of the 1990s to the one-and-done era to now. “It’s still just as rich for me as a storyteller,” he said. “Meeting with the Miami starting five and the Texas starting five ahead of the regional final, I asked all 10 of them one at a time, ‘What’s your story?’ Because it’s my responsibility to tell it. And it’s amazing the answers I got. Man, it makes you root for people.”
Nantz’s departure from the Final Four comes after Buck, with his move from Fox to ESPN, called his last World Series. Theirs have been the most recognizable voices on sports TV over the past decade, and a new generation has begun to fill their roles: Joe Davis is the voice of baseball on Fox; Kevin Burkhardt and Mike Tirico are in the Super Bowl rotation; Ian Eagle will take over the Final Four next year.
All are pros, but what takes years, maybe decades, is for the sound of an announcer’s voice to trigger something. It’s the sense of familiarity; listening to Nantz is like sinking into a warm bath. But it’s also an occasion. “Jim Nantz’s voice makes s--- feel important,” said Bomani Jones, the host of “Game Theory” on HBO. Which is why the most famous quarterbacks in the NFL — Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes, among them — give Nantz their phones on the golf course to have him narrate their shots.
There may be no better fit between commentator and sports network in the history of television than Nantz and CBS. A man who designs his own Vineyard Vines line of clothing and was married at the seventh hole at Pebble Beach spending a decades-long career at a company that called itself the “Tiffany Network” is a little on the nose. (Nantz signed a big new contract two years ago that will keep him calling NFL and golf for a while.)
But if there is a degree of schmaltz with Nantz, it’s hard to argue it’s not genuine. A few years ago, Yaron Weitzman wrote a piece for the Ringer in which he set out to poke fun at Nantz. The premise was Nantz, a rich, old white guy, gave away his tie to a player, an unpaid college kid, after every Final Four. Who would want Jim Nantz’s tie, Weitzman assumed.
But Nantz won him over, explaining the significance of the gesture, how it was a tribute to his own father, who had taught him to tie a tie. The real shock came when Weitzman tracked down players who had been given the tie and were into it. “I thought the whole thing was really cool,” said Corey Brewer, the former Florida star.
On Monday night, Nantz will call his last big college basketball game. And he will give out one more tie.