The Voice of Sports
Jim Nantz began his dream job as a sports commentator right out of college, and to this day is thrilled by The Masters, March Madness and his NFL broadcasts
He’s known for his ability to spontaneously craft just the right phrase at the crucial moment. But when Tiger Woods won his first Masters Tournament in 1997, Nantz did something he rarely does: He figured out ahead of time what he needed to say.
He knew the night before the final round—with Woods leading the tournament at 12 under par—that he was witnessing history: the first African-American to potentially win at the once racially restricted golf club, with what could be a record low score (Woods’ –18 was a tournament low, as was his 12-stroke margin over his closest competitor, Tom Kite) and he was the youngest person ever to win the Masters. So Nantz made a point of being ready with exactly the right line when Woods approached the 18th green.
“I knew, as that final putt was holed, that this clip would be played back in 10 years, 25 years, 50 years,” Nantz says. “So I needed a line that was succinct to sum it up. The night before, we were going over notes and choreographing shots for the next day. And we knew this would be the clip that everyone would always go back to.
“I don’t normally script my closing lines. On the other hand, if you were dispatched to the Masters by The New York Times or Sports Illustrated, I guarantee that, the night before the final round, you were already thinking about what your lead was going to be on your story the next day. So I knew I would not be prepared if I didn’t think of the scene at the end.
“That moment, with the outcome never in doubt, felt as if the voices of my youth were peering over my shoulder. In fact, when I thought about it, I realized they’d actually be listening to me. It was a transcendent point in my career. So I wanted something that was worthy of their level of prose. And what I said was, ‘A win for the ages.’ ”
Nothing, on the other hand, could prepare Nantz for the most memorable—and shocking—finale to an NCAA basketball championship he ever called: the final seconds of the 1993 NCAA final game between North Carolina and Michigan at the Louisiana Superdome, with Michigan’s so-called “Fab Five,” a team whose games Nantz had called more than a dozen times.
Trailing and desperate, Michigan was bringing the ball up court when its star, Chris Webber, was trapped with the ball by the North Carolina defense. In desperation, he called a time-out—but Michigan had already used all of its time-outs, resulting in a technical foul and free throws that sealed the game for UNC.
“I had just said, ‘Michigan has no time-outs left’ when he called that time-out,” Nantz says. “When they lost because of that, it was a moment with such an air of disbelief and disappointment—to see someone make a mistake that big. Everybody was surprised. It’s one thing for the game to end on a missed shot, as it did last year in the Butler-Duke final. But to have it end with something that caused total disbelief—there was so much gloom in the Superdome about that finish.”
He’s seen it all in the past 25 years, because Jim Nantz is the voice of CBS Sports. He is the network’s most prominent and well-known sports commentator. Nantz has been broadcasting for the network since his mid-20s (CBS is the only network he ever wanted to work for) and he shows no signs of slowing down.
On this day, sitting in the lounge of a Manhattan recording studio, where he’s been doing voice-over work for a Rolex commercial, he’s just days away from the start of March Madness, the annual NCAA tournament that turns college basketball into a national mania (and gambling on tournament brackets into an obsession) for a few weeks. In a couple of days, Nantz will go on the air with his trademark greeting, “Hello friends,” doing play-by-play at the Big Ten tournament, then broadcasting the selection show when the tournament’s teams are announced.
From there, it’s on to the tournament itself: 18 games in 30 days, beginning with four games in a single day and ending with both semifinal games of the Final Four and the NCAA championship game itself.
Which, for most broadcasters, would be plenty. But not the indefatigable Nantz: Within hours of crowning a new NCAA champion in Houston, he’ll land in Augusta, Georgia, to anchor CBS’s coverage of the Masters—his 26th time broadcasting from Augusta National.
Nantz has one of the most demanding and most prestigious jobs in all of sports broadcasting. Few commentators lead the coverage of two premiere events in two different sports on back-to-back weekends. That’s not to mention doing play-by-play for CBS’s coverage of the NFL, including play-off games and (in years when CBS carries it) the Super Bowl.
On this day, his back has been acting up—a bulging disc pressing on a nerve will be the eventual diagnosis—but Nantz, who turns 52 this May, has no time for infirmity. Because, bad back and all, Nantz couldn’t be happier.
“I love what I do,” he says, lowering his 6-foot-2 frame gingerly to a couch. He’s less concerned about back pain than the ever-present threat of cold and flu bugs: “The ones that concern me are the ones that involve my throat. That’s the most important thing going into this coming stretch: my voice. That’s why I’m a compulsive hand-washer.
“I used to battle laryngitis every year around Augusta. The pollen is so thick that week that you need your windshield wipers to clear it after your car has been sitting there for a while. And I always react to it. When Tiger won his first Masters in 1997, I ended up getting some sort of steroid shot in my fanny and by Sunday, I had my whole voice back. I had to call the whole tournament from Butler Cabin, so I wasn’t out in the air and the pollen.
“So this back problem is a nonstory. I’ve had times where I’ve been so sick that I had to call a golf tournament lying on my back on the floor of the booth while watching a monitor.”
To demonstrate, he lays his head on the armrest of a couch, mimicking lying on a pillow on the floor while flu-struck: “I’d lift my head to say, ‘Let’s go to 18…Tom Watson for birdie…Back to 15.’ I was watching this tiny little monitor. The audience at home never knew.”
His love for his work keeps him charging forward—and the skill he brings to each assignment keeps him in demand, beginning with a voice that is at once warm, welcoming and authoritative.
“There’s something about his voice that is resonant in a way that is captivating and electric,” says Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots. “It draws people in. It’s calm and it’s classy."
Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, says of his star, “You’ve got to have a certain ability with the right word off the top of your head. You’ve got to have the presence of mind to say the right thing. You have to recognize the big moments and know how to step up. Every time the pressure has been the most intense, every time Jim has been asked to step up, he’s done that. He’s not No. 1 just because he’s a good guy or an attractive man.”
And it doesn’t matter which sport he’s talking about: Nantz knows what to say, when to talk and when to shut up. That ability has served him well while covering some of the biggest moments in sports in the past 25 years. Still, some events are easier than others.
Nantz recalls calling the final round of the 1996 Masters, when Greg Norman appeared on the verge of winning for the first time at Augusta. Norman came into the final round with a six-shot lead, only to have his game collapse as he lost to Nick Faldo (now Nantz’s on-air partner for golf broadcasts).
“That was uncomfortable to watch. All of a sudden Faldo overtook him and defeated him,” Nantz says. “For four hours, it was like watching a train wreck. All you can do is tell people what you’re seeing.”
Nantz has called several Super Bowls and felt a particular kinship to the New Orleans Saints team that won in 2010 because “my father took me to see the very first game the Saints ever played, and on the very first play of that very first game, Jim Gilliam ran the kickoff back for a touchdown.” But the most memorable NFL game he has ever called, he says, was the 2007 AFC championship with the New England Patriots playing the Indianapolis Colts in Indiana.
“Indianapolis had never quite been able to get past their nemesis in New England—and at one point in that game, they were down by 18 points,” Nantz recalls. “But Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy engineered the largest comeback in NFL history.
They were down 21-3 but won it 38-34. It was a shocking comeback on a Bill Belichick–coached team. The Super Bowl that year was technically Indianapolis over Chicago— but the game that defined Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl title, and his remarkable career, was that 18-point comeback. It turned into this wild shoot-out with so much at stake.”
Phil Simms, who does analysis to Nantz’s play-by-play on NFL games, says, “He looks at a game faster than anybody I know. He’s on top of everything and brings out what’s important. When people hear his voice on TV, they know it’s a special sporting event. Something good is coming on.”
The key to on-air success, Nantz says, is attention to detail, preparation—and having a memory that could challenge the IBM Watson computer that won on “Jeopardy.”
“That first weekend of the NCAA, I’ve got to get to know eight different teams. That’s 96 players,” he says. “So I’m a fanatic about reading; I’m compulsive. I read everything that’s written about them—their school papers, their hometown papers—every feature story about them I can get my hands on. I have this ability to recall these things—it’s a blessing. When you’re live on the air, there’s no time to thumb through a stack of clippings.”
“He’s got total recall,” says Ken Venturi, Nantz’s former on-air golf broadcasting partner. “You mention a tournament and he’ll give you the date and the golf course.”
Adds Lance Barrow, coordinating producer for golf and football for CBS Sports, “The thing that’s always amazing to me is his retention. He can retain information from years past; there’s nobody who studies and prepares the way he does.”
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke University basketball coach and a longtime friend of Nantz, says, “Jim’s preparation is exquisite. When you listen to him during the tournament, you’d think he lived and died college basketball every day of the year.”
Whether it’s March Madness or a weekly NFL game, Nantz is always studying, talking to players and coaches, gathering material. He files it away in his mental data bank, looking for just the right moment to pull it out during a broadcast.
Says Simms, “He does his homework and tucks away stories he hears. It might take a year for a story to get out or just a few weeks. Ben Roethlisberger might tell us something before a game and it will be three games later that Jim brings it up.”
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