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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
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Jim Nantz, May/June 2011

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.”

Nantz is quick to point out that his preparation has nothing to do with memorizing statistics: “Statistics don’t tell the story,” he says.

“Parents will come up to me and say, ‘My son wants to be a sports commentator and he memorizes the box score of every game. How should he get started?’ And I always say, ‘First, lose the statistics.’

“I tell them that their son should learn how to write and tell a story. Look at the classic form. Listen to the great orators. Listen to the people in your life who know how to tell a story: your preacher, your priest, your rabbi. Listen to people with the ability to grab your attention. How do they build and pay off a story? How do they make it dramatic and thoughtful? It’s a tricky thing, to find that sweet spot.”

But Nantz has mastered that skill, on and off the air. Paul Marchand, a longtime friend who was Nantz’s teammate on the University of Houston golf team, says, “If you sent Jim on a vacation and had him tell you about it after, it would be better than if you went yourself.”

Storytelling: That’s the way his heroes did it. When Nantz—born James William Nantz III—was a teen in Colts Neck, New Jersey, he idolized the sports commentators who took over his TV set every weekend because of their ability to craft a narrative: Jim McKay, Jack Whitaker, Pat Summerall, Keith Jackson, Dick Enberg.

Yes, Nantz loved sports, playing basketball and golf in high school and golf at the University of Houston. But he was consumed by the broadcasters who chronicled the events on TV.

“They were classical storytellers and I was mesmerized by them—I’m not exaggerating,” Nantz says. “I had a strange way of looking at sports, because I was so into the broadcasters.”

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Nantz recalls, there were no 24-hour cable networks devoted to sports. Nor were there VCRs or DVRs, and sporting events were generally only broadcast on Saturdays and Sundays. So, to get his daily sports fix, Nantz would spend his weekends recording whatever events were being broadcast—from golf tournaments and NFL games to the long-running “ABC’s Wide World of Sports”—on his little cassette tape recorder, winding the microphone around the TV dial so it hung next to the speaker.

“Then, during the week, I would go back and listen to the broadcast over and over, to listen to the excitement in the commentator’s voice,” he says. “I would play it back over and over. I was probably borderline obsessive-compulsive about it. If I liked the sound of it, I’d practically be hyperventilating about the opening of the broadcast, listening to Jim McKay do the tease before the U.S. Open. The opening tease was just this beautifully written piece of prose, 60 seconds long with striking visuals and a big narration. I’d play them hundreds of times. I’d wear those tapes out.”

Nantz began to pursue his dream of becoming a sports commentator after enrolling at the University of Houston. (He makes the distinction between “sports commentator” and “sportscaster,” in his best-selling 2008 memoir, Always By My Side, noting that, to him, “sportscaster” refers to someone who delivers the sports headlines on a nightly newscast.)

A member of the storied Houston college golf team (where one of his roommates was future Masters’ champion Fred Couples), Nantz spent all his spare time freelancing and stringing for local radio and TV stations, eventually anchoring a weekend sportscast on one of Houston’s TV stations—a job that led to his first full-time job out of college at a CBS affiliate in Salt Lake City.

“I had no college life, really,” Nantz says. “I wasn’t into fraternity parties or hanging out drinking. My goal was to get to CBS. Why would I waste a night at a party when I could be out covering a game?”

Paul Marchand, general manager and head pro at Shadow Hawk Golf Club in Richmond, Texas, says, “He’d come back to the dorms and he was a star already. I thought, This guy’s on TV. He’d walk in and say, ‘I interviewed Muhammad Ali today.’ Muhammad Ali? He was still in college and he was talking to Muhammad Ali.”

Though he loved playing golf, Nantz decided quickly that his game wasn’t good enough to buy him a future. Recalls Marchand, “Jim tells a story about playing a freshman tournament. He shot a 35 or 36 on the front 9— and on the back 9, he went into broadcasting because it all fell apart.”

So, after college, Nantz was recruited as sports anchor for KSL in Salt Lake City, a CBS affiliate where he also did play-by-play for Brigham Young University football and Utah Jazz basketball games. In 1985, he was tapped by CBS to anchor its college football scoreboard show, eventually expanding to cover golf and college basketball for the network.

CBS, Nantz says, was the only network he’d ever wanted to work for because “CBS had the Masters. I always loved the Masters—it was the only major that was contested on the same course every year. I like the feeling of hope and renewal in the springtime, when it’s played.”

In 1986, Nantz was involved in his first Masters broadcast, standing at the 16th hole as Jack Nicklaus made a historic charge, uttering a line for which he has become famous: “The Bear has come out of hibernation.” Eventually, Nantz became CBS’s top golf broadcaster, which meant leading coverage of the Masters. His goal at this point in his career? To broadcast 50 Masters’ tournaments.

“I’ll be 75 if I do 50 Masters,” Nantz says. “It would be April 8, 2035. Obviously, a lot of things have to fall into place for that to happen.”

Nantz loves to cover golf and still loves to play it, though his game is a hit-and-miss proposition. Says Billy Packer, his former on-air partner covering March Madness, “He’s a PGA golfer on the driving range and a 14 handicap on the golf course. It mentally gets to him.”

“Believe me, I was masquerading as a golfer at the University of Houston,” Nantz says. “But I get a lot out of the game just being on the driving range. I imagine I’m a player who needs to hit certain shots to win a tournament. It’s a trick of the mind I used to do as a kid.”

He enjoys playing in charity events when he can—and was a regular golf partner of former Pres. George H.W. Bush, once playing a few rounds with Bush and former Pres. Bill Clinton (and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady). On the course, Bush said in an e-mail interview, Nantz is quick with a quip—about himself and others.

“Jim is good with the ‘lip wedge,’ needling as we play,” Bush observed. “His love of the game comes through. He makes everyone feel included. I just plain like the man.”

Not that Nantz gets that many opportunities to actually play a round: “He seems to add club memberships all the time but his time constraints keep him from playing,” Marchand says.

Notes Nantz, “I’ve been the beneficiary of really nice extensions of appreciation by wonderful golf clubs across the country. But I just don’t have time to play.”

Nantz was invited to speak at the U.S. Capitol for National Golf Day on April 28, and at the World Golf Hall of Fame for its induction day in early May, to present two new inductees: former Pres. George H.W. Bush and Frank Chirkinian, Nantz’s former boss at CBS, who was known as the father of televised golf. Nantz spearheaded a move for an emergency
election for Chirkinian, before his longtime producer died in March: “They’re both great men who have been father figures to me,” he says.

Nantz winces from the back pain as he gets up from the couch and heads into the recording studio to finish the Rolex commercial, focusing on getting the tagline exactly right.

“Rolex. Live for greatness,” he says several times into a microphone, then looks up from his script with a question for the recording session director that hints at his attention to detail.

“Do you want a comma after ‘Live’?” he asks. “Or is it just ‘Live for greatness,’ one phrase?” The director offers him a reading of the line and Nantz nods, then says, “You know what? I’ll give you 10 of them and you can choose.” In less than a minute, Nantz utters the line 10 more times: “Rolex. Live for greatness.”

But every reading of the commercial tagline is different: a slight pause here, a change of vocal pitch there, up a shade on this word, a bit more punch on that one. It’s not as simple as just emphasizing a different word each time or altering pace from slow to fast; there’s a different tone to each version, a shift in shading that changes the feeling, if not the meaning, of the four-word catchphrase.

Then he looks up and says, “You think you’ve got something you can use?”

The director looks slightly amazed and says, “Oh, yeah, absolutely.”

Nantz, who prides himself on not repeating a well-crafted turn of phrase, continues to rack up a record of NCAA tournaments and Masters coverage. After a quarter-century, his schedule may be repetitive but his approach never loses its freshness, curiosity and eye for detail. The rest of it—the travel, the time away from home—is just part of the job.

Between the NFL season, March Madness and his PGA coverage, Nantz is on the road most weeks, estimating that he spends 180 nights a year in hotels (“But there used to be years where that number was a lot higher,” he says).

“This counts as a day off,” he offers, about the day in the recording studio, because he’ll spend the night at his home in New Canaan, Connecticut, and get to spend time with his 17-year-old daughter Caroline (Nantz and his wife Lorrie divorced in 2009). He also owns a residence in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Deer Valley, Utah: “But I probably had eight or nine days in Deer Valley in December and maybe one night in January,” he says. Actual vacation time during the year? “Maybe a week or two in June and July,” he allows.

When he’s in serious road-warrior mode, he uses exercise as his outlet: “I look for the release of getting some sort of workout,” he says. “I go for a run; even if it’s a light jog, or even a walk—I need that. I’ve run or walked through all the great cities. I try to get to know the places I’m visiting. I don’t mean touristy things; I mean just dropping in to the vibe of the city. I feel I can make my way around any city at this point. I have favorite restaurants in every city. That’s my day: Can I get a workout and a great dinner?

“Travel is all-consuming but I can’t forget to look at it in the most positive light. I don’t deal in negativity. I’ve got no margin for complaining. When I was a young boy, I identified what I wanted to do, right down to the network. So I get my dream job—how is there any room for complaint? You’ve got to embrace it—to look at it with gratitude.”

Asked what they could see Nantz doing were he not one of the country’s top sports commentators, his friends almost unanimously point to another career: “If Jim was not a top sports broadcaster, he’d be a politician,” Sean McManus says. Adds Mike Krzyzewski, “I can see him doing something in service of people or some cause.”

Nantz, however, demurs: “I’ve been encouraged to run for office but I’m not qualified,” he says quickly. “I’ve been around politicians at the highest level. I admire what they do. There’s definitely a side of me that wants to be involved because, among the greats that I’ve met, they’re all people who, in their heart, want to do what’s best for people. But I don’t feel qualified to be in politics.”

Instead, he admits, if he had to choose another career, he’d indulge his love for fine wine: “Hopefully, I’d be a vintner. My guilty pleasure is that I love the wine industry. It’s a serious business that’s very competitive. I do want to get involved in it.”
A winner of multiple Emmy Awards and National Sportscaster of the Year awards from the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association, Nantz has always been a much-sought-after speaker for charity appearances. But he took on what he considers his most important charity role this year, with the January launch of the Nantz National Alzheimer Center at Methodist Hospital in Houston, named for his father, who died of the disease in 2008. Nantz wrote Always By My Side to celebrate the influence that his father had on his life and career.

“I’m committed to that for the rest of my life,” Nantz says. “That’s where my time, my financial resources and a percentage of my future income will go. Every time I do media, every time someone interviews me, I try my best to work the conversation around to it, to mention Nantzfriends.org. It gets a tremendous amount of traffic. People are finding hope with the NNAC.

“I have a full-time life with my work. But the NNAC has become almost full-time for me as well. I really want the Nantz Center to make a huge difference, to be on the frontline of research to find an answer for ways to treat and cure Alzheimer’s.
“Ever since puberty, people told me, ‘You sound just like your dad.’ I’ve been given my father’s voice. Now it’s time I took his voice and let it be channeled through me into this research. In a way, I’m keeping my father very much alive because of what I hope to do and the message I’m trying to send. How could I not do that?”
 
Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about movies and entertainment at www.hollywoodandfine.com.

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Comments   1 comment(s)

Tracy Rowe — KS, USA,  —  November 20, 2011 5:32am ET

I have a collection of 40 cigars dating from 1897 to 1944 with a variety of brands. They are individual cigars in mint condition. The history or occasion is available for each one (wedding, birth of a child, company picnic, etc.). Any ideas where to sell them? trowe9@yahoo.com Thanks, Tracy


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