As the years start piling up, sports fans can sometimes forget when they truly started following the players and teams they love and why we started loving them in the first place. Sometimes we were raised that way. Sometimes we just went with the local teams because they were always on. And even sometimes it’s because we were able to meet our heroes of the grid-iron or hardwood and followed them admirably for the rest of our lives. Whatever the case, we all know why we love our favorite teams and players.
But our favorite announcers? We remember both when and why. In order for our admiration of an announcer to be born, we must hear their voice and signature catch phrases. For this reason, I will always remember the Gonzaga vs. Florida game in the Sweet 16 of the 1999 NCAA tournament. Because it was in this game that I heard my favorite call ever, and it was this call that solidified Gus Johnson as my favorite announcer.
It was a phenomenal finish and Gus captured it all perfectly. He brought the level of excitement in that arena into our living rooms. This small school from Washington had just pulled off their third straight upset on their way to a Cinderella Elite Eight run and Gus whipped out the perfect line – “The slipper still fits!”At that moment, I was hooked. If Gus was calling a tourney game, I’d find a way to watch it.
Gus’s NCAA tournament calls have only gotten better and more dramatic over the years. Some of the best finishes in tournament history had Gus on the mike and we were all lucky because of it. Remember Gonzaga’s meltdown against UCLA with Adam Morrison crying on the court and “Heartbreak City!”? What about Vermont’s upset against Syracuse and T.J. Sorrentine’s shot “from the parking lot!”? From top seed Ohio State escaping Xavier’s 2nd round upset bid with a late three to capturing the brilliance of Steph Curry during Davidson’s own Sweet 16 run, he has created moments we will remember not only for the finishes but also for the calls. Think Jim Nantz could capture these perfect moments and bring us that same thrill and rush of pure exhilaration that Gus does? Didn’t think so. He should only be calling the “tradition unlike any other” and let Gus handle the tourney.
But unfortunately, he won’t. Not after CBS failed to reach an agreement with him and he signed a deal with FOX, marking the end of Gus calling tournament games. It’s a shame really. Whether it was because of money or politics, CBS failed to appease college basketball enthusiasts and let a fan-favorite walk out the door. Sure, he’ll call some Big Ten games and some Pac-12, but the best tournament in all of sports will be without its signature play-by-play man.
The NCAA Tournament will go on and continue to produce the incredible finishes that have made the event as popular as it ever has been. But it will feel different not looking up which games Gus will call and anticipating the instant-classics that he might broadcast. In a recent NY Times article, Villanova coach said it best:
“You can tell he loves the game. He gives you a fan’s excitement and an analyst perspective.”
But that’s the thing: Gus is a fan. He called it like we all would- on the edge of our seat ready to jump up and down with every clutch shot. As fans across the country screamed in bars, family rooms, dorms, offices, and lobbies; Gus also screamed in appreciation of the unforgettable moments that were happening before his very eyes.
I found this clip a few years ago about the first game NCAA tournament game Gus called. Like his signature laugh during games, you can tell in the interview how much he actually enjoys the game and the thrill of the potential upset. (Skip the first 30 seconds. It’s Jim Nantz. Enough said.)
Judging from the past 15 years Gus, I think you were right about liking “that job” and you made sure the world knew it. Just wish you would still be doing it. You will be missed.