POLITICS MARCH 19, 2008
Two years ago, in an airport bar in Phoenix, I watched UCLA and Gonzaga battle for the right to advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. As the sound of the telecast filtered out into the concourse, passersby (most of whom, unlike me, presumably hadn't intentionally scheduled a three-hour layover) started gravitating toward the bar, intrigued by what they heard. "Who is this announcer?" three separate people asked me.
March Madness is supposed to be exciting, but CBS's raucous play-by-play man Gus Johnson calls the action as if every blocking foul were a world historical event--and he was in top form that night. The game ended with a stunning UCLA comeback that drove Gonzaga's Adam Morrison to tears and produced a largely incoherent call by Johnson, that went something to the effect of: "And a steal! Farmar ... inside, the freshman up, and ... ahhh! And they go in front! Raivio ... last chance to [unintelligible] ... Ahhh! Oh, what a game! What a game!" (Commenting later on The New York Times's NCAA Tournament blog, Will Leitch wrote, "I defy anyone to ... provide a single word Johnson is screeching.") But volume proved a surprisingly good substitute for lucidity. By the time it was over, several dozen people were crowded around the television, awed as much by Johnson’s gripping style as by the Bruins' late heroics.
So, when CBS announced its broadcast schedule a year ago for the 2007 NCAA men's basketball tournament--and word spread that the network had made the dreadful choice of removing Johnson from play-by-play duty during the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds of the tournament--a small but vocal segment of the sports blogosphere went ballistic. "[The] CBS brass has about zero idea what people actually want," complained one blogger. Wrote another: "We've said it before and we'll say it again … March Madness is not a showcase for 'student athletes'. It is simply a showcase for Gus Johnson to be Gus Johnson." Worse, CBS replaced him with the mellifluous but uninspired voice of James Brown, recently plucked from Fox primarily to host CBS's NFL studio show. It's a bit like substituting Barry Manilow in for Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.
How, exactly, did an announcer low enough on CBS's totem pole to be cast aside for a former host of The World's Funniest! become a beloved symbol for one of the country's premiere sporting events? It's a little puzzling. Johnson has never been on the main CBS broadcast team for a Final Four--Jim Nantz and Billy Packer have held the job since 1990. Though certainly an up-and-coming talent, he's not generally regarded as a great announcer--when calling NFL games, he gets shipped off to Oakland and Miami to cover the dregs of the AFC. And his résumé isn't really that of a prodigy--like most announcers, he's dutifully put in his time in low-paying, far-flung jobs in places like Waco and Huntsville. He even did a stint with the Canadian Football League.
Part of Johnson's cult following owes to simple luck. Johnson has had the good fortune to be assigned to a handful of the tournament's most iconic games of the past dozen years, from Princeton's miraculous 43–41 upset of UCLA in 1996 to Ohio State's dramatic comeback in overtime against in-state rival Xavier last year. His call of Gonzaga's 1999 Sweet 16 victory over Florida ("Shannon … From the cornerrrrrrr … And it's over! Gonzaga! The slipper still fits!") has made every tournament highlight montage ever since. Mostly, though, Johnson's known for shouting. At the top of his lungs. Constantly.
This has earned him the scorn of broadcasting purists and decibel-averse fans alike. "He has absolutely no ability whatsoever to distinguish between the various stages of a basketball game," grumbled one blogger last year, while Michael Hiestand wrote in USA Today that Johnson "once again seems to be getting intermittent shock therapy while he's trying to call basketball."
But the naysayers just don’t get it. "He could make a chess match sound exciting," exulted ESPN.com's Bill Simmons, whose near-obsession with Johnson is often credited with fomenting the Gusmania. ("You helped change my life. I gotta give it up to you," recognized Johnson in an interview on Simmons's podcast.) And his over-the-top exuberance happens to be perfectly suited to the early rounds of March Madness. Because there are so many games going on simultaneously, fans outside of local TV markets only see brief stretches of most games, so there's not time for Johnson's style to wear thin. (It wasn't a very good fit, for instance, for last year's Louisville–Stanford match-up, a snoozer the Cardinals led by more than 20 points for essentially the entire game--but few outside of Kentucky and California saw it.)
Johnson has a special knack, though, for turning close, exciting, nationally televised games into enduring memories. All announcers wind up doing some of these contests, but Johnson is far better suited to them than are most of CBS's other play-by-play announcers, like the anodyne Brown or the plodding Dick Enberg. Enberg announces March Madness as though it were a first-round doubles match at Wimbledon or Thursday afternoon at the Masters. But it isn't, especially during games like the UCLA–Gonzaga showdown of two years ago. Other announcers narrate what they see, as if you couldn't already tell from watching. Johnson manages to convey how he feels. During memorable games, that's a much more useful--and exhilarating--piece of information.
And yet, that still doesn’t explain why Johnson has become such an indispensable part of March. Newsday's Neil Best noted last year that Johnson's appeal is in part generational: He's much more popular in the blogosophere and with college students than with older, more traditional hoops fans--a sort of Barack Obama of sportscasters. And much as new voters have been critical to Obama's success at the polls, so have these new viewers keyed a resurgence of the NCAA Tournament's popularity. In the late '90s, stung by the growing tendency of young stars to bypass the college game, ratings were headed south, and the $6-billion, 11-year extension CBS signed to retain broadcast rights was widely viewed as excessive. While ratings for the championship game have continued to decline, the early rounds of the tournament--Gus Johnson territory-- have reinvigorated March Madness. The TV ratings for the first two days of the 2006 tournament, which featured a bevy of close finishes and upsets, were the highest they'd been since 1997, and they didn't taper off last year, despite the notable lack of such games. These casual new fans, especially young ones, have become tournament junkies, looking more for upsets and excitement than for top-notch basketball per se. And that's where Johnson--who's earned the moniker "the angel of the double-digit seed"--shines. There's no one who better captures the essence of what the tournament is all about.
CBS, for one, has learned that lesson. Brown is gone from this year's announcing schedule, and Johnson will be at the mic through the first four rounds of the tournament, starting with today's games in Denver. Get your ears ready.
Josh Patashnik is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.
Below, some choice Gus Johnson moments.
"The slipper still fits!" Gonzaga–Florida, 1999:
UCLA caps off its comeback over Gonzaga, 2006:
Gus makes an "inhuman sound" seconds later:
Vermont stuns Syracuse, 2005:
Another great Gonzaga Gus moment (in the regular season):