Mark Story: UK's Leach, fellow radio voices, understand impact of championship call

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 14, 2012 

University of Louisville color analyst Bob Valvano, University of Kentucky play-by-play voice Tom Leach, U of L play-by-play man Paul Rogers and UK color analyst Mike Pratt got together for a photo during the Final Four.

"Here's how you count to eight. Three, two one ..."

As Tom Leach prepared to do the radio play-by-play call two Mondays ago of Kentucky in an NCAA basketball championship game for the first time in his career, he tried to take the approach it was just another game.

That is hard to do, however, when you are getting texts throughout the day wishing you good luck. "It made it clear it wasn't just another game," said Leach, the UK men's basketball radio play-by-play man since 2001.

In national championship games, coaches and players are not the only ones under career-defining pressure. Team radio announcers enter such contests knowing that their words — especially those that will end the game should the team they follow win — will be replayed forever.

"You are certainly aware that these calls will last for posterity," said Eli Gold, who has called three national title game victories since becoming the radio voice of Alabama Crimson Tide football in 1988. "You want to get them right."

The reigning national champions in men's hoops (UK), football (Alabama) and baseball (South Carolina) are all Southeastern Conference schools. So play-by-play men from each school — Gold, Leach and South Carolina's Andy Demetra — have faced the challenge of creating a successful "championship call."

"For the eighth time, college basketball's national championship trophy is coming home to Kentucky!" The Wildcats defeat Kansas 67-59 ..."

A major tension in "championship calls" is between the desire to have something prepared versus the desire to be spontaneous.

Gold, who called Alabama's victories in national title games that followed the 1992, 2009 and 2011 seasons, says he tries to have a theme to his broadcasts and will often use his words at the end of the game to go back to the introduction he gave at the start.

"What I do, I find I do my best thinking — and this is for every game, not just the championship games — in the shower the day of the game," Gold said. "It's there where I usually come up with my (pre-game) tease and what I need to be thinking about for the ending."

When Alabama faced Texas in the BCS Championship Game for the 2009 season, it was the Crimson Tide's first appearance in a title game in 17 years. The game was played in the Rose Bowl, the venue where Alabama had secured its first four national championships in the 1920s and '30s.

Gold said his broadcast theme was Alabama football "coming full circle."

After Nick Saban's Crimson Tide whipped Texas 37-21, Gold's "championship call" was: "Alabama wins its 13th national championship. And the Roses in this grand old stadium are again Crimson."

This past season, when 'Bama beat LSU for the title in New Orleans, Gold worked off the setting of the game for his closing.

"... the Alabama Crimson Tide has won its 14th national championship. Despite what the calendar says, for Crimson Tide fans, Mardi Gras, the season of celebration, is officially under way."

Said Gold: "Obviously, I have a pretty firm idea of where I want to go. But it's not scripted in the sense that I'm reading off a card. For one thing, you have to be flexible enough to react to something that may not fit (the game theme). For another, I just feel like you lose something if it's fully scripted. Hopefully, you trust your experience after 30-plus years as a broadcaster to find the right words."

When South Carolina's baseball team made it to the decisive game of the 2010 College World Series, the Gamecocks were on the verge of claiming the first team NCAA title in school history.

That thought was paramount in the mind of radio play-by-play man Demetra when Carolina put the winning run in the person of Scott Wingo on third base with one out in the bottom of the 11th inning in a 1-1 tie with UCLA.

"I did not have something specific scripted," Demetra said. "Certainly, when the winning run got to third base with one out, things I would say if that run came home were certainly running through my mind."

When South Carolina outfielder Whit Merrifield laced a single to right, Demetra found himself providing the sound track to a moment South Carolina fans had been waiting on forever.

His call: "Swing. Line drive. Right field. It drops! Coming home is Wingo. He touches home! The game is over! The game is over! The wait is over! The Gamecocks are the national champions!"

Said Demetra: "There are so many ways a baseball game can end, it's impossible to really have a perfectly scripted line. This was a walk-off. It was a situation where I knew it was (South Carolina's) first national championship in any sport. Beyond that, you have to hope your natural broadcasting ability takes over and you get the right words out."

Demetra, now 30, says he left Rosenblatt Stadium that night thinking about Bob Fulton, the Cawood Ledford of South Carolina sports, who never called a national title for the Gamecocks in more than 40 years (1952-95) doing play-by-play. "My thought was, I hope that was a call Bob Fulton would be proud of," Demetra said.

In the 21st century, technology has provided new ways for an announcer's words to live forever. When people started telling him they had his 2010 championship call as the ring tone on their cellphones, Demetra said, it was a thrill.

Last season, when South Carolina baseball recorded a national title repeat. Demetra's winning words were succinct: "They've done it again. Back-to-back for the Garnet and Black!"

C-A-T-S. Champs, champs, champs!

On Sunday in New Orleans before Kentucky and Kansas played for it all, Leach said he had begun thinking about what his words would be if UK claimed its eighth NCAA championship.

Last week, Leach noted he was extra vigilant to get the details at the end of the national championship game correct.

"The main thing, just get the facts all right, because this is a call that is going to get replayed so much," Leach said. "You don't want to have the score wrong or misidentify a player. That would just destroy the call."

As for the words, Leach's 19-year-old son, Connor, a freshman at UK, suggested to his dad using a variant of the familiar Rupp Arena cheer: C-A-T-S, Cats, Cats, Cats!

The second part of what became his "championship call," Leach said, came to him as he was walking back to his seat on press row after halftime of the NCAA finals and Kentucky leading by 14 points.

"There was no great epiphany," he said. "But as I was walking back, it occurred to me that UK was trying to get to eight, so something like 'there's a new way to count to eight' might be good."

As the final seconds ticked off on UK's victory over Kansas, Leach put those threads together:

"Here's how you count to eight! Three, two, one ... For the eighth time, college basketball's national championship trophy is coming home to Kentucky! The Wildcats defeat Kansas, 67-59.

"C-A-T-S. Champs, champs, champs!"

Says Leach: "Obviously, this is such a special moment for Kentucky fans, they're probably going to be pretty happy with whatever you say. But, as a professional, you want something that sounds appropriate, but you don't want something that sounds too scripted."

When a championship comes, a team radio announcer knows their words really are forever.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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