Mark Story

Set to call his 914th UK game, Tom Leach still relishes role of ‘Voice of the Cats’

Kentucky’s Mark Stoops: ‘We’re not here to take steps backwards’

Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media during Media Day on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, at Kroger Field. Coming off a 10-3 year, UK opens the 2019 season on Aug. 31 against the Toledo Rockets.
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Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media during Media Day on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, at Kroger Field. Coming off a 10-3 year, UK opens the 2019 season on Aug. 31 against the Toledo Rockets.

If Tom Leach has figured correctly, when the Kentucky Wildcats kick off the 2019 football season Saturday at noon against the Toledo Rockets, it will be the 914th UK game he has called on the radio.

Since becoming the play-by-play voice of UK football before the 1997 season, Leach, 58, has broadcast 267 Wildcats games.

Since adding play-by-play for Kentucky men’s basketball before the 2001-02 season, the Bourbon County native has called 646 Cats’ hoops contests (not counting exhibitions).

“I’m a couple of years from hitting a thousand (total UK games called),” Leach said, “which is pretty hard to believe.”

There is no more scrutinized position in Kentucky sports media than radio voice of UK sports. Holding the microphone (figuratively) once commanded by commonwealth broadcasting icons Claude Sullivan and Cawood Ledford comes with an exacting standard of excellence.

Tom Leach
Tom Leach became the University of Kentucky radio play-by-play announcer for football starting with the 1997 season and added men’s basketball games to his portfolio before the 2001-02 campaign. Mark Cornelison mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Jim Host, the Lexington broadcasting and sports-marketing mogul whose company owned the UK broadcast rights when Leach was chosen as play-by-play announcer, says the current UK radio announcer is proving a worthy heir to his celebrated predecessors.

“One of the best personalities for anybody to deal with,” Host says of Leach. “... He is really accepted by the Kentucky fans. He has begun to develop the acceptance Cawood had. I couldn’t be happier with him and (am) so happy he continues to be successful.”

In some ways, the job Leach has now is no different than the one Sullivan and Ledford were doing as youngish men in the 1950s. Leach still describes the action from UK games in real time over a traditional radio network.

Yet, in other ways, everything has changed. Digital technology has, obviously, transformed how information is transmitted in the 21st century.

Fans now also consume Leach’s work via social-media platforms. After Kentucky games, the in-house video arm of UK Athletics utilizes Twitter to circulate highlights packages that feature Leach’s radio calls.

“We get a lot of run off our calls on those highlights,” Leach says.

At halftime of games, Leach uses Twitter to take the temperature of the UK fan base and enhance his broadcasts.

“Twitter can be mean. But Twitter can also be helpful at times,” Leach says. “Somebody might mention something as simple as ‘Give us the score more.’ ... Sometimes, somebody might have a question, ‘Is this the first time (a specific player) has rushed for 100 yards?’ And I will try to answer that on air.”

Favorite Kentucky Wildcats calls

Not surprisingly, Leach says his most memorable moment broadcasting Kentucky basketball was UK’s victory over Kansas in the 2012 NCAA title game. Afterward, Leach got a note from his predecessor, Ralph Hacker.

The UK play-by-play announcer for the Wildcats’ 1996 and 1998 national championship teams, Hacker conveyed a simple message:

Welcome to the club.

“With the history and what Kentucky basketball has accomplished, if you are lucky enough to have this job, you figure you are going to get a chance to call a national championship at some point,” Leach says. “So, it was nice to get in that club with all the other guys who have done it down through the years.”

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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 posed for a photograph before UK beat U of L in the 2012 NCAA Tournament Final Four in New Orleans.

Since 2007, Leach had counted Kentucky’s football upset that year of No. 1 LSU as his favorite Wildcats pigskin call. After last season, however, that has changed to UK’s victory over Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl.

“To have something like Benny Snell set the UK (career rushing) record on a touchdown run, as an announcer, that is the way you would script it,” Leach says.

High hopes for 2019 UK football

With Kentucky having lost Snell, national defensive player of the year Josh Allen and several other key figures from last season’s 10-3 team, the question in 2019 is to what degree Mark Stoops and his new-look troops can sustain UK football’s positive momentum.

Leach says he is optimistic the good times will continue to roll, in part, because Stoops has seemed so upbeat about his team.

“Mark reminds me in a lot of ways of (former UK coach) Rich Brooks. They are pretty genuine in what they say,” Leach says. “With what (Kentucky) accomplished last season, (Stoops) would have a license to set the bar of expectations lower — and nobody would say anything.

“He’s done everything but that. So my optimism has grown as I’ve heard what (Stoops) has said.”

Still living a dream

Now, unlike the days when Sullivan and Ledford were UK radio luminaries, every Wildcats football and men’s basketball game is live on television.

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After Kentucky’s final men’s basketball home game of 1991-92, then-UK Athletics Director C.M. Newton spoke during a postgame ceremony honoring the 39-year UK broadcasting career of Cawood Ledford, center. Behind Newton and Ledford, from left, were Rick Pitino, Ledford’s wife, Frances, and Bill Curry. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

It has to be more difficult for the 21st century radio play-by-play announcer to build the depth of connection with listeners that was possible in the 20th century — when radio was the primary means for consuming game broadcasts.

“I don’t think it is ever going to be like it was because there were so few games on TV (back then),” Leach says. “If you were a kid, you were listening with your family to so many of the games on radio. Now, we probably get most of our exposure to that younger audience through those highlights packages on YouTube.”

Even in the changing media landscape, Leach still relishes holding the job — describing Kentucky Wildcats games on the radio — that he dreamed of as a boy.

“Can’t express how grateful we are,” Tom Leach says, “to the people who still go the extra mile to listen.”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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