Bill Raftery’s summons to call his first Final Four next month came at age 73 — and was only 32 years in the making.
“When you don’t expect something and it happens, I think fortunate is the word,” Raftery said in an interview last week. “You hang around long enough, someone says, ‘Let’s give that donkey a shot.’ ”
Raftery has been a popular analyst for years, a repository of witty and silly phraseology that almost always enlivens his analysis. But he had never called a tournament game for CBS beyond the regional finals largely because Billy Packer occupied the top spot at the network for 27 years, until his retirement in 2008.
Raftery insists that not being chosen to replace Packer, or his successor, Clark Kellogg, was OK with him. Raftery has been happy to call college basketball on television.
His career management strategy has no Type A personality traits. “Keep your head down,” he said. “Mind your business and do the best job you can.”
So Kellogg replaced Packer, and when Turner Sports began to share tournament coverage with CBS, Steve Kerr joined Kellogg and Jim Nantz on the Final Four team. Greg Anthony then succeeded Kellogg, and Kellogg moved to the studio.
“He never talked about it,” said Verne Lundquist, Raftery’s longtime CBS partner. “Not that he didn’t want to do it. He’d be less than human if he didn’t. But he never said, ‘I’ve enjoyed working with you, pal, but I aspire to a larger stage.’ ”
But Kerr left to coach the Golden State Warriors. And Anthony was arrested in January on a charge of soliciting a prostitute in Washington.
Shortly after, Raftery took over for Anthony, while Kerr’s spot was taken by Grant Hill.
Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, acknowledged that he had considered elevating Raftery in the past. But in retrospect, he said, “Maybe we should have considered Bill more carefully.”
The problem with promoting Raftery had been the effect of separating him from Lundquist, 74. The two had been a team for 15 years, and with their friendship and Raftery’s signature phrases, they created a world unto themselves while having enormous fun doing it.
Lundquist said: “To walk into a semifull arena an hour before the game and some guy yells, ‘Onions!’ and another guy, from the balcony, yells, ‘With a kiss!’ is a really pleasurable experience.”
Now that Raftery has the top job, he is destined to bring generous servings of onions, nylons, puppies, tin and kisses — a few of the staples of his glossary — to CBS’ No. 1 team.
“Nobody’s called to tell me to change anything,” Raftery said.
• Kentucky’s biggest obstacle to going 40-0 and winning a national title is fellow No. 1 seed Wisconsin, according to oddsmakers. Kentucky is the top overall seed in the 68-team NCAA tournament. Kentucky would be 5½-point favorites against the Badgers, according to sports betting information website Pregame.com, which cited consensus odds from Las Vegas sports books. The Wildcats would be bigger favorites against any other potential opponent in the tournament.
• Georgia State’s Ron Hunter has to figure out a way to coach with his left leg in a cast after a freak injury at the end of the Panthers’ victory in the Sun Belt Conference championship game. Hunter tore his left Achilles’ tendon leaping off the bench at the end of the game. For now, Hunter is getting around on a four-wheeled scooter, pushing the device with his right leg.
• Former President George W. Bush visited Southern Methodist, congratulating coach Larry Brown’s team on its first NCAA tournament berth since 1993. Bush spent a few minutes in the Mustangs locker room. Moody Coliseum is across the street from Bush’s library and Bush lives in Dallas, not far from the SMU campus.