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How CBS and Turner decided on Bill Raftery to call the Final Four

After a long career in college basketball broadcasting, Bill Raftery was finally given the assignment to call the Final Four, joining Grant Hill and Jim Nantz. Here's how CBS and Turner decided to give Raftery the nod.

The driving distance between New Canaan, Conn., and Foxborough, Mass., is about 160 miles. That’s roughly three hours on the road depending on traffic, and Sean McManus, the CBS Sports Chairman, was determined to put the time to good use on the morning of Jan. 17.

Normally McManus could relax on such a drive, but this would be no ordinary trip for him and his top lieutenant, CBS Sports president David Berson. As the two headed for the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Colts, a game airing on CBS, they were focused on a toxic development from the prior night: Greg Anthony, a pro basketball analyst for Turner Sports and the lead college basketball analyst for CBS, had been arrested in Washington, D.C. and charged with soliciting a prostitute.

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As the car rolled east through Connecticut along I-95, McManus and Berson embarked on a series of calls to determine the path for two pressing issues. The first was what to do about Anthony. The second was figuring out a plan heading forward should Anthony be suspended indefinitely by both networks, which is what Turner and CBS ultimately did. Those called by McManus and Berson included David Levy, the Turner Broadcasting System President, Lenny Daniels, the president of Turner Sports, Harold Bryant, the executive producer and senior vice president of production for CBS Sports, Mark Lewis, the executive vice president for championships and alliance for the NCAA, Jennifer Sabatelle, the senior vice president of communications for CBS Sports, Sandy Montag, the founder of The Montag Group and Anthony’s agent, and Anthony himself.

By the time McManus and Berson arrived in Foxborough that Saturday afternoon, they had reached a conclusion on Anthony and were also confident they had the right group for the Final Four and title game. After additional discussions with Turner executives, a decision was ultimately reached: The new Final Four team would be Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery (who replaced Anthony) and Grant Hill (who replaced Steve Kerr, who left Turner Sports to coach the Warriors).

“It was a very productive drive,” McManus recalled last week. “The first thing we had to do was make the decision on Greg and make a statement. That was the first domino to fall. Then David, Harold and I talked about the best solution for CBS. Then we got other people involved. We were not ready to announce a full decision because our Turner partners needed to have a conversation with Grant and also confirm everything with their people. But the foundation of the Final Four was laid out [during] that trip to Foxborough.”

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For the moment, CBS and Turner has turned a negative story into a positive one. After news broke that Raftery would call his first Final Four last Tuesday, he became the rare senior citizen to become a trending topic on Twitter. Those on social media were genuinely excited for a broadcaster who has dedicated his life to college basketball.

“I never felt I was shorted at the Final Four because I got all that emotion and atmosphere doing the radio broadcast,” said Raftery, who has called the Final Four on radio for the past 23 years. “So this is more of a thrill than an ambition. It’s a terrific thing to happen to anyone much less me.”

Said CBS and YES Network broadcaster Ian Eagle, who has worked with Raftery for two decades: “Sometimes good things come to those who wait. I can't think of anyone more deserving of this opportunity. Bill is like a rock star on college campuses -- albeit one that resembles Leslie Nielsen -- and people automatically smile when he walks into a room (except maybe for bartenders and waiters who know they're going to be there until closing time). This is my 20th year working games with Bill and I am still blown away by his energy, knowledge and generosity. His entertaining style and clever sayings get most of the attention, but that shouldn't overshadow his meticulous preparation. Raf doesn't have a self-promoting bone in his body, so he would never lobby for a role like this. His love of the game and zest for life burst through the television, and viewers can feel that."

McManus said he called Raftery himself to deliver the news. He described Raftery as thrilled but also a little melancholy given he would not be working with his longtime CBS partner and friend, Verne Lundquist. McManus then called Lundquist immediately to tell him about Raftery’s promotion. Prior to the announcement, Raftery also called Lundquist.

“Being the guy that Verne is and hopefully I would be the same way, he didn’t think about himself at all,” Raftery said. “He was happy for me, which is how friends are like. That was one thing [of concern] because we have been together for so long.”

Raftery said he never envisioned getting the assignment upon learning of CBS suspending Anthony.

“I happened to be in D.C. that weekend doing Georgetown [for Fox Sports 1] and it’s just the kind of business where I would never call [management] or say anything,” Raftery said. “You let whatever your track record is speak for itself. I didn’t know what the direction would be or even analyze the situation. I just went about doing the Georgetown game. Getting the call from Sean was a shock.”

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Daniels said Turner had been looking for a replacement for Kerr for a year and Hill was always on the radar given the upside management sees in him. Hill is clearly bright and exceedingly personable, but not high-energy, which is something you need in college basketball. Both Turner and CBS executives think Raftery can help Hill there. (Raftery said he and Nantz worked together on some games in the late ‘80s and occasionally did some studio work together over the years.)

“What we want to get is Grant’s personality a little more exposed, to be a little more outgoing if you will, and putting him with Raf will do that,” Daniels said. “We see all the positive attributes around him and we think Grant will be spectacular.”

Said McManus: “I just think the mixture is such a good one and I think across the board everyone loves Bill Raftery. We thought together with Grant Hill, who is recently retired and has a different perspective than Bill both chronologically and from an athletic standpoint, we thought it was a good mixture. A lot of people said sentimentally, wouldn’t it be great if Bill Raftery got to call a Final Four one day, and this is a way of accomplishing a lot of goals and coming up with a solution to a problem we were presented with.”

Hill said in an interview last week that he did not advocate for the job. Last year he worked as a studio host during the NCAA tournament and has called some NBA games for NBA-TV and Turner. On Saturday he made his college basketball game analyst debut working with Raftery and Ian Eagle for Duke’s blowout win over Notre Dame. The pair will team up again (with Nantz) for the Big Ten tournament semifinals and final.

Bill Raftery, Grant Hill and Ian Eagle

“I figured with Steve Kerr gone, Turner would look at some of its talent and I was part of that talent,” Hill said. “But I did not politic for it or advocate for it at all. I was content with the studio role. But when the opportunity was presented to me, I was like, “Are you kidding me? Yes, I’d love to do it.” It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m confident I’ll be ready but I have a lot of work ahead. Like any athlete, you don’t run from the challenge. You embrace it.”

Said Raftery of Hill: “His enthusiasm, his honesty, his character, there is so much niceness in there that he wants to do the best job he can. Driving back from the Duke game, Bird (Ian Eagle) and I both agreed: He’s going to be terrific. He really wants to be excellent at this.”

Hill said growing up in Washington, D.C., he often heard Raftery call Big East games. Hill’s father, Calvin, introduced Grant to Raftery while Grant was still in high school, and Raftery said he interviewed Hill many times when Hill was a member of the Pistons and Raftery was broadcasting Nets games.

“I always felt I knew him somewhat and we had a great relationship,” Raftery said. “When he would come and do the Nets interview, he would kill me about my jacket, my hair, my coaching won-loss record, which was pretty cute. We had a nice feel for one another.”

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McManus said last week that he considers the Nantz-Raftery-Hill team the official Final Four broadcasting team heading forward and not a one-year assignment.

“This is not a stopgap,” he said. “This is the team. Listen, you never know how a team will perform or mesh but if any broadcast team has a good chance of success, I think this one does. Obviously, after the first year we will reevaluate but the plan is this is the team going forward.”

Daniels said that’s also the thinking on Turner’s end.

“If we find something we like better, we are not opposed to pivoting and making a change,” Daniels said. “But for sure our goal is to make this team the team. We have this thing [the NCAA tournament] for another decade. We want them to jell and be the team for us.”

Raftery said he received a flood of congratulations upon the news, and none funnier than a text he received from Kerr.

“He just wiped me out," Raftery said, laughing. “Steve texted me: 'What have you done to deserve this? You have done nothing in broadcasting.' ”


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1. Daniels said CBS and Turner will once again offer two additional telecasts for the Final Four national semifinal games. The “Teamcasts” of the semifinals will air simultaneously with the national game and offer team-specific presentations (with separate production crews) tailored to each of the schools competing in the semis. These "Teamcasts" will feature custom music, custom graphics, team-specific replays and additional cameras geared toward one team. They will also feature broadcasters who have been hired specifically to appeal to that fan base and be encouraged by Turner and CBS to be over-the-top homers for those schools.

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“This makes a lot of sense for us because there are people in love with their teams,” Daniels said. “We want to keep evolving television to what viewers want to hear and listen to and this is a way to allow people to do that.”

Daniels did say that Turner and CBS must do a better job of promoting which channel the Teamcasts will air (which has not yet been determined). Last year there were plenty of confused people on social media wondering where the regular broadcast was versus the Teamcasts.

1a. McManus said CBS and Turner officials discussed a two-person booth versus a three-person booth, but given the partnership, the three-person booth was more ideal.

“In a perfect situation there would be one person primarily with CBS and one with Turner and that’s what we did,” McManus said.

1b. Hill on which current NBA players would make good broadcasters: “I think of a guy like Chris Paul. I even think Blake Griffin would, too. I was surprised playing with him about his basketball intellect and understanding. He certainly has personality and you can see that in his commercials. Steve Nash is someone I have tried to get to do some studio with us (Turner) while he’s out. He’s smart and thoughtful. I think the point guard position is a good one to transition to TV work. A teammate that I had in Phoenix, Jared Dudley, he is not the best player but he has a lot of personality, he’s funny and quick on his feet. I always thought he would translate nicely if he wanted to work in television. These are guys I know personally who I have talked with on a number of topics from sports to politics to life and I think they have depth and character.”

1c. McManus said the decision has not been made yet as to which analyst will partner with Lundquist on earlier round NCAA tournament games.

1d. Raftery’s daughter, Kelli, who works in PR for CBS Entertainment, let him know he was trending on Twitter last week. Said Bill: “I said, 'What do you mean by trending? Is that good or bad?' She said, 'Well it can be bad, but that it was good here.' You never know how people will respond to what you do. You just hope you are doing a good job and keep your [head] down and keep going forward.”

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1e. Raftery said he informed his Fox bosses, Fox Sports president Eric Shanks and executive producer John Entz, about the Final Four assignment ahead of time so they would not be blindsided. He praised Fox Sports management for its willingness to offer him flexibility working for different networks. One day, you hope Turner and ESPN will be as forward-thinking to allow Charles Barkley and Dick Vitale to work a game together, a longtime wish for both broadcasters.

1f. ESPN’s Jay Bilas, a longtime partner of Raftery, on his friend earning the assignment. “I'm thrilled for Raft. He is the absolute best in the business. Nobody loves the game, and the people in the game, more than he does. As prepared as he is, he always makes it fun. Raft and Grant will be great together. There aren't two better guys anywhere.”

2. For an MMQB piece, I asked a group of college journalists how they consumed the Super Bowl, which reporter they most wanted to interview Roger Goodell and which NFL journalists they trusted the most.

2a. Analyst Warren Sapp was terminated last week by the NFL Network.

3. ESPN Radio was well-served on Sunday morning by Dari Nowkhah, who carried the network’s coverage ably on the death of Dean Smith. Nowkhah allowed his guests -- Matt Doherty, Bob Valvano, Seth Greenberg, Herb Magee and Dino Gaudio, among others -- room to share their memories, providing great radio for the listeners. Nowkhah was filling in for Mike Lupica, a favored son of ESPN PR and ESPN Radio management. Had Lupica been on the air, as most New York radio listeners know, the show would have likely been about Lupica and Lupica’s famous friendships in the context of Smith’s passing. (This paragraph officially ends any chance of me ever hosting an ESPN Radio show. Apologies to my future agent.)

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3a. Raftery was very close to Smith, and part of a group of coaches and former Carolina players who would travel to North Carolina every year to play golf with Smith at the Pinehurst Resort.

“He was the greatest coach I ever met,” Raftery said. “He would have fun correcting my grammar. He was a math guy, brilliant coach, what he did with race relations, just an amazing guy. It’s hard to put him in a paragraph.”

4.Sports pieces of note:

• Loved this Lee Jenkins profile of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

• Justin Barrasso had a long interview here with professional wrestler Shawn Michaels.

• Excellent take by Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski on ESPN acquiring the World Cup of Hockey.

• This first person from ESPN’s Wright Thompson (via The Povich Center) on the process of sports journalism is worth reading, especially for young people in the sports media.

Dean Smith pieces worth reading:

• ​ESPN’s Tommy Tomlinson on Smith.

• SI’s Alexander Wolff’s 1997 Sportsman of the Year feature.

• Wolff’s tribute piece to him published on Sunday.

Non-sports pieces of note:

• Via Lindy West: What happened when I confronted my cruelest troll.

• How foreign wealth purchases top-end New York City real estate. Brilliant reporting by Louise Story and Stephanie Saul.

• Via Buzzfeed: Nancy Reagan Turned Down Rock Hudson’s Plea For Help Nine Weeks Before He Died.

• Would you befriend the person who got you fired?

• From New York Times Magazine: The Shame of America’s Family Detention Camps.

• Tom Junod writes an obituary he wishes he never had to write.

• Via The New York Times: How we got to the point where personal beliefs about vaccines triumphed over science.

• Are killing reader comments a monumental mistake?

• The network news anchor as celebrity, by Maureen Dowd.

• Via Judith Shulevitz: The best way to address campus rape.

5. ESPN has signed commentator and reporter Julie Foudy to a new multi-year contract. Foudy will serve as espnW’s primary representative at major sporting events, including the 2015 Women’s World Cup, future Olympic Games, the Special Olympics and NCAA championships. 

5a. CBS college football recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said of Alabama’s top-ranked recruiting class: “It is one of the best classes I have seen in 20 years. Everyone is a big-name recruit. There are no sleepers. Every player in the class looks like a difference-maker. They didn’t bring in any suspects. They really helped themselves in the secondary and got one of the nation’s premiere running backs and quarterbacks. I’ve been doing this for 36 years and no one has ever had the top-ranked class for five straight years.”

5b. Longtime NFL writer Sean Jensen has teamed up with former Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher for a book titled The Middle School Rules of Brian Urlacher. It features Urlacher recalling his middle school and high school years, and how it impacted and shaped him. The book will be available in stores and online on Feb. 17.

5c. The Globe & Mail examined the launch of the first e-gaming news site -- from theScore Inc.

5d. Fox Sports 1 will air a one-hour documentary this Friday (7:30 p.m. ET) on the 1979 Daytona 500. The race is famous for being the first live telecast of the Daytona 500 (on CBS), including a thrilling finish and a post-race brawl between Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison and Donnie Allison.

5e. In March, a memoir by the late ESPN anchor Stuart Scott will be released.

5f. The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) has a new show on SiriusXM focusing on the statistical analysis of the sport. Behind the Numbers: Baseball SABR Style debuts on SiriusXM on Feb.15 (7 p.m. ET) and will air weekly throughout the year on MLB Network Radio. 

5g. MLB Network Presents will air a one-hour documentary on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on former outfielder Billy Bean, one of two former Major League Baseball players to publicly come out as gay. The documentary is hosted by Bob Costas and narrated by Bean.