NEW YORK — Verne Lundquist has a cold. Okay, that’s not entirely true. The veteran CBS broacaster is doing all he can to ensure the tickle in the back of this throat — a product of calling six NCAA Tournament games over three days last week in Buffalo, N.Y. — doesn’t develop into anything more serious.
Getting back to his hotel room at 1:30 a.m. after the conclusion of UConn’s late-night win over Villanova last Saturday didn’t help matters much either for Lundquist, now 73 and calling his 30th NCAA Tournament for CBS. With a ride to the airport at 4 a.m., it didn’t leave Lundquist many options.
“Do I do this for an hour?” Lundquist said, putting his hands to his head in a sleeping motion during a CBS/Turner breakfast session with the media Thursday. “Or do I stay out with (Bill) Raftery? Guess what I did?”
That sort of easy camaraderie between Lundquist and Raftery — who will call this weekend’s East Regional from Madison Square Garden — is part of the reason why, in an age when almost all announcers are skewered on the Internet and social media, the pair remains almost universally beloved. (For what it’s worth, Lundquist advanced to the Elite 8 of our Media Madness bracket.)
Lundquist now refers to himself and Raftery as the “The Sunshine Boys,” a reference to the 1974 film starring George Burns and Walter Matthau. The pair first worked together in 1983, calling an Idaho/South Carolina game in Columbia. The chemistry clicked. On their next assignment (also a South Carolina game), they brought their wives on the road to meet and the friendship endured. When they picked things up again in 2000 for CBS with the tournament, it was as if they’d never stopped.
It’s a more recent movie, though, that connects Lundquist to the players he covers. During a January trip to East Lansing, Michigan forward Nik Staukas made a point to come over to Lundquist to relay some vital information: Stauskas had watched Happy Gilmore the previous night. Aaron Craft did the same thing the first time he saw Lundquist a few years earlier.
“Last week in Buffalo, (Craft) came over and said, ‘Do you remember when I met you for the first time and we talked about Happy Gilmore?’ I said of course. He said, ‘I watched it again last night.’ Against all odds, here we are with a movie that is one of the goofiest spoofs on golf ever, that was filmed in 1996 and the kids watch it regularly. Here I am the happy recipient of their interest in the movie. Across two generations it’s given me contact with the kids. Believe me, I understand the nature of that and it’s pretty significant … for old two goats like us, to walk into a college arena and have the kids respond is gratifying.”
That sort of reception leaves the third member of their NCAA broadcast team, Allie LaForce, equally impressed.
“People know who Vern Lundquist and Bill Raftery are,” she said. “They want to take their picture and come up to them because they respect what they’ve done in this business. For them to treat everybody the same taught me a lot. They’re respectful of every single fan.”
In turn both Lundquist and Raftery, 70, will treat Friday night’s Sweet 16 games at the Garden with reverence, realizing the unique and special occasion. The current incarnation of the Madison Square Garden (opened in 1968) has never hosted a NCAA Tournament, with the last time games were held in Madison Square Garden being in 1961, when former CBS announcer Billy Packer was a player for Wake Forest. Lundquist vividly remembers watching college games from the old Garden through the front window of the Slyvania Store in Everett, Wash., at age 10. Raftery remembers his first game in-person at the Garden, an early 1960’s matchup between Bill Russell’s San Francisco squad and Tommy Heinsohn’s Holy Cross.
Unlike his partner, Raftery has called hundreds of games at the Garden, home of the Big East Tournament. He was in the building earlier in March for the first tournament of the reconfigured league, calling the action alongside Gus Johnson on Fox.
“Everybody missed–and knew we would, Syracuse, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Pitt–When you take four teams out of your conference like that, it’s going to change,” he said. “As a fallback, I thought it was sensational.”
Lundquist says his favorite Raftery call came in the clip above when he yelled, “Onions!” “Double Order!” following Ronald Moore’s game-winner in overtime for Siena vs. Ohio State in 2009.
Raftery — who can’t go to a college campus without fans screaming, ‘man-to-man’ or ‘Onions!’ — enjoys the interactions with fans but doesn’t think there’s a big secret as to why he and Lundquist appeal to fans across generational lines.
“People are nice,” he said. “I think people like a sport and you’re part of it. I don’t think age enters into their likes and dislikes. He likes people. I like people. It’s gratifying again that you’re interconnected with them a little bit. It’s funny in a lot of ways, if their team wins they really like you.”
The duo seem like they just belong together. However, Lundquist’s contract with CBS expires in 2014, meaning this could potentially be their last hurrah.
“I don’t prognosticate,” Lundquist said. “It’s like all the tiebreakers in the NFL. I’m going to wake up one Sunday morning and I’m going to read in the paper who’s in and who’s out. That’s kind of the way I feel about it. It’s so out of my control. A) I don’t have any influence and B) They’re going to tell me or I’m going to read about what happens.”
Until that decision happens, figure SEC football fans, golf fans, hoops fans and everyone in between will have ample time to remind Lundquist that they just watched Happy Gilmore.