March Madness Media Mic Check: Bill Raftery’s Three Decades In and Still Playing To Win

The Field of 68 teams with dreams of snatching an NCAA Title was announced last night as the official tip-off to college athletics finest moment gets underway. Now that we have squads and brackets, the next step is to eliminate the pretenders until we reach the Final Four.

Thats when the “A” teams come to ball and Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery and reporter Tracy Wolfson take over CBS and Turner Sports TV coverage of the 2016 NCAA Mens Basketball Championship.

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All 67 games from the tournament will be televised across four national TV networks — TBS, CBS, TNT and TruTV beginning Tuesday. College basketballs March Madness supreme team will call the Final Four National Semifinals and National Championship for the second consecutive year.

Last year, Raftery called his first Final Four on TV in Indianapolis, after calling the basketball event on radio for 23 years. Anyway you slice it, in the media mix, TV is a George and Weezy step up from radio. 

“I was talking to Grant yesterday, Raftery told The Shadow League at CBS and Turner Sports March Madness Media Day, and he said that hes so much looking forward to this year because last year there was a lot of angst and anticipation. Hes more relaxed this year. Hes been watching all of the games all year and including the Big Ten tournament, we would have had 14 or 15 games together by then. The entire situation is just more relaxed.”

It was also the first time that a three-man booth was utilized.

“Jim (Nantz) was trying to figure out last year how this was going to work with three men in the booth.,” Raftery explained. “Now its like were all on the same team. Do your own preparation, get ready and lets go.”

At an age where most people are retired or in the process, Raftery, a man who has done almost everything there is to do in basketball broadcasting, is still ascending in his profession.

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I dont know if Ive done it all,” Raftery told TSL, as the throng of supporters surrounding him dispersed. “There are so many good times, but getting called for this assignment is certainly up there. There are games that I can recall that I enjoyed, but this is without a doubt the biggest stage for college teams, coaches and media and we are part of that. Its just a professional (pride) thing…that if you got that Final Four assignment versus another guy in the office…you dont want to rub it in or anything, but its gratifying.”

Rafterys come up is well deserved. He respected the prestige of the job, but never set his sights on the position.

Before retiring in 2008, Billy Packer had provided color for every Final Four game and every NCAA championship game since 1975.

Billy Packer, God bless him, had been at it for many years and Clark Kellogg and Greg Gumbel after him….so I loved what I was doing because I got the Final Four on radio every year,” Raftery insisted. “I never looked at it as something I coveted. Unfortunately somebodys misfortune presented me with an opportunity. If youre old enough and stay around long enough, anything is bound to happen.

When asked, Raftery candidly attributed college basketball’s rising tournament TV profitability and success to the trail blazed by broadcasting pioneers like Packer. 

“Well he, Al McGuire, and Dick Enberg — all of us owe our jobs to them,” Raftery told TSL. “There was only one game a weekend on TV initially and they made college basketball an attraction. They were the people who got fans to fall in love with this March Madness and everyone in this room is a beneficiary of their efforts.”

Even today, the old man remains cool and as much a fabric of the college game as the players and coaches themselves. Hes like a freestyle rapper with ridiculous staying power. For 33 years, Raftery has dropped some of the dopest and longest-lasting catchphrases that in basketball broadcasting history. He’s done his share of NBA games as well. His style, flair and voice is a permanent fixture and treasured component of college basketballs March Madness.

What makes Raftery such a font of all basketball knowledge is his history as a player, coach and announcer. Few people have embraced every aspect of basketball life in their travels like him. Hes a college basketball scholar with a Ph. D. in getting the crowd hyped.

Raftery was a three-sport athlete at St. Cecilias High School in Kearney, N.J, where Ballin Bill set the state’s all-time scoring record in 1959. Raftery played college hoops at LaSalle, setting a freshman scoring record and then leading the team in scoring in his second year. He earned a tryout with the New York Knicks, but his NBA ambitions were short-lived.

Raftery started coaching at Fairleigh DickinsonFlorham and then became coach at Seton Hall University from 1971 to 1980, compiling a record of 154-141. The original Big East  Big East Conference was founded in 1979. The league’s original commissioner, Dave Gavitt, gave him his shot in broadcasting.

Raftery had some positive things to say about the current state of the Seton Hall program, which has struggled and gone through a bevy of coaches since P.J. Carlesimo led them to the NCAA title game in 1988-89. Sixth-year coach Kevin Willard was 82-79 entering this season and was on the hot seat. He seemed to be another coach with good intentions, stuck in mediocrity, unable to keep Jersey recruits home and fighting a losing battle.

Then, the Pirates (25-8) ran off four straight dramatic wins to capture the school’s first Big East tourney title since 1993, earning a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournaments Midwest region.

“Anybody who works as hard as that coach (Kevin Willard)… and endured the struggles last year with a microscope on him and the program and all the questioning of how did this thing unravel…deserves kudos, Raftery said. And for him to put the program back together like he did, even if it wasnt Seton Hall, Id be happy for him. I think he and the kids probably learned a lot from that. They saw their bubble burst last year and they didnt focus on my fault or his fault…it burst and I think thats what them get back together.

That resilience is what has helped The Big East Conference rebound quickly from the traumatizing after effects caused by some of its flagship programs abandoning the league.  

I think the initial blow was a knockout punch…like a stagger, losing Syracuse and Louisville and Notre Dame and Pit,” said Raftery. “You go, Wow…where do we go from here, ya know?’ I think they did a good job of enticing some programs like Creighton who was strong a few years ago. Butler has become one of the toughest outs in the country, so I think they took that hit and having FOX to support them really helped with exposure and attracting kids. They are a confident administration. The schools are solidified. They have credibility. Proof is last year they were the highest rated conference and I think they are third this year, so I think they handled it well.

And If anybody knows a thing or two about handling things, particularly a basketball broadcast in March, its Raftery.  

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