Kevin Harlan On Tournament Memories, NBA vs. College Hoops And His ‘Idiot On The Field’ Call

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Kevin Harlan has seen some of the tournament’s most incredible upsets and moments in his almost two decades of broadcasting March Madness for CBS and Turner. In that time he’s seen some of the tournament’s most incredible upsets and moments. Twice he’s been on the call as a 15-seed took down a 2-seed, with Florida Gulf Coast over Georgetown in 2013 and Mercer over Duke in 2015. He was there for 11-seed VCU’s win over 6-seed Duke in 2007, 10-seed Syracuse over 1-seed Virginia in 2016, and 9-seed Northern Iowa over top-overall seed Kansas in 2010.

Harlan is a familiar voice for those that watch college basketball, the NBA, and the NFL, and is a fan favorite of many for his enthusiasm and the excitement he brings to a broadcast. On Thursday, Harlan will be on the call for CBS and Turner Sports once again in Kansas City for the start of the Midwest Regional Finals, as he gets a rare broadcasting home game.

Harlan went to the University of Kansas, where he graduated in 1982, and spent most of his early professional career in the Kansas City area, doing radio and TV for Missouri basketball, Kansas basketball, the Chiefs, and the Kings before they moved to Sacramento. He still lives in Kansas City and got to broadcast his first college basketball game in the city since 1989 on Thursday evening.

Prior to his homecoming, Harlan spoke with DIME about basketball in Kansas City, his favorite NCAA Tournament moments, the differences in calling NBA games and college hoops games, how he found out his Monday Night Football idiot on the field call was a viral sensation, and why he really wishes he could’ve called Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Quake” run against the Saints.

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You started your career in Kansas City with the Kings, is there something special for you about being able to be back in Kansas City to do a basketball broadcast?

Personally it is because I did Missouri for three years and Kansas for one year on their regional radio networks, and then I did the Kings for three years or two years. So basketball for me in Kansas City is a great, great experience because it really is a terrific basketball town. In particular it’s a great college basketball town because of the closeness of Kansas, Kansas State and even Missouri two hours to the east. And the very first Final Fours were held in Kansas City. There’s a lot of long-time basketball history here. Now, they don’t play in the same building obviously, but I certainly embrace and recognize that fact that college basketball is meaningful. It’s not just a place where they’ve pitched a tournament site and they say “hey, we’re all going to have a game here in your brand new arena.” I mean, this place has roots, history, great lore and is a terrific place to host a regional final.

You’ve done tournament broadcasts at a number of different places and in different arenas, and there are those places where it has that more corporate feel and it’s not as natural of a fit. How important is it having games in a place where there is that history and tie to college hoops to create an atmosphere for games when you have teams that maybe are from further away and can’t travel in loads of fans?

I think it’s all a part of the support that the tournament looks for when they select these sites. Kansas City to me is a no-brainer because it has this long history as we were just talking about with college basketball, and Kansas is an hour drive away and they know they’re going to get great support that way. But even if Kansas had not been here, I really feel that there would be a wonderful turnout just because of the appreciation for college basketball. Having Kansas here makes it incredibly unique and will give them a homecourt advantage, but you know what, they’ve earned that by being a number one seed and making it out of their Round of 64 and Round of 32 games. I think that what we see is a perfect marriage of a rabid fanbase for the Jayhawks coupled with a deep appreciation for the college game for the city as a whole.

While we have the Chiefs and the Royals here, it is a city filled with Kansas State graduates, Missouri graduates, and Kansas graduates. You know, typically people would rather stay close to home and when these people graduate from these schools this is where they establish these roots and want to raise a family. So, it’s not like a, I just left Miami this morning — and nothing against Miami — but cities like that have more of a transient feel to them. Much more glitz, much more glamor. Whereas Kansas City, I think reflects the roots of the amateurness of college basketball and the last great stand these kids make before they become professionals or go on to what they do. The college game lends itself, I think, to the midwest — and the southeast. That’s where it seems the college game has great interest. Programs like Kentucky and Indiana and Kansas. That lines up real specifically geographically with great interest in the game.

Broadcasting a college basketball game back in Kansas City, does it evoke some of those old feelings? And who were your broadcasting idols and mentors when you first got started?

What I really wanted to do when I first got in the business is I really wanted to be the voice of a team. So, I really admired the Kaywood Ledfords at Kentucky and John Ward at Tennessee and there have been some local people here, Max Falkenstein who’s broadcast Kansas basketball for 60 years and Bob Davis who broadcasted for almost three decades. That is what I really pictured my career being like. Just what those guys were. Everything else has just kind of happened for whatever reason — luck, most of it. So being back here and — I’ve come back here certainly several times for NFL games and that — but the college basketball, this is my first college basketball in Kansas City since I broadcast the Missouri Tigers in 1989 in the Big 8 Tournament.

So, it’s a different building, but it still has the same feel of springtime basketball in Kansas City. So it’s obviously incredibly meaningful to have gotten this particular site. This is the 19th year with CBS and I’ve not even come close to Kansas City. I’ve had a couple of Oklahomas, but never Kansas City so this is really a treat. I’m home, so I don’t have to sleep in a hotel room. I can drive my own car to the game. I’ll know a lot of people in the stands, because the Kansas fans are pretty significant in number and our family is obviously very engaged with all of our friends and people who I graduated with from Kansas back in 1982. So, it has a lot of personal significance.

But I will dare anyone to note any kind of favoritism either way. Whether it’s an Oregon fan or whoever. I will pride myself on being as down the middle as possible, and all I really want is just a good game.

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You’ve had experience recently broadcasting a Kansas game where they were upset by a lower seed with Northern Iowa. What are some of your memorable NCAA Tournament moments you’ve gotten to broadcast and when you look a back at your 19 years doing this what are your favorite tournament moments or games you’ve had the pleasure of calling?

Yeah, a couple years ago Mercer in the first round knocked out Duke in Raleigh, and that was memorable. Any time that Duke or a big blue-blood school — Kansas, Duke, Kentucky — any time they lose I think that’s a headline. That was just a couple years ago and that was pretty memorable. Those Mercer kids just kinda came out of no place and doing what they did.

Ali Farokhmanesh, with his performance against Kansas. That was in Oklahoma City and that was when Kansas was the number one overall seed and people thought they were going to roll on through, and sure enough they got hit by this Northern Iowa team that I believe was a 9-seed. And they were taken care of and beaten. People didn’t see that coming and that kid’s individual performance with five threes in a big game like that was incredibly memorable.

I did a game my very first year in Seattle. It was North Carolina and Weber State, and there was this kid on Weber State named Harold Arceneaux and his nickname was “The Show.” It was this kid from New Orleans and he had been through a couple of junior colleges. Had had a horrendous upbringing, I think he was homeless for a period of time in his youth, and he went on and had 37 points against North Carolina. And it wasn’t the North Carolina we know today or even of the past, it was a North Carolina that wasn’t quite as good as North Carolina has been, but it was nonetheless North Carolina. That was incredibly meaningful.

There was a kid from VCU named Eric Maynor, who hit a running jump shot against Duke in Buffalo and that knocked out Duke early on. Now, Duke wasn’t an incredibly high seed, but they were Duke and they lost. A lot of them will blend together — you remember great plays from time-to-time — but those are the individual ones that I remember as I get ready to do my regional final here in Kansas City.

It’s interesting you bring up the kid from Weber State, and it’s something I talked a little bit about with Brian Anderson before the tournament. For you coming from doing NFL and NBA, then going back to college basketball, is it a unique experience to have these untold stories of a lot of teams and the opportunity to shed some light on these lower seeds that people don’t know. In the NBA and NFL everyone knows a little bit about everybody, so is it something you enjoy in those first games to be able to tell some stories during games that people don’t know?

Yes. You feel great responsibility to the school and to the families of those kids. A lot of times they don’t get this kind of national publicity, and it’s very unique that we’re in a position to tell the story of kind of an unknown. I really enjoy that. It’s challenging, because you’ve got to find out and dig a little deeper. It’s really easy to get ready for Kansas or Purdue or Oregon or Michigan, you know a lot about ‘em. You don’t know a lot about UC Davis or New Mexico State or Mercer or these smaller schools, and that’s kind of the magic of the entire tournament. These kids getting a chance to play a Kansas or a Duke or a Carolina and be a part of this tournament that they’ve probably watched since they were little kids and find themselves with a chance to be part of history.

I just absolutely love it. You feel honored, but you feel great responsibility that you tell their story the right way. That’s what I enjoy. I enjoy that challenge. The kids are so polite and they’re so excited to be there and just can’t even believe that they’re there. Then they see the CBS or Turner mic flag and I think that has a profound impact on them, but it’s great. That day of practice going into the Round of 64, that’s something you wouldn’t trade for anything. Because of watching these young kids, who are still developing as the person they’re going to be — they’re not finished products, they’re kids — and they’re on this big stage and given this chance to be a part of this big tournament. It really is terrific. I do enjoy that so much.

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What are the challenges of shifting gears and going from NBA to the tournament?

Well the game is so different. Let’s face it, the NBA is incredibly skilled. The difference in talent is pretty immense. The speed is different, but what the tradeoff is, is the atmosphere and the stories and all the little nuance things — the alums that are there, the bands that are there — that’s the kind of stuff that makes it so different. It just has a different feel. The NBA Playoffs are just absolutely spectacular, and there’s very little doubt that it’d be hard to not see the wide gulf, At the same time, when you have the compelling stories, the unknowns, the first times, all those things? That’s what evens it out. And so they both become this joy to do and that’s what I like so much.

How do you decide what gets the “Harlan touch” and that little bit of extra emphasis for a moment? Is it just whatever feels right?

Yes, it is. It is always in the moment, nothing is scripted. That usually elicits the better reactions. I don’t go in thinking, “OK, I want to use this or that.” When I use this or that it is truly just getting caught up in the moment, I don’t think about that. You know, I get excited, first of all, there’s not as much scoring [in the NCAA Tournament], so it’s a little bit better than the NBA because there’s so much scoring and it’s hard to pick and choose when you let it rip.

In college, I think you can feel the momentum and the emotion build, and I think it’s a little bit easier — knock on wood — to digest that situation and then interpret it, hopefully correctly, with your own response. I guess I’ve always felt like the college game, I feel it a little bit better because there is less scoring and a basket is more pronounced. You just kind of get a feel that you’re on the cusp of maybe a big play or a defining moment.

That does not happen in the NBA because these guys can hit from out in the parking lot. There’s so much scoring and there’s so much acrobatic that these guys, literally, there’s a highlight on every play. There’s a pass or a big rebound or a tough shot or a spectacular dunk. It’s like on every possession in the NBA is highlight worthy. Well, that’s not the case in the college game. They’re kind of few and far between, and I think you want to make sure that you are constantly engaged, making sure you’re looking at your storylines and staying at the same time in the moment. So when it is there you are ready to pounce on it.

You mentioned the Maynor shot and I was watching your call of that earlier and you gave it a “is this the dagger?” and then it went in and you let it breathe. You let the moment and the crowd kind of fill the airspace. Is that something you learned over time as a broadcaster, kind of when to let the moment speak for itself with the crowd noise and the ambience?

Well, television is great because obviously you can see the picture, the response, the emotion, the passion, the tears. You can see all of that. So, if a picture’s worth a thousand words, why say anything at all? There’s no more profound moment than when you’ve got that moment and letting it kind of breathe as you say and letting it speak for itself. Radio, you can’t. You’ve got to describe everything and you cannot stop. But you can kind of look at the crowd and the ambience and the atmosphere as another broadcast partner. It needs time to exude itself. We’ve got a three-man booth at CBS, and I think it’s wise to let it kind of hang out there.

I think people, if they’ve been watching they understand it, they can see the reaction. If there is a couple of words or perhaps a sentence to put something in context, I guess you can throw that in there in that time. Hopefully, you’ve been ahead of the story and there’s some foreshadowing and you can build up, “Hey, Oregon has not been to a Final Four since 1939,” or “Hey, Kansas is going back to the Final Four for the first time since 2012.” Hopefully you can do a little bit of that before that moment, so that when that moment happens you can let the viewer decide for him or herself, they’ve got the information, they’re watching it and it’s up to them to enjoy that. I think the broadcast would screw it up. I think broadcasters are pretty good about letting the moment kind of breathe.

Sometimes, you’ve got to be a little careful, because if the place is dead and the reaction is muted by the players or out of earshot of the microphone, then maybe you have to fill some space. But I do love those moments when you can let it breathe. That’s very satisfying.

You mentioned on radio you have to tell the whole story. Last year you had the moment that ended up going viral where the guy ran on the field and you gave a play-by-play of that. Were you surprised at all at the reaction to that and the reception to that, and when did you find out that it had become a hit on the internet?

I was stunned. We did not think anything of it during the game. There was just a very slight mention of it on the ride back to the San Francisco Airport. We got back at about midnight. I went to bed at one. I woke up at four and had a 5 o’clock flight. I turned off my phone. I was changing planes at O’Hare. I turned on my phone and I had 100 text messages, and I said “uh-oh.” I probably under my breath said an expletive and said “this, this cannot be good.” Either personally or professionally. I had thought at first that something’s happened to one of my family, but then maybe it’s about work or something.

And then when I opened it up, I saw my buddies saying “oh, that was hilarious, I can’t believe you did that,” and all my buddies giving me a tough time. And at the time I’ve gone through four or five of these, and it’s all of my friends and I’m not even sure what they’re referring to. I’m not sure if they’re talking about something I said on Sunday. Something maybe that got picked up off air. I just wasn’t sure and then the Dan Patrick Show called, and they said, “Hey, I’m about to sign off can we get you on to talk about the guy that ran on the field?” And I said, “Has it been talked about?” And they were like, “Oh, the internet’s going crazy about it.” And I asked, “Is it bad?” And they go, “No no no no. Don’t you know about it?” I was like, “I just landed and turned on my phone!”

So anyway, that’s how. It worked out and it was fine, but I probably won’t do it again. But I feel like for that one moment it worked out. You know, the kid was on the field for like 40 or 50 seconds. And no one stopped him. So it kind of lent it to — he didn’t run out there and get immediately tackled — he was running up and down the field, taking his shirt off. He was waving his arms and doing all this stuff, so there was stuff to describe. And that made it, you know, broadcastable or describable and that lent itself to the moment. Had it been on TV I wouldn’t have done it, because we wouldn’t have shown it, but because it was radio and I’m broadcasting what I see. That’s what I saw and it was a boring game, so it was just an intersection of all those events.

Favorite call of yours, from any sport?

Oh man. I don’t think too highly of myself to pick something like that. I don’t know. I could choose a thousand things after each broadcast that I’d do differently or would have said differently. I’m never satisfied, in fact I’m pretty much the opposite. I’m like, ehhhh, you know? If you have a great game you ride the emotion of the game, and your broadcast kind of gets swept up in people’s opinion. Great game, great broadcast. Kind of a rotten game or mediocre game, and maybe they’ll nitpick a little more.

So I gotta be honest, I don’t think that highly of myself that I would say I nailed a particular event or game or sport. I am continuing to evolve and try to get better every time. I watch my games, listen to my games and write notes notes and tear it apart and it’s torture. It’s torture to sit there and listen. Torture.

Your favorite call from someone else that you’ve watched or listened to?

Well, the [Al] Michaels thing obviously was terrific. There are several Vin Scully calls where it’s as if he had a year to prepare to say what he said, and he had all of that moment to come up with graceful, poignant lines. You know, Verne Lundquist has had some great calls. The Laettner shot was incredible and great. There are so many, you go right on down the line. It’s probably not as much individual calls so much as guys I respect because I just find such little fault in what they do. Dan Shulman. There’s so many of them, Michaels, Doc Emrick. Guys I have such great respect for, and who I feel incredibly small when I listen to them do a game. It really hits home after I do the NBA Playoffs and there’s Emrick doing an NHL Playoff game and I go, “Gaaahhhh.”

He’s so good. It’s amazing.

He’s just the best. It’s so humbling to listen to him do a game. Michaels do NFL. Shulman do baseball. It’s torture. So, I admire more of the guys than I do a particular game.

Finally, is there any sporting event or moment in the past you would have loved to have been on the call for?

You know? I would’ve liked that Marshawn Lynch run where he broke about seven tackles in that playoff game against the Saints, because it was so describable. It wasn’t like in fast motion. Like, he had to stagger and regain his speed. See, I love the radio calls, because the radio calls to me — that’s the biggest challenge in the business is radio. But I would’ve loved to have had that call. That call would’ve been fun to describe on radio. How he broke away, staggered. Regained his footing! Broke another tackle! Where he was. How he was gyrating, shaking off another defensive player! That would’ve been fun.

You know, Jim [Nantz] had such a great call of the kid Jenkins hitting the shot for Villanova last year. I thought that was a classic call. So, you look back and there’s always things you wish you could do, but I always tell kids and young broadcasters, don’t worry about he’s calling or that guy’s calling or that assignment that guy got. Worry about what you’ve got, because once you stop taking the eye off the ball and stop watching what you’re doing and worry about what other guys are doing, you won’t be doing anything.

So you have to make sure you’re on your game, well prepared and ready to go at it, strong voice. And with a little show of appreciation perhaps before tip-off or kickoff that you’re in a business where you can call or broadcast games. My god, I mean what a great job. I couldn’t think of anything better.