BEHIND THE SCENES
Bill Raftery Talks March Madness, 'Onions' and Golf March 10, 2016 | FAR HILLS, N.J. By David Chmiel, USGA

March Madness may be here, but college basketball analyst Bill Raftery is just as happy talking golf. (Courtesy Fox Sports)

If you are a fan of college basketball, you have at one time or another tried vainly to capture the joyful delivery of CBS Sports’ Bill Raftery, the lead analyst for the basketball revelry known as March Madness.

From a quick “Duke opens … in mantoman!” to “he didn’t set the puppies” or “with a kiss!” Raftery peppers broadcasts with his popular catchphrases and an exuberant lingo that leaves basketball fans anticipating his slang as much as the action on the court.

As college basketball’s high holy days approach, Raftery is everywhere, especially as lead analyst with Fox Sports and FS1 for Big East basketball games and as CBS Sports' lead analyst for the Final Four. In his 34th season of calling games, it’s easy to think you know everything about him. Despite his heavy schedule of calling games around the country, Raftery is devoted to his family (wife, Joan, four children and four grandchildren). His self-deprecating streak belies the accomplishments of the son of Irish immigrants who grew up in Kearny, N.J. to become an all-state athlete in baseball, basketball and soccer before leading La Salle University to the 1964 National Invitational Tournament.

Raftery went from La Salle to a tryout with the New York Knicks, until he was offered the head coaching position at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Florham Park, N.J., where he and Joan still live. He led FDU's Division III Jersey Devils basketball team to a 63-47 record from 1963-1968, while also coaching golf.

From 1970-1981, Raftery served as head basketball coach at Seton Hall University, where he revitalized the program and led the Pirates to seven straight winning seasons and a record of 154-141. Under Raftery, Seton Hall became a charter member of the Big East Conference. He was prepared to return for a 12th year, but just before the season, Big East founder Dave Gavitt asked him if he would be interested in joining a fledgling network called ESPN as a college basketball analyst.

“Coaches didn’t get paid then as they do now,” Raftery said. “Joan suggested that it might be a good idea, so I took the leap. Seems to have been a pretty good call.”

Indeed, as Raftery is one of the most prominent voices of college basketball, now splitting his time between Fox Sports and CBS Sports assignments. He served as the lead analyst for CBS Radio’s coverage of the Final Four for 23 years before teaming up with Jim Nantz and former Duke and NBA star Grant Hill on TV last year.

But the USGA Member is just as happy (well, almost as happy) talking golf as he is hoops, especially about his career as a golf coach:

You grew up in the urban environment of Kearny, N.J. How did you start playing golf?

My friend and I were in eighth grade. We needed money, so we walked about 4 miles from Kearny to Forest Hill Field Club in Bloomfield. Emery Thomas was the pro and we thought we could caddie. We sat until 5 p.m., never got a loop and walked home. That was it for me, but I had never seen that much green. We would go to the driving range for date night in high school, but I didn’t play until I went to La Salle University and my teammates took me out to Cobbs Creek. Then when I got home from college, I started playing at the East Orange Golf Course in Jersey. I was in my 20s and my brother-in-law was a member at Essex Fells Country Club. He invited me to play in a member-guest. I didn’t have a handicap, but I loved it and eventually got serious about the game.

Good idea, since you also had just become the FDU coach. What did you do?

My old athletic director, Bob Shields, offered me the coaching job. Then I found out I would be the golf coach, assistant athletic director and sports information director. I also taught two golf classes a week, which was interesting since I had no idea what I was talking about. But I had great kids on the golf team. They made me look good every year. We would be 10-1 every year, the boys got to practice at Baltusrol’s Upper Course. I just had to keep track of the meal money and make sure the kids got to the course on time. I learned more from them than they learned from me, that’s for sure. But I did earn the princely sum of $5,200 each year. I managed to break even each year. Being Irish, that is a win.

Who is the best stick among the crop of college basketball coaches? Who is on the bubble and who wouldn’t make it into the Round of 64?

[Syracuse coach] Jim Boeheim is a very good player, as is [University of North Carolina coach] Roy Williams. Tom Izzo (Michigan State) and Rick Pitino (Louisville) play, too. I believe that Larry Brown (SMU) once won the senior club championship at Atlantic Golf Club. Most of the guys are around 12-handicappers, but they are all really competitive. The sad thing is that coaching and recruiting is such a year-round job now that guys don’t get out on the course as much. None of the coaches are as bad as Sir Charles [Barkley, the NBA Hall of Famer-turned-broadcaster]!

What requires more onions … a pair of foul shots to clinch the NCAA championship or sinking a downhill 10-footer to win the U.S. Open?

Ooooh, that’s a tough one. Michael Jordan and I were teammates at an event in Pinehurst; he had a 10-footer to win the hole. I said, ‘C’mon, MJ, it’s just like making a free throw.’ He said, ‘No it’s not, I know I can make the free throw.’ Those moments are just as hard as a basketball game because you don’t want to cost your teammate the back nine and the match. I always feel worse for the other guy, because I’ve usually missed the putt and put the pressure on my partner. I guess it’s just where your comfort zone is.

How did your announcing style evolve?

You know, I just sat in the chair and started talking basketball. In the early days of ESPN, we weren’t sure anyone was listening, so we just shared what I saw as though I was having drinks with friends and talking basketball. I spent most of my life in New Jersey and Philadelphia, where you had to be glib and fast or you would get punished by your pals. I love the game and was happy to share what little I know about it. It just came out of my mouth, so I went with it.

How do you keep it fresh?

People expect to hear their favorites, but that is hardly a tragedy, right? It is just so much fun to travel around, watch games and react to the shots and my partners. I have been blessed with Jim and Grant Hill, Sean McDonough, Jay Bilas, Verne Lundquist, Ian Eagle. They challenge me with their generosity and intellectual capacity. That keeps my energy up and I look for ways to keep it fresh, whether on the air or around a neighborhood tavern after the game.

What was it like to do the Final Four TV broadcast last year for the first time?

It was a wonderful experience. I had done it on radio for 23 years, but that’s different. You don’t have the luxury of the visuals so you have to work more quickly to capture everything in radio. But there is a lot of familiarity with our team … I worked with Jim Nantz on his first college basketball game for CBS. I think it was in 1986 … Heck, I met Grant Hill when he was just a pup. He still is, actually! He is such an exceptional human being. Working with [director] Bob Fishman and [producer] Mark Wolff is a real pleasure. They do everything possible to prepare us and then let us have fun.

How do you manage the excitement as the hype builds for the game?

It’s like ramping up to play golf. You get loose on the practice tee, hit some putts and try to keep your nerves in check. Then, when you get that first tee ball airborne, you just do what you know how to do. Except that – thank goodness – the whole world isn’t watching me hit a golf ball! 

Who do you like in the tournament this year?

Boy, this has been a crazy year! I have done a lot of games this year and I have fallen for a few teams. I saw Kansas, fell in love. Then I fell for Michigan State and North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland after that. Maryland really could get on a roll. Arizona too … Honestly, there is so much parity this year. Usually, one or two schools get their rotations set, get hot in their conference tournaments and play with confidence. I like teams with experience, but this year is so wide open, with so many good teams. I think this could be the year when a 16 seed beats a 1 seed. I know fans and announcers love it, but coaches hate it!

David Chmiel is manager of Member content for the USGA. Please contact him at dchmiel@usga.org.