Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame: Bill Raftery, The Coach Who Became a Cross-Generational Legend Behind the Mic
When you think of the greatest moments in college-basketball history, where does your mind go? Straight to March, right? How about a bitterly cold January night in Western Pennsylvania in 1988?
In the first half of an early-season Big East conference game between Providence and Pitt, the Panthers raced down the court on a fast break off a steal. Taking the feed as he careened down the lane, senior forward Jerome Lane threw down a thunderous one-handed dunk, shattering the backboard and raining down glass on the hardwood floor. ESPN was on hand that night, and analyst Bill Raftery happened to be sitting courtside with a headset on.
Without Raftery, that moment is likely nothing more than a YouTube clip oozing with ’80s nostalgia: a fun, generic throwback to a long-past, “rock ’em sock ’em” era, when games were played in field houses and civic centers, not sparkling arenas with massive videoboards. Instead, it became one of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport when Raftery bellowed “Send it in, Jerome!”
“It just popped out,” Raftery says of the line that he still hears from fans — some of whom probably hadn’t even been born in 1998. “There was no preconceived notion for it. I’m sure, somewhere along the line, I’d heard people say it.”
The moment is the signature call of a career loaded with catch phrases (“Onions!” “With a kiss!”) but is known and loved mostly for its enthusiasm and sheer love of the game.
“Few in this industry are recognized as being at the top of their game, as well as being universally respected and liked by colleagues, coaches, players, and fans,” says Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports and Class of 2016 inductee in the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. “Bill Raftery’s career has been recognized for all of these and is most deserving to take his rightful place in the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Born to Irish immigrant parents in 1943, Raftery is a coach turned broadcaster who continues to find success behind the mic even as he approaches his mid 70s. For more than three decades, he has called games for CBS Sports, ESPN, and Fox, becoming an icon in the sport of college basketball.
The Jersey boy coached at Fairleigh Dickinson in the 1960s and Seton Hall in the 1970s before switching to the television side in the early ‘80s. However, a meeting with legendary New York sportscaster Bob Wolff when Raftery was a senior in college laid the groundwork for his future broadcasting career. CBS was covering his LaSalle team in the NIT, and his coach had him show the visiting announcer around and take him to dinner. After the meeting, Raftery recalls, Wolff said to him, “Someday, when you’re finished doing whatever you are going to do, you ought to try my profession.
“It always stuck in my head,” he continues. “It was just one of those things in the back of my head, and I said, ‘This will keep me in the game that I enjoy.’”
Keep him in the game it has. Raftery has called NCAA Tournament games for 35 years, including classics like the 2006 Regional Final, when Cinderella George Mason upended Connecticut to earn a Final Four bid, and the memorable 2009 Big East tournament game between Syracuse and UConn that went six overtimes.
Throughout his career, he has worked alongside play-by-play men like Sean McDonough, Gus Johnson, and Mike Gorman, in addition to a long run calling March Madness with Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Verne Lundquist.
In 2016, Raftery’s long career received a dramatic exclamation point. The veteran broadcaster was tapped to call his first Final Four for television at the age of 73, working alongside Grant Hill and veteran play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz.
“He is beloved,” notes Nantz. “When you listen to him on the air, you can hear his smile. All the rest of the world has gotten a little bit older, but Raftery is this timeless guy who continues to see things very quickly, very crisp in his commentary, this whimsical approach to dropping in a quip here and there. I just laugh.”
To this day, Raftery retains a larger-than-life voice and personality as synonymous with college hoops as brackets and buzzer-beaters.
“Raf’s excitement for the game of basketball is infectious,” says Leslie Moonves, chairman/CEO, CBS Corp. “His career has proven that he truly is one of the most original and beloved broadcasters — and people — in all of sports.”