Raftery celebrates 30 years with NCAAs

JIM O'CONNELL AP Basketball Writer Published:

Leave it to Bill Raftery to live to his own cliche. If you can't beat them, talk about them.

When Raftery left the coaching profession he didn't disappear from college basketball. For 30 years, the former Seton Hall coach has been analyzing games, creating catchphrases and generally living the life of an ambassador.

"I always say if you don't like Bill Raftery there's something wrong with you because there's nothing about him that's not likable," said Sean McDonough, who has worked with Raftery at ESPN for 20 years.

His play-by-play partner at CBS for the past 12 NCAA tournaments was topical when asked about Raftery.

Verne Lundquist will be next to Raftery in Louisville, Ky., for the second and third rounds.

"Iowa State is in Louisville this week, and their coach, Fred Hoiberg, was known as the mayor of Ames, Iowa," Lundquist said. "I'm working with the mayor of college basketball."

Raftery compiled a 154-141 record in 11 seasons at Seton Hall, taking two teams to the NIT. He was one of the seven original coaches in the Big East, a league he stays connected to through ESPN's "Big Monday," the platform where he has launched his trademark calls.

It starts every game with Raftery letting the audience immediately know what defense is being played, loud and direct: "They're in man to man." He'll let you know a player is clutch by talking about "onions." He doesn't try to describe dunks, he just yells for the player to "Send it in," the most famous of which was asked of Pittsburgh's Jerome Lane as he shattered a backboard in 1988.

Raftery started his broadcast career without any training. He was a former coach known for his sense of humor, a combination Al McGuire worked masterfully as college basketball and television were starting a great relationship. Raftery fit the same mold. He was accepted almost right away and was soon working the NCAA tournament for CBS.

Raftery said it took a while to change from coach to analyst but he'll always have some coach in him.

"The only difference in the jobs was I didn't lose my first broadcast. I lost my first game," he said, breaking into the laugh that's around for most of the games he works. "I found out that when the game was over I only had to worry about me, and that was never the case. In coaching it was always worry about us.

"I remember Oct. 15 was tough the first year. I've had a couple of buddies like (Maryland's) Gary Williams who recently retired and I asked what was it like on Oct 15 and he said he didn't know what to do. That's why this has been great. As you get into it you maintain the connection with the game and do your own film work that you're going to share with an audience rather than breaking down tape so you can beat somebody. Now you're trying to entertain somebody, teach somebody."

Some of his former colleagues said they enjoy listening to him, but they also admit they are prejudiced.

"I've always heard people say Bill would be a great guy to sit next to at the bar," said former St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca, a 1992 Naismith Hall of Fame inductee. "I disagree. I would sit next to him anywhere. He's going to keep talking no matter where you are so you might as well get comfortable. He's our raconteur"

Pete Carril, the former Princeton coach and a 1997 Hall of Fame inductee, said what makes Raftery a good analyst is that he's a coach who's not coaching.

"Billy lets the guys coach their teams. He doesn't. He tells you what's going on and what might happen, things coaches do when they watch games," Carril said. "This is a guy everybody wants to talk to. He's a people guy. Just watch him for a few minutes, you'll see."

Raftery has covered the Maui Invitational for the last two decades, and during those six-day visits every year he has been dubbed "Mayor of Maui."

He's become such a popular figure on the island that he gets a ride in the back of a police car after the championship game to make sure he gets on the last flight to the mainland.

"I just look good in Hawaiian shirts," he said. "Even I can't ruin someone's good time in Maui. I've tried. I can't do it."

Raftery and Lundquist seem to enjoy their time together on the air, a tandem that clicked right away over a long period of time.

"We first worked together in 1983. They put us together on back-to-back games in South Carolina, Idaho at South Carolina, and Marquette at South Carolina," Lundquist recalled. "We hit it off immediately. We both received calls from the powers in charge at the time, 'You guys sound good together. Can't wait to hear more.' It was 17 years before we worked together again. Who knows why? We've been tournament regulars together since 2000."

McDonough said he thinks Raftery is "among the best of all-time. even if we give him a hard time about his overly active social life and give the impression he stays out all night."

Lundquist called him a terrific analyst who is "often overlooked because of all the perceived shtick."

Nobody could live up to the reputation Raftery has developed about his postgame carousing. There was a time he tried but now he's an elder statesman who is often asked for advice from people trying to break into his second profession.

"A lot of people come up and tell me what they think, and some of them think a lot," he said. "When young people come up and ask me about getting in the business I always ask them if they're a good student. When they finally get around to saying they are I say, 'That's terrific but you got no shot in the business.' I mean during the game we emote about a game, and intellectually it doesn't give off a lot of brain matter."

He can't believe it was 30 years ago that a former coach got a start in a new career.

"The only thing I know is my hair is gray and I can't stay out as effectively as I used to," he said, giving himself one more shot. "I think it's been so exhilarating that each year brings a new optimism, fresh faces, new kids, different personalities. I think it's uplifting and a labor of love more than it's 'Oh my God, look what's transpired over all these years."