Why Jim Nantz?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of mysteries and detective novels. I started, as a kid, with the Encyclopedia Brown series, then graduated to Dashiell Hammett and a little Mickey Spillane.
Later, it was Walter Mosley and Baltimore’s own Laura Lippman, but my favorite, by far, is the late, great Robert B. Parker, the best thing to emerge from Boston, maybe ever.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
But not even Parker and his best-known creation, Spenser, could solve one of the biggest mysteries in all of sports television:
How does Jim Nantz still have a job when everyone around him seems to lose theirs?
Don’t get me wrong. Nantz, the lead voice at CBS Sports for a generation, is an inoffensive chap. No doubt, Nantz, who joined the network in the 1980s doing college football as a studio host, loves America and all that it stands for.
As the main play-by-play guy on three of CBS’ signature properties, namely the NFL, college basketball and golf, Nantz is a steadying presence.
He has, as Charles Barkley aptly described in one of those ubiquitous credit card commercials that ran through the recent NCAA tournament, “rugged good looks” and that “velvety voice” that always bids you welcome to whatever locale with a “Hello, friends.”
Nantz has staying power, to be sure. He has outlasted colleagues like Brent Musberger and Gus Johnson. Booth and tower partners such as Billy Packer, Clark Kellogg, Ken Venturi have also headed to the bench, while Nantz keeps shooting.
In recent weeks, Nantz has remained as the network’s lead NFL caller, a spot he has held since 2004, while Phil Simms, the No.1 analyst since 1998, got bounced in favor of former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
Just this week, news emerged that Lance Barrow, CBS’ lead NFL producer and the theoretical head of the network’s No.1 production team, will be leaving the team – and Nantz — to be replaced by Jim Rikhoff, who was the replay producer on CBS’ Thursday night games.
With all the changes that have surrounded Nantz over the years, how is it that he has remained the main guy?
At first blush, it’s not an easy question to answer. To be blunt, Nantz’s style is, at best, workmanlike. He gives you the nuts and bolts of a play, but very little insight and hardly any pizzazz.
To the latter point, name one signature call that belongs to Nantz from any event that he has called over the years. Go ahead; we’ll wait.
The truth is, you can’t. Think of some of the play-by-play giants of this era. Think of Hall of Fame caliber play callers like Dick Enberg, Bob Costas, Al Michaels and Marv Albert. All of them have a signature call or moment that sets them apart from the rest of the pack.
Know what else they all have in common? Each of them has either been supplanted as the top announcer at a network on a sport, changed networks or stepped down from a position of power.
No one stays forever.
No one, it seems, but Jim Nantz, though it’s hard to figure out why.
With the exception of golf, which he played in college and is his best sport, Nantz doesn’t feel like a natural listen on the NFL or especially college basketball.
Indeed, Nantz does not annually set foot inside a gym to do hoops until the weekend that the tournament field is announced. Can you imagine any other sport where the main game caller doesn’t do a game until the postseason practically begins?
And it’s not as if CBS is hurting for A-list talent to supplant Nantz. Ian Eagle, Spero Dedes or Kevin Harlan could easily slide into the big NFL and/or NCAA chair and the viewers would immediately notice the upgrade.
Nantz has tellingly remained quiet since Simms was unceremoniously chased from the No.1 NFL booth this month. Simms’ son, Chris, loudly speculated that Nantz “signed off on this to some degree.”
For his part, Phil Simms admitted that his pride “absolutely” was hurt by the demotion to “The NFL Today” pregame show, but he has accepted the move. He said the other day that he hasn’t heard from Nantz, but is waiting “for things to settle down” before they talk.
When they do chat, Phil Simms’ first question to his friend ought to be, “How did this happen to me and not you?”
Now, there’s a mystery!