Final-ly Four: At Long Last, Bill Raftery Gets the Call

After 32 years as a broadcaster (and good-time guy), the man who made "Onions!" famous graduates to college basketball's biggest stage

Bill Raftery has called college basketball for 32 years. On Saturday, he'll do his first Final Four broadcast on TV. Credit: Mitchell Layton/Getty

Bill Raftery and Yogi Berra walk into a bar.

Before we continue, it's important to note that what comes next is not a joke. Though it is easy to imagine how it might be.

Anyway, this is about 15 years ago, and two of the greatest one-liner artists of their generation have just wrapped up a round of golf on a hot summer day. Their paths had converged at the tiny Essex Fells Country Club in the well-heeled New Jersey suburb, with two other notable sports names: CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz and former NBA All-Star Kelly Tripucka. No one is really sure how the foursome came together, just that it did. A friendly match over 18 holes – Raftery and Nantz versus Berra and Tripucka – with a postscript in the club's restaurant.

It was supposed to be a quick bite and a drink.

"More one-liners than you could count," Nantz recalls. "Raft and Yogi? Together? I mean, it doesn't get much better than that."

There's no such thing as a routine day in the company of Bill Raftery. (And there's certainly no such thing as a "quick bite and a drink" either.) The post-golf B.S. session at the club ran hours over schedule. Raftery was late getting home. So were Nantz, Tripucka and Berra. As Nantz recounts the story of the day, he stops to laugh – at the hilarity of having shared golf, dinner and drinks with Raftery and Berra – and remarks at how perfect the story was. Not because of the company or the jokes or the bad golf swings, but because he didn't expect it.

He had just been a guest of Raftery, who was invited by Tripucka, who belonged to the club. Then they get there and their fourth is the Yankees' Hall of Fame catcher. Who else could make that happen? Classic Raftery.

Because things just sort of happen around him. Like timing the jump from college coach at Seton Hall to TV color guy for the fledgling Big East Conference. Like becoming one of the most-recognized voices in college basketball over the course of three decades with CBS, ESPN and Fox Sports 1. Like the catchphrases he yells during telecasts – "Onions!", "Man-to-man!" and "A little kiss!" – working their way into the sport's lexicon.

And now, calling his first Final Four on television.

This weekend, he will be broadcasting live from Indianapolis as part of the three-man booth for TBS and CBS' coverage of the Final Four. It's something that Raftery never pursued or angled for or even asked about. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen. If it wasn't? Well, he was never destined for it. But as is often the case with Raftery, it just kind of fell into his lap.

"I never considered it. Honest to God, I never thought about this," he says. "I just never wanted something that wasn't mine. I never thought that way. My motto has always been 'Just do it the best you can and whatever happens, happens.'" 

By the time the 1980-81 season had ended, Bill Raftery was feeling tired.

He had just completed his 11th season as the head coach at Seton Hall, but for the first time since 1973, his team endured a losing campaign. The Pirates were 4-10 in Big East play that year (11-16 overall) and the young coach was already wondering if this was worth it. Seton Hall was a small, Catholic school with little resources or serious commitment to basketball. And yet, it was part of a league where it had to play budding behemoths Georgetown, Syracuse and St. John's twice a year. Still, he had been coaching since 1965 (he was at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Florham Park, New Jersey before moving to South Orange), what else would he do? What else could he do?

Dave Gavitt, the commissioner of the burgeoning Big East, had that already figured out. He offered Raftery the chance to do color commentating for the league's games on ESPN. The network was looking for someone with a personality (check), who knew the game (check) and could promote the league (check).

"By the second year, I was starting to get the sense that there were going to be a lot of great players, and there already were a lot of great coaches," Raftery says. "You could tell that people were going to start doing this. Ex-players and coaches were starting to do TV. I just figured it would be a good move."

Gavitt gave him 48 hours to decide. Raftery chose TV over Seton Hall – two weeks before the start of the season. His players were crushed, offered to transfer wherever his next destination was. Those who knew him wondered if he was making a sound career move.

But Raftery knew coaching wasn't for him in the long run. Just to be safe, he took a job working at a local bank, in case the TV gig didn't pan out. ESPN put him on for nine games during the 1981-82 season. They liked what they heard. Nine games became 12. Twelve became 15. Fifteen games spilled over into to some non-Big East telecasts. Raftery was becoming a popular analyst, for his smart commentary, but also his witty and winning personality. Everything was going smoothly until January 25, 1988, when Pittsburgh forward Jerome Lane caught a pass on a fast break against Providence.

Lane leapt and shattered the backboard with a dunk, ripping the rim off in the process. Raftery's response on TV?

"SEND IT IN, JEROME!"

In an instant, he was a cult hero.

In the four decades Raftery has been behind a microphone, he has pulled catchphrases out of thin air and put them in the mouths of millions of basketball fans: Send it in, big fella! (a dunk by a big man), get the puppies set! (precise footwork by a 3-point shooter), they got man-to-man! (when a team comes out in man-to-man defense), a little kiss! (a gentle touch off the backboard), there's a little lingerie on the deck! (after a crossover move by a guard).

And of course, perhaps his most famous, after a big shot: ONIONS!

"He's got that high-pitched voice, so it cuts through the ambient noise," Raftery's longtime CBS partner Verne Lundquist says. "We'll be out in public places and grown men come up to us and yell, 'ONIONS!'"

(In case you were wondering how iconic his catchphrases are, he filed for trademarks of "Onions" and "With a kiss" last November.)

Raftery had been a part of broadcasting regular-season and NCAA tournament games for CBS since 1983. He's done some of March Madness' most memorable moments, but by the time the first two weekends of the tournament were done, so was he. Raftery did radio coverage of the Final Four for Westwood One, but his unique brand of color commentating was locked out of CBS' coverage of college basketball's marquee event.

Since 1991, Nantz has been CBS' stalwart on play-by-play duties at the Final Four. From 1991-2008, he was partnered with Billy Packer. Following Packer's retirement, Clark Kellogg was in the booth until 2013, with Steve Kerr being added as the third member in 2011. In 2013, Greg Anthony joined the team.

That was the pairing. Nothing would upset that balance, until January 16, when Anthony was arrested on charges of soliciting a prostitute in Washington, D.C. He was suspended from the network and removed from its college basketball coverage for the remainder of the season.

It left CBS with a void in its premier booth for the NCAA tournament and Final Four.

"The decision to take Greg Anthony off the broadcast team was a difficult one," CBS Sports' chairman Sean McManus says. "But we made the decision to add Bill and Grant [Hill] in connection with Turner Sports in about 25 minutes. There were really no other alternatives discussed. This was a unanimous decision."

After more than 30 years calling college basketball games, Raftery was finally getting called up to the big time.

The move was met with universal approval from fans, critics, coaches and fellow members of the media – testament to Raftery's place in the sport. The man himself, however, was shocked by the news. After accepting, his first question to McManus wasn't at all related to the Final Four. Instead, Raftery asked him: "What will you do with Verne?"

Lundquist and Raftery are close friends. They first worked a game together in 1983, and had been reunited as a broadcast team since 2000. Their wives and families are close. After Raftery found out he would be moved to a new team in January, they talked for almost an hour, until he was sure Lundquist was OK with the switch.

"I'm going to miss him enormously, but I'm so happy for him," Lunquist says. "I would never be demeaning to Billy or Clark or Greg – the three guys who did it before him – but Bill Raftery is as good as they are and has a unique way that gives you a completely different style." 

Three weeks ago, in a ballroom at the Hilton in midtown Manhattan, Raftery sat quietly tucked away in a back corner. CBS and its NCAA tournament broadcast partner, Turner Sports, were unveiling the latest bells and whistles for this year's event. The morning media pow-wow concluded with Nantz bringing his new Final Four booth partners up to the front of the room.

Raftery stood, holding a cup of orange juice in his left hand, while his right was vigorously shaken by friends and colleagues. Steve Smith, the former NBA star and member of the network's team, was the first to offer congratulations. Then Mateen Cleaves. CBS' studio host, Greg Gumbel, slipped into the room, but not before patting Raftery on the back.

"He is so genuine," friend and longtime broadcast partner Ian Eagle says. "That's not something that you can fake for 30 years. Most people just assume that he must get cranked up on the air. No. That's who he is. In television, they tell you, 'When the red light goes on, just be yourself.' That's hard to do. It's always been easy for him."

The astute college basketball fan has known that for the last 30-plus years. Raftery has been coming into their living rooms, calling memorable games while adding his own bit of panache to the proceedings. Saturday, he will do his first Final Four for broadcast television and on Monday, he'll call the national championship game for the first time. For those who have somehow missed his presence in the sport, well, there's no better way to get acquainted with the man – and his mania.

"That's his personality, that's his spirit," Hill, the former Duke and NBA star who is also making his debut this weekend, says. "It's what makes him so endearing. He's likable, he's funny. He's kind of like Jimmy Buffett, in that he's got that cult following. But he's also like Frank Sinatra, because he's got that old-school cool about him."

Hang around "Raft" long enough and it's easy to see why he's earned the nickname of "Uncle One More." Despite being an Irish kid from Kearny, New Jersey, he loves Italian restaurants with a deep wine list almost as much as he does a dark, oak-covered bar with beers on tap. His longtime broadcast partners know better than to expect an early return back to the hotel room after calling a night game with Raftery.

And if there's a game the next day?

"It's incredible," Lundquist says, almost falling over with laughter. "He has the constitution of a mule."

He's a people-person. A bar or restaurant just usually happens to be the only place where Raftery can get those people together.

Nantz puts it more succinctly, saying Raftery reminds him most of a real-life Norm Peterson: The guy at the local bar with a beer in his hands, who always gets a hello when he walks in a room, engages in conversation with everyone, is likable, funny and self-deprecating. Raftery's bar just so happens to be a television broadcast booth.

"He collects people," Eagle says. "If you go to dinner with Bill on the road, there's a good chance you'll have a CEO of a major company, a local golf pro, a person who was a runner for him at a NCAA tournament in 2007 and a coach of a major university. He collects people. I've never been around anyone like him."