Dougherty: Elite company for Green Bay's Kevin Harlan

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Kevin Harlan works during Game 5 of the first round of the NBA playoffs between the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center.

As a journalism student at the University of Missouri in 1986, I became friends with a few guys in the school’s sports broadcast program.

They couldn’t stop talking about this young radio play-by-play announcer for Missouri’s football and men’s basketball teams. With great pipes and command of games, he was what they wanted to be: the exciting, authoritative voice of a major college’s best-known sports teams by their mid-20s.

What they never talked about and most assuredly didn’t know was what it took for their hero to hit it big at that young an age. Because Kevin Harlan didn’t just show up in Missouri one day and call a game like a pro.

His ascent was years in the making and went back to age 13 or 14, when he started practicing play-by-play announcing with the sound turned down while watching college and pro games in his bedroom in Green Bay. And later calling play-by-play for Green Bay Premontre High School games on the school’s small radio station during his four years there.

“He really worked at it,” said Bryan Harlan, Kevin’s brother and an agent whose primary clients are coaches in college football and the NFL. “Not many kids 12, 13, 14 really know what they want to do. He did.”

This year, that same Kevin Harlan is being honored as the National Sports Media Association’s national broadcaster of the year, joining the likes of Curt Gowdy, Keith Jackson, Vin Scully, Dick Enberg, Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Chris Berman, Jim Nantz, Mike Tirico, Dan Patrick and Mike “Doc” Emrick.

Harlan, the son of Green Bay Packers Chairman Emeritus Bob Harlan, has been working games on TV and radio in multiple sports at the highest levels for going on four decades now. If you feel like you see or hear him at least a couple times a week, it’s because you probably do.

He announces NFL games for CBS TV (Sundays) and Westwood One radio (Monday nights); NBA games on Thursdays for TNT; and college basketball for CBS. Since 2003, he also has called Packers preseason games that aren’t nationally televised.

When I talked to him late last week, Harlan was preparing to call TNT’s broadcast of the Minnesota Timberwolves' home game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night, where he’d also emcee a halftime tribute to former Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders. (Harlan was perfect for the occasion because he’d been the Timberwolves' TV and radio play-by-play announcer for the first nine years of the franchise’s existence.)

On Saturday, he worked the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge in Los Angeles as part of the league’s All-Star weekend. And Sunday, he called the Ohio State at Michigan basketball game.

During football season, he works an NFL game every Sunday for CBS, then the Monday night game for Westwood One. When basketball season begins in mid-October, he adds an NBA game on Thursday nights. He works every NFL playoff weekend through the Super Bowl for Westwood One and begins announcing college basketball in mid-January.

But for the 57-year-old Harlan, it all started as a youngster in Green Bay. He decided he wanted to be a sports announcer after abandoning hopes of becoming an airline pilot because of the deep knowledge of trigonometry required of pilots at the time. So he switched his mind to sports announcing and started by practicing in front of the TV.

“I was in the room right next door so it was kind of bothersome,” Bryan Harlan said. “I’d have rather listened to Curt Gowdy do the game than Kevin. But we got used to it.”

Kevin Harlan quickly graduated to working on-air to decidedly small audiences on Premontre’s 10-watt FM station, which had a broadcast radius of probably a couple miles. He advanced from doing studio work as a freshman to play-by-play for football, boys’ basketball and hockey games in his final three years there. Home and road, which meant toting equipment to Appleton Xavier, Fond du Lac Springs, Manitowoc Roncalli and the like.

He also filled in as a freelancer for high school games on radio stations in the Fox River Valley.

“That was it,” he said. “Caught the bug.”

Harlan was going to attend Wisconsin or Notre Dame for college to prepare for a broadcasting career, but former national announcer Gary Bender recommended to Bob Harlan that his son attend the University of Kansas’ broadcast journalism school instead.

Bender helped set up a weekend in Lawrence, Kansas, where Harlan could meet and observe Tom Hedrick, who at the time was the voice of Kansas football and basketball. At the end of the weekend, which included a Kansas-Colorado basketball game, Hedrick was sold that Harlan was serious and promised him a job as a sidelines reporter and broadcast fill-in starting Harlan’s freshman year.

In his sophomore year, Harlan also was hired to produce the pregame, halftime and postgame shows for the Kansas City Chiefs’ radio broadcasts. He essentially worked two and sometimes three jobs at a time while also attending school, which he finished in four years.

“I probably was broadcasting more than I was a student,” he said.

His first full-time job after graduating at age 22 was doing radio play-by-play for the NBA’s Kansas City Kings. When the Kings left for Sacramento in 1985, the radio play-by-play job for the Chiefs opened — current Packers announcer Wayne Larrivee left the Chiefs for the Chicago Bears — and Harlan got that.

Then in ’86 he added Missouri football and basketball. It’s probably hard to appreciate if you’ve never lived there, but having a Kansas grad doing home play-by-play for Missouri was a tough sell. The enmity between those two schools goes back to the Civil War.

Harlan had to win over the basketball (Norm Stewart) and football (Woody Widenhofer) coaches, along with the athletic director (Jack Lengyel) and an assistant athletic director (Joe Castiglione) over lunch in Columbia, Mo. He did, though the hiring of a Kansas grad to be the voice of Missouri sports still made local news.

Nevertheless, Missouri’s sports broadcast students had a new hero, even if they had no clue about all the work and practice it took to get there.

We won’t get too deep into Harlan’s move up the ladder since then. He dropped Missouri and added the Timberwolves in ’89, in part because Costas and Marv Albert advised him that the future in broadcasting was TV. That eventually led to national NBA and NFL work starting in the ‘90s.

Twenty-plus years later, Harlan remains one of the busiest people in sports broadcasting, while he and his wife, Ann, live most of the year (April through January) in Door County, which is the peninsula that separates Green Bay (the body of water) from Lake Michigan. The rest of the year they live near Kansas City.

His broadcasting schedule requires hours of game prep for different sports the same week and hectic travel for games often played in different cities on consecutive days. But that’s a manageable price for someone who has gone from announcing games at home for an audience of none, to someone being officially honored this year as the best in the business.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t know how lucky I am to be in this position, working for three different networks and doing two, three different levels of sport — NBA, college basketball and the NFL — all at a national level,” Harlan said. “I say thank you dear Lord every time I put on that headset. I never take it for granted and love every minute.”

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