Better Know a Broadcaster: A Q&A with Illinois play-by-play announcer Brian Barnhart
As we hopefully approach the start of the 2020 football season, we at Saturday Football are speaking with a number of college football broadcasters and analysts. This week, Illinois play-by-play announcer Brian Barnhart spoke with newsletter editor Adam Spencer.
Below, you can read the full interview, where they discussed Illinois’ prospects in 2020, growing up in central Illinois, weird baseball ground rules and more. Check it out!
(Note: Interview edited for length and clarity.)
Adam Spencer: Just to start, can you give me a little background about yourself? You’ve been with the Illini since the early 2000s, right?
Brian Barnhart: Correct, yeah. First year was, let’s see, fall of 2002.
AS: Cool. So, growing up, was there a moment you knew you wanted to be a broadcaster? Or, how did that get into your mind that that was something you might want to make a career out of?
BB: It was mostly in college. I went away to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and was going to be a history teacher. That was my original goal. So I didn’t think about being a sports announcer really until college. I got into it in college, got on the campus radio station and kind of fell in love with it right away and said, ‘I want to do this for a living instead.’ … I didn’t really grow up wanting to be it, but once I got into college, I realized how much fun it was to do and that you could actually make a living out of it. That was pretty exciting to me.
AS: You grew up pretty near Champaign, right?
BB: Yeah, in Tolono, Illinois. It’s less than 10 miles south of Champaign.
AS: Cool, I’m from Central Illinois, too. Were you a pretty big Illini fan growing up then, I assume?
BB: Absolutely. I went to a lot of basketball games with my dad. My dad had season tickets. I was there when Eddie Johnson hit the famous shot to beat Michigan State. I was in the stands that night. I didn’t go to as many football games, because football was always right in the middle of the harvest. We weren’t able to go to many football games, but we went to some. Basketball we had season tickets for and we went all the time.
AS: When you started getting into broadcasting in college and even as you began as a broadcaster yourself, who were some of your inspirations? Who did you look up to in the business?
BB: Some of it was from around here. Jim Turpin, of course, did the Illini games when I was growing up as a teenager. He and Loren Tate. Loren Tate’s still around. Jim is still living in the community. I grew up listening to those guys.
Then, of course, Jack Buck in St. Louis and Harry Caray in Chicago. There was a guy in college I got to hear, and a little after college, named Brad Sham. He does the Dallas Cowboys. I thought he was really, really good. Al Michaels I thought had an excellent delivery. Those were some of the guys I really enjoyed listening to and watching when they were doing games.
AS: You mentioned both Jack Buck and Harry Caray there. I know you were right on that Cardinals-Cubs borderline, so… which team?
BB: Well, actually, it’s funny. My dad’s a White Sox fan. So that’s kind of what I was growing up. When I moved away to go to college and then I got into minor league baseball and then I did Major League Baseball in Anaheim, I didn’t really follow the White Sox all that close.
I’m married to a Cardinals fan and her family is mostly Cardinal fans, so I’m probably more in the Cardinals’ camp now just by osmosis.
AS: Good answer (laughs). During your career as a broadcaster, maybe not even during your time at Illinois, what was the funniest moment you’ve had in a broadcast booth?
BB: There have been a few, but I would say kind of a strange moment was when I was doing a minor league game in New Orleans. In the minors, they have what they call staggered fences. The home run fence. You have either a double-decker fence where you have to clear the whole thing or you have a staggered fence where all it has to do is clear the bottom fence.
They had that ground rule in New Orleans and it was the very end of the game and I didn’t know that they had changed the ground rules before the game. I don’t remember why. It came down to a game-winning home run and I didn’t know what the final score was because I didn’t know if the ball had hit the fence or cleared the fence or what.
It was calling a game-winning home run, but we had to say ‘We’ll tell you the final score when we come back.’ That was pretty strange.
Then there are other great moments or funny plays. We had a moment a few years ago at Illinois where they started the men’s (basketball) game with a women’s basketball. They went 3 or 4 minutes with it. Demetri McCamey was playing at the time and he kept telling coach Bruce Weber, ‘Hey, this ball’s not right.’ They weren’t shooting it well. And Bruce was like, ‘Well, it’s not affecting the other team. Just keep playing!’
They finally did check it at the first timeout and it was like, ‘Yep, you’re right, we’re playing with the women’s ball instead of the men’s ball.’ I don’t know if somebody grabbed the wrong ball before the game or what, but that was pretty funny to hear the back-and-forth between McCamey and coach Weber.
AS: Since you’ve been at Illinois since the early-2000s, I’m sure that your overall answer might be a specific game in 2005, but what’s the favorite game you’ve been a part of at Illinois overall and then specifically in football?
BB: Well, it was probably that Arizona game you’re talking about. It was awesome to be in that arena anyway. But with a trip to the Final Four on the line, down 15 points with 4 minutes left, how it happened, everything associated with it was just amazing. It felt like a dream. That was probably No. 1.
I’ve called a Final Four, I’ve called a national title game, which was incredible to be a part of. You grow up watching that game as a kid and now you’re actually calling it for a team you grew up rooting for. That was pretty cool.
I’ve called a Rose Bowl. That game wasn’t that competitive, but it was a great setting in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl with the San Gabriel Mountains and all that goes with that.
The Indiana basketball game where Tyler Griffey hit a layup at the buzzer, that was an incredible moment because Indiana had been so good. Just getting that last-second, wide-open layup — you knew it was good as soon as he let it go. It was just really exciting. That was fun, plus it’s always fun to beat the Hoosiers.
The Wisconsin game from the past year is probably right up there. Just because, going into the game, even the most optimistic Illini fans were probably thinking we had no chance. They’d beaten everyone so bad and hadn’t really been scored upon. Then, as the game went on, Illinois just kept hanging in there and battling the Badgers. They got a couple of turnovers, which they were really good at last year. All of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, we might actually win this game.’ Then, to have James McCourt hit that game-winner, that moved quickly up to the top (of my list).
The other one I would say would be the upset of No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus with (QB) Juice Williams. The difference there is that Illinois team that year was a Rose Bowl team. That was a good team, but to still go into Columbus and do what they did was pretty impressive.
AS: Speaking of last year and that Wisconsin game, it seems like Illinois might have turned a bit of a corner there under Lovie Smith. Getting back to a bowl game was big. What’s something that you’re excited for about the football team this fall?
BB: Hopefully we’ll have all the fans and hopefully we’ll have everything normal. We’ll see. The most exciting thing, I think, is this senior class now. That was Lovie Smith’s first recruiting class. They got beat up the first couple of years and they learned from it and you could see them sort of turn the corner last year as juniors.
As seniors, they’re the leaders of the team. They’ve been through a lot and I think that’s the exciting part — this is probably going to be Lovie Smith’s best team, easily. The stability at quarterback, they’ve got some guys ready to step in, the offensive line has played together quite a bit. Last year, the defense in the secondary showed a lot of improvement. They forced a lot of turnovers. Combine it with this is these guys’ fourth year under Lovie Smith and it’s his crew, I think that excites a lot of fans.
Plus the schedule this year early, on paper, it breaks their way with the games they have early in the season. They could really get off to a good start.
AS: Just a few more for you here. If you could pick anyone, past or present, to broadcast a game with, who would you choose and why?
BB: I’ll have to think about that. Anybody, huh? That’s interesting. Early in my career in the minor leagues, I actually did some games with Joe Buck. He was in Louisville while I was in Oklahoma City. I’d have him come down and sit with me and do some innings. It’d be fun to do another game with him at some point just because of that history.
I’d love to do a game with Brent Musburger. I think that’d be fun. Brent always treated me really well. He was so friendly and I grew up watching him on TV, so that would be fun to do a game with him. A current guy, too, would be Mike Tirico. I’ve always loved the way he approaches games and events. The thing I like about him, and I told him this once, I like that he understands that he’s not bigger than the event he’s covering. He does a really good job of being solid and professional and yet still painting a really good picture of what’s happening without making it all about him.
AS: If you had to pick any other team to call games for other than the Illini, what team would you choose?
BB: I grew up a Bears fan. Still am. I suppose that would be one. I would think any of the Chicago or St. Louis teams, just because I’m so familiar with them. Being the voice of the Boston Red Sox would be fun, I think. A few years ago, I turned down a job with their triple-A team. I already had a job. I always wonder what would have happened if I’d gone to Pawtucket. Would I have been in Boston at some point?
I love the job I have right now. I never really expected I’d have it. I never expected to be home again to have a chance to do it 20 years ago. It’s just been a real blessing to be able to do it.
AS: Last one for you here. What’s something you’ve learned about yourself during this quarantine process with no live sports to call or watch?
BB: It took me about 2 weeks to get over the end of the basketball season. We had a really good team and I think had the potential to make a deep run. To have that snuffed out, unfortunately, with the COVID-19, was too bad. I felt for the young men and the coaches and everybody that put so much work into it.
I guess the big thing I’ve noticed is that I can do other things. The rhythm of baseball, I’ve missed that, but I’ve taken up bike riding and more walking, more watching movies together with my wife. There have been some good things to come out of it in that regard.
But I do miss sports. I think it’s an important part of just daily life, the rhythm of daily life. Hopefully baseball can get going and get back on track. I miss it. Of the major sports right now, football and NBA basketball are pretty dominant for the younger set.
I’ve learned to live without it, but I can’t say I don’t miss it.
Cover photo via Liberty Athletics on YouTube