Tomorrow night, the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament tips off, unleashing March Madness upon the sporting masses in what annually develops into three weeks of mesmerizing reality television. Just like Survivor, The Bachelor, and the Republican presidential primaries, tears will be shed as competitors will be sent home before the championship game on April 2. There will be shocking upsets, and heroes as unlikely as the Hickory Huskers will suddenly find themselves in the spotlight leading off the highlights of the 11 p.m. SportsCenter. For every Kentucky and Syracuse, there is a Lamar and Norfolk State hungry for their one shining moment. (Even Jeremy Lin’s alma mater, Harvard, made the Big Dance – for the first time since 1946 – winning the Ivy League title and nabbing a 12-seed.)
The tournament now features 68 teams, and every one of its 67 games will be telecast live and streamed online this year. The president himself will attend tomorrow night’s Western Kentucky/Mississippi Valley St. game in Dayton, Ohio. Everything about the NCAA has gotten bigger. But there is something missing this year. For the first time in 15 years, announcer Gus Johnson will not be calling a game.
The excitable Johnson had become the voice of the tournament in recent years, his breathless hysterics becoming as memorable as the last-second heroics he described. To have Johnson call your game was a promising omen for any Cinderella: buzzer-beaters just seemed to happen when he was behind the mic.
Last May, though, Johnson got an offer from Fox Sports, and CBS declined to match it. He still covers college basketball, most notably for the BIG 10 cable network, but he won’t be working the Big Dance, which hurts. When he initially parted ways with CBS, Johnson said watching the tournament from home this year would be too painful, but he recently told the New York Daily News that time has given him some perspective. “I had a great time while I was at CBS,” Johnson said. “But I was on the road a lot. I missed a lot. This is going to be the first year I’m going to be able to sit down with my son and watch the tournament together.”
I suspect a lot of folks will think of Gus in the next few weeks, whenever the seconds tick down in games decided by a last shot. “Can you imagine what Gus would be saying right now?” they’ll wonder out loud to the guy next to them at the bar. Johnson’s son will be the only one who can answer that question this year.
Take a look below for an example of what hoops fans will be missing: