Better Know a Broadcaster: A Q&A with SEC Network’s Tom Hart
As it appears the 2020 college football season will get started on time this fall, we at Saturday Football are going to bring you a new series where we spend some time talking with some of the broadcasters and media personalities who make our fall Saturdays so great.
First up, our newsletter editor, Adam Spencer, talked with SEC Network broadcaster Tom Hart, who has been with the network since its inception in 2014. From discussing his time at Mizzou with Spencer (another Mizzou grad) to how he got started in the broadcast business to the funniest moment he’s ever had on-air, it was an entertaining chat.
Here’s what he had to say during our conversation. (Note: Interview edited for clarity and length):
Adam Spencer: What was your time at Mizzou like and what are your best memories of the Tigers as a Missouri native?
Tom Hart: This is going to sound kind of weird, but I don’t really feel like I ever left. I still have family back there. I’m there all the time. … Growing up there, all the seasons run together. I don’t look at it in like a four-year window. Well, I was in school for a lot longer than 4 years, but you know what I mean (laughs). I went to games in high school. I bought my own season tickets when I was 13. I went with my dad and my uncle when I was just a baby. It kind of all runs together.
I guess I’d view it in a few different eras, really. Growing up in the mid-80s, they were just absolutely pitiful. Then we turned the corner and had some exciting teams in the early 90s with Kent Kiefer and some run-and-shoot type of stuff where they were putting up some points. Then they took a step back and then Larry Smith came in and you had Barry Odom at linebacker at one point and Corby Jones at quarterback and Devin West in the backfield and they got back to a bowl game for the first time in forever. That was when the program got back on a solid footing.
Even though there were high points here and there, that, to me, was kind of the beginning of the resurgence. Then you get the Brad Smith era and then you get the Chase Daniel era and then you get up to No. 1 (in the rankings) and then you win a couple of SEC divisions. It all just kind of rolls together for me. There were several high points, but I view it all within the history of my life and not just while I was there on campus.
AS: I’m from Illinois, so I wasn’t going to games growing up, but I was there at the end of the Chase Daniel years and then when they took down Oklahoma when they were No. 1. That was …
TH: With College GameDay there?
AS: Yeah, that was quite the weekend.
TH: I think what you experienced, and you look at that win over Oklahoma, and, at the time according to the people involved, that was the biggest crowd College GameDay had ever seen. There are just some seasonal high-water points for Missouri. You saw the best, right? From the win over Oklahoma to the win at Arrowhead over Kansas — those are high-water marks any program would be proud of.
But there were times when I was in school where if they closed the season with a win over Kansas in a game nobody else in college football cared about, and we’re going to have a massive party to celebrate it. You judged it against different parameters, I guess.
AS: I’m guessing your answer to this would be Mizzou-Kansas, but maybe other than that one, what rivalry would you like to see come back?
TH: Let’s just start with Mizzou-Kansas from this angle — college football, as much as it has grown, is still, in my opinion, very much a regionalized sport. If you don’t serve the fans and keep them interested and give them something to talk about at the water cooler on Monday or to their coworkers via Twitter on Sunday afternoon — wherever trash talk takes place — it has to be relevant. And it has to be relevant among strangers, which seems like an odd thing to say.
But with Missouri generally not playing their geographic rivals, it’s hard to drum up that interest sometimes. I say that from a 30,000-foot view, living in Atlanta but coming back to Missouri on a regular basis.
I just think that’s so important. People in Texas are going to roll their eyes at me when I say this, but I think that’s also important for Texas and Texas A&M.
I thought it was really cool when Michael Porter Jr. was at Mizzou for a year that Mizzou opened with Iowa State. I went to the game that night. I was there that weekend for football, so I wasn’t working. I was just there with our football crew and coworkers. Several of them had been to a Missouri basketball game or worked a game in the past, but they looked around the building and said ‘What is this? I’m not familiar with this atmosphere. This is something new.’ And I said, ‘No, it used to be like this all the time. And it can be like this.’
That’s what I’m familiar with is Missouri-Kansas and there are those who are familiar with Texas-Texas A&M and other rivalries that have been split apart through conference realignment. … To play games against opponents with which you have a history. And it doesn’t have to be a storied history. …
It sounds weird to talk about Mizzou-Iowa State history, but they played each other for so long over numerous conferences that there is a familiar feel to those games and those opponents. Missouri-Kansas is the jumping off point, but I think you can take it in so many different directions throughout the Big 12, the Big 8, even back to the Big 6 days, which was the originator of the Big 8. Every campus has those. Every program has those. The more we can maneuver the schedules to get back to those, the better I think the sport will be.
AS: When you went to Mizzou, did you know you wanted to be a broadcaster? When did you know this was what you wanted to do?
TH: Well, yes and no. I had an idea coming out of high school that might be a route I’d want to take. I had no idea how to get there. I didn’t know what the road map was. I didn’t know who to lean on to try to show me the way. And I didn’t realize the hard work that would be necessary to do it easier on the front end.
I had an idea, and Missouri, as we all know, is incredibly competitive on the journalism side. I was more in tune, at that age, with short-term goals instead of long-term goals, if that makes sense. I was more worried about the weekend as opposed to a career. As I moved through college, I wasn’t sure. Like, ‘OK, now how do I get there? What do I need to be doing to work toward those goals?’
The short answer is, yeah, that was what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have any idea how to get there.
AS: Who did you look up to during that time? Who were your biggest inspirations and then who do you still sit down and listen to on a regular basis these days?
TH: Oh man, growing up in mid-Missouri, it was really easy to have access to great broadcasters. When I was starting to fall in love with broadcasting, Kevin Harlan was calling the Mizzou games on the radio. … I just remember he was calling games for some really good teams, and that was kind of when I fell in love with sports and became a fan in those formative years.
Then you had Jack Buck and Mike Shannon doing the Cardinals on one side of the state and you had Fred White and Denny Matthews as the Royals’ guys on the other side of the state. Those games would be on in my dad’s car or my mom’s car when we were running errands on the weekend or you’re at the grocery store on a summer night. I always thought the difference in the two (broadcast teams) was interesting.
The way I processed it was Jack Buck and Mike Shannon were having this party in the Cardinals’ booth every day and they would allow you to peek behind the curtain and see how cool that party was. But it was always that they were there to entertain you. It was their party and they were telling you how cool it was to be part of it.
Whereas, the Royals’ guys were so much more down home to me. Instead of speaking at you, they were having a conversation with you. They were so much more home-spun and welcoming you into the booth and you were there watching a game with them.
I can’t say they shaped me in any specific way once my broadcast career started, but I just thought it was interesting that, at a young age, those were the feelings I got from those two very distinctly different broadcasts that were both beamed into Columbia, Missouri, over AM radio.
AS: Speaking of Jack Buck, he had that famous call where he said the “See you tomorrow night” line after a walkoff home run from the Cardinals in the playoffs. Then, his son, Joe Buck, replicated that line during Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. I’m wondering if you’ve had a call like that where you look back at it and you’re like, ‘Man, I nailed that one!’
TH: (laughs) Not that I would remember. I would have to go back and think about big games and big moments. What I’m proud of is when our crew — and this could be any sport, so I’m using this term loosely, as it covers our college football crew, other guys and gals I’ve worked with, our college baseball guys who are awesome and I’m with all the way through the College World Series, a lot of college basketball analysts and producers that I’ve worked with over the years — to me, what I’m proud of is when we tell you something to watch for at the beginning of the game, and we say ‘Here’s the main storyline, but an offshoot of that is X, and this is going to impact the game,’ and it actually does. I have immense pride in that.
We consolidate our knowledge when we prepare for a game — especially with college football. We spend all week getting ready for it. We talk about our game plan within the broadcast and you try to identify what you think might be important and then punctuate it during the game.
We had a game — I think it was Kentucky-Tennessee this past year — where we said ‘Listen, this might be a close game and it might come down to the kicking game and here’s why.’ And, sure enough, Kentucky misses an extra point in the first half at some point and it comes down to a goal-line stand at the end of the game, where Tennessee makes a big time stop. And, oh, by the way, if Kentucky makes that extra point, it changes the entire dynamic of that game (Editor note: Tennessee won 17-13, so Kentucky would have likely attempted a last-second field goal to force overtime instead of being forced to go for a touchdown). While the goal-line stand was the defining moment, we told our audience on Friday afternoon that the kicking game was going to be a key. It wasn’t a top-10 matchup, so outside of those 2 fan bases, I’m not sure how many people were really living and dying and on the edge of their seat for Kentucky-Tennessee, but we left that game and I was really proud of what we were able to present and how we presented it.
AS: You mentioned Jack Buck and Mike Shannon having a party atmosphere during Cardinals’ broadcasts earlier. You called basketball games this past season with Andy Kennedy. That seemed like a party atmosphere, too, what with the Ron Burgundy-Ron Jeremy mixup. Then, earlier that year, you got to call that 17-inning game between LSU and Mississippi State (in the SEC Tournament).
Are either of those your funniest moment in the booth or is it something else that didn’t happen in 2019, which seems like it was a crazy year for you?
TH: Yeah, it was a crazy year for a lot of different reasons. I’m lucky that, because I get to work so many different sports, I get to interact with a lot of different people.
One of my favorite moments was when I worked a Cubs-Pirates game on I think the Fourth of July. Yeah, it had to have been the Fourth of July, with Tim Kurkjian and Eduardo Perez. I went in saying that nobody knows more about baseball than Tim Kurkjian, but based on my research, I’m going to come up with a nugget that’s going to make Tim go ‘Wow!’
We started talking about North Carolina baseball for some reason. I dropped a couple of nuggets on some of the famous UNC alums that had played pro ball. The one that really stood out to me was a guy that was better known by his nickname. His name was Archibald Graham, but he was better known as ‘Moonlight’ Graham.
Tim’s head snaps to the left and he looks at me and he gives me the high-pitched, ‘Really?! I didn’t know Moonlight Graham went to North Carolina!’ And this wave of euphoria swept over me because I just beat Kurkjian at his own game.
I like to try to keep my guys off-balance. I don’t like scripted, so I like to get them to respond in a natural way. Sometimes the best way to do that is to go off-script or surprise them.
We had a game a couple of years ago at Arkansas. I was with Kyle Peterson and Eduardo Perez and Kyle misspoke in the open. He was trying to say they were fighting for a division title, but ‘fighting’ came out instead as a word you would use in conjunction with flatulence. I just couldn’t help it and I just started dying laughing.
The three of us were back at Arkansas, as a matter of fact, this past spring, and my entire open consisted of bullet points where they needed to keep their feet on the ‘gas’ and they were full of ‘hot air.’ All these little references that I threw in there just so they would hear it and it would take them off their game because I wanted to see how they’d react to it.
That’s why the AK (Andy Kennedy) stuff with Ron Jeremy vs. Ron Burgundy was so funny, because it totally took both of us off of our game for the next 30 minutes. I think fans can relate to that. They want to see that you’re human and that, while I don’t think anybody has the same thought process as Andy Kennedy, the sophomoric phrases that they hear while sitting on their couch might be something that we’re thinking too. It might be immature, but I think anything that helps you relate to the audience is good.
AS: Is there one person, alive or dead, who you would love to call a game with?
TH: I think the easy answer there is Kirk Herbstreit. Number one, he’s great at what he does. I ran into him at the SEC Championship Game and we were just talking about the foundation of a great broadcast. A line that he got from Lee Corso was that you have to remind yourself that we’re in the entertainment business.
People who get that, who understand that, are generally more enjoyable to work with because they get the big picture and they get that’s the direction that the broadcast needs to go.
The sidebar to that is there are some times that the hardcore fans get upset if you veer away from the game even a tiny bit. I just remind them that, the bigger the platform, the less inclined we are to call a game for the hardcore fan. We want to appeal to the widest fan base we can. That might mean you tell a story that the fan base is already familiar with, but guess what? Kentucky basketball fans are going to watch every minute of every game and they’re going to know everything about every player on the floor and on the bench and whose jersey is in the rafters.
The challenge is to tell that story in a way that’s fresh to them, but also to introduce that story to a wider fan base that might not be aware of it. That’s where the entertainment comes in.
I’d go with Herbie. It also helps that he has the best games every week.
AS: Last question here. What is something that you’ve learned about yourself during the quarantine with no sports going on?
TH: Well, I’m a voracious reader. And I rarely have time to dive into books that I would otherwise be interested in. I take my (game) prep very seriously, so even if it’s a 45-minute flight where some people might be inclined to crack open a paperback or fire up a Kindle or whatever it might be, I’m usually poring over breaking news and trying to find another angle to a story for that next game.
Maybe I can dial it back a little bit and entertain myself moreso, but I really don’t see that changing going forward.