Gannon's transition from hardwood to broadcast booth
March 21, 2018
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
- Golf broadcaster Terry Gannon played on N.C. State's title-winning team in 1983. (N.C. State Athletics)
If Terry Gannon ever writes his memoir, you can bet the word “serendipity” will be somewhere in the title. Shoot, it might be the title itself.
The man who has morphed into one of sports’ most versatile broadcasters would be the first to tell you that this career path wasn’t part of any grand plan. Rather, he came to television by chance.
Gannon, a two-time Academic All-American with a history degree from N.C. State, was working as a graduate assistant for Coach Jim Valvano in 1985 when he got an opportunity that changed the course of his life.
The 6-foot guard with a long-range shooting touch was entertaining offers to play in Europe. But Gannon had always planned to follow his father into coaching, and who better to help him than Valvano, architect of the team known as the Cardiac Pack, the 1983 NCAA champions?
Gannon was intrigued, though, when someone asked him to do color commentary for Atlantic Coast Conference basketball games. So, as he had done so many times as a player, he went to talk to Coach V.
“It took about 30 seconds if you, if you knew him,” Gannon recalls with a chuckle.
Valvano basically told him he had maxed out his basketball career.
“Who are you going to be, Walt Frazier?” Gannon recalls Valvano asking him. “I was like, OK, that takes care of the playing.”
But what about coaching?
“If it doesn't work out or you stink, I'll always have a job for you,” Gannon remembers the coach telling him.
So that left broadcasting. And he’s never second-guessed the decision – or the nudge he got from Valvano. It was, as Gannon will tell you, serendipity.
“It really was one of those avenues where it was because of him and who he was and what I got from him that every opportunity that came my way, I had an open mind and I was willing to jump at it,” Gannon says.
“People talk about goals and mapping out their life. If I had done that, I would have severely limited myself. There's no way one of those goals that point in my life would've been sitting there calling the Open Championship at Royal Troon. I could not have envisioned that.”
He didn’t expect to do play-by-play for college football, either. But that’s what happened when the late Jack O’Hara, the executive producer of ABC Sports, called to assign Gannon to that week’s UNC-Georgia Tech game.
“So there's that second where you either go, you're out of your mind, I can't do that or you say OK,” Gannon explains. “And then you drop the phone and you panic and you call every play-by-play guy that you know and say, teach me how to do play-by-play football by Saturday.”
His first foray into figure skating required a similar leap of faith. Be in Tokyo on Tuesday, he was told. That’s where the man who took four years of tap-dancing from his mother would enter the world of triple axels and double toe loops.
“I said, OK, I know who Peggy Fleming is,” Gannon recalls. “That’s the extent of my knowledge. Oh, you'll be fine going, don't worry about it. But do you have a tux? Um, no, so I rented a tux and went to Tokyo and called figure skating.”
The 54-year-old has broadcast sports as diverse as rugby and ski flying and soccer and cycling during his career. He’s learned the nuances of the sports by reading books, doing research on the Internet and watching videotapes of previous events. But the job doesn’t stop there.
“Not only do you have to learn the sport and be up to date on what's going on in the sport in the present time, but then you have to actually learn how to call it and the cadence and the terminology,” Gannon says. “And the minute you say something wrong, terminology wise, every true fan of that sport note knows you don't know what you're talking about. And that might be the hardest part.”
Most recently, Gannon was in Korea at the Olympics, sharing commentating duties for NBC with Tara Lipinsky and Johnny Weir, both at the rink and during the closing ceremonies. This week, Gannon returns to golf with the NBC/Golf Channel team at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Texas.
Of all the sports Gannon has covered, he says golf is the hardest to broadcast. But he’s had a long association with the game, tagging along as a kid when his father played on the weekends.
“I'd have a little 7-iron and every once in a while he'd let me get out and hit shots and then, and then we'd go home and we'd watch Jack and Arnie and Trevino battle it out on TV,” Gannon says. “And so I grew up very much a golf fan and that was a part of my life. So when I started golf, you have that basis of knowledge, at least as a fan.”
The logistics, though, are the challenge because the game is “taking place on 18 different arenas at the same time,” he explains. Not to mention, there are two groups on every different hole at any point in time.
“So while it seems to the viewer it might be the easiest because of the pace moving slow, you're actually trying to stay a step ahead in your mind all the time on where we may be going next in order to have the information that you want to get across to the viewer about that player or that group that’s on 14 waiting to hit their second shots,” Gannon says.
“And when you go there, there's another layer and another layer. … Whereas basketball or football, it is all happening right in front of you. Nothing is taking place elsewhere that you have to get caught up on. “
Gannon plays golf as often as he can. He played Los Angeles Country Club last week, and Wilshire Country Club is just a few blocks from his home. Most of his golf is played on the road, though, with former PGA TOUR pros and fellow broadcasters like Matt Gogel, Curt Byrum, Craig Perks, Billy Kratzert, Jim Gallagher Jr. and occasionally six-time major champion Nick Faldo, his partner in the broadcast booth.
“So if my ego was any part of me playing, I would have quit long ago. But it's a great kick because you're, you're learning constantly from these guys,” Gannon says.
“And the great thing about golf, or one of the things, is that every one of us feels like we can go out there and do what they're doing to some degree. I mean, I watch an NBA game and I know I can't do a 360 dunk or swat away a shot at the rim, but, but I think I can put a drive in the fairway, get on the green and regulation, make the putt for birdie. And sometimes I do. So from that aspect, it’s such a great sport.”
Interestingly, Gannon’s favorite moment as a golf broadcaster happens to be one that happened when he wasn’t on the air. He had wrapped up a stint for TNT at the 2005 Open Championship just minutes before Jack Nicklaus finished his final competitive round at St. Andrews with a birdie at the 18th hole.
“It was Nick Faldo and I and Mike Tirico and we ran down like little kids to get a spot around the first tee next to the 18th green and be right there,” Gannon recalls. “Jack came up and when he made that putt, people were hanging out of windows. It was a sensation that I hadn't felt before. It was something that because of the love for him, it wasn't just a moment where it, what goes in, it was an appreciation of Jack Nicklaus.”
Gannon knows all about seminal moments, too. He played on that 1983 NCAA title team at N.C. State, scoring seven points in the championship game that ended with Valvano running around the court looking for someone to hug after Lorenzo Charles dunked Dereck Whittenburg’s airball for the improbable win over Houston.
“I knew at the time that it was going to be remembered,” Gannon says. “I had no idea that it would be remembered this much. It was crazy how we won some of those games and we had no business winning, including the last one. But it's one of those lessons in sports. We just got to the point where we didn't think we could lose; where we knew in the last three minutes of a game, if we were in the game we were going to find a way to win it. We just knew it.”
ESPN’s 30-for-30 film “Survive and Advance,” which chronicles N.C. State’s run to the title, introduced the game to a new generation. And this summer, on the 35th anniversary of the title, the entire Wolfpack team will be inducted into N.C. State’s Athletics Hall of Fame. Gannon is looking forward to yet another reunion, which usually happens every other year.
“I think this is in part why other people identify with it because most people have been on a team in some way and … what they saw was a group of guys who just love each other and still have a bond to this day,” Gannon says. “And so when we get together, literally five minutes in, you are trash-talking to the same guys about the same things you trash-talked in college -- and it's still funny.”
Gannon, who grew up in a Chicago suburb, sees a little of that N.C. State team this year in Loyola, where he once played pick-up games. The chemistry is certainly there – and in another twist, both teams have interesting unofficial mascots. With Loyola, it’s Sister Jean, the 98-year-old nun and team chaplain.
N.C. State had Captain Jim, who latched onto the Wolfpack team during the regional in Corvallis, Oregon, and followed the team to Provo, Utah and the championship game in Albuquerque. Valvano took a liking to the man and he was a frequent visitor to the State locker room. Gannon even remembers the legendary coach putting his arm around the Captain during one of his pre-game speeches.
Captain Jim later showed up in Raleigh, a little down on his luck. He was living in his car at a gas station and would often come to shower and eat at the apartment Gannon shared with three other Wolfpack players.
“One night we're watching this documentary on Martin Luther King and he says, yeah, yeah, I marched with Dr. King back in the day -- Selma, Montgomery, Mississippi,” Gannon recalls. “We’re like shut the hell up. You didn't march with Dr. King. You had to know this guy. He had a used car salesman kind of side to him and then became one of us.”
Two weeks later, Gannon was in his Southern history class, leafing through his textbook and “I about fell out of my chair,” he recalls. There’s a picture of Captain Jim, who was in actuality Jim Letherer, standing next to Martin Luther King.
Letherer, who lost his right leg to cancer when he was 10, walked all 54 miles of the march from Selma to Montgomery, on crutches. There’s a life-sized statue of Letherer, who died in 2001 at the age of 67, in the Selma Interpretive Center.
“Obviously the next time he came over I'm like, oh my god, Captain, I can't believe I didn't believe you,” Gannon recalls. “You were telling me the truth. He said, yeah, I wasn't (fooling) you. …
“There are stories written about him. I mean ,he's in the history books and to us he was just Captain Jim who somehow latched onto us during that run.”
Maybe that was serendipity, too.