KU graduate Kevin Harlan true to tourney

For the first time, every NCAA Tournament game will be available on one of the following channels: CBS, TBS, TNT, truTV. That means the smart, funny, candid, very real voice of Charles Barkley sometimes will be heard at halftime. That could either add spice to an always riveting March, or it could backfire.

As long as Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson, more accustomed to talking about the NBA, keep the focus on the tournament and not only the so-called “next level,” they’ll enhance the coverage. If their banter drifts to what sort of professional players the college stars will make, the marriage between CBS and Turner Sports could bomb.

Kansas University graduate Kevin Harlan, a veteran of the NCAA Tournament and a voice for both CBS and Turner, predicts they’ll try to keep the talk college-centric, but it won’t necessarily be easy. He speaks from experience.

“One big thing at CBS has always been not to reference the NBA, pro basketball, stay away from all of that during the tournament,” Harlan said in a recent phone interview. “Talk about Charles Barkley, the great player at Auburn, Michael Jordan, the terrific North Carolina Tar Heel. Instead of Pat Riley the great NBA coach, it’s Pat Riley who played for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky. CBS has always been big on that.”

Harlan said he has always enjoyed the challenge of trying to follow that rule.

“Occasionally a pro preference will come up,” he said. “I kind of violated it at times. Gus (Johnson), Verne (Lundquist), all of us, a reference will happen to pop out.”

Then they caught themselves making a rare slip and returned the conversation to the best sporting event of them all, the NCAA Tournament, aka March Madness.

It’s amazing how much time we all waste discussing what sort of an NBA player a college star will make and then once the said star starts playing for pay, many of us barely ever see him play again. Kudos to CBS for realizing that during the tourney, the present is so fascinating, the future can wait.

Harlan gives a great deal of the credit for CBS taking that approach to the tourney to retired color analyst Billy Packer. Even if you’re not a Packer-backer, you have to love him for that.

“He would talk to us at the (annual) seminar (in New York City), and he was very emotional about what this tournament means to the kids who play in it and to the moms and dads who drove them to their games, to the coach and to the programs of these little-known schools who are one of the 64,” Harlan said. “He’d talk about how much it meant, that one day they get to play, to a lot of prideful people around that program. There was a real reverence to the way he talked about the tournament, and we all went into it with a different feel than for a regular-season game.”

Harlan’s KU roots run deep, but he doesn’t betray his colors when calling a game. Son of Bob Harlan, chairman emeritus of the Green Bay Packers for the past three years after serving in the front office for 37 years, Kevin came to KU for a visit at the recommendation of family friend, famed sportscaster Gary Bender, a KU grad. Bender thought Tom Hedrick, now teaching at Baker University, could give Harlan the start he needed, and after meeting Hedrick on a visit to KU, Harlan agreed. He was a weekend sports anchor in Topeka for all four years at KU and worked as a pregame, postgame and sideline reporter at the university’s football games called by Hedrick and David Jaynes.

By the age of 21, Harlan was the voice of the NBA’s Kansas City Kings and at various times also called Kansas, Missouri and Kansas City Chiefs games. As a national broadcaster on television and radio, he’s done tons of NFL games, including the Packers’ recent Super Bowl (on radio), and NBA games. He’s been with Turner since 1996 and CBS since ’98.

As a ballboy for the Packers when his father was assistant general manager, he would pick players football pants off the floor and throw them in the laundry hamper, including those of former KU great John Hadl.

“He was a wonderful man, a real gentleman,” Harlan remembered. “He had a real presence about him. People knew he was a big-time guy, a historic figure in pro football.”

Harlan became friendly with Bill Self when the KU coach was on Larry Brown’s staff.

“I remember Larry saying, ‘This guy is going to be a terrific coach because he’s got great, great instincts.’ Larry admired him as a player at Oklahoma State, too,” Harlan said. “When Bill got the (Kansas head-coaching) job, I called to congratulate him and welcome him back home. He said, ‘Kevin, I want you to know I’m much more mature than when you knew me before.’ I remember Bill saying in the ’80s this is the dream job.”

Some might argue Harlan has the dream job. He’ll be flanked by Dan Bonner and Reggie Miller during the NCAA Tournament. Don’t wait for them to talk about the NBA. They will stay in the moment, one shining moment at a time.