2023 NCAA Tournament Preview: Late Billy Packer’s legacy about much more than blunt on-air personality
Late college basketball analyst, Billy Packer, who died in January, was many things to many people associated with the sport. Some good and some not so good.
So, it would surprise no one that Packer had built relationships with current Kansas coach Bill Self and former KU coach Roy Williams during his career.
But there’s another connection between Packer and Lawrence that goes even deeper than the broadcaster’s time around the two Hall of Fame coaches, and it involves a basketball coach of another kind.
Former Lawrence High coach Chris Davis, who created the Coach’s Edge software system used by CBS Sports to bring animated game analysis to the broadcast, spent 10 years working with Packer and the CBS Sports team. Davis traveled with them to countless cities, covered dozens of regular season games and nine NCAA Tournaments, soaking up every single story and snippet of information he could.
It’s been 15 years since Packer last called an NCAA Tournament game, and the 2023 tourney will be the first since his passing.
While the sport’s grandest event will go on without him, Davis and many others believe that the man who was the voice of the tournament for decades and played a huge part in its growth and success is deserving of a permanent spot in the lore of college basketball’s signature event.
“One of the great things about Billy was he really cared about letting the game be the story,” Davis recently told the Journal-World. “I know I heard him say at least 20 times that his primary objective was to just tell the viewer what he was witnessing.”
Sometimes that delivered pointed commentary on the game or the strategy unfolding in front of him. Other times, it led to controversial takes and an adversarial relationship with the viewer.
At one point or another, fans of most schools believed that Packer was out to get their favorite team. Davis knows he wasn’t.
So, too, do Self and Williams.
Though neither Hall of Fame coach ever actually listened to Packer’s broadcasts in real time, both knew enough about Packer’s approach to appreciate his candor.
“I liked him,” Self told the Journal-World earlier this month. “I thought he was fair. I thought when he was complimentary the reasons why he was were real, and when he was critical I thought the reasons why were real.”
It wasn’t always that way. Although Self said he still finds it “neat” that the last game Packer ever called was KU’s win over Memphis in the 2008 national title game, the two butted heads while Self was at Illinois.
“I was not a fan back then,” Self said of his time at Illinois from 2000-03. “Because he called one of my players a dog and it became a big deal. He said he was playing like a dog. And he came to me and he was like, ‘Bill, he is.’ And I’m like going, ‘Well, yeah, but he’s a kid.’ But that was Billy. He was very direct and to the point.”
Another instance of Packer’s unapologetic style — this one being far more favorable for Self’s team — came two nights before KU’s win over Memphis in 2008, when Packer famously uttered the three-word phrase that delighted Kansas fans and likely irked his bosses at CBS.
“This game’s ovah,” he said as the Jayhawks raced out to a massive lead in a beatdown of North Carolina in the national semifinals, in a way and accent wholely unique to him.
Williams, who was on the wrong end of that semifinal loss, said his appreciation for Packer went back to the broadcaster’s days as a standout player at Wake Forest in the ACC.
Like Self, Williams saw great value in Packer’s tell-it-like-it-is style, regardless of who was caught in the crosshairs of his words or what words Packer actually used. What many fans saw as cantankerous, those who knew him saw as frank and honest.
“That’s all it was,” Williams told the Journal-World earlier this month. “And he stated his beliefs very strongly. Billy was not afraid to take a stand about what he thought was right about the game, what he thought was wrong about the game, or to point out if a referee made a mistake or a coach did something wrong. It was an easy deal for him. Billy was an ambassador for basketball and particularly a great ambassador for college basketball. He loved the college game.”
After helping lead the Demon Deacons to the Final Four himself in 1962, Packer’s first time on the mic came a few years down the road, when he was asked to fill in on a Wake Forest broadcast at the last minute.
From that, a career was born. He joined NBC in 1974 and called his first Final Four in 1975. He moved to CBS in 1981 and, between the two networks, called 34 consecutive Final Fours until signing off for the final time in 2008.
Davis was there for nearly a third of those, and he came away with countless stories about basketball, business and life, seeing all sides of Packer, not just the one that came across the air waves.
One of Davis’ favorite memories was when the CBS crew teamed up to play a prank on Packer, using Davis’ Coaches Edge program as the hook.
Thinking he was doing his breakdown live, Packer went through a play from a game between Illinois and Michigan. It started off like normal, with Packer talking X’s and O’s, but quickly went off the rails when the icons on the screen went to the wrong spots and more than 10 players began to appear.
Davis captured a video of the whole thing, and the look on Packer’s face when he realized it was a prank was one of pure admiration and elation. Davis said Packer was always happy to play the role of the prankster, but it was rare for him to be on the other side.
“When he was doing games, he was serious and stayed with the mindset of explaining what he saw in front of him,” Davis said. “Outside of that, he loved to have stimulating conversations and could laugh and joke with the best of them.”
During his days on the road, Davis often occupied the fly-on-the-wall position, letting Packer, play-by-play broadcaster Jim Nantz, producer Bob Dekas and director Bob Fishman — the four-man crew who worked 17 consecutive Final Fours together — talk basketball with whatever coaches or college basketball dignitaries they came into contact with that particular trip.
Davis always appreciated Packer’s passion for the game and desire to improve upon it. He said it was Packer who first pitched the idea of a March Madness selection show to CBS, and he always marveled at how evident it was that Packer and the rest of the crew cared so much about keeping the game and the tournament at center stage.
“They were genuinely concerned about the importance of the games and the tournament,” Davis said. “They didn’t waste time on anything else.”
Another one of Davis’ fondest memories from his time with Packer also involved Kansas, with Packer sharing his memories of the Jayhawks’ win over Oklahoma in the 1988 national title game in Kansas City, Missouri.
“He thought that Larry Brown and Kansas faced a tremendous uphill battle in the championship if they let the game be played at Oklahoma’s pace,” Davis recalled of the game that was tied at 50 at halftime. “He thought KU was in trouble. His straight talk about what he saw might have riled up Jayhawk fans, but he simply told the audience what his opinion was. There was no sugar in that coffee.”
While Self and Williams agreed that Packer’s impact on the game was immeasurable and that his passing was a great loss for their sport, for Davis, it was as much about the loss of a friend and someone he greatly admired as it was the loss of a basketball giant.
Packer’s importance to college basketball went beyond his honest calls, familiar pipes and vast knowledge of the game. He was a pioneer in the sport and a critical part of the growth of the game.
“We worked together for a long time and I enjoyed every second of it,” Davis said. “We created some innovative ways to show the concepts of the game to fans and I learned a lot about the game, as well, through my time with CBS and my conversations with Billy. We have lost a remarkable source of the history of college basketball. It was an absolute dream for a high school coach from Kansas to get that kind of access to one of the true greats.”