There are still 40 minutes before kickoff in Ann Arbor, and Gus Johnson is looking for a brush.
“I’m the only broadcaster who can still use a wave brush,” he says to the handful of people in the booth awaiting the start of Army-Michigan on Fox. “I’ve got a hairline at 52!”
Johnson is loose and energetic — the exact way you’d imagine him off the air. The Detroit native is extra comfortable today, as he’s getting ready to call the game of the team he grew up admiring: the Michigan Wolverines.
He’s walking around the broadcast booth, through the press box, and in the home team’s radio booth, sharing smiles and hugs before the game. He dances to French Montana’s “No Stylist”, which is booming throughout the Big House, for Joel Klatt’s Instagram, before egging on Klatt to do his own dancing. “Come on, Joel! You got some boogie in you, baby!”
Johnson then pulls his chair back and gets into a yoga routine right there in the broadcast booth. Unconcerned with what he might look like, Johnson is all over the place. He’s anywhere from a simple toe-touching stretch, to hips in the air, or laying on the floor, executing his routine in his white dress shirt with shades of green and brown checkers, a forest green tie, slacks, and G-Star Raw sneakers.
After about 10 or so minutes, he’s done, exclaiming to Klatt, “Joel, my shoulders are coming back! You’re gonna have trouble, bro! You’re gonna have trouble, bro!” Somehow, his clothes seem not a stitch out of place, despite testing his body’s boundaries.
It’s about time to get the party started, because that’s what it is when Johnson calls a game, be it football or basketball. His call sheet, wave brush, and coffee are placed neatly in front of where he’ll be in the booth for the game. Scottie Dothard, his longtime spotter, arrives in a mustard-colored collared shirt and jeans, binoculars in hand, ready to help Johnson on another successful game called in the booth.
Up until this point, it’s been all preparation with random people coming in and out of the press box getting things from and for Johnson and Klatt. And then, the big television lights go on in the booth. They’re incredibly bright, even at noon on a clear and sunny day. Johnson and Klatt turn to the camera, ready to bring America to Michigan Stadium on the second weekend of the 2019 college football season.
Fox’s music begins playing, and it’s showtime. “Welcome to the Big House here in Ann Arbor,” Johnson says. “Over 100,000 fans ready to watch the red hot Army Black Knights taking on the seventh-ranked Michigan Wolverines.
“Hi, everybody. I’m Gus Johnson, along with my partner Joel Klatt, and welcome to Ann Arbor.”
It’s the day before the game, and there are more than four hours until the production meeting, but Johnson is in the conference room of the Ypsilanti Marriott where he’s staying, ready to work. He’s looking slick with a fresh Nike zip-up jacket, black T-shirt, joggers, and a fitted Detroit Tigers cap with the top of his ears tucked in.
On the end of the conference room table sit two big white sheets of construction paper, two remotes to work the DVD player and TV (which has Army’s game from the week before vs. Rice on it), a folder with “GUS” written small in the top left corner, one set of 12 skinny Sharpies, one set of 24 regular-sized Sharpies, three highlighters, and a water glass turned upside down over a napkin with a peppermint on top. There’s also a yoga mat in his seat because he needs it for stretching.
He removes the yoga mat, still in its original wrapping, from the seat, settles in by taking his hat off and placing it to the side, and gets to work. “Everybody does this on computer, right?” he says. “But I’m old school.”
He won’t use all of the colors, just black for the Black Knights, and blue for the Wolverines.
After conducting a quick assessment of where I’m from, what I do, and Johnson proudly declaring, “I got shoes older than you,” Johnson starts recalling his upbringing, which included many days spent at the Boys & Girls Club in Detroit.
When Johnson was around 9 years old, the Boys & Girls Club had an oratorical contest that Johnson’s mother Btroy found out about from a bulletin board. She was good at checking bulletin boards to find out about events and opportunities, and he has proudly developed the same habit.
”In my mind, I was like, ‘Wow, that could be interesting. Seems like something cool.’”
He made up a speech and put on a suit with a tie, a nice shirt, and some hard-bottomed shoes. “Roach stompas, as we called them back then,” he says. “I had them Stacy Adams.”
Johnson went in and won the contest. He didn’t think much of it, and when the time came around next year, he didn’t mention it to his mother because he had a baseball game and didn’t want to miss it. She was also working that day, so Johnson thought he was in the clear.
“I was pitching — pitching good that day too,” he says. He starts looking off into the room as if he’s seeing it happen all over again right in front of him. “All of a sudden, I see this little lady, walking through the gate, her wig tilted, walking fast.”
Btroy walked through the dugout gate, past the dugout, past the coaches, and onto the field. “She walked straight to the mound where I was,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Mom, what are you doing? I’m pitching.’ She said, ‘Boy, I don’t care what you doing. Here’s a pair of shorts, here’s a Boys Club T-shirt. You see them picnic tables over there?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘You gon’ go over there, here’s a pen, and here’s a pad. And you gon’ write a speech. And you gon’ go up there, today, at 6 o’clock, and you gon’ say that speech.’ I said, ‘Mama, I’m pitchin’!’ She said, ‘Boy!’ — and whenever ya mama say ‘Boy!’ It’s serious.”
Btroy told Johnson, “You always gotta be fast on your feet. You always gotta be able to think quickly. Put something together. Scramble, if you have to. Now get over there and write that speech.”
Contest organizers called Btroy beforehand to tell her they wanted her son back because of his talent for speaking. Johnson went over to the table, mad, 10 years old, and cursing under his breath. He wrote the speech, went to the contest, gave the speech, and won.
”From that point on,” he says, “I always realized I was good on my feet. I could talk.”
That talent wasn’t prioritized for a while. He didn’t grow up thinking that he wanted to be the next great sportscaster. “I envisioned myself replacing Lou Whittaker as the second baseman of the Detroit Tigers,” he says. He later thought he’d become a doctor or lawyer, and you don’t need to be some sort of oratorical artist in either of those fields.
His baseball career did take him to college, though, where he played at Howard. While there, former player Glenn Harris was the sports director at the local radio station, WHUR-FM in Washington D.C. Harris would often show up to practice and Johnson got to know him.
Johnson ran into Harris one day and asked him how he liked being a sportscaster. Harris told him that he enjoyed it, and added he thought it was funny he asked him because that particular day was his intern’s last day on the job. Harris told him, “Go down the hill, talk to Mrs. Grimes, and see if you can apply for the job, if you’re interested.”
So he did, and he got the job, which paid $500 a semester. “I was on scholarship at Howard,” he says. “I think that was a violation. But I ain’t going to tell nobody. $500? A semester? Which, you know, 1987, that’s good bread!”
But he wasn’t done. He then walked down the hall and knocked on the door at the student radio station next to the main radio station to get experience on the air. Johnson walked in, introduced himself, and asked to apply for a sportscaster job to get on-air experience. Like the internship, nobody had applied, and Johnson got that job, too.
”Just like that. It was very serendipitous for me to be in that position that early. I just fell in love with it. Just — head over heels.” He stops to make sure that I understand him, and looks me right in my eyes. He says in a very serious tone, “No, really. Head over heels.”
Johnson gets up to get a snack, pats Dothard on the shoulder as he walks to the table and says, “He got the gat in his boot!” Dothard laughs, and says, “I’m not here to protect you. I’m here to protect everybody else from you!” The two have worked with each other for over 15 years, going back to their days at CBS.
Dothard tries to keep Johnson in check to make sure he stays true to himself. “I say, ‘Man, if you study way too much, I’ll kill ya,’” a statement which gets a nice chuckle out of Johnson, who is now back at the table and seated with a plate of cauliflower and celery, dressed in ranch. “Because you won’t be able to pay attention to the game. You paying attention to the game is a gift,” he says. “You gotta be in the moment, that’s what gives you the gift.”
Dothard also says Johnson had a mean jumper on the basketball court.
“As a point guard, he knows how to pass the ball,” Dothard says. “But he would tell any of his partners, ‘Remember, last few seconds of the fourth quarter, I get the last shot!’”
Johnson, dipping a stick of celery into some ranch, laughs and agrees, “That’s why I get paid!”
Dothard reiterates, “Under all circumstances!”
Johnson laughs, “You pass that!”
Marquise Brown’s career would not be the same without Johnson.
That’s not to take away anything from Brown’s talents: he’s a great receiver, and the odds that he learned any of that from Johnson are slim to none (they’re none). However, Brown is more commonly referred to as “Hollywood” nowadays, because Johnson realized he was from Hollywood, Florida, during a 2017 game against Kansas State.
The moment Hollywood Brown became Hollywood Brown is one that Klatt still seems amazed by. It came on a 77-yard touchdown pass from Baker Mayfield to extend Oklahoma’s lead to 55-45 against Oklahoma State.
”From our seat you can see the defense open up from where we’re at in the booth,” he says. “And right when he spun, and you could see it open up, Gus’ tempo changed, everything changed. It was like watching Steph Curry, and you know he’s open in the corner, you can see the three-pointer being made before he even has the ball in his hands. That’s the way it feels in the booth.”
Because of Johnson’s call, Brown is more memorable, no matter how the rest of his career shakes out.
The big calls are what Johnson is known for, but he’s also an ace in knowing when to shut up. Johnson’s silence during the final moments of Notre Dame-Stanford in 2015 is something that Klatt and lead game producer Chuck McDonald both agree that Johnson is under-appreciated for.
Johnson didn’t go out of character — he still went bonkers in the final minutes of that game. But when Stanford knocked through the game-winning field goal, Johnson switched gears. It’s a moment Klatt says he’ll always keep with him as one of the most important lessons he’s learned in his years as an analyst.
”He sat there,” Klatt says, “and he looked at me and he held his hand up and shook his head like, ‘Don’t say a word.’ And he sat there for what felt like an eternity, because it’s television.”
McDonald says, “People weren’t expecting that, and it was funny reading Twitter. There were a lot of people like, ‘What the heck was that? Where was the crazy call?’ He and I talked about it, and he told me, ‘What was I going to say that was better than that?’”
Johnson’s ability to read the moment and react accordingly is what has made him a legend. His style is unmatched when it comes to the NCAA tournament. He was made for it, and it helped make him.
Fortunately for Johnson, a lot of his famous calls were made as YouTube was starting to boom. And he’ll tell you, “So many great games,” he says. “Just great games,” and then he starts to get rhythmic, as if somebody had just put a microphone in front of his face. “Florida-Gonzaga, Princeton-UCLA, Vermont-Syracuse, Ohio State-Xavier, Xavier-Kansas State, just to name a few.” He pauses, and accurately adds, “And there are more.”
Steve Scheer, like Dothard, has worked with Johnson at CBS as a basketball producer, and now at Fox in the same capacity. He describes Johnson as a brother, having worked with him since Johnson’s first game at CBS. His favorite moment in working with Johnson came in 1999, when Gonzaga upset Florida in the NCAA tournament. “It was the call that made America wake up to Gus Johnson,” he tells me over the phone.
Johnson’s call was simply, “The slipper still fits!”
”People to this day, including some people who shall remain nameless at CBS,” Scheer says, “will call and say, ‘Boy, we miss Gus on the NCAA tournament.’”
And yet Johnson isn’t worried about calling another NCAA tournament game.
“That’s my legacy,” he says, “and I don’t want to mess with it. It was the greatest time of my career.” He takes a long pause, “I earned my bones during that period. It was magic.”
A lot of that magic was made with Bill Raftery, where Johnson describes the duo as “Ebony and Ivory.”
“He’s like a second father to me. Straight up. I love him,” Johnson says. “When I’m with him, it feels like I’m with my dad. I’m protected. He’s not going to let anything happen to me.”
Raftery jokes to me on the phone, “I’m upset that he’s calling me a father,” he says, “Because I’ve got more juice than he does!”
One time, Johnson had lost his wallet, and he asked Raftery to borrow some money. Raftery reached into his pocket and pulled out $500 in cash, and handed it over like it was nothing. “He had it on him,” Johnson says laughing, “Just like an old man!”
“I cherish those moments,” he says about calling the NCAA tournament, “But that’s the past.”
”I’m not the pregame show, and I’m not the postgame show. I’m not the past, and I’m not the future. I’m part of the present. I’m present, I’m in the moment, and that’s where I want to keep my life.”
He says a line from the movie Bull Durham sticks out to him with regards to his outlook on life. It’s when Crash Davis hits his home run in Asheville, immediately retires, and goes back to Annie Savoy’s house in Durham.
Johnson says, “I just want to be.”
This is all routine for Johnson now. After all, he’s been in the game for almost 30 years. But like any person with a craft, it took a while to find out who he was as a broadcaster. For most of us, Gus Johnson was somebody who just kind of appeared in our homes and on our televisions while taking in March Madness. His energy made you care about a game or a team that you had no rooting interest in.
For Johnson, the people he tried to mimic were Bob Costas, Dan Patrick, Brad Nessler, Al Michaels, and other greats. Reflecting on that time, he says, “A lot goes into that, you know? African-American, all-white industry, predominantly, especially at my position as a play-by-play guy. Even to this day, very few of us, unfortunately.”
“I needed to sound whiter.”
While at CBS, he once had an agent tell him that he “sounded too black.” Johnson says, “I called the agent back, and I said to the agent, ‘Well, I don’t understand, I am black. How can I sound too black? What does that mean?’”
But Johnson will tell you he’s always been in command of how he handles the language. He took acting lessons under Douglas Turner Ward, founder of the Negro Ensemble Company, along with other voice and diction classes over the years.
“It’s why I understand the language and how to use the language — my diphthongs, and my t-h’s, all those kind of things,” he says. “Incorporating that into my natural vernacular, and then just being myself. When I finally started to implement that, everything changed. I was able to relax and not play a character — a sportscaster character — but play the sportscaster character as myself.”
About 15 years ago, Johnson had a moment with his ex-girlfriend, Joy Hooper. She graduated with a degree in fine arts from Howard, and earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Penn State, where she ended up teaching. He describes her as a masterful actress and teacher. He enjoyed how she was able to pick out small things about him, which she was good at, because many actors study human behavior to improve at their craft.
Because she was able to do those things, and do them well, she had an honest discussion with him that he described as the day that he became Gus Johnson, and nobody else.
”You’re doing a good job,” she told him.
“But when you let that little black boy from Detroit out of his cage … Then you’ll be a superstar.”
McDonald says into Johnson’s earpiece, “The last time Army beat a top-10 team was Penn State in 1963.”
It’s a 14-14 game, Michigan’s ball, fourth-and-two, with just over two and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter. Michigan is near midfield, and fails to convert for the first down.
As officials are measuring the spot, Johnson repeats what McDonald just funneled into his ear, setting up what could become another signature moment. Army has one time out, and plenty of time to work with against the team that Johnson grew up admiring.
There are no questions when it comes to Johnson’s objectivity. He’s a professional, and he’s proved as much over the years. But there’s no doubt that being in this moment means a little bit more, because it is Michigan.
After his Little League baseball games, his mom would serve up soup and sandwiches while he and his dad watched Bo Schembechler and the Wolverines. “Daddy and I would watch,” he says, “And Mama would always root for the other team for some reason. She just knew how to get on our nerves, and we’d be mad at her, like, ‘Why are you talking good stuff about them!’”
Johnson met Schembechler once at an airport. Schembechler was carrying his own bags, a fact Johnson seemed impressed by. He walked up to the legendary coach and introduced himself.
Schembechler told Johnson he was proud of him, before correcting himself and saying “we” are proud. “That was the only time I met him,” Johnson says, unsuccessfully fighting back tears. “That’s all I needed.”
Army owned a 5-4 record against the Wolverines all-time going into the game. Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson’s turnover woes carried over from the previous week, and there’s an antsy feeling in the Big House. This is supposed to be as good of a year as ever to finally break through, beat Ohio State, and win the Big Ten.
Michigan isn’t looking like it.
Johnson hasn’t sat down since early in the fourth quarter, but remains level. After the failed Michigan fourth down attempt, Army can’t do better than a 50-yard attempt for kicker Cole Talley, whose first-ever field goal attempt as a college athlete is this one.
“Cole Talley. From 50 yards away. Freshman,” Johnson says as the teams line up. The ball is snapped, the kick had distance, “And he pushed it wide,” Johnson says on the call. “We are heading for overtime in Ann Arbor.”
He takes a seat, quite literally on the edge of his stool. After the teams exchange touchdowns in the first overtime, Michigan gets a field goal to make it a 24-21 game. Army once again has a chance to win the game they probably should have had in regulation.
The Black Knights are faced with a third-and-11 on the ensuing possession, and the Michigan defense gets to Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr., and the ball pops loose. Johnson captures the moment perfectly.
“Sacked! Loose! Michigan has the football!” Johnson exclaims.
He waits for the referee’s official signal before delivering, “And the Wolverines survive! Kwity Paye! Knocked it loose! And grabbed it!” His hands, in the air as the play was developing, are now resting on his head, and he goes silent.
“The Victors” is booming through the Big House while the Wolverines sprint to the opposite end of the stadium and jump into the stands to celebrate with fans.
The man whose voice made him a legend, once again, lets the moment speak for itself.