As the clock wound down during the Illinois men’s basketball team’s season-ending game against Iowa two weeks ago, Illinois radio play-by-play announcer Brian Barnhart knew the tenor of what he was going to say if and when the Illini pulled out a win and a share of the Big Ten title.
The fanbase was still chafed by the imperfect way 14-3 Michigan was named last season’s regular season Big Ten champion — half-a-game behind the 16-4 Illini but just ahead on winning percentage. Vindication, he knew, would have to be a theme.
“Chris Murray in the corner for three,” Barhart shouted into the microphone in the final seconds against Iowa. “And he missed it! Rebound, Illinois. Frazier’s got it. And the Big Ten championship is in Champaign!”
Even if he thinks about how to call these iconic moments in general terms, Barnhart prefers not to plan the specifics about what he’s going to say.
“There was a feeling of, ‘It really is ours. We have the best team,’” he said. “I try not to script it. I don’t want it to sound canned like, ‘Oh, I’m looking for my card now to say what I’m trying to say.’ So, I have a general idea of what I’m trying to say, but I just want it to come naturally.’”
Most of Barnhart’s calls will come and go as the moment passes, never to be scrutinized. The few moments that will go down in Illini lore, though, will be played again and again for decades to come.
“There’s always that moment of terror for a moment like … ‘Did I get all the parts of that right?’” Barnhart said. “Did I get the right person inbounding?’ Because you don’t want to get it wrong. People are going to be playing it over and over and over again. There’s always that moment of terror for a moment like, ‘Did I do this right?’”