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Know Your KU History: Kevin Harlan

One of the country’s most celebrated sports broadcasters got his start at KU.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re an American sports fan, you have heard the voice of Kevin Harlan. He is one of the most celebrated and charismatic broadcasters of this generation, and if there is a big basketball or football game, you can bet that Kevin Harlan is involved. If you went to the University of Kansas and majored in broadcast journalism, you’ve probably heard the story of Kevin Harlan. The guy is a legend in and around the studios of KJHK.

I made my way onto the KJHK sports staff in the fall of 1996, and the man who was responsible for all of the would-be sports broadcasters just so happened to hold that same job in the early 1980’s when Harlan was getting his start at the student-run radio station. Consequently, we were regaled with tales of this prodigy, and as we were all aspiring to a career path similar to that of Harlan who had recently burst onto the national scene, we listened with high regard. On the down side, we were also compared (usually unfavorably) to the Kansas broadcasting legend, but what did we expect? Harlan was broadcasting NBA games on television and we were practicing our announcing chops talking into a tape recorder at Lawrence High School football games. He was great right from the start.

After graduating from KU in 1982, Harlan got off to a flying start in his broadcasting career, landing with the Kansas City Kings of the NBA as their radio play-by-play man- not a bad gig to get shortly after graduating college. At that time, Harlan was also doing a little bit of work for both KU and Mizzou. The man was making a name for himself in the immediate area.

That name became even bigger when he took to the press box of Arrowhead Stadium and manned the play-by-play mic for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs in 1985. He called Chiefs games on the radio for nine seasons and his patented "Oh baby, what a play!" catch phrase was imitated by kids and adults alike as the Chiefs soared from mediocrity to NFL power. But the Kansas City market (and radio in general) was not big enough to hold Kevin Harlan as he started to work on the TV side of the business with the Minnesota Timberwolves, an NBA expansion franchise in 1989.

I remember hearing an interview with Harlan about those early days in Minnesota and the fun that he and his broadcast partner would have in the booth. One story in particular caught my attention. For each game, Kevin would select an obscure word to use during that broadcast (his partner would choose one the next night). The goal was to use the word seamlessly in the broadcast without it sounding like there was an overt inside joke being played. Apparently, a nightly bet was made and it kept those early games in the Timberwolves’ existence exciting for the broadcasters. Imagine being so good at your job that you are winning side bets at work while on TV every night. Pretty awesome.

Harlan of course has gone on to become a national presence in sports broadcasting. He routinely gets the biggest assignments each week in the NFL, draws the most important NBA games, and is an unwavering presence in the NCAA tournament’s first few weeks. Because he is such an icon, many broadcasters have tried to imitate Harlan, including, I’m sure, many amateurs back in the studios of KJHK where it all began. But the man who put the phrase "…with no regard for human life!" into the sporting lexicon will never be completely matched.