The first game Jim Hawthorne broadcasted, he was a teenager calling the Leesville Wampus Cats.
He listened to the tape the next morning and recoiled.
“I sounded like a cross between Gomer Pyle and Daffy Duck,” Hawthorne said. “I was embarrassed to tears.”
He may have quit right there had his mother not urged him to continue.
“Jimmy,” she told him, “keep doing that.”
For more than a half a century, Jimmy did. That ends next year.
Hawthorne, LSU’s longtime sports play-by-play broadcaster, is retiring after next basketball season, he announced on Wednesday. The 71-year-old has spent 35 years calling LSU games. He’ll call his final season of baseball this year, and he expects it to be a good one.
“Coach (Paul) Mainieri almost promised me he’d take me back to Omaha,” Hawthorne said.
He’s been there plenty of times. Hawthorne has broadcast all 57 of the Tigers’ games in the College World Series. He’s called 380 consecutive football games, dating to 1984, and he broadcasted three of the basketball team’s four strips to the Final Four.
He’s been on the mic for nine national championship games – eight of them LSU wins – and 22 football bowl games.
His career includes a host of memorable moments.
In his mind, none are greater than his call of Warren Morris’ game-winning two-run home run in the College World Series championship game that won the Tigers the 1996 national title.
“That was the most thrilling and exciting single moment,” Hawthorne said. “You can hear Bill Franques sobbing, actually crying. He was standing next to me.
“I had never experienced anything else like that,” he continued. “That one moment will always stand out.”
Hawthorne is retiring to spend more time with his family. It’s something he says he’s been thinking about for more than a year. He wants to travel more with wife Carol, be around his five grandchildren and see more of his 91-year-old father, a World War II veteran who still drives to church every week.
LSU will conduct a national search for Hawthorne’s successor beginning this spring. He won’t be easy to replace.
“Jim Hawthorne is an icon,” Mainieri said Wednesday.
Hawthorne met with each Mainieri, football coach Les Miles and men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones over the last few days, delivering the news to them.
His retirement next March caps a 50-year broadcasting career that began in Leesville, a small town on the western edge of the state that sits just south of Hawthorne’s hometown of Anacoco.
His broadcasting run continued as a DJ and commercial radio broadcaster for KNOC in Natchitoches while he attended school at Northwestern State. He then moved on to Shreveport’s KWKH. What’d he do there at first?
“I was writing commercials,” Hawthorne said.
The sports part of his career took off when he began broadcasting games for the Shreveport Steamer, a World Football League squad that had moved from Houston to north Louisiana.
“They were going to be big time,” he said. “They lasted two years.”
That work led to a gig broadcasting Centenary College sports. He spent 10 years doing that before beginning with the LSU men’s basketball team in 1979-80. He moved into the football booth in 1983 and began calling baseball games the next year.
“Jim is a true LSU legend and one of the very best in the broadcast business,” athletic director Joe Alleva said. “When you hear Jim’s voice, you immediately think LSU. That’s the mark of a great play-by-play man.”
Hawthorne has come a long way from that little boy who used to listen intently to LSU football games on the radio on Saturday nights with his mother. Hawthorne said his mom was a “huge” sports fan who always had on a game – mostly the Houston Astros – or the Louisiana Hayride, a country music show.
On some Saturday nights, little Jimmy would turn the radio dial slowly until crowd noise came buzzing through the speakers.
“If I heard the crowd roaring, I’d stop,” Hawthorne said. “I knew that was a football game.”
His mom encouraged her oldest child of three to pursue his passion of broadcasting. She helped during those early years when he struggled as a young broadcaster, when his voice embarrassed himself.
Hawthorne polished his voice, in part from listening to other broadcasters, and he soon picked up catchphrases.
“I stole ‘Holy Cow’ from Harry Caray,” he said. “I thought, ‘What the heck?!’”
He’s to the point now, though, where his voice irritates him.
“I can’t stand to hear myself,” he said. “I’m that way.”
Everyone else has about one more year to listen to Hawthorne describe scintillating home runs, tantalizing touchdowns and last-second 3-pointers.
Just like everyone else, he received the email from LSU announcing his retirement Wednesday afternoon.
“I almost dreaded it,” he said. “Actually reading the release made it real. I said, ‘OK, guess this is happening.’ It’s bitter sweet, but it’s the right thing to do.
“I’ve always been a big LSU fan. Never dreamed I’d be the voice the Tigers.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.