Chris Blair admits it — he’s more-than-a little nervous about making his debut as the LSU football radio play-by-play man Saturday when the Tigers open against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field.
Almost as nervous as he was when he made his broadcast debut calling a South Carolina high school baseball game while still a teenager.
However, considering that ESPN is bringing GameDay to Green Bay, LSU is a national title contender, Leonard Fournette is among the favorites for the Heisman and, most relevant for Blair, he’s the first new radio voice since 1983 at a school whose rise to prominence came in no small part because of its broadcast reach at nighttime, and, despite today’s multitude of platforms remains the most direct link to fans, the stakes are decidedly higher than they were for that Hillcrest vs. Mauldin game he called 25 years ago.
Throw in the fact that Blair is making the leap from Georgia Southern where he spent the last decade to one of the country’s elite athletic programs and Blair’s anxiety over succeeding Jim Hawthorne is understandable.
“I want everything to go well,” Blair said. “I want to represent the school and the program and the fan base.
“Thankfully I’ve got a team around me that will give me everything I need to be successful. Hopefully after the first couple of hits, it’ll all slow down and I’ll get in the groove.”
At least Blair has had time to get acclimated to his new home — including he and his family being forced out of it for three days during the recent floods. Otherwise, the culture of LSU, Baton Rouge and Louisiana suit him just fine.
Hired more than a year ago, Blair spent last football season at Georgia Southern before moving to Baton Rouge in December. Blair did baseball this spring where he discovered the depth and passion of the fan base.
“I was stunned by the number of people who listened,” Blair said. “And they really keep you on your toes.
“You certainly can’t phone it in.”
Not that Blair would.
The son of a radio executive who owned and operated small stations in Kentucky and South Carolina, Blair, 42, grew up in the business, first playing in and then working in his father’s stations.
“I’m a radio lover,” said Blair, who keeps an antique microphone salvaged from the refurbishing of one of those stations on his desk. “There have been about six times in its history when everybody said radio as we know it was doomed.
“But somehow it’s always found a way to remain relevant. To me, radio will always the best place to experience the art of storytelling.”
Or as analyst Doug Moreau, who has been part of LSU football broadcasts since 1973 and was Hawthorne’s partner from 1984 on puts it, “With radio, you’ve got to listen.
“That’s why it’s so important what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.”
That, said sideline reporter Gordy Rush, a member of the selection committee which chose Blair, was a big part of why an unknown outsider got the nod over primarily local finalists for the job.
“When you’re driving and listening to the radio, and you hear Chris, his voice is one that sounds like an SEC voice,” Rush said. “It’s a big, memorable voice that jumps out at you.”
At LSU, Blair is more than just a play-by-play man and co-host of the Les Miles Show.
As the school’s director of radio broadcasting he supervises a staff of 10 others in planning and producing all aspects of football broadcasts plus those of other sports plus the coaches’ shows.
Last week, Blair did his first show with Miles, which featured a congratulatory “passing of the torch” call from Hawthorne at the top of the broadcast and afterward a nod for the early rapport he has with the coach.
“Chris’ questions were point on in terms of what he wanted to know,” Miles said. “And he had the humor to pick up right away what the spirit of the show is.”
Blair has been preparing for the season – and in particular the opener – by attending as many practices as possible (although closed to the rest of the media, Blair has unfettered access), reading and rereading the media guide and learning to navigate those oft-tricky Louisiana pronunciations.
“You can have two guys with the same name but from different towns and they’ll pronounce them differently,” he said.
One good sign — Blair pronounces the Fournette’s hometown “Nu Or-lens” instead “New Or-leans” which would instantly brand him as an interloper.
And while football obviously has many more names to deal with that baseball (longtime LSU spotter Jim Nickel is an invaluable asset), Blair, who has scouted out what his vantage point in Tiger Stadium will be like compared to Georgia Southern (“A lot higher”) said basketball is actually more difficult for him because of its faster pace.
Having Moreau, who delayed his retirement in part to help Blair but also to give Hawthorne his due in his final season, is also a major plus.
“Doug has such a knowledge of the history of LSU because he’s been a big part of it,” Blair said. “He can reference things from 10, 15, 20 years ago that I can’t.
“And he’s seen a lot of football. My job is to give to give the ‘who, what when and where’. Doug will supply the ‘why.’
While the actual game broadcasts will have the same feel as in the past, the pregame show (or at least the first 90 minutes of the two-hour presentation) will focus more on the atmosphere around the stadium than the Xs and Os of the game than has been the case.
“We’re going to talk about tailgating a lot,” Rush said. “And I think you’ll see some other twists.”
However, unlike a coaching change, there’s been little turnover in the radio broadcast department. According to Blair, that’s a testament to the strength professionalism of the staff.
“I’m just going to find my seat and join the team,” he said.
Still, Blair added he continues to feel “stunned,” about his new gig.
“I’ve done a high school game from the bed of a pickup truck and had to just guess who the players were when they were on the other end of the field,” he said. “So every day when I leave my office I look up at Tiger Stadium and I can’t believe I’m here,” he said. “Part of me hopes that moment when I don’t feel that way never comes.”
Indeed, radio play-by-play jobs in college football, particularly the SEC are hard to come by, much harder than head coaching jobs if longevity is the prime criteria.
At the other 13 SEC schools the average tenure of the football play-by-play man (some, like Blair also work basketball and baseball) is 19.1 years.
Mississippi State’s Jim Ellis, who replaced the legendary Jack Crystal six years ago, was the newbie of the group before this season. But he has been part of the Bulldogs’ broadcast team for 37 years.
Next to Ellis is Scott Harris of Georgia, who followed another legend, Larry Munson, eight years ago.
Closer to home, Dave Nitz, of Louisiana Tech, and Frank Hoffman, of Louisiana-Monroe, are entering their 42nd and 41st seasons respectively at their schools.
Blair said he knows he’s a long way from reaching those milestones, but adds that he can’t see a better job out there.
“This is not a steppingstone job,” he said. “First of all, radio is more important to fans than pro jobs are because we’re their guys talking to them directly.
“And secondly, who wouldn’t want to be at a school where’s you’re going to be in the national championship conversation every year. This is a magical time at LSU and I am lucky to part of it.”