On any given Saturday in the fall—or Thursday, Friday and the occasional Tuesday or Wednesday—it's nearly impossible to turn on the television and not find a college football game to watch. Each week there are upward of 60 major college football games (depending on your definition of major) for fans around the country to watch on TV or online.
A decade ago, we weren't so lucky. A generation ago, college football fans would be happy to get a dozen games a week on television. And back when college football started on TV, viewers would be happy with one or two major games a week.
We really, truly live in a golden age of televised sports, and no major sport in America has benefited from the boon like good ol' collegiate pigskin.
In a game in which the players stay for less than half a decade—with the best of the bunch sticking around for just two or three seasons in today's dash to the NFL—some of the biggest stars in college football's deep, rich history have been those who call the games from the booth, holding the viewers' hands through season after season, bowl game after bowl game.
The announcers, in a historical context, are every bit as memorable as some of the players. Who, then, are the best?
This is our attempt to figure out the best college football announcers in history, from the glory days of the 1960s right up to this year's march to another national championship.
We limited this exercise to just those calling the games, not those working in the studio. (Note: There are some studio personalities on this list, but they are ranked solely by their work in the booth, not behind the desk.)
We also limited this list to those calling games on TV, which unfortunately eliminates a host of amazing local radio announcers who would certainly deserve their own list. (Trying to make a list of the best all-time college football announcers on TV and radio would be an impossible task.)
As we all have biases based on our age, where we live and what teams we follow—working on the sideline and in a press box for a decade in Big East country, my personal list might include the name John Congemi 25 times—I've asked for some help in this particular endeavor.
Some of the names on this list came from Bleacher Report college football experts Adam Kramer, Barrett Sallee and Michael Felder, while other names were suggested by sports media gurus Matt Yoder (Awful Announcing) and Ed Sherman (The Sherman Report). Still more came from you, friendly reader, via Twitter.
With an initial list of more than 40 or 50 names, we thought it might be apt to try for a top 25. Sorry if your favorite announcer didn't make it, but assume he or she is "Also Receiving Votes." In addition, this list will not include any sideline reporters. Let's just get that out of the way.
Are all the caveats covered? Oh, one more: There are a lot of current guys on the list, I admit, in part because there are so many more games on TV these days and in part because some of the top current guys have been around for so darn long. Enjoy it, debate it and hopefully we didn't forget your favorite voice.
Rece Davis is the victim of being a really exceptional studio host who is not ESPN's best option to host its flagship college football show—more on Chris Fowler much later on this list—but he is so valuable in studio as the second banana that he is only given a limited schedule of midweek games to call.
Davis is one of the best in the studio anywhere on TV, but he is no slouch in the booth either. His work calling games could go up against anyone else on this list, as he offers a far more conversational style than some of the more rigid down-and-distance announcers of the past.
That's likely a credit to his work in the studio, bouncing topics off the analysts and driving traffic from break to break. Working an actual football game is a very different task from talking about football from the safety of a halftime studio, but Davis is great at both and certainly worthy of starting off this list of top in-game announcers.
There are an equal number of people who probably think that Gary Danielson should be higher on this list or not on it at all. Danielson, currently the lead color analyst for college football on CBS, has become the most polarizing man in the college football media (and yes, Clay Travis and Paul Finebaum still exist.)
The issue many have with Danielson is that he is either a shill for the SEC—CBS has an enormous SEC football contract—or he hates their team, usually a tell-tale sign of a fair and reasonable analyst. The thing with Danielson is that he constantly seems to prove the conspiracy theorists right.
The other issue with Danielson is that he seems not to care about the resonance of his own words. After suggesting on a CBS Sports TV show that current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly will be back in college in two years, he went on Philly radio and said his comment was "meaningless; it doesn't have any effect on it" and "it doesn't mean a hill of beans" before getting snarky with the hosts by asking, "What, do you want me to put my life on this?"
At least four times in the interview—once again after suggesting the spread offense Kelly ran at Oregon won't work in the NFL—Danielson reminded the hosts in Philadelphia and those listening to the interview that it "doesn't matter" what he thinks.
This is the lead analyst for a major network going on radio (a corporate affiliate network, for whatever that is worth) to talk about an opinion he gave on national TV about a local head coach and brushing it off by suggesting his opinion doesn't matter.
Maybe, then, his opinion really doesn't matter.
Jesse Palmer is probably too young to be on any list of all-time greats at anything—other than maybe all-time great Bachelors or something—but his work on television since burning out in the NFL and, for a cup of coffee, the CFL, has been stellar. (Note: his football work on television.)
If Kirk Herbstreit is the gold standard of what ESPN wants in a lead football analyst, Palmer is an amazing understudy. He understands the proper pacing of both studio work (insert a nod to the great John Saunders here) and in-game analysts. He's been adept at calling games in both three-man and two-man booths, and his insights are usually spot on.
If there is one knock on Palmer, it's that he is a little too perfect with everything, which makes him come off as rehearsed and robotic, which is why he excels more at the in-game analysis than studio work. It's much harder to sound like a robot when you are reacting to what just happened.
Now, if we redo this list in five years, will Palmer be higher on the list or replaced by his ESPN compatriot David Pollack? ESPN has some good young college football talent it needs to keep in-house.
(Fans of Chris Spielman or Matt Millen, if he has any, might be super mad with this particular choice.)
There is no denying Ara Parseghian's impact on the game of college football, but it wasn't just limited to his work as the Notre Dame head football coach.
From his biography in the Northwestern University Hall of Fame:
Parseghian hosted "Ara's Sports World," a popular weekly television series in 1976-77 that encouraged all age groups to participate in sports. In 1976 he became the color commentator for ABC's football "Game of the Week," and joined Brent Musburger in 1982 for the CBS pre- and postgame and halftime shows. Special honors to Parseghian include his 1980 induction into the National Football Foundation's Hall of Fame and his 1984 induction into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame.
Parseghian will not be the last person on this list to have a connection to Notre Dame. (Note: Paul Hornung does not make this list, as I always reference him as a radio analyst, though I did find clips of him doing television. It was a can of worms I decided to keep closed.)
I'm going to age myself for a moment. When I heard a few years back that Pat Haden was taking the job as athletic director at USC, my first thought was, "The Notre Dame color guy?"
Haden obviously has a stronger connection historically to USC than Notre Dame, but he became such a mainstay on Notre Dame's nationally televised games on NBC that it was hard for someone my age watching the Irish every week to know him as anything else.
Haden pulled very few punches on TV, a calling card of current Notre Dame TV analyst Mike Mayock. Haden made this list instead of Mayock based on his tenure at the position. (Note: Tom Hammond, who worked with Haden and Mayock as well as a host of other analysts, did not make the list but should be mentioned somewhere, so here he is.)
Of all the clips I've found to accompany these names, the above clip of Haden talking about how he handled calling the USC-Notre Dame rivalry is one of the most candid, and one of my favorites.
Is a game close and late? Someone call Joe Tessitore. Wait, he's probably already there.
From a 2012 Sports Illustrated column by Stewart Mandel:
Joe Tessitore possesses a magical ability to spark fourth-quarter comebacks and crazy last-second endings. At least, it seems that way.
During the 2010 season, Tessitore and his broadcast crew began a tradition. When the moment feels right, just as it seems like one team is about to pull away from the other, Tessitore turns to the in-booth camera during a commercial break and sprinkles imaginary pixie dust on the field.
"I don't care who wins," said the ESPN play-by-play announcer. "The only thing I want to see is the craziest, closest, most outlandish finish we can—with an emphasis on overtime."
Twitter calls it the "Tessitore Effect," making him ESPN's version of Gus Johnson. Tessitore got his start at ESPN with boxing, but he has worked his way up the college football ladder at the Worldwide Leader to be one its top—and buzzworthy—names.
Speaking of close and late, nobody in the history of announcing has been better at calling college sporting events that are close and late than Gus Johnson.
While he is surely more adept at calling basketball than football, Johnson's work calling college football games, now for the Fox Sports networks, always gets people talking. He is, without question, the most excitable play-by-play man in the game, which pairs very well with the pageantry and bombast of college sports.
As exciting as Gus Johnson is calling college football games for Fox, he's buoyed by his booth partner, Charles Davis.
Davis is one of the best analysts of the college game around today, a skill he not only uses while doing color commentary during games, but something he has also translated incredibly well to his NFL draft work for NFL Network.
The only knock on Davis is that he seems to be seeking reassurance from his partners—be it in the booth or especially on set—to echo his point, essentially goading the audience into agreeing by association rather than virtue. He doesn't need to do that.
Our college football lead writer Michael Felder added this: "Charles Davis and [Mike] Mayock both know what they're talking about and aren't given to overstatement, which goes a long way for me. I'm admittedly in the minority where casual viewers are concerned, I just want raw info and analysis, and they both deliver."
It's hard for anyone to stand out when paired with Johnson as a play-by-play man, but Davis does the job eloquently. As this (otherwise rough) interview above shows, his motivation for advancing in the field is rather remarkable.
Bud Wilkinson was a legendary coach at Oklahoma, winning nearly 83 percent of the Sooners' games from 1947 through 1963, including 14 league titles and three national championships. Wilkinson took over at Oklahoma as head coach and AD at age 31 and completely innovated the game. According to this ESPN Classic biography, Wilkinson is credited with inventing the no-huddle offense.
Wilkinson left coaching in 1964 to pursue a career in politics, but he failed to win an election to the U.S. Senate and settled, in a way, for a career in TV.
He vacillated between TV, coaching and politics for some time in the 1960s and '70s before returning to TV in 1980, becoming a top analyst in the game.
Now, stop reading and watch the clip above and imagine anything close to that happening with a coach in today's game.
Charlie Jones, to me, was the gravelly voice of Notre Dame football for years. Known to many as more of an NFL announcer, Jones had that perfect inflection and sound to call football games, and he led NBC's coverage of the Fiesta Bowl for decades.
Transcribed from this YouTube video by John Lewis of Sportscaster Chronicles:
What I will remember most about Charlie Jones was his relentless pursuit of a positive attitude in the face of fighting prostate cancer and heart disease.
Charlie's life, in his last years, became all about helping others stay positive in the face of adversity and immeasurable odds. That was enough to make him the Hall of Fame broadcaster he most certainly was.
Jones made the ranking over the likes of Hammond and fellow Notre Dame announcer Don Criqui, who probably deserved more consideration on this list than I gave him.
Is there a more solid, reliable announcer in modern history than Sean McDonough? You could hand the guy any assignment, probably without proper notice, and he would call a solid, efficient, professional game. As a viewer, it's incredibly satisfying to turn on a game and see his face introduce the competitors, giving the audience the understanding that no matter what happens in the game, the call of action is in capable hands.
That is not to suggest, however, that McDonough is boring. He's far from it at times, getting very excited at the right times without—like others in the field—overshadowing the call and making it about himself.
McDonough really has never made the game about himself, which is part of the reason he is so great.
I will admit that I did not have Lindsey Nelson on my initial list, and I thank @DickYoungsGhost for pointing him out via Twitter. Nelson probably should be higher on this list than he is, too. After all, Nelson covered college football as a top national voice for more than 30 years, starting in radio before moving over to TV.
Nelson worked the Cotton Bowl 26 times in his career and served as a television play-by-play announcer for Notre Dame for 14 seasons. He is in the National Sportscasters Hall of Fame as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also given an Emmy for Lifetime Achievement in 1991.
Just writing this, I moved Nelson up eight spots on my original ranking and am still regretting how low he is on this list.
Dick Enberg is not thought of as a college football announcer. In fact, if I had to pick one sport most associated with Enberg, it would be professional football. Or tennis. Or baseball.
And yet, Enberg is one of just a select group of media—along with the next announcer on the list—to be inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. Enberg called "The Grandaddy of Them All" every year from 1980-88 before doing a year of Notre Dame football because, well, it seems everyone on the planet did at least a year of Notre Dame football.
Enberg is one of the greatest announcers of all time in any sport. If he had called just one college football game in his career, it would have qualified him for this list.
Curt Gowdy is another announcer, like Dick Enberg, who is best known for sports other than college football. I think of Gowdy as a baseball announcer first, but the depth and excellence of his career had him call an incredible array of sporting events, including college football.
Gowdy broadcast 13 World Series, nine Super Bowls, eight Olympics and the NCAA Final Four 24 times. Like Enberg, Gowdy is a member of the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, inducted in 2005, after calling the game 14 times in his career.
Like Enberg, Gowdy falls into the category of "great announcer who called college football" more than "great college football announcer." Otherwise he, too, would be much higher on this list.
Todd Blackledge has had an interesting football career. He won a national championship at Penn State, which led to him becoming a footnote in NFL history as the quarterback drafted before Dan Marino in the famed QB class of 1983.
After struggling in the NFL, Blackledge went into media, working radio and TV for 10 years before becoming the lead college football analyst at CBS, where he stayed for several years before moving back to ESPN, primarily paired with Mike Patrick—who did not make this list—and Brad Nessler—who did.
Blackledge turned a quirky segment on food during each telecast into a bit of a cottage industry, publishing a book called Taste of the Town, looking at the best places to eat in college football's top towns. That alone should have gotten him into the top 10.
I didn't even realize this until doing research on Chris Schenkel, but I must have heard his voice 1,000 times as a kid, watching bowling on TV. The guy was a pretty darn good college football announcer, too. From a 2005 obituary in The New York Times by Richard Sandomir:
"It was Chris Schenkel who put ABC Sports on the map," said Dennis Lewin, a former ABC executive. "It was Chris who gave us credibility."
Along with Curt Gowdy on NBC, Mr. Schenkel embodied the role of the big-game announcer, as ABC's primary Olympic anchorman and its top college football, National Basketball Association and bowling announcer.
"I saw the need for someone with better depth than I," he told The New York Times in 1993, alluding to a roster of partners that included Bud Wilkinson on college football.
Television was different back then, and certainly coverage of big-time athletics was vastly different than it is today. Hearing old clips of Schenkel call games feels like something out of a museum. It is important, with all the names we could put on lists like this, to remember some of the greats from a time long gone by.
The greatest credit to Bob Griese one can ever give is that he managed to call Big Ten games for so many years without—to an unaffiliated ear—sounding remotely biased. Calling his own son's games when Brian, an up-and-coming analyst in his own right, played for Michigan was actually some of the best work he ever did in his career.
Griese stood out from the dozens of other former NFL and college greats because of his ability to take the game for what it was. He never shied from the big moment, but he has always managed to sound like a calming voice—something hard for an analyst to do—in the most frenzied football atmospheres.
Ron Franklin's tenure with ESPN ended with some unpleasantness, but the length and quality of his career still has to place him as one of the top 10 best college football announcers of all time.
Franklin was a mainstay at ESPN, anchoring the network's College Football Primetime coverage for nearly 20 years. It will be interesting to see how Franklin's legacy is remembered—as in rankings like this, his incident with ESPN's Jeannine Edwards and comment in 2005 toward sideline reporter Holly Rowe are now part of his career biography as much as his stellar work calling games for so long.
It should also be noted that Mike Gottfried, Franklin's partner for years at ESPN, did not make this list, which probably (and deservedly) should anger at least one of you.
If ESPN could pick one person to clone to use for every single on-air job at the Worldwide Leader in Sports, it would have to be Chris Fowler.
Really, there would be no other choice. Fowler is the best studio or pregame host in the business at any network. His ability to handle the insanity of College GameDay on location each week is unrivaled in the business. And he, like Rece Davis before him on this list, suffers from being so damn good in the studio that he can only have a limited schedule calling games.
Fowler is, without a doubt, one of the three or four best game announcers ESPN has for any sport, and he barely gets to call any games with his heavy studio load. He is a remarkable tennis announcer as well and could surely step in on any sport.
Seriously, ESPN, get cloning. There is nobody better than Fowler, and if this list included studio analysts and hosts, Fowler would be No. 1 by a long margin.
(Yes, as a Rutgers grad and former employee, I had to include Fowler calling Rutgers beating Louisville. Yes, if you look closely enough, I'm under the goalpost trying to hold back the fans from giving Rutgers a 15-yard penalty before the final play.)
Take everything that was said about Sean McDonough being a solid and professional college football announcer and double it. Nessler has called a number of sports in his career, but he is without a doubt best at calling college football. The pace and cadence of his voice lends itself to the college game.
Like the remaining play-by-play announcers on this list above him, Nessler's voice alone makes a game feel bigger without, in most cases, making the call about him.
It's strange, in a way, that Nessler's career has left him somewhat in the shadow of other names despite getting marquee assignments throughout each college football season. When compiling this list, everyone agreed Nessler should be on it, and near the top, but he was so clearly behind the other names yet to come, it makes one wonder if his legacy would be different had he found himself at another network or behind other announcers on the ESPN totem.
I have no idea—no Earthly idea—if Frank Broyles was the best analyst of all time or the worst. No idea.
Here is what I know. From 1977 to 1985, Broyles was ABC's lead college football game analyst, paired most weeks with Keith Jackson. At the same time, Broyles—who was the head coach at Arkansas from 1958-1976—was the acting director of athletics for the Razorbacks.
From 1974, while still head football coach, through 2007, Broyles served as Arkansas's AD, meaning that during his entire tenure as the lead analyst for a major network television outfit covering SEC football, Broyles was running the athletic department for one of the teams.
Imagine this today. Imagine Mike Bellotti still running things at Oregon while working Pac-12 games for ESPN. Imagine Pat Haden calling a UCLA-Stanford game this year. Or for eight years!
It's amazing, really.
Kirk Herbstreit is so good at being on television that it makes me think he only played football at Ohio State as a means to an end, giving him the credibility he would need to become the game's top in-game color analyst.
That's what he is. Herbstreit, in a relatively short amount of time, has become the best in-game analyst in college football and, when compared in his role to similar personalities at the NFL level, perhaps the best in-game analyst in all of football today.
Whether it's in studio alongside Chris Fowler and Lee Corso or during his job as ESPN's lead in-game analyst, Herbstreit has developed an uncanny ability for providing confident analysis without a hint of ego.
Think about this: Herbstreit started with ESPN in 1995, joining the College GameDay crew a year later. The guy is only 44 years old! He started at ESPN when he was in his mid-20s, and still, after more than 15 years as one of its top college football voices, it's nearly impossible to find anything wrong with him.
He's almost too perfect.
Time to admit something I probably shouldn't. For about a day while compiling this list, I had Verne Lundquist ranked first, ahead of the next two fine announcing gentlemen, which is college football blasphemy.
I came to my senses a bit but still kept CBS' lead play-by-play man in the top three. Sure, Verne has dropped a few steps as he's gotten older, but there are not many more announcers in any sport better at telling a story from the start of a game to the end.
He's great at calling golf, he's great at calling college basketball—I have said for years that Lundquist and Bill Raftery should get the Final Four over Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg—but Verne's bread and butter is definitely college football.
I know it is a cliché, but I can't believe I've done 50 years. I was thinking, 'How could this have happened?' … I'm going to go on as long as my mouth works and the airlines don't conspire to drive me insane.
You know the old line if you could have one person do play-by-play of your life for a day? Verne would be on the shortlist, just so I could plan a day where all I do is listen to old stories of the last 50 years covering sports.
You are looking live…at the second-ranked college football announcer in the history of the game.
Brent Musburger is everything all the other great announcers aren't. He's a wild card of sorts, constantly making the game about himself, but in a way that somehow, inexplicably, endears himself to the audience more than annoys them.
Musburger has notoriously been accused of rooting for teams—jokes (jokes?) have long suggested he roots for the team he has money on—and yet, in a way, that's all part of his charm. Everything Musburger does has a big-game feel to it, helped by the fact that since moving to ESPN and ABC from CBS, he's been tapped for mostly the biggest games on the weekly slate.
Again, it cannot be overstated how much Musburger's style manages to make the game about himself without taking away from the action on the field. There are very few announcers in history who have been able to do that (Marv Albert is another who comes to mind and is great at it).
Let's not forget that Musburger is also a star-maker, in an odd, perverted old man way, picking out women in the stands of games and creating such a frenzy they become famous.
It happened with Jenn Sterger. It happened with Katherine Webb. If you have a daughter who likes college football and you know Musburger is calling a game that night, it might be smart to keep her at home.
But heck, if Brent can manage to make the Disney/Pixar movie Planes remotely tolerable, he's gotta be great. He may not be the best ever, but he is certainly the best going today.
The best ever in college football, forever, will be Keith Jackson.
(Note: Michigan fans may not love the clip above. This one is better.)
Jackson called other sports in his storied career, but he is as closely associated with the game of college football as any announcer is to any other sport. We think of the Dick Vitales or John Maddens or Vin Scullys of the world as single-sport legends, and that's what Jackson was for college football.
Jackson was bigger than the game itself in many ways, helping to introduce the sport of amateur football to millions and millions of fans across two or three generations.
If the history of college football were a storybook, Keith Jackson would be its narrator.