IOWA CITY — Big Ten basketball fans will see more of Gus Johnson this winter than ever before, and that thrills both the sports broadcaster and Big Ten Network (BTN) President Mark Silverman.
In early May, Johnson, 43, left CBS after a contract impasse and joined Fox Sports. He now will call football and basketball games exclusively for Fox and its array of networks, including the BTN. Johnson is slated to work two regular-season Big Ten football games, the inaugural Big Ten football championship and up to 35 college basketball games for the network that enters its fifth season this fall.
Johnson, who is known for his energetic style and signature phrases during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, has called BTN games in a limited capacity the last three seasons. He worked around 20 basketball games for the network last year.
“I consider Gus Johnson the pre-eminent college basketball announcer in the country,” Silverman said. “When we had an opportunity to get Gus on our air, we did whatever we could to make it happen. We just had to work around his other deals. Now he’s joining Fox, which is a co-owner of the network. We’re just going to have this opportunity to have him on our air even more. I do think every game that Gus Johnson calls for the network makes it a better produced game and a more attractive game for a viewer to watch.
“We’re going to work to put him on all of our best games.”
The BTN actively displayed Johnson last winter with advertising and commercials, which Silverman said was a plus for Johnson and the network. Johnson will work mostly with color analysts Shon Morris and Jim Jackson this year.
“We’ll promote Gus because it’s good for Gus, and it’s good for us,” he said.
Johnson’s resume is deep and varied. While at CBS he called the NCAA Tournament, the NFL and mixed martial arts. He also served as play-by-play voice for New York Knicks games on MSG and was Showtime’s lead voice for championship boxing.
Johnson will stay busy with Fox Sports. He’ll pair with Charles Davis to call Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Conference USA football games, along with the Cotton Bowl. He will also call NFL football games before transitioning to Big Ten basketball.
“(The BTN has) done things for my career that I never even dreamed that could happen,” Johnson said. “They’ve been so supportive, they’ve been so encouraging and appreciative and all the adjectives that you can use of an employer to get behind one of their workers. I really thank them for all that they’ve done because they’ve changed my career, which means they’ve changed my life.
“Sometimes the attention and the support is a little overwhelming as well. I embrace it, because I know I have a team that I’m a part of. I want to do whatever I can for them to make sure they’re happy, and I’m helping as much as I can to enhance their brand.”
Johnson played three sports growing up in Detroit and was a four-year letterman in baseball at Howard University.
Unlike many college basketball broadcasters, Johnson prefers to focus his in-game analysis on the athletes rather than the coaches. It’s a deliberate style change that helps him connect with the players.
“I just like to have fun with the games, be positive about these athletes on the floor, especially in college,” Johnson said. “I’m just not into being critical of a college kid. He’s got enough on his mind like going to class and trying to graduate and playing ball. It’s like two jobs; it’s very hard for them. My thing is delight in the excellence of these athletes and to really, as best as I can, glorify their achievements on the floor and in the classroom as student-athletes.
“The players play the game. The coaches stand on the sideline. They’re in the game, but they’re not playing the game.”
Johnson’s style is just fine with Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery.
“He’s one of the best in our business,” McCaffery said. “He’s enthusiastic, he’s knowledgeable. I think he really knows the players. I think it’s important that what he does is he talks about the players. He’s excited about them. That’s what it’s all about. They don’t have to talk about me. They can talk about (Melsahn) Basabe, (Matt) Gatens and (Bryce) Cartwright, Eric May. I want him to talk about those guys and pump our new guys.”
Johnson has branched beyond sports in his personal life. He’s developing an apparrel company called “Rise & Fire” and is a practicing martial artist. Without NBA or NCAA Tournament duties, he plans to spend more time with his son. But he also admits he’ll miss the sporting event that has defined his career to many basketball fans.
“There’s going to be withdrawal,” Johnson said. “The NCAA Tournament has been a part of my life for a very long time. It’s something I’m going to miss dearly; I’m really going to miss being a part of the tournament. But life is filled with changes, and that’s one thing that’s guaranteed. Hopefully, even though I’m not a part of it, I’m going to be a fan and hopefully we’ll get some good games and I’ll sit at home with my son and watch the tournament.”