Best Seat In the House: Mike Nail Will Always Remember the Fans' Passion

by Chris Bahn  on Monday, Dec. 14, 2009 12:00 am  

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Coaches, players and fans have come and gone during the last 29 seasons of Arkansas Razorback basketball, but one thing has been constant: the voice of Mike Nail on the team’s radio broadcasts.
Nail, 64, has been a fixture as play-by-play man for the Razorbacks since 1981. A veteran of television and radio, Nail took over basketball when Hall of Fame Coach Eddie Sutton was still coaching the Razorbacks.
Fans across the state of Arkansas used Nail as their link to a 1994 national title, a 1995 runner-up finish, three Final Fours (1990, 1994, 1995) and 20 appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
Before the 2009-10 season, Nail announced this would be his last year calling the Hogs. He’ll retire to spend more time with his family, including his wife, Jean, the coordinator of the spirit squads at the UA.
Nail recently sat down with to explain why he has the Best Seat in the House:

ArkansasSports360: We all know you’ve been doing this for a while but probably don’t know why you started doing it. Who or what was your inspiration for becoming the Voice of the Razorbacks?
Mike Nail: When I was growing up in Fayetteville, Bob Cheyne was the sports information director here. Bob was kind of my idol, if you will. He was a guy I really looked up to and I loved to listen to. I thought he sounded great, had a great voice. He did all sports at the time. 
He was the influence for me to get into broadcasting. At the time, I wasn’t even thinking Razorback athletics, Razorback sports. He was kind of the influence for me to get into broadcasting. Once I did, I was in radio and television. I did it in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Joplin, Oklahoma City and back here in 1978. By that time, I had hoped that at some point I might have an opportunity to do Razorback athletics. 
I got an opportunity when I first moved back. I was a sports director at a local television station and did some football color sideline stuff for a while before l moved up to the booth. When an opportunity to do basketball came up, I went for it. 
I don’t know how many tapes they got, but I submitted mine and got the call. I’ve really considered it an honor. Honestly, it’s been an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to do this. 

What is one memory that sticks with you from Arkansas basketball over the last 29 years?
The one thing I’ll always remember about Arkansas over the last 29 years is the fans. To see Barnhill packed. To see Bud Walton packed. Even when it isn’t packed, it’s loud. Traveling around the league, I’ll talk to other broadcasters and other media, and they talk about what a special place it is and how much fun it is to come to Bud Walton Arena just for the atmosphere. I really think I’ll always remember how great Arkansas fans are. I relish those days we turned Reunion Arena in Dallas into what somebody called “Barnhill South.” When we joined the SEC, it stunned Kentucky fans. 
Arkansas fans at the time traveled really well. Razorback fans and their passion will always stick with me.

I’m sure you have been asked this a lot, but what was that national championship season like in 1994? What do you remember most?
That was a very special year. To be honest with you, I wasn’t thinking a national championship at the outset. It was the first year of Bud Walton Arena. … As the year progressed, you could tell this was one special team. That year we played at Kentucky and won. That’s when it really felt like this could be a national championship team. [All-American forward] Corliss Williamson had the “nasty streak” cut into his head. We called him “Big Nasty.” I remember telling him, “This Kentucky win is great, but if you really want to do something, win a national championship. And if you win a national championship, I’ll cut one of those nasty streaks in my hair.” 
We agreed to it. Corliss held me to it. I was still doing television at the time. We did it right there in the media room and people came to watch, including my wife. It was a strange feeling, but it was worth it. I was really happy to let him do that.

You mention your wife, Jean. She coordinates the spirit squads for Arkansas. Your jobs are so closely aligned. That has to be nice to get to see each other so often during the season when schedules are so hectic.
We’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work in the Razorback athletic department. We haven’t seen each other as frequently as people might think after the SEC passed a rule a few years ago that, because of space, cheerleaders couldn’t go on the road. But during the Southwest Conference days and the early SEC days, we would be on the road at the same time, but not really together. It’s strange, though. I might see her long enough to say, “Hi. Hope your trip is going OK. I’ll see you back at home.” We were in the same places a lot, but not together. That said, we’ve really enjoyed having a lot in common, knowing the same people and being able to talk about the Razorbacks. Boy, if there is anybody that bleeds Razorback red, it’s Jean. It’s incredible. You look in her closet; you’ll be blinded by all the red.

Let’s talk players. First, name the best player you saw. Then give me your favorite. Those two aren’t always the same, right?
The best I’ve ever seen, and I wasn’t doing play-by-play, was Sidney Moncrief. Now, the best player that I’ve seen since I’ve been doing play-by-play, I would have to say either Todd Day or Corliss [Williamson]. Over the years, you have your favorites, and I’m very fond to this day of Lee Mayberry, Scott Thurman and Pat Bradley. I loved watching them play. I’ve seen some special players do some special things.

Earlier this year you got to call Rotnei Clarke breaking school records for points in a game (51) and 3-pointers in a game (13). How does that compare with some of the other games and moments you’ve witnessed?
I always thought Alex Dillard hitting 12 “3s” against Delaware State [in 1993] was the most spectacular thing I’d ever seen and would ever see. He was hitting them from all over the floor. He was hitting them from the Hog snout, throwing them up the minute he crossed half court. That’s one record I never thought I’d see broken.
What Rotnei did was really special. … It was remarkable. It was sensational. And Rotnei is such a class young man. His family is first class. That’s something I was glad to see happen in my final year. That will be a special memory.

How do you see the season shaking out? Arkansas struggled last year on the court and has had some off-court issues. How do you see things turning out?
I really believe that this will be a good year. I’m not talking about championships, but I think it could be a very good year. I think they’ll bounce back. I think they’ve got talent, intelligence and all the ingredients to make this a good year. I really personally hope Arkansas fans will help them along. Sometimes, I don’t know if fans realize how important they are to the team and what they do for a team. As long as they’ll keep coming to be a part of this, Arkansas can have a good basketball team.

There was a time you wanted to make it 30 years as the voice of Arkansas basketball. What changed? How did you know it was time to walk away from something you’d devoted your life to?
It’s not easy to do. It’s definitely not easy. I had talked with ISP and [athletic director] Jeff Long last year and told them I wanted to do 30 years, two more seasons. They were gracious in saying that was fine, that I’d earned the right to do that. During the offseason, I don’t know, there is some sort of clock in your body that says, “It’s time.” The alarm on that clock went off over the summer. I felt like to stick around to do 30 years just to do 30 years was the wrong reason. I want to be a fan. I want to sit in the stands, enjoy the game and yell and scream. I want to be a vocal part of the support group for these guys. Travel starts to wear on you a little bit. You can tell the voice is not as strong as it used to be. By the end of the season, it all takes its toll.

How do you fill an entire basketball season without broadcasts, prep time and travel? Will you know what to do with yourself?
[Laughing] Oh, yeah. I’ll know what to do. I love to fish. I have a boat up on Beaver Lake. It’s really hard to get up there over the years in the fall. I love to read. I’ll do a lot of reading. I want to do some more fishing. I want to sit back and make sure Jean is running the spirit squad right.

Finish this sentence — Mike Nail has the Best Seat in the House because …
I’ve had the best seat in the house because I’ve gotten to know coaches and players on a personal level. I’ve gotten to travel with them. I’ve gotten, for the most part, to watch them succeed. That is very, very gratifying.
To have those headsets on, to have the roar in Barnhill or Bud Walton be so loud that I can’t hear [color commentator] Rick [Schaeffer] in the headset, that’s great. Even to watch the teams that struggle, you feel their pain. You feel their disappointment and hurt. It’s just amazing to be a part of that and have the coaches and players make you feel like part of the team. John and his staff especially have gone out of their way to do that for me.
I hope that I can talk Jeff Long into a pretty good seat the rest of the way. Jean and I have seats in the arena, but I want something close. 



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