Brian Hanni Is the New Voice of the Jayhawks
The play-by-play announcer and Kansas graduate returns for the job he's always wanted.
Brian Hanni at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas
Like clockwork, every Saturday in the fall that the Kansas Jayhawks played a home football game, Brian Hanni would sit in the Memorial Stadium bleachers with his father and grandfather and watch them play. He saw his first KU football game when he was 5 years old, and by the time Hanni was 12 — when sports fandom reaches astronomical levels in a kid — he developed an even stronger affection for KU football when the Jayhawks won the 1992 Aloha Bowl.
And if you're a Jayhawk from day one, you naturally fall in love with KU basketball. One of the many stories the affable and outgoing Hanni told at a table inside the 23rd Street Brewery was about Kansas defeating Arkansas in the 1991 Southeast Regional final to reach the Final Four. The Topeka, Kansas, native was in the crowd that gathered at the airport where the players would fly in and out.
"During the NCAA Tournament, it was a big deal if your parents let you go out to Forbes Field and greet the team coming home. When they beat Arkansas, there were people standing on cars and going nuts out there at Forbes Field, and I was a part of that too," Hanni says.
Fast-forward a quarter century, and that young KU fan has a seat upgrade at both Memorial Stadium and Allen Fieldhouse as the radio voice of the Jayhawks. After spending four years as the play-by-play announcer at Texas Tech, Hanni replaces the great Bob Davis, who for 32 years was the inimitable soundtrack of KU athletics.
While he was in Lawrence from 2002 to 2012, one of Hanni's many roles was serving as Davis' understudy for 15 men's basketball games.
Brian Hanni as a child
"Bob was such an inspiration, and hearing a Hall of Famer like that calling games, nobody climbs the ladder better in terms of voice inflection on a highlight than Bob," Hanni says. "Whether it's 'The Hawks are cookin'!' or one of his notorious 'Swish!' calls, he was great."
A career in sports was perhaps inevitable when it filtered into Hanni's schoolwork. As a junior at Topeka West High School, he wrote a paper about Jacque Vaughn's double-clutch, buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Indiana in one of the greatest basketball games ever played at Allen Fieldhouse. The school's public-access TV channel then did play-by-play football broadcasts where the game would be recorded live and then the play-by-play would be dubbed over the top of the video. After a few months, the station would tape-delay a broadcast in which both the audio and video were recorded simultaneously.
None of this had been done before at Topeka West, but Hanni's TV production teacher, Corey Wilson, knew his student had talent.
"He saw the passion I had and thought, you know what? If he's this hungry and this determined to make a career out of this, I have to give him every resource he needs to really take off. So he's the one that opened that door," Hanni says. "Consequently, [Topeka radio station] KMAJ hired me to do a bunch of games when I was a senior in high school. So I came to Lawrence really blessed with a leg up on a lot of peers having done two years of broadcasts beforehand. But then it was that first semester with Tom Hedrick where things really got on a fast track."
Hedrick, the former voice of the Jayhawks and Chiefs who also called the first Super Bowl, was Hanni's broadcasting professor at KU. The first day of his freshman semester on Mount Oread, Hanni's entire career path changed. Hedrick made sure he was enrolled in his Sportscasting 101 class, and he took him under his wing, driving him down K-10 to call Friday night high school football and taking Hanni to Baker University to call its games.
It was a chance, Hanni says, to soak up his style, his professionalism and his preparation.
When he was a senior working at the campus radio station, KJHK, Hanni sold the largest radio contracts in its history to 7th Heaven on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, which got the attention of KLWN. Hanni was already putting demo tapes together and expecting to move to western Kansas, but with one semester remaining at KU, the Lawrence radio station hired Hanni for a half-sales, half-sports gig.
"Who knows if we collected the whole 30 grand or not," Hanni says, "but it led to a career in Lawrence that lasted 10 years, and it's the biggest reason why I'm back today."
After graduation, Hanni would do both men's and women's basketball, spring football and baseball games at KU as well as high school sports, all the while hosting Rock Chalk Sports Talk on KLWN in the afternoons.
His first co-host was Brett Ballard, who played for coach Roy Williams at Kansas from 2000 to 2002 and then worked for coach Bill Self for seven seasons. He's currently on Jayhawk legend Danny Manning's coaching staff at Wake Forest University.
"We used to do two hours of radio together and then we'd be sitting around hanging out and talking about how someday, he was going to be a major-conference head coach, and hopefully I'd be the voice of the Jayhawks," he recalls. "We were daring to dream, you know. And he's absolutely on that path."
Ballard's departure for a coaching career led to a menagerie of co-hosts ranging from the unpredictably wacky Scot Pollard, who was just recently on Season 32 of Survivor; to the charismatic Bud Stallworth, who is a KU basketball analyst for the Time Warner Cable SportsChannel. Hanni credits Stallworth with helping him grow as a broadcaster in his on-air persona, just by "watching Bud be Bud."
Hanni's tenure on Rock Chalk Sports Talk helped fortify many relationships with KU lettermen to the point where they had a veritable database of more than 300 names. These Jayhawk alumni, Hanni says, helped entrench him more in the sports culture at Kansas that existed long before he watched football games as a 5-year-old with his dad. And these connections he had accumulated over the years, along with the sheer enthusiasm he has for his alma mater, made Hanni the perfect candidate to succeed the retiring Davis.
Kansas Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger made the call to inform Hanni that he was the man for the job while he was covering Texas Tech's participation in the College World Series in Omaha. Hours later, the Red Raiders would win their first CWS game in school history against No. 1 Florida. Whether it was in the booth at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha or it was jogging at the corner of 13th and Howard streets where he received Zenger's call on his Fitbit, Hanni was having himself a day.
"You dream about that moment for literally 20 years, but the process itself was eight months," he says. "So you wonder, where will I be standing when I get the call? Who will I call first? And none of it played out in my mind like I thought it would, of course! It was just such a take-your-breath-away type moment."
Few KU fans were more thrilled by the news than the 760 folks who liked the Facebook page "Bring Brian Hanni Back to KU," which was established after Davis announced his retirement. Though Hanni himself couldn't thank them personally on social media during the search out of deference to Davis, he was nonetheless flattered, and Hanni's mother would update him every night on what she was reading.
He's both fully aware of the responsibility inherent in the job and embracing this with an energy that is impossible to ignore.
"Once it was official, the outpouring of support for the first two weeks afterward was unlike anything I could've ever fathomed," Hanni says. "It makes me realize, now more than ever, just how special this job is and the opportunity it presents. Not just to tell the narrative on one of the greatest athletic departments in the country, one of the most storied programs in all of college hoops, and a really exciting ascension that I know is coming for college football, but this particular position gives me a chance and those around me to do a lot of good in this community and across this entire fan base and athletic landscape."
Hanni believes the basketball team is Top 2 or 3 material once again this season, but he's also bullish about a football program that has been lying fallow for far too long. And he gets to work with one of his best friends in the world: color analyst David Lawrence, who has been involved in the program as a player, coach or radio personality since 1977. Their first regular-season game together is Sept. 3 at Memorial Stadium against the University of Rhode Island.
"I hope to bring a comparable amount of passion," Hanni says. "It'll never meet what David has — he played it, he lived it — but I'm excited to join him in that as we get to tell the story of Coach [David] Beaty's program and its ascent, because I absolutely believe it's coming. I like to think that we're two pretty ideal guys to tell that story, because we care so dang much about it."