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March Katz-ness: The Sleeper Cinderella Story of the NCAA Tournament

03 / 25 / 2021

He looks tall in the newspaper photo. He’s wearing a tux and has a basketball in the palm of his right hand. Dark tinted Ray-Bans wrap around his wide grin and white Converse high-tops dangle down from around his neck. Hovering above him is a headline bolded in red: Kool Katz.  

The guy in the photo is an old friend of mine, and from the above description, you might guess that he’s a star basketball player.  

But he’s not. Never has been. In fact, Andy Katz got cut from making his high school varsity squad. Yet he’s made a career out of the sport. And last weekend, Andy was sitting on a network set doing live post-game analysis of March Madness. That’s when the show producers flashed the photo full-screen in front of a national audience.

The image comes from a satirical promo that the Albuquerque Journal ran 30 years ago to introduce their newest reporter.

The Albuquerque Journal promotes Andy Katz in 1995. Adjacent: promo photo of Katz for The Big Ten Network in 2021.

 

A career later, Andy has finally made it to the Big Dance. Over the years, he’s covered dozens of Final Fours. But over the last week, he has been doing live commentary for both CBS and WTBS — alongside hall-of-famers Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith.

Part of the fun of the NCAA tournament is hearing all of the great stories about Cinderella teams and star players. But the story of Andy Katz’s ascent up the sports-broadcasting ladder is a hidden gem.

From the thrill of doing tournament predictions with the president of the United States to the pain of losing a job at ESPN that he loved, his success story has had its share of ups and downs. But every step of the way, persistence and resilience have been the constants.

In a way, Andy’s career as a TV sports analyst was a rarity to begin with. Nearly all of the big-time “color commentators” at the networks are former ballplayers or coaches. For obvious reasons. 

To succeed as an analyst without any playing experience, you’d better bring something special to the table. In Andy’s case, it’s been his supercomputer of a sports brain and his real-time access to inside information. WTBS host Ernie Johnson literally spelled this out last week while introducing his new colleague: 

“Andy Katz is the NCAA.com insider. The man has more knowledge than he knows what to do with.”

Andy steals a selfie on the WTBS March Madness set with Ernie Johnson Jr., Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley.

 

The path to all of this knowledge started long ago. Ironically, it happened right about the time Andy got the bad news about the high school team. When the coach told him that he would have been the next man selected  if there were space  he was crushed. But instead of letting it ruin his love for the game, he says it fueled him to find another way: 

“I had two choices. Sit and wallow, or do something about it. I met with the local cable channel, which was only showing city council meetings, and I told them that I know all the players and I wanna do the games. They said: ‘Okay, you can do it. But you gotta staff it.’” 

So he did. Andy got a partner to join him on the play-by-play and he recruited his friends to be camera operators. They’d grown up in Newton, MA, just outside of Boston, and they started covering all the games played by both Newton North and South High Schools. Almost immediately, Andy fell in love with the idea of being a sports journalist.

A year later, Andy enrolled in the University of Wisconsin and immediately started working for the college paper, The Daily Cardinal. Coincidentally, a few of my childhood friends lived with him during that time in Madison. As we’ve been celebrating Andy this week over the phone, one described college-Katz as “a sports fanatic who was constantly geeking out on stats and information.” 

Andy became the youngest-ever sports editor at the paper. His work there and on public radio led to a job at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — while he was still a senior. Then he went to Albuquerque to cover New Mexico’s college hoop team. In 1995, he moved to California’s Central Valley to report on the Fresno State Bulldogs. And that’s where we met. 

At the time, I had just moved cross-country to work as a news reporter at the local NBC-TV affiliate. Andy and I first connected through our mutual friend Orin Winick, a New York native who was the main sports anchor at the station. Three Jewish guys who loved sports, talked incessantly, and came from big cities. Fish out of water in Fresno. Fast friends. Endless laughs. 

Andy was totally intense about his job even back then, and he seemed to have personal relationships with every big-time coach in the country. The three of us would be having lunch at our usual spot, Luby Chinese, and Andy would be taking call after call. Nolan Richardson was on the line from Arkansas one minute, Utah’s Rick Majerus the next. And so on. 

Andy learned how to get information that other basketball beat writers didn’t have. He became known for being an insider, and ESPN took notice. He started free-lancing for them, and he just kept getting better and better.     

Over Labor Day weekend in 1999, Andy traveled from Fresno to Connecticut to interview for a full-time position with ESPN. Before he could even get off the plane, he learned that a passenger who was in first class had inadvertently grabbed his suit! The wild scramble that Andy went on to try to find his clothes before his interview is legendarily hilarious. It also remains an object lesson in perseverance (he retells the full story on The Golden Mean Podcast). 

Among the many enterprising things Andy did at ESPN, he may be best known for the “Barack-etology” segments he recorded with President Obama. They met in 2008 through NCAA coach Craig Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s brother. Andy got the then-Senator to agree that if he won the presidency, they would do his tournament picks together on TV before March Madness. 

       

President Barack Obama makes his selections for the 2016 NCAA Tournament with Andy Katz on ESPN.

 

Remarkably, Andy was as relaxed bantering with the Commander-in-Chief in the Map Room of the White House as he was quoting Seinfeld lines to us back in Fresno. He and Obama did the segment eight times.

After a long and glorious run, in 2017 Andy’s storybook career finally took a real hit. Right when he was at the top of his game, ESPN let him go. He wasn’t the only one. The struggling cable network laid off hundreds of employees that year. Still, for Andy, it was a total gut punch: 

“I’d given 18 years of my life to ESPN. Everyone handles things differently. I was never angry. But I was hurt. I have not ever been divorced, but it felt like a divorce. I could not even believe that it was happening.” 

But Andy didn’t lash out. In fact, he wrote a public message that was loaded with grace and class. It exploded on Twitter. He is certain that it was his attitude and comportment that allowed him to keep working uninterrupted; he has never missed a Final Four.   

Since that time, Andy has done analysis for NCAA/Turner Sports, FOX Sports, and The Big Ten Network, among others. All roads have led to this year’s main TV stage. When we spoke earlier this week, he said the experience has been everything he’d hoped it would be:  

“It’s been since ’92 that I’ve been waiting to be part of the linear coverage — the TV coverage — of the sport that I’ve been covering for 30 years. So there is great satisfaction that that has finally occurred. This was sort of the last mountain for me to climb within the sport. And the three of them and the producers have welcomed me as one of their own.”

Of course, he hasn’t done all of this by himself. Back in Albuquerque, Andy took the smartest shot of his life. A young woman with the Associated Press, Denise Padilla, had to walk past Andy’s desk whenever she exited the building. One day after she’d strolled by, he stood up and announced to his colleagues: “I’ve just got to meet that girl!” So he followed her out to the parking lot and introduced himself.

The spontaneous move turned into a three-point-play: Denise and Andy have been married for 26 years and have two awesome kids.

Andy with his wife Denise, son Sal, daughter Lucia and rescue hound Lola.

 

When Denise and I spoke recently, we talked about Andy’s wild career ride and the tenacity it took for him to finally get to the network set. She said something about her husband that well summed up both his career and their journey together:  

“Andy thinks anything is possible. That’s him in a nutshell. He isn’t someone who thinks there’s a lot of limits. And so why wouldn’t you try? How do you know unless you try? Everything is a possibility with Andy.”

The spirit of March Madness.