The Rose Bowl is personal for Brian Barnhart.
The play-by-play voice of Illinois football and basketball was raised just down the road from Memorial Stadium in Tolono. He was an Illini fan almost from Day One.
Barnhart grew up listening to previous Illinois voices: Larry Stewart, Dick Martin and Jim Turpin. Now he is following in their footsteps by calling Illinois’ biggest football game in 24 years when the Illini face USC in the Rose Bowl on Tuesday. In the Chicago area, Barnhart and former Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner will have the call on WIND-AM 560.
“This is a dream for any kid from the Midwest,” Barnhart said. “To be the voice of the Illini for this game is a big deal. To me, it is personal. I’m not just working for them. This is my team doing it.”
It took Illinois a long time to get to this point, and Barnhart didn’t exactly take the direct route either. After graduating from Liberty University, he pursued his goal of becoming a major-league baseball announcer. A tour of the minors for more than a decade eventually led to him hooking up with the Anaheim Angels in 1998.
Barnhart spent two years there and then thought he was headed to Montreal to take a position with the Expos. However, it never materialized.
Barnhart decided to move his family back to central Illinois. He worked Illini pregame and postgame for a couple of years.
Then when Turpin decided to retire, athletic director Ron Guenther asked Barnhart if he would be interested in assuming the duties in 2002.
“I never dreamed I’d have this job,” Barnhart said.
The football part of the job hardly was a dream. The Illini went from winning the Big Ten in 2001 to a three-year stretch in which they won only two of 32 conference games. Barnhart suffered through many bleak Saturdays.
Anybody can make a good team sound exciting. It is eminently more difficult with a bad team. Barnhart thinks he was up to the challenge.
“Some of the biggest compliments I received is that people said I still made the games sound enjoyable,” Barnhart said. “I take the same approach regardless of the record. I’m trying to paint a picture, to make the game come alive. Even when they were losing, I knew there were people out there who cared about the Illini.”
It wasn’t all bleak for Barnhart. The basketball team has provided him with many memorable calls, none more so than Illinois’ incredible comeback to beat Arizona in overtime to advance to the Final Four in 2005.
“That game was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Barnhart said. “That whole year was amazing. I remember thinking before the final, ‘Here I am, a kid from Tolono, getting to do the championship game.’ ”
The football team ended his suffering this year, providing him with a highlight reel of exciting calls. Now in his sixth year as the voice of the Illini, Barnhart feels like he has a home, which turned out to be his home all along. He is looking forward to a long run in Champaign.
“In college sports, people tend to stay longer,” Barnhart said. “The fans get used to hearing their voices. There’s a familiarity on radio that grows over time. I like that.”
The Jan. 1 game won’t be the first one Barnhart has worked from the Rose Bowl. He called a highly forgettable Illini 6-3 loss to UCLA in 2003.
The return trip should be much better.
“There are certain things you want to do as a broadcaster,” Barnhart said. “The Final Four is one of them, and the Rose Bowl is another. Hopefully, another great experience lies ahead.”
•The last time the Illini played in the Rose Bowl, in 1984, the game aired on NBC with Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen on the call. They didn’t have much of a game, as UCLA tore apart the Illini 45-9.
This year, Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit will handle the duties for ABC. Hopefully, Illinois will give them a better game.