Tom Hudson is celebrating his 20th season as Gonzaga’s play-by-play voice, but Zags years tend to be longer than normal years, so maybe it’s more appropriate to measure the broadcaster’s career in games called, rather than years logged.
As of this week the count is 681 for Hudson, who’s called nearly two full seasons’ worth of NCAA Tournament games (55) in two decades behind the microphone at Gonzaga. Hudson’s longevity was recognized with a commemorative plaque during a media timeout at Gonzaga’s home game against Saint Mary’s earlier this season. Later that night, a small group of Gonzaga administrators gathered with Hudson for cake and pizza at the Herak Club Room.
But as far as rewards go, a plaque or a slice of pizza will never measure up to the stories and memories Hudson’s cultivated over two decades, nor compare to the opportunity he’s had to broadcast one of the great success stories in modern American sports.
Timing is an essential component of the job for any play-by-play broadcaster. Hudson’s had it down since he joined Gonzaga’s radio team in 2002-03, with the Bulldogs on the precipice of a dynastic 24-year run. He was hired seven months after GU’s fifth NCAA Tournament, initially moving to Spokane in 1996 – Hudson’s wife is a Gonzaga graduate – to pursue a sports anchor position at KREM-TV.
“You see Gonzaga has had four, five really good years in a row. You go, OK, this is going to be great because they’ve been winning, they’ve got a good team back, but never in a million years did I think I would be here for 20 years because I didn’t really think this way,” Hudson told The Spokesman-Review before GU’s home finale against Santa Clara. “It didn’t really hit me and then you wake up and you go, gosh, it’s been 20 years. … Winning makes it easy, too, right? You win 25 games a year and when 23-10 is a bad year, that’s made it a whole lot more enjoyable too I guess.”
Hudson still remembers game No. 1. The Zags opened in 2002-03 against Hofstra in the old Kennel. At the time, Hudson was pulling double duty, taping television live shots for a pregame show, calling the game for 1510 KGA and returning outside after to record more TV hits for the late shows.
“It was a little nerve-racking, especially in the old Kennel because we were essentially right in the stands,” Hudson said. “So I had people sitting right behind me, so you have a lot of noise all around you and a lot of stuff going on. So it was crazy.”
Most of Hudson’s prior play-by-play experience came in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he focused on Division II Mesa State, various high school and basketball games and the Junior College World Series. A bigger stage came with higher pressure and often more scrutiny if he stumbled on the wrong blog site.
“I remember joking with (former athletic director) Mike Roth because he was like, ‘Don’t ever read the message boards,’ ” Hudson laughed. “You got the magnitude of, this is a big deal and people care and obviously it’s grown exponentially since then.”
Much the same way a coach can’t spend too much time reflecting on one game before preparing for the next, Hudson didn’t have much time to let his Gonzaga broadcast debut sink in. The Bulldogs were flying to the Maui Invitational the next day.
“I call Hofstra, we get on the airplane, I get in, I get to the hotel, I open up the door and I’m looking out at the ocean,” Hudson recalled. “I turn the TV on, the Apple Cup was on. I’m sitting there like, ‘I’ve got the greatest job in the world already.’ It was one game in.”
One of Hudson’s favorite stories over the last 20 years derives from a separate Maui trip. Before he starts to rehash it, Hudson offers a disclaimer: “Richard (Fox) will kill me for this one.”
It was Nov. 25, 2009, otherwise known as game No. 229, for Gonzaga’s eighth-year play-by-play man. The Bulldogs were playing a Cincinnati team led by now-UCLA coach Mick Cronin in the championship game of the Maui Invitational. Hudson and Fox, the former Gonzaga center and color analyst at the time, were assigned to sit in small plastic chairs at the Lahaina Civic Center – a high school-sized gym with a capacity of 2,400.
“These little plastic chairs and Richard’s a 7-footer, right?” Hudson said. “… All of the sudden, Richard’s talking and I hear this noise. Richard goes from sitting about a foot above me to about 4 inches below me. His chair broke and he hits the ground and grunts and to his credit, he finished his thought. Then I look over at him and I go, what the heck just happened? Then I realize it and he realizes it and we both just start laughing.”
A jawing match between Cincinnati’s Lance Stephenson and Gonzaga’s Demetri Goodson would transpire in front of the broadcasting table to break Hudson and Fox out of their laughter, but Hudson assures “we went for 10 or 12 minutes.”
After the game the duo nearly missed a flight home, sprinting through the airport in Maui attire – Hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip flop sandals – to make it to their gate in a timely manner.
“Imagine 7-foot Richard Fox in flip -flops running through the airport and me trying to catch him,” Hudson said. “We barely made it and it was a mess. Makes for a good story at the end of the day, though.”
Hudson can’t say the same about game No. 430. Technical snafus aren’t as prevalent as they were when he started, but connection issues arose during a Feb. 19, 2015, game at Pacific. The building’s IT staff clocked out at 5 p.m. and Hudson was unable to connect using any of his three normal methods. Meanwhile, Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer was starting to heat up on a night that saw him score 45 points – the third-most in school history.
“That was probably the worst because you’re sitting there and it’s so disheartening,” he said. “Hey, Wiltj just made another 3. He’s got 34 points. Wiltj just hit another one, he’s going completely crazy. Then we would get on for three or four minutes and it would just disappear again. That one was a little disheartening.”
Many aspects of Hudson’s routine are the same as they’ve been for the better part of two decades. Like the fact no broadcast starts until the Fullerton, California, native has popped a few Rolo candy morsels into his mouth. Yes, he realizes the irony of eating chewy, caramel-filled candy before articulating words to a radio audience for four hours – “what an idiot to be a broadcaster and be eating caramel while you’re doing that,” he laughed – but the tradition began when Matt Santangelo was his broadcast partner and it lives on to this day.
“If we’re on the road, we’ll stop and buy them before games if necessary,” Hudson said.
He’s also a creature of habit when it comes to the tunes he’ll play driving to the Kennel. Hudson’s version of pregame hype music?
“It’s old country music nobody really cares about,” he said. “A little Willie Nelson.”
Other aspects of the job have changed, including the fluctuating cycle of former Gonzaga players who’ve worked beside Hudson as a color analyst. Hudson covered Adam Morrison as a little-known high school player at Mead while working at KREM. Twenty years later, Hudson obliges whenever Gonzaga fans – and often rival fans in the West Coast Conference – ask the play-by-play broadcaster to snap a photo of them standing next to the former NCAA scoring leader and All-American who replaced Santangelo in the radio booth five years ago.
“It absolutely just smacks you in the face. Those types of things hit you,” Hudson said. “Even going all the way back to Matt Santangelo when I worked with Matt. When I moved to Spokane, the first television story I ever did on Gonzaga basketball was Matt Santangelo. Then 13 years later, I’m sitting next to him on the radio and I’m like, wait how old are you? No, this isn’t possible and then it’s gotten worse.”
Hudson doesn’t have a running list of his favorite calls, or games, but if he had to craft one, last year’s Final Four win over UCLA may shot to the top of the list. When Jalen Suggs’ 40-foot buzzer-beating heave dropped through the net, Hudson’s call was muzzled by a roaring Morrison – a moment that went viral on social media hours later.
“I told people leading up to it, I don’t think it’s that big a deal because we beat them in the Sweet 16 down in Houston and I was like, this is old news right? And (Morrison) was kind of saying the same thing,” Hudson said. “Then all the sudden when it happened, we kind of went into break and you’re kind of shaking because your adrenaline’s going and you’re all fired up. Kind of looked over at him and you go, OK, maybe there was still a little bit left in there.”
Hudson can’t commit to 20 more years at this point, but another career milestone may be feasible. At the end of the current season, he’d need approximately 320 more games to reach 1,000. At most schools, that’d be approximately 10 more seasons. In Zag years, which routinely consist of 34-38-game seasons, it could be much shorter than that.
“Twenty more? I’ll probably have to talk to the wife a little bit and see when she’s ready to retire,” Hudson said. “She’s a little younger than me so I might be able to buy a few more years on the back side of that. But yeah, I could see it. I really could, because it’s been a blast.”
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