Voices of the Jayhawks
By Amie Just
When Brian Hanni was hired earlier this year to be the new "Voice of the Jayhawks" for Kansas football and basketball, he said it was "the most incredible news of my life." Landing your dream job isn't something everyone gets to realize, but the following KU School of Journalism alumni also had big goals, worked hard and in a similar way found their dream jobs as voices of the Jayhawks.
Brian Hanni: 'I had to find a way to stay close to the game'
Coming to the University of Kansas was always in Brian Hanni’s plans. He was enthralled with the sports culture surrounding KU starting at 5 years old, and that love blossomed into wanting to be an athlete.
But early on, he understood that those dreams weren’t in the cards.
“When I realized at the ripe old age of 15 that my NBA basketball ambitions probably weren’t going to become a reality, I had to find a way to stay close to the game,” Hanni said.
Still with the love of sports in mind, Hanni turned to announcing video games. He turned the volume all the way down on his 8-bit Nintendo RBI Baseball game and turned on computer mode. From that moment on, Hanni knew he found his calling.
While still in high school at Topeka West, Hanni did TV production and play by play. Going from playing sports to announcing them wasn’t a far reach for Hanni..
“I've always felt I've had the gift of gab,” Hanni said. “I was always the talkative kid, very descriptive and somewhat outgoing.
Hanni said, for college, he didn’t consider anywhere else: The University of Kansas was the only place he wanted to be. Hanni got involved in sportscasting as soon he stepped on campus, taking Tom Hedrick’s introductory level sportscasting class his first semester freshman year.
Hanni boasts that he received an A- in the class, being only the second A grade Hedrick had given out. The recipient of that first A? Kevin Harlan. It didn’t come easy. Hanni said he had to nail his final exam to do it.
“I knocked it out of the park,” Hanni said. “As I was walking down the hill from the Dole Center to Oliver Hall, I was skipping and feeling about three inches taller. I thought: ‘Wow, if I can get an A-, the first since Kevin Harlan, then maybe, somehow, some way, some day, I can be the voice of the Jayhawks.’”
Exactly 18 years later, double Hanni’s age at the time of taking Hedrick’s class, he’s just that: the Voice of the Jayhawks.
Before getting hired to follow in the shoes of Max Falkenstien, Hedrick and Bob Davis, Hanni was the Voice of the Red Raiders at Texas Tech University for four years.
In his last year there, Hanni called Texas Tech’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years and was a part of the wild journey that landed the Red Raider baseball team in the College World Series.
On June 21, Hanni went for a run in the Old Market in Omaha, Neb. That afternoon, the Red Raiders were to play Florida, the No. 1 ranked team in the College World Series. He’d also had his interview for the Voice of the Jayhawks job a week earlier. He needed to work out his nervous energy.
As Hanni ran near the brick streets of downtown Omaha, his Fitbit began to vibrate. He was receiving a phone call. Glancing down, Hanni saw the name “Dr. Sheahon Zenger.” Slowing down to catch his breath, Hanni answered. The job was his.
“It was the most incredible news of my life,” Hanni said. “It was something I’d dreamed of all these years. I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude, relief and excitement all at once.”
Hanni fell to his knees in prayer, lifted up his arms and said he thanked God for the blessing.
“I knew I got a few strange looks from passersby thinking, ‘Who’s this scrawny dude with his hands in the air?’” Hanni said.
He darted back to his hotel, signed the contract with Kansas, and showered before calling the Texas Tech vs. Florida game. In an already emotional day for Hanni, Texas Tech, ranked fifth, defeated the No. 1 ranked team 3-2 in what he describes as the “biggest win in Texas Tech baseball history.”
When he returned back to his hotel, Hanni said he had quite a few phone calls to return.
“To run the gamut of emotions from the best news of my life to one of the biggest calls of my career and then returning 300 some phone calls later that night,” Hanni said. “It was quite a day, but easily the greatest day of my life."
Kevin Harlan: 'None of it would have happened had I not gone to KU'
One of Kevin Harlan’s first memories of the University of Kansas is sitting next to Kansas sports broadcasting legend Tom Hedrick.
On a Saturday in January 1978, Harlan, then a senior in high school, took in a Kansas basketball game while on a college visit to KU.
When he flew back to his hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin, he had made up his mind. He was coming to KU because of some promises that Hedrick made him.
Hedrick, who taught broadcasting in J-School, told Harlan that if he came to KU, he’d be on the KU radio network as a freshman doing pregame, halftime and postgame. Hedrick also promised that Harlan could fill in for him on his radio sportscasts. In addition, Hedrick said Harlan could call Jayhawk baseball games with him in the spring.
“Sure enough, I went down to Kansas and everything that he had promised came true,” Harlan said.
Harlan found his way to Lawrence by good, old-fashioned networking.
His father, Bob Harlan, a former Green Bay Packers executive for 37 years, chatted up Gary Bender, another KU J-School alumnus, at a late-season game between the Packers and the Chicago Bears. Bender was doing the CBS broadcast that day, and the two talked about how Kevin wanted to go into broadcasting.
Harlan said Bender gave his father Hedrick’s phone number and was told to give him a call.
The rest is history.
As a sophomore in high school, Harlan had his first taste of sports broadcasting: his first gig was doing play by play for his high school’s football team.
But the position was competitive. He had to apply. At his all-boys Catholic school in Green Bay, Wis., he submitted a sample demo tape for the nuns and priests to judge.
“That led me to really catching the bug,” Harlan said.
He had really wanted to be an airline pilot at the time, but after that, he never looked back.
While in college, Harlan called Kansas football and baseball every year, in addition to the Kansas Relays, with Hedrick. He filled in for some of Hedrick’s sportscasts when Hedrick was unavailable.
“It led to some great opportunities outside the university,” Harlan said.
Harlan said he landed an internship with WIBW in Topeka after his freshman year. Because of his success there, he continued to work at the station throughout the rest of his collegiate career. He’d call Washburn University football games on Thursdays and various high school games on Friday nights.
In addition to that, he worked for KCMO Radio, now WHB, the flagship station of the Kansas City Chiefs, for his sophomore, junior and senior years. He produced the 2½ hour radio pregame show, halftime and the postgame show. During his senior year, he had a sports talk show on Sunday nights.
“I was working nonstop,” Harlan said. “I was on campus and off campus the same amount of time. I was busy every weekend doing stuff. I was running pretty hard but those years were filled with a lot of great experience.”
As a 21-year-old in May of 1982, Harlan prepared to walk down the hill in his cap and gown. At that time he had no leads in his job search.
But the same day as he made the descent down Mount Oread, Harlan received a call. The Kansas City Kings were looking for a play-by-play broadcaster. They wanted to consider Harlan for the job.
“I was very cheap. I was young, and they were kind of looking for that combination,” Harlan said. “That was my first job right out of college.”
Since then, he’s had stints doing play by play for the Chiefs, the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas.
Harlan is currently in his 20th year with TNT calling the NBA, his 18th year with CBS Sports calling the NFL, college basketball and the NCAA Tournament and in his seventh year calling Monday Night Football on radio for Westwood One. In all, Harlan says he’s in his 32nd consecutive year of doing NFL play by play and his 30th year of calling the NBA.
Harlan says he owes much of the credit of his success to Hedrick, former KU Journalism school Dean Del Brinkman, his counselor Dana Leibengood and former professor John Bremner.
“I’ve been blessed beyond measure and so fortunate beyond measure to be able to do what I’ve done and accomplish what I’ve accomplished,” Harlan said. “But none of it would have happened had I not gone to KU, into their terrific journalism department, which taught me things outside of sports, like how to become a better reporter, how to put together stories, how to write, how to edit, how to do all those things.”
Laura Okmin: 'The most important thing KU did was set my foundation'
Standing over a body in an Alabama swamp, Laura Okmin needed a minute to catch her breath.
Okmin remembers it clearly: It was a Friday and the other veteran reporters and police officers on the scene were chatting about what they were going to have for dinner that evening.
“I couldn’t get over the fact that I was standing there looking at a body,” Okmin said.
In her early 20s at her first job out of college at WHOA-TV in Montgomery, Alabama, Okmin wasn’t the seasoned reporter that the others were. At that time, she covered news during the week and sports on the weekend.
As Okmin walked away from the crime scene that day, one of the officers followed to speak to her.
According to Okmin, the officer wasn’t forceful; he was calm.
“‘I don’t want you to think we’re callous,’” Okmin recalled him telling her. “‘Pretty much, that’s what’s going to happen to you. You have to be able to stand over a body and be able to discuss what you’re going to do Friday night. Otherwise, this profession will eat you up.’”
Once she got home from the crime scene, Okmin said she called her mother to cry, saying that’s not who she wants to be or what she wants to do. Before seeing the body, she wasn’t sure what path she was going to go down, but in that moment, Okmin knew that sports journalism was the direction she wanted to go in.
She moved around the country and worked for Chicago’s SportsChannel, CNN Sports Illustrated, TNT/TBS Sports, FOX Sports and Westwood One Radio, and even though she had transitioned to working in sports full time, she still falls back on her training as a news reporter.
“I’m really thankful I have that background,” Okmin said. “I talk about domestic violence and drugs and rape and so many other things that go beyond just sports.”
She says she owes part of that background to her KU journalism education.
“I feel, still to this day, so blessed, that when I graduated from the J-School, I literally was prepared to go to my first job,” Okmin said. “I would tell you that my foundation was set at KU, not just as a person but being prepared for this business, this industry, life. The most important thing KU did was set my foundation and set my compass.”
As Okmin’s career blossomed, she built upon that foundation.
One of those pillars: confidence.
“I learned that my life changed when I stopped worrying about proving myself to anybody else but me,” Okmin said. “My life changed when my questions became shorter than the answers because I didn't feel like I had to prove myself with every question or every sentence I said. I know my life changed when I stopped looking for everybody else to give me my worth and I got it on my own.”
Currently, Okmin is a sideline reporter covering the NFL for FOX Sports and has held various positions such as a host, anchor, producer, analyst and reporter within the organization since she started there in 2002. In addition to her NFL on FOX work, she does sideline work for Westwood One during the Thursday and Monday night national games.
Off the field, she conducts media trainings for various NFL and MLB teams and started GALvanize, a boot-camp style organization that holds events all over the country that encourages women in the sports journalism industry to empower each other, rather than compete with one another.
Okmin doesn’t get back to Lawrence often, but no matter where she is, she always looks for reminders of home. While covering the Olympics in Sochi and wearing her KU sweatshirt, someone shouted “Rock Chalk” at her. She recently was in an elevator in Atlanta where someone was sporting a KU hat. In true Jayhawk fashion, she said “Rock Chalk” to them.
“There's something that no matter where you are or how alone you feel, there's something just so awesome and so connective when you see another Jayhawk or when someone says ‘Rock Chalk’ to you,” Okmin said. “It's this awesome, private, short connection that you share with two words, which are pretty amazing. I smile every time."
Brian Sieman: 'Every day to me is a one-day contract'
Brian Sieman, the current radio Voice of the Clippers, credits both former Voice of the Jayhawks announcer Tom Hedrick and KU journalism alumnus Kevin Harlan in helping him get to where he is today.
Every Wednesday during a given semester, Sieman was in class with Hedrick from 1 to 3 p.m.
“It never ended at 3,” Sieman said. “I had a marketing class at 3:15 that I needed to get my degree, but I’m like, ‘I want to sit here and have him tell me stories.’ I was late to that class all the time. I remember telling the professor, ‘look, I have Tom Hedrick before here,’ and he was like ‘enough said.’”
Outside of his wife and family, Sieman says that Hedrick is his favorite person in the world.
Hedrick taught him how to treat every job like he was lucky to be there, regardless of its caliber. So every game Sieman works, he treats it as such that if the owner of the team showed up, Sieman would be ready.
“Every day to me is a one-day contract,” Sieman said. “Tom was the guy that instilled that.”
A West Des Moines native, Sieman didn’t launch into the big leagues right away.
“I hit every rung on the ladder and, in hindsight, I’m so thankful for it,” Sieman said.
After graduating from KU in 1998, he landed his first job in Jefferson, Iowa. According to Sieman, his job title was “high school play by play announcer,” but Sieman says his boss said his title was “a sales manager who did some on air work.”
He was only there for three months, as Sieman says, because he wasn’t very good at selling advertising and received a break by getting a job in Des Moines working for a minor league basketball team. There he sold tickets and did community relations for approximately two years before moving into the now-defunct CBA. And Sieman credits his off-air experience to landing the job.
“I felt, you're not gonna get hired as a play by play guy; you're gonna get hired by what else you can do, so I could do public relations, community relations if need be, I could pretend that I could sell,” Sieman said. “I had a lot of stuff in my tool bag, and I feel that's why I got hired for the job. It wasn't because my tape was better than everybody else's.”
Just a few weeks after Sieman was hired, the CBA folded. But not before he grabbed every NBA media guide he could find and wrote individualized letters to all the radio and television play-by-play broadcasters and all the directors of broadcasting, asking for advice as to what his next step should be. Sieman said he wrote approximately 60 letters and about 50 people responded.
One person gave him advice that struck him odd at first but ended up paying off.
“One guy said to me, ‘You need to look into the WNBA,’” Sieman recalled. “He said, ‘You’re hired by an NBA team. The NBA broadcasters are the guys that will be making that hire. You’re in a major market. You can showcase your talent for three months. Look into that.’”
Sieman followed his advice and, in August of 2001, he heard through the grapevine that the play-by-play job for the Minnesota Lynx had come open. He reached out immediately.
“Quite honestly, I didn’t think the WNBA was a sought-after position,” Sieman said. “They said, ‘You’re really interested?’ I was like, ‘Yeah. What can I do to be considered?’”
Sieman went to the drawing board and called up Harlan for advice, as Sieman knew Harlan had a connection within the Minnesota organization. According to Sieman, Harlan advised him to force his way into an interview. Sieman wasn’t sure how to do that.
“He's like, ‘Tell them you're going to be in Minnesota on a certain day and make sure it's not a game day, and then you go up there and say, I’m helping a buddy move, can I take you to lunch?’” Sieman recalled. “‘You're going to force your way into that interview. This is going to be the biggest break of your life if you get this job, you can't let it go.’ I had to build up enough courage to do it and ultimately, I ended up getting a call before I called them.”
After he got the job, Sieman told his employers the story of what he was going to do. They told him that Harlan had reached out and told them all about it.
Less than four months later, Sieman became the fill-in for the Timberwolves, which paved the way for him to land the full-time Timberwolves gig.
Close to when his contract with the Timberwolves was going to end, Siemen received a call from the Los Angeles Clippers, saying that they’d be interested in having him on board.
Ten years later, Sieman is still with the Clippers and enjoys every second.
“Every job I got, I got a little bit better,” Sieman said. “When I got to the NBA, I finally felt that I belonged here.”
– Amie Just is a senior from Funk, Nebraska, studying news and information.