Barrett living a dream as Voice of the Razorbacks

Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema and voice of the Razorbacks, Chuck Barrett.

Courtesy photo

As young boy and a teen in the south end-zone stands of Razorback Stadium in the 1970s, Chuck Barrett made a promise to himself that’s he’s kept in spades.

“Sitting in those old wooden stands in the end zone, where you couldn’t see the scoreboard, I told myself that I was going to get a good job so I could afford to get sideline seats,” Barrett said. “Those were big time to me.”

Barrett’s game-day seating arrangements in Reynolds Razorback Stadium today are about as “big time” as one can get. The 52-year-old Clarksville native is entering his ninth football season as the radio play-by-play broadcaster for Razorbacks Sports Properties.

Caught in the middle of studying for the Razorbacks season opener at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against the Texas-El Paso Miners, Barrett said there is a ton of preparation for his job on a weekly basis but added that the all the work is worth it.

“It’s a really cool job,” said Barrett, who lives part of the year in Northwest Arkansas and the rest in Florida. “There is no getting around that. I love being at the home games when the crowd is at a fever pitch and the team rushes through the ‘A,’ and I enjoy traveling with the team around the SEC. I’m very lucky and fortunate to be able to do this job.”

One aspect of the job that Barrett enjoys now is working with third-year head football coach Bret Bielema. Barrett also hosts Bielema’s radio and television shows.

“The head coach really does set the tone for the program,” Barrett said. “From the word go, Bret Bielema has been as conscientious and considerate to the people working around him as anyone could be. And that’s to everyone. What you see is what you get with Bret. He is the same with the door open or shut. He’s the kind of person I think anyone would like to work for or with. I think Jeff Long [Arkansas athletics director] said this, but it’s fun to be around the football program again. That couldn’t always be said. I’m excited to show up to work with him.”

Barrett understands how important his work is to Razorbacks fans around the state and nation. He realizes that he is the eyes and ears for Hog fans who can’t be at the game or near a television, and he is honored to have the privilege and responsibility of being the latest “Voice of the Razorbacks.”

“Hey I understand,” Barrett said. “I grew up in an age when all the games weren’t televised like they are today. I know how important this role is to the fans that can’t be at the game. I was one of them many times.”

Barrett was born and bred a Razorback, and like many Arkansas fans, some of the best times of his life were centered around Razorbacks activities.

“We were a Razorback family,” Barrett said. “Even for the short time we lived in Memphis, the Razorbacks were our team. Like so many, we lived and died with the Razorbacks.”

However, when his parents divorced, season tickets to the games were out of the question on his mother’s single-parent income.

“Coach [Frank] Broyles [Arkansas head football coach from 1958-76 and athletics director from 1973-2007] made tickets available through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes,” Barrett said. “I think they were $2 apiece, and we took advantage of them. If we couldn’t be at the games, we’d listen to them on the radio or watch them when the games were televised, which wasn’t all that often when I was a kid.”

Before before he ever made it out of high school, the broadcasting bug bit Barrett, and it chomped down hard.

“I’ve known what I wanted to do for a living since I was 16 years old,” Barrett said. “I was working for the Boys Club in Clarksville, chalking the lines on the baseball field, umpiring games and other things around the ballpark.

“Back then a lot of the P.A. announcers in small-towns would do play-by-play into the microphone rather than just announcing the game. Everybody wants to do that a little bit. One day, the regular guy didn’t show, and I was asked if I wanted fill in. I loved it. I had a great time,” he said.

Shortly thereafter Barrett got a job at the local radio station in Clarksville, and the seeds were planted for his career. One of his first duties in radio was manning the board during Razorback football and basketball broadcasts.

“I spent a lot of Saturdays and week nights for basketball games in the station, making sure the right commercials ran during the timeouts,” Barrett said.

Barrett attended the University of Arkansas in the early 1980s, but his focus was his radio career.

“I was a political science major in school, but I wasn’t a good student,” Barrett said. “I was working full-time at a radio station. I knew what I wanted to do, and my focus was on radio.”

Barrett got his foot in the door with the Razorbacks in 1992 while working a radio news job in Fort Smith. A friend let him know that the radio announcer for Razorbacks baseball was giving up the duty.

“There was no grand design,” Barrett said. “I thought the job would be fun, so I applied. I did think it would be a way to get my foot in the door with Arkansas. When I got the job, I moved to Fayetteville and didn’t think a lot about it.”

At the time, only KFAY in Fayetteville carried the games, but the UA made a concerted effort to branch out in 1993 and over time, a statewide network was built. In the mean time, Barrett began the sports talk radio show Sports Wrap in 1995, which he hosted for a dozen years. That same year, the UA hired him to host the scoreboard show that ran as a part of Razorbacks football broadcasts.

Barrett injected a breath of fresh air into sports talk radio in Northwest Arkansas when he went on the air, and by the time he moved away from the show in 2007, he had built a statewide audience. After nine years away from the mic, Barrett said talk radio is becoming somewhat of a distant memory to him.

“You know about once a month, I wish I had a show for maybe one day, just to get on and have my say,” Barrett said with a chuckle. “That would be enough.”

Barrett said he is like anyone else today as far as his sports talk radio habits.

“I tune in when I’m in my car like a lot of other people,” Barrett said. “I’ll listen for a while, and if it makes me mad, I just turn it off.

“But I think sports talk shows do have a service. They allow people to feel heard and for them to feel more like they have a stake in the teams they follow.”

Barrett gave up Sports Wrap when he was hired by the UA as its football play-by-play man to go along with his baseball play-by-play duties. Barrett added basketball to his duties with the 2010-11 season after Mike Nail retired from the position after 29 years. After the 2014 season, Barrett stepped away from baseball because the grind of doing all three sports became too much.

“The three seasons just bled into one another,” Barrett said. “About halfway through baseball season, I would be exhausted. I just couldn’t do it justice. Twenty-three years is a long time. My time with the Razorback baseball program is cherished. It will always be near and dear to my heart. It was special, and everything I’ve been able to do with the Razorbacks since has been because of the opportunity I got with Razorback baseball.”

There was a bit of controversy surrounding Barrett’s hire for the football broadcasts. Dating back to the 1960s, Arkansas’ play-by-play announcing duties had gone to the sports director of KATV in Little Rock. The job had been passed from Bud Campbell to Dave Woodman to Paul Eells. Eells owned the role from 1978 until his untimely death in a tragic automobile accident in July of 2006 that took the life of another driver.

On short notice, Nail, the voice of the Basketball Razorbacks, stepped into the job for a season. Most assumed KATV news anchor Scott Inman or KATV sports anchor Steve Sullivan would assume the role in cut-and-dried fashion for the 2007 season. However, the business of college athletics had changed during Eells’ long tenure. The trend became for universities to hire an in-house employee to broadcast games and perform other duties within the program rather than contract the job. That’s just what Arkansas did with Barrett.

Bittersweet doesn’t begin to describe the emotions Barrett felt when he was hired for the job. At a time when anyone would be pumping their fist or doing cartwheels in excitement, Barrett felt mixed emotions.

“It was more a sense of relief than joy or ecstasy,” Barrett said. “It’s just hard to describe.”

Eells was a beloved figure in Arkansas not just through his connection to the Razorbacks but also because of his kindness and generosity of spirit. Time spent with Eells was uplifting.

“To those of us in that booth who worked with Paul, he wasn’t just the voice of the Razorbacks, he was a true friend, even family,” said Barrett, who worked as producer of the football broadcasts as well as scoreboard show host. “Without him, something was missing. We still miss him today.

“You know, the whole year Mike did the broadcasts, he did not say ‘Touchdown Arkansas’ as a tribute to Paul. Paul wasn’t the first to say it, but he had made it his own.”

For his first broadcast, Barrett said he was overly prepared but not up to the task at least for his standards.

“I was nervous as hell,” Barrett said. “Kind of a wreck on the inside, just a whole lot of emotions involved. It was better when the game started. I had to focus. I was relieved when it was over. I do know I’m a much better broadcaster today than then.”

Barrett said play-by-play for football has a much quicker cadence than baseball, and it exercises a much different set of muscles.

“Football broadcasting comes in bursts,” Barrett said. “It’s about the information. Baseball is about turning a phrase, weaving a storyline. In football, there’s not much time for that for that in play-by-play, and you can definitely say too much.”

Barrett said the nature of football radio broadcasts have changed over the years with its listeners. He understands that people multitask.

“With all the games on TV and information at hand on your phone or tablet, fans listen differently today,” Barrett said. “People don’t hang on every word like they once did. They might watch a little on TV, look at stats on the computer then turn on the radio. You can listen at a game and you can listen to a game. I think more people listen at games today.

“I have to keep that in mind and be very diligent informing them of down and distance, time and score. I think it’s more important today than ever.”

While opinion and analysis drive much of the sports conversation in all realms today, Barrett said that’s not his role.

“There really is no room for it in what I do,” Barrett said. “It’s not hard for me to refrain from opinion because it’s not my focus. I’ve got too much else to do.”

Offering opinion and perspective falls upon Barrett’s broadcast partner Keith Jackson. The Little Rock, Ark. native knows the game like few others as an All-America and College Hall of Fame tight end at Oklahoma and an All-Pro and Super Bowl champion in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins.

“Keith sees a different game than I do,” Barrett said. “He sees it as a player with a wealth of experience, but what he does so well that not every ex-football player is able to do is that he relates it to the fans in a way that they can easily understand. Plus, Keith is just a wonderful person on all levels. He’s a great partner in the booth.”

More goes on in the broadcast booth than most could imagine, and Barrett said his producer, spotter and statistician are invaluable in creating at smooth, entertaining and informative broadcast.

Rick Schaeffer sits on Barrett’s left and compiles the stats, while Todd Mercer flanks him on the right as his spotter.

“I’ve learned to trust Rick,” Barrett said of the former Arkansas sports information director and current co-host of Drive Time Sports. “If Rick says it’s 7 yards but I think it’s 8, I’ve learned by experience that it’s going to be 7. Todd has young eyes, and it seems every year the press box is further and further away from the field.

“When family or friends join me in the press box, what they always talk about are our hand signals and how we relay information. It’s a real show to watch.”

However, Barrett said his producer Lee Francis is the key to making the broadcast work.

“Lee is the most important person in the booth,” Barrett said. “He’s the engine that makes it run. A football broadcast is so commercialized today with so many of the aspects of the game sponsored. Lee keeps all of that on track and everything else. It’s a team without a doubt. We all rely on each other to have a good broadcast.”

Going into his ninth season opener, Barrett is excited as Razorback fans for kickoff. After a nervous start in the role, he’s comfortable in his post, but he still finds the job invigorating. Barrett said his most difficult task is conducting the postgame interview with Bielema. Barrett remains in the booth while Bielema is in the locker room or on the field.

“The game lasts three hours, but it seems like about 15 minutes to me,” Barrett said. “It goes so fast. It’s really hard to process all of that in the four or five minutes I have to come up with questions. More often than not, I’ll get input from Keith and Rick and Quinn [Grovey, sideline reporter and Razorbacks quarterback from 1987-90] before the interview. There’s so little time. I really want to ask the right questions for the fans.”

Keeping the fans in mind throughout the broadcast is Barrett’s strength. It’s ingrained into to him because in his heart, he remains a Hog fan who fully understands how important his role is in connecting fans to their Razorbacks.

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