Craig Sager’s passing on Thursday prompted a flood of memorials and homages, most from people who knew the sideline reporter better than I — and by better, I mean knew him at all.
Nevertheless, when a person’s beamed into your home weekly for several years, it’s easy to feel as though you know their personality. And Craig Sager had personality to spare, which became his calling card in the business.
However, for the fond memory I had to take to these pages to share with the CFB Huddle audience, please imagine Craig Sager in attire far more subdued than the suits that were central to his identity as an NBA broadcaster. Envision khakis, a TBS-branded polo shirt, and some precursors to the Curry 2. You know the shoes I’m talking about.
That was Sager’s uniform when he visited the University of Arizona in 2003, during the brief stint TBS covered college football.
I was an early-year undergrad that season, not yet covering the beat for The Daily Wildcat, instead a part of the ZonaZoo student section. TBS came to Tucson twice that season, for games against LSU, Oregon and USC.
Arizona lost those games by a combined 129 points. The first two sealed John Mackovic’s fate as head coach was sealed with those LSU and Oregon losses — he was fired a month before USC’s visit to Arizona Stadium — and I like to think the trilogy of stinkers TBS aired from the Old Pueblo explains why TBS no longer airs college football.
While the former Superstation’s choice in games may not have been the best, Sager was the perfect choice to work such dreadful contest — not because he wasn’t deserving of better competition. On the contrary.
Football fans were deprived by TBS dropping the sport. Imagine the sideline interviews he could have had with Les Miles, or Jim Harbaugh. Picture stone-faced Nick Saban in his Alabama days trying not to crack a smile with the infectious warmth Sager exuded — and, if given free reign in the wardrobe department, seeing the Crimson Tide next to some orange paisley.
Rather, Craig Sager was perfect for such dismal blowouts because he was Craig Sager. It became evident early on in all three contests that Arizona stood no chance. Seeking entertainment in other ways, undergrads who finished more PBRs than Arizona gained first downs — I’m not admitting to being one of them — would shout to him the whole game.
We were like the Butabi Bros. spotting Emilio Estevez.
And for every inebriated shout of CRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAIG! launched his way, Sager would turn, smile a genuine smile, and wave like it was the first time someone recognized him.
He was also uniquely qualified for such assignments, having endured some truly awful football as the mascot at Northwestern.
Craig Sager as Willie the Wildcat at Northwestern. 🐐 pic.twitter.com/gg3uhLTYPV
— Jim Weber (@JimMWeber) December 15, 2016
Something about his presence just commanded such admiration. The only other time I ever saw him in person was at April’s Final Four in Houston. At an event attended by Vice-President Biden, the largest crowd of on-lookers gathered for Craig Sager interviewing Michael Jordan. Two GOATs.