Journalist Gus Johnson has been must-watch TV for decades. The Fox Sports play-by-play announcer has entertained audiences across the globe with his unique, energetic, and authentically Black style in the broadcast booth. His voice has guided fans through March Madness, NFL and college football games, and he can be heard regularly during Fox’s College Football Big Noon Saturdays.
Who could forget his frantic jolts of excitement when a touchdown is scored, or a game winning basketball shot sinks? Spontaneous references to BBQ after a big hit, or “get away from the cops speed,” have become familiar accents for some of the most magical moments in sports. When a big play happens, it feels like Johnson is celebrating with you, no matter where your allegiance lies.
Because of all of this, the Westside Detroit native has become one of the most widely known sports icons the game has ever seen, and arguably the most prominent Black sports broadcaster of all-time. But with no social media presence, he’s a figure not many have known much about—until now.
In Back To School With Gus Johnson, which premiered February 18, 2023 on Fox, we find the broadcaster juggling two jobs: student and Fox Sports lead college football and basketball announcer. In 2022, he was recruited to the Harvard Advanced Leadership Institute with a cohort of leaders around the country. For a full year he took classes in Massachusetts on weekdays, and hit the broadcast booth on weekends. The new Fox Sports documentary gives viewers unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the legend’s life and career. But most importantly, it shows you the Howard graduate's journey returning to school, and adding “Harvard alumni” to his resume.
In a rare sit-down with EBONY, Johnson discusses why he chose to step back into academia and the importance of making his departed parents proud.
EBONY: Gus, we know you’re not a very public person. Why did you choose to let the cameras in during this Harvard program?
Gus Johnson: Well, it was a little scary, to be honest with you. That's not really my style. I thought that if I were to do something like this, that it might have an impact and help some young people to see that trying to continue to learn for the rest of your life is a good thing, and it's fun. And you meet people and you learn new things about the world, which allow you to go out into the world and do good things for people. Nowadays everybody's into your creation story, your origin story. That's a big deal now. So I figured it might be time to share my story after doing this for such a long time, and let people know that when it's all said and done, it was my parents that put me in position to be a winner.
It was just great to see you behind the scenes, but also to see your story and just hear about your parents and their family legacy. And there was a moment I love where you talked about how your momma was “doing the salsa in heaven.” So much of this academic journey for you is about your parents.
That's everything…the sacrifices that they made for me. They didn't get anything out of it except to see me do well. They passed before they could see the full bloom, but they were so kind to me and loving to me. It was just us three. And as I get older, I realize the sacrifices that they made. I just wish they could be here to see this graduation, completing my fellowship at Harvard. Who has that happen to them in their lives? That's a big deal for me in my life and my legacy. And as a representative of my family that came from humble beginnings. I didn't know how hard they worked to make sure that we had a roof over our head and we had food and they could send me to school [at Howard]. That was a big deal. I think this documentary, more than anything, is to honor them.”
You always say that you're never too old to grow. So, how did Harvard and this experience help you grow as a person?
[Harvard] put a curriculum together of things that we need to pay attention to. And that's what really helped. We had teachers come in and further those points. Climate change race, human rights, mental health, gun control. We studied systems to become successful in business, to come up with solutions. I just think that it was great to have a chance to get in there and get out of my comfort zone to talk about those other kind of issues and to meet great people that are successful in life in their own areas that come from all over the world. I mean, at 55 years old, it's a big deal to meet new friends, especially coming out of COVID. We were so isolated together. We couldn't talk with each other, or be around each other, for fear of catching the virus or giving the virus over to an elder. So at 55, to go there and to be on campus for an entire year, and going to class, it just felt more so like having a big old nice warm hoodie on, a nice hug.
You get involved in campus life out there, hitting the college parties over at Harvard?
No, I stay away from that. Trust me, I went to Howard. They don't know how to party like we do. So, you know, I tried to keep it grown. You know, grown and sexy, but let the kids do what they do.
Outside of the documentary itself, I want to talk a little bit about your career as well as developing your voice. Many see you as a Black history maker. Was that confidence you have always there to show up as your authentic self?
All that came from Howard and his School of Communications School and Journalism. They taught us voice and diction classes. Great professors. “As time went on, as I moved from place to place: Waco, Texas, Huntsville, Alabama, Greensboro, North Carolina, Washington, D.C, New York City, ESPN to ESPN2, the Big East Network. You just look at the other guys like Bob Costas and Al Michaels and Brian Gumble. And you, in a sense, try to mimic them. And over time, once you create the template for yourself, then you’re a natural. Personality comes out with your timbers, your voice tones, inflection and thought. That’s the makeup that makes one person unique. So I thought that really helped me over time.
I'm curious what you would tell a young Gus Johnson in Waco, Texas. If you could just go back into the past and look a young Gus in the eye, what would you say to him?
Don't stop. Keep going. You're going to make mistakes. But that's okay, because you're human. But if you approach things passionately, you can win. You can go somewhere. Stay in shape. Don't get lazy. Keep your body right. And stay connected to God. Because through our father God, all things are possible, if he decides that's what's for you. Form alliances and relationships. And once you do, make sure you manage those relationships, these are people that might be able to help you down the road. And you might be able to help them. I think about that guy, that kid that came out of Howard; so young, impressionable, hopeful. Not understanding all the applications there are in being a grown up black man, things that you face, the racism, bigotry, you know, we all face that. I just kind of want to hug him and just say, ‘hey, man, I wish I could be there to help.’ It's like that commercial with LeBron when LeBron is talking to little LeBron. And remember that commercial well, because it can bring me to tears. LeBron says to little LeBron, ‘I can't tell you everything. But I can tell you enough." I would love on him, hug him up. Tell him it’s going to be alright. Keep learning. Keep growing.