Paul Keels: 21 years calling Ohio State; A booming voice that covers the Buckeye Nation like a blanket

Keels talks Jim Tressel, the Woody Hayes punch, Thad Matta and identifies the top 5 OSU football and basketball players he's seen

Paul Keels’ booming voice fills rooms and cars with an immaculate and unmistakable beat. His crisp play-calling on radio of Ohio State football and basketball never leaves the listener in doubt. It’s graphic, economical and spot-on.

Keels is now inextricably linked with the Buckeyes whose games he’s called for a score of years; through two national titles and three trips to the Final Four.

Longtime Voice of football and basketball, fills in on baseball too

Players and coaches come and go. Yet schools’ longtime play-by play announcers are as recognizable as the teams they cover. Fans think of them as longtime friends, those who share in the joy of victories and commiserate in the misery of defeats. They are forever part of the tapestry, drawing pictures of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Some of the memorable broadcasters of the past include Larry Munson at Georgia, John Ward at Tennessee, Woody Durham at North Carolina, Cawood Ledford at Kentucky, Bob Ufer at Michigan, Ray Christensen at Minnesota, Jim Zabel at Iowa and Lyell Bremser at Nebraska. They’re all dead now but each left an unforgettable legacy. They all had distinct styles and many had catchy signature lines.

In this unimaginable world of digital conveniences, picture painting on radio is a disappearing act. For years, radio was a necessity. It kept fans abreast. Still, today, there are many vibrant announcers who’ve presided over their friendly microphones for thirty or more years. They get it. Each one is an artist with his own distinct brush and palette.

They include Bill Hillgrove at Pittsburgh, Don Fischer at Indiana, Johnny Holliday at Maryland, Joe Starkey at California, George Blaha at Michigan State, Gene Deckerhoff at Florida State and Mick Hubert at Florida. Last week we profiled the Tide’s Eli Gold whose name is as well known in Alabama as the governor’s.

Keels comes and goes quietly. You wouldn’t know he’s there until you hear his voice because it leaves an unambiguous vocal stamp. The depth of Paul’s baritone is so strong that it enters the room before he does. He arrived in Columbus in 1998 after stops in Detroit, Dayton and calling Bengals and Bearcats games in Cincinnati.

An interviewer once asked him whether he got into broadcasting because he knew he had an overpowering voice. Surprisingly, he said that when he first listened to a recording of it, he thought it was high pitched, squeaky and whiny; not sonorous and syrupy, the sound that blankets the state each Saturday.  

Keels doesn’t have any shtick or use signature phrases. He calls games naturally, no customized script. Years ago, I was impressed when hearing him for the first time on football and basketball. He’s always cognizant of the fundamentals. As teams break huddle for virtually every play from scrimmage, he gives the score and time remaining. Ditto for hoops on every change of possession. The broadcasts don’t turn into a talk show.

The marvelous announcer and broadcast coach Marty Glickman told those whom he taught, from Marv Albert down, “The most important thing you must do on radio is give the score and the time remaining. You can’t overdo it.”  The pioneer Red Barber kept an egg-timer on the counter in his broadcast booth, not to allow much time to elapse before relaying the score.

Paul says that as a kid he first fell in love with the Reds in his hometown of Cincinnati, listening to their games on the radio. That was in the mid 60s. He then followed the joyride through the team’s rise to glory in the 70s, when they were known of course as the Big Red machine. 

In our Q&A, Keels talks about the old Cincinnati Royals of the NBA led by the great Oscar Robertson. He loved their announcer Dom Valentino who later covered the Yankees, Nets and Islanders in New York.

Paul penned a book recently, recollecting his years with Ohio State’s football and basketball teams. It’s titled, If these walls could talk. He tells of the coaches he’s covered, some of the big players with whom he interacted and naturally, some of the big moments he witnessed.

What is the feeling these days on campus regarding Urban Meyer?

I think that most people are glad the matter is settled. As expected, there are mixed feelings. Team being 4-0 right now has become the major focus. 

Who were the best five Ohio State football players you covered?

QB Troy Smith, RB Maurice Claret, WR-KR Ted Ginn, DB Mike Doss, DE Joey Bosa, LB A.J. Hawk.  

Let’s start with a little history. Jim Tressel’s coaching reign came to a messy end. He was penalized by the NCAA. At that point, would you have imagined him becoming a president of an institution of higher education? He did and still is at Youngstown State.

No surprise with Coach Tressel. His nickname by many of the press was “The Senator” when he was Ohio State’s Coach. His eloquence during interviews, etc, showed that he could excel in politics, academia or pretty much any field that involved public speaking.  

The opening chapter of your book is full of praise for Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin. What made him special?

Mostly, because Archie played at a great time for Buckeye Football; when Woody Hayes coached. He didn’t lose to arch rival Michigan and achieved something that’s not been duplicated, winning two Heisman Trophies. Also, for me, it’s been a great experience to meet and get to know Archie. He’s truly an award-winning person!  

If you would have been covering the game in which Woody Hayes threw a punch (1978 Gator Bowl), how would you have handled it as Ohio State’s radio voice? Do embarrassing incidents like Woody’s or the one when Bob Knight threw a chair, challenge a team broadcaster’s reporting responsibilities?

The first thing is, would we have seen it? Given some of the challenging locations that radio is placed at Bowl games, (corners of end zones), I’m not 100% certain we would have. Secondly, it would have been much the same as seeing the replay on TV.  It would have been a total surprise to see something like it occur and to then comment on what possible long-term ramifications could occur.  (Editor’s historical comment: Keith Jackson, calling game at the time on ABC Television, didn’t mention the punch. His eyes were set on the field and he missed it.)

To hoops, I’ve always said that your radio call reminds me of arguably the best ever NBA pure craftsman, the Cavs’ Joe Tait. What’s your secret? Tell me it’s more than something you’re very conscious of; giving the score at virtually every opportunity. So easy, but not many do it. What else are you cognizant of, calling a game?

What a compliment to be compared to Joe Tait! I was fortunate to listen to Dom Valentino do the Cincinnati Royals on radio and his influence was prominent. The main focus with the score in basketball is that it’s always changing. People listen but maybe not intently every second so they may hear the score but it might not always register. Also, the aim is to create a visual; score, time and location of the ball. Listeners can then visualize the action in their minds. Those are the things I look for when listening to games……(and love listening to hoops on the radio!)   

Based on what I read in your book, you had a pretty good relationship with Thad Matta. How did you feel when he was let go?

It was surprising, given the fact that not long before the university had expressed support for him. But I also knew that Thad was in a good place with making the transition and his biggest concern was how it would affect his assistant coaches. That’s just one of many reasons why it was so easy to think so highly of him.  He is and was very much the exception; of an announcer forming a personal relationship with a coach and his family; one for which I’m incredibly grateful. 

You were at Ohio State through the Jim O’Brien NCAA affair. His teams had unprecedented success and then he fell from grace and things turned ugly. What are your memories and what were your thoughts through it all?

Once again, it was a shocking development – things that came out that were previously unknown. Jim’s teams made basketball relevant again at Ohio State and he was an outstanding coach. It was unfortunate, considering the magical Final Four run and the players involved in the 1998-99 season.   

Name the basketball quintet you would pick based on the players you covered in your 21 seasons.

Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Scoonie Penn, Micheal Redd, and Evan Turner. But there are numerous others deserving mention like Jared Sullinger, Jon Diebler, David Lighty, and Keita Bates-Diop.

Go back through your years calling both football and basketball. What was your highpoint and low point?

Highs……The two football national titles in 2002 and 2014 and the three Final Fours, 1999, 2007, and 2012.

Lows….Seeing head coaches for whatever reason lose their jobs, as well as their assistants, and the thoughts of staff members and families that are all affected.    

You chased the Tampa Bay Rays job when the franchise launched in 1998. You were one of the finalists but didn’t land the gig. You had done some Reds baseball through the years. Was an MLB booth your ultimate career goal and any regrets not getting it for a significant stay?

No regrets. Like most everyone who gets into radio, baseball was always a hope because of the great tie  the sport has to the medium. Prior to the Tampa Bay experience there had been some brief discussions with San Diego about an opening there. Once Tampa didn’t occur, it seemed best to continue emphasizing football and basketball, the sports that had been there all along. There were later opportunities to scratch the baseball itch with free lance work with the Reds on TV and filling in with Ohio State baseball.   

You grew up in Cincinnati. You might be too young to remember Waite Hoyt on Reds, later Al Michaels and Marty Brennaman. You also had Ed Kennedy on the Royals, Phil Samp, the first Voice of the Bengals and others. Who was your favorite?

I would first single out Jim McIntyre, who was the Reds lead radio announcer in the mid 1960’s, who along with Joe Nuxhall, were the first I heard doing Reds games. Jim had one of those old school, baritone, attention-getting voices; typical of that time period. It was his voice that created the images of far-away places that became my first listening experience. Phil Samp was the football announcer I heard the most, and as mentioned before, Dom Valentino with the Royals was the basketball influence.    

You did a year of the NBA, the Pistons in the early 80s. How did you enjoy it? Do you regret not continuing to do the pro game?

Loved doing the Pistons, despite their struggles. It was the first full year post Dick Vitale. The crazy part was when the games were televised, maybe 10-12 of them, we did not do radio. I was 23 and living a dream, doing games for a pro team. The station I was with was eventually going to surrender the rights and a change was necessary for me. Had hoped to do NBA again, in fact pursued Orlando when they were an expansion team (1989), but no luck.  Despite looking at other opportunities, eventually the best one….the present one, came along!

Paul Keels: Ohio State vs. Alabama



David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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