Here at Ohio State, we’ve seen plenty of changes. Just within the last 15 years, we’ve seen three different Buckeye football coaches, two different head coaches for the basketball squad, changes in the university president, and a switch of athletic directors—and all of this doesn’t even include the revolving door of athletes leaving for the next stage or alternative endeavors. But when it comes to the voice of Ohio State sports, things have stayed consistent.
If you’ve ever had the unfortunate timing of spending your Saturday afternoon in the car during Buckeye football season, odds are high you’ve had the luxury of hearing Paul Keels. He’s been your play-by-play commentator for Buckeye football and basketball on 97.1 The Fan since 1998, meaning it doesn’t matter if you are 16-years-old, 27-years-old, or 88-years-old, his silky smooth baritone voice has graced your car speakers at least once.
Through his time with Ohio State, Keels has had the best seats in the house and his latest book, If These Walls Could Talk, details all the memories—mostly good ones (we’ll just collectively ignore that devastating loss to Michigan State in 1998 in one of John Cooper’s last years at the helm) he’s seen from those very seats.
For Buckeye fans, digging through the history of this program is always a pleasing ritual, but through the lens of Keels, you are invited into a new world where you get a glimpse at some of the behind-the-scenes actions within the locker room while the on-the-field performances serve as backdrops for the story. The 2003 National Championship game. The Thad Five and the Final Four. No. 1 OSU vs. No. 2 Michigan in 2006. The added context and emotion of each individual story provides an extra layer of personality drawing you closer to the legendary figures who have played or coached for the Bucks.
I had the chance to catch up with Keels to dig through his treasure trove of memories and insights, and I’m not going to lie, it seemed a bit surreal hearing his voice on the other side of the phone. I can recall memories of my childhood going out to my friend’s house to watch the Buckeye games and vividly remember Paul’s calls over the radio as we played a pick-up game of football in the backyard. I would always think to myself what it would sound like if an announcer said my name.
I just never would’ve imagined it would be in this form.
If you could go back in time and watch an OSU athlete, who would it be?
I’d probably pick Archie Griffin just for everything that he achieved. At that time, I was becoming more and more aware of what college football was about, and growing up in Cincinnati a few hours away still becoming aware of just how big a thing Ohio State football was. It’s easy for us to look back now, but to be able to appreciate and seeing somebody do something that hasn’t been done up to this point—which is to win two Heismans back-to-back—and to also still enjoy the atmosphere of the Woody Hayes era. You know, the dominance he and those Ohio State teams had. That would be probably the first things I would do. And when you did have the chance to see them on TV, usually it was the Michigan game or maybe a few others, you really appreciated being able to see it. I mean, when I was a teenager, I was able to listen to a lot of the radio and just that whole mystique of you’re listening to the game but creating the image in your mind—what it must be, what it must look like, what it must feel like to the people in the stands—and it’s just kind of nostalgic.
Is that what you keep in the back of your mind? How you would’ve liked to have the game called when you were listening to the radio as a teenager?
Well, I’m not so much thinking about myself—maybe a little bit of that, but honestly…there are people that can’t watch every game or they can’t attend. We get a lot of complimentary feedback from people who are driving their kids to their game, the people that are at work, or the farmers that are outside a lot of the time … there’s just a lot of people who aren’t in the position to see it in person or sit in front of their TV, so you think about those people who are just kind of depending on what comes out of the radio. We take our time to describe it the best we can so they can picture it in their minds while they go about their day. I know what it’s like whenever I’m in the car going back and forth to some place and how it can kind of captivate you, and you hope that what we’re doing—whether they are working, or driving, or sitting on their porch. I think a lot of people that are sports fans that grew up in the generation of listening to games on the radio, they have an appreciation of not being a slave to the TV screen and still be able to do the things that you want to do and kind of have [the game] accompany you.
It seems like a big complaint of fans whenever their team is losing is “these announcers are clearly biased!”, have you had any moments like this?
More than anything, we probably hear stuff about the TV announcers. We hear, “We turned the radio on because we can’t stand listening to ‘so-and-so’ or ‘so-and-so,’ we think they have a bias against Ohio State.” We kind of have the ability to be pro-Ohio State where I think most people understand the network TV really can’t be pro either team.
You’ve served many roles from analyst to friend of the coaching staff giving you an interesting perspective of knowing both on- and off-the-field matters, could you talk a little about the fallout that comes with a coaching change?
I know when Andy Geiger made the decision to let Jim O’Brien go, it was very obvious to see how difficult it was for Andy in so many ways because you personally get so close to coach O’Brien, and then we were able to see how it affected not only the assistant coaches, but other staff people. I remember we had one guy in particular who worked at our radio station because he was interested in getting into coaching, but after seeing that happen, it changed his thoughts on it. … Even more recently with Thad Matta’s time, you saw how it affected his assistant coaching staff. You know, the head coach is usually very well-compensated, but his assistants and the other staff people aren’t. There was one particular guy who was left to lurch while his wife was dealing with serious health issues and you just realized: people want to talk about firing coaches or changing coaches, there’s so many lives that are affected…You see the part that goes beyond sports. It’s the part that impacts people’s livelihoods and their families.
When do you think ESPN is going to do that 30-for-30 on the first Undisputed National Champions?
When Alabama stops winning National Championships [laughs]. Or, maybe they need to do it while [Alabama] is still doing it to remind people that there are other people who have won national titles.
Paul Makes the Call
More iconic Tressel win: 2006 vs. No. 2 Michigan or 2002-03 vs. No. 1 Miami?
I would probably have to say the 2002-2003 because it ended in a championship. The No. 1 and No. 2 game against Michigan was great, but the end result wasn’t the same.
Better big time shot: Evan Turner vs. Michigan (2010) or Sylvester’s game-winner vs. Illinois (2005)?
I’d have to say the Matt Sylvester shot because that had a long range effect. There were recruits—part of the Greg Oden and Mike Conley recruiting class—that were in the stands that day. I think it validated what Thad and the team was doing.
Classic comeback win: 2017 vs. Penn State or 2015 vs. Alabama?
I guess by default I’d have to say Alabama because it opened the door to a national championship, but it’s a hard one to pick because the Penn State game was at home. I think because of JT Barrett’s great career, it was a great defining moment of his time.
The Sullinger you wouldn’t want to post up on: JJ or Jared?
No question, Jared. JJ was more of a perimeter player who could shoot outside. I thought it was amazing to see how JJ’s game further developed when Thad got here. Jared, and I think he would tell you it’s true, it’s because of his big rear end. Yeah, he’s not the one you want to see.
Keels’ book, If These Walls Could Talk: Ohio State Buckeyes is available at Barnes & Noble as well as on Amazon.