Man Versus Ball: Catching up with the former voice of the Catamounts, Chris Villani

From 2011-2013 Chris Villani was the voice of the Catamounts, serving as the play-by-play announcer for the team for two seasons. Now working in Boston for the Boston Herald, the WEEI Sports Radio Network, and for ESPN Radio in Bristol,
Connecticut, Villani still has found memories of his time traveling with John Becker and the Catamounts, and took some time with OBW’s Jon Hart to reminisce about the NCAA Tournament trip, his place as the Catamounts’ undisputed Scategories champion, the best Catamounts to interview, Beach night in sub-zero Maine, and coach Becker’s introduction to Mister Boston Blackberry Brandy.

OBW: So you’re a Syracuse grad. You followed The Orange as a member of the media. Where were you the night The Cats upset Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament? What were your thoughts that evening?

Chris Villani: Believe it or not, I was probably one of the few Syracuse students who wasn’t all that upset about the upset against Vermont. The reason being, I was on spring break in Tampa during my sophomore year and having too much fun to worry about it too much. The game took place in Worcester, about 20 minutes from where I grew up. Had I not been down in Florida, I most certainly would have been there to witness the carnage firsthand.

After covering The Cats for a few years, how has your perspective on that monumental upset changed?

I definitely gained an appreciation for how much that victory meant to UVM when I was up there. It’s a lot different for a mid-major program when you’re on that side of a significant upset. It’s not the first time Syracuse has been beaten in the tournament by a lower seed and certainly will not be the last, but for Vermont fans, that was a great moment and one to be celebrated.

When do you know that sports broadcasting is your future? Is it in little league, or before. or much later?

I had a teacher in high school who knew that I had a love for sports and also my affinity for talking. She suggested I try doing play-by-play for the high school football team that season, and the rest, as they say, is history.

How did you land the gig in Burlington?

It’s the only job I’ve ever had when I didn’t know anybody going in. I applied, one of probably 100 or so, and was fortunate enough to get an interview and an offer.

How different is it to cover The Cats as opposed to a BCS team like Syracuse?

The biggest difference is probably the relative access to the players and coaches. John Becker is a very down-to-earth guy and great to work with and the players were always more accessible and accommodating. Both sports information department’s were very helpful. Obviously the venues and the size of the crowds are different, but the passion for college sports is very similar in both places, in my opinion.

When you’re covering The Cats, are you traveling with the team? Are you on the bus? The planes? What’s the grind like? As a member of the media, how much of a distance do you have to keep from the team your covering?

On most road trips, I didn’t travel with the team, I opted to travel independently. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, it allowed me to leave on my own schedule and miss as little time doing my talk show as possible. Second, it allowed me to maintain a little bit of distance from the team. I never wanted to be around too much. I always thought it was important as someone who had to occasionally be critical of the team in a talk show format to maintain that professional distance and not always be reliant upon them for transportation.

That said, they were always more than willing to tote me along whenever necessary. Road trips were fun. The team watches movies or TV shows. Some of the favorites during my two years were Entourage and movies like The Dark Night Rises and Thor. We also passed the time by playing Scategories, and I’m not ashamed to say that I remain the undefeated champion. Most times, the team checked into the hotel in the evening, the night before the game. There’s always a set schedule with meals, which I typically did not attend, shoot around, study time, and of course leaving for the game.

The team almost never stayed in the hotel the night of the game unless it was a situation where we had to fly back the next morning. As a result, that bus pulled into Patrick Gym’s parking lot at all hours of the night, sometimes close to dawn. It leaves time for a few hours sleep and then back to class for the players and work for me.

Best Catamount road trip? If you have a second, that would be great.

I’d say the best trips are the ones that have destinations we don’t get to visit every year. We made a trip to St. Louis in 2011 that was a lot of fun, and I personally enjoyed the greater San Francisco area during the CBI game in 2013.

That said, the best trip was undoubtedly during the 2012 NCAA tournament. Thanks to the First Four game, it was a full week tournament experience. We flew into Dayton, Ohio on Monday and played on Wednesday night. Calling an NCAA tournament game was always a goal of mine, and because of Vermont, that goal became a reality. I was the play-by-play voice for Harvard for four years, and we got close a couple of times but never quite made it. Obviously, the Crimson have had quite a bit of experience in the Big Dance since I left, but never while I was there.

One interesting aspect of that trip was that President Obama showed up to watch the games on Tuesday. As I was on the air doing my show, I watched his motorcade roll into the arena parking lot. After we beat Lamar, I was up all night prepping for North Carolina. I flew out at dawn the next day. Until the game was over the night before, I did not have a return flight booked as we did not know where we be heading, and I arrived in Greensboro, North Carolina, with the intention of getting a few hours sleep. I was told if I wanted to interview Roy Williams for the pregame show, I had better get right over to the arena. Obviously, that was an opportunity that I did not want to pass up.

Of course, there was no magic to be had and we ended up losing on Friday afternoon. Later that night, I had the pleasure of witnessing Bernie Cieplicki’s sadness as his beloved Duke Blue Devils were shocked by Lehigh. We retired to the hotel bar to toast a fun season and flew back to Vermont that next morning.

Encompassed in all of this was also the America East championship game at Stony Brook. I know Vermont would have loved to have hosted that game, but to beat the favored team on their floor and celebrate with more than a couple adult beverages on the ferry ride across Long Island Sound was pretty sweet.

One funny tidbit from the ferry ride back from Stony Brook. It was Coach Becker’s first experience with Bernie Cieplicki’s favorite drink Mister Boston Blackberry Brandy. For those who don’t know, it’s sickeningly sweet and I’m not sure why anyone would drink it voluntarily. The ferry bar had a bottle, probably the same one they’d had for 20 years because no one ever drank any. The look of utter disgust on Coach’s face when he took a sip was priceless.

On a personal note, that was a difficult week for me. My grandfather passed away that Tuesday. There was nothing I could do, I just had to focus on the tasks at hand. I drove back to Massachusetts as soon as I landed in Vermont. Overall, it was an emotional week and an experience that I won’t forget.

Worst road trip?

Maine, enough said. That road trip is just brutal. If I had to pick a specific game, I’d probably go with Binghamton in 2012. You know it simply as “the Binghamton game.” The Bearcats were winless on the season. I remember being at practice in Burlington the day before and Coach Becker telling the team in no uncertain terms “you’re not just going to show up and beat this team, you have to play hard, you have to execute.” Maybe the message never got through, but Binghamton pulled off the stunner. It was a long, quiet bus ride home with no TV shows or movies. Coach Becker had a recruiting visit, so he did not accompany the team back, which was probably just as well. We now know how that season played out and maybe that wake-up call had something to do with it. At the time, it was just a terrible conference loss that took place a long way from home.

How cold was the court in Alfond Arena (Maine’s home court before the Cross Center opened and the hockey rink for the Black Bears’ hockey teams)?

It’s pretty cold. Obviously, it’s a lot colder outside. I remember having to mentally psych myself up for the brisk walk across the parking lot into the arena. One of the years we were up there, it was “Beach night.” There were a lot of liquored up Maine students who were wearing nothing but bathing suits. In some cases, it made for a fun visual. In others, not so much. Not unlike the actual beach, come to think of it. Must have inspired the Black Bears, because they ended up beating us that night.

Best Catamount player to interview and why?

Good question. It would probably be easier to answer if asked the other way, because there were very few players that I didn’t genuinely enjoy talking to. Ben Crenca and Luke Apfeld stand out among the rest. They are both extremely intelligent, well spoken individuals. Brian Voelkel has a great sense of humor, which always made him a fun interview as well.

Ben Crenca ever practice any of his wrestling moves on you?

Thankfully no. Ben also has a karate background and, of course, is enormous, so I can’t imagine those encounters going well for me. It was funny, sometimes when I would interview Ben, he would be very careful with his word choice. Whenever I asked about wrestling, however, he opened up and could literally go on for hours about the greatness of Stone Cold Steve Austin or The Undertaker.

A new arena for The Cats – you’ve brought this up several times. Care to add any thoughts?

I would love to see Vermont get a new arena. I think it’s important to invest in the programs that have been so successful like basketball and ice hockey. Quinnipiac has a beautiful side-by-side set up for basketball and hockey, I think about 4000 seats each. I think this could be a great model for UVM. The important thing for UVM is not necessarily a bigger arena, just a nicer one. I think it’s important for recruiting, and for continuing to take those next steps as an emerging program. It’s also important to note that there is no one at the University that wouldn’t agree with this wholeheartedly. The will and desire are both there, it’s the money that becomes the challenge. I don’t know when they might be able to come up with the funds to create a new arena, but that will be a good day for the Catamounts program.

Best printable Rich Haskell story?

The word printable eliminates about 98.6-percent of all Rich Haskell stories that I can tell. One of my favorite experiences with Rich was within the first couple of days after I met him.

The Vermont Lake Monsters had advanced to the New York – Penn league playoffs and he and I hopped in the car for a six-hour road trip to Auburn, New York. Along the way, we found we had similar taste in music and I introduced him to country and he discovered that he didn’t hate it as much as he thought he did. The thing that stood out the most was how amazed he was by GPS technology, hardly a new innovation. As we all know, Rich doesn’t see all that well, so he stared, eyes wide as saucers, inches away from the screen mesmerized at the devices ability to guide us with such precision to our destination. I believe the exact quote was “she said the hotel would be ahead on the left and THERE it was!” He continued to marvel at this throughout the course of the week. I think the ongoing thought in my mind, knowing that this was somebody I would be working with a daily basis, was “you have GOT to be kidding me.”

That said, he has become and continues to be a very good friend and one I constantly miss seeing regularly. Rich, Bernie, whose house I used to visit at least once a week, and Ed “The Sales Weasel” Bolin, were the three best friends I made during my time in Burlington and are definitely what I miss the most.

Chris Villani is currently working in Boston for the Boston Herald, the WEEI Sports Radio Network, and for ESPN Radio in Bristol, Connecticut. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisVillani44.

Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy And His Extraordinary Sports Adventures,