6 questions with Tom Hart: SEC football voice on top venues, bucket-list game, dark horse

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6 questions with Tom Hart: SEC football voice on top venues, bucket-list game, dark horse

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Tom Hart‘s voice will be among the first you’ll hear this SEC football season, and I can think of few people better to get the ball rolling than a broadcaster whom I consider among the best in college sports. 

Hart is the SEC Network’s play-by-play voice on “SEC Saturday Night.” His crew includes Jordan Rodgers and Cole Cubelic. They’ll spring into action a couple of days early to call Ball State at Tennessee on Sept. 1 (7 p.m. ET, SEC Network), a Thursday game. Tennessee will be the second SEC team to kick off, following Vanderbilt-Hawaii this weekend.

I spoke with Hart for a recent episode of the “SEC Football Unfiltered” podcast to discuss his broadcasting career, the upcoming season, road-trip dining, and top SEC venues to call a game.

Here’s a portion of that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

I appreciate your broadcast style. You’re well-prepared. You don’t shout and scream over people. You have a smooth delivery. Who influenced your style?

I grew up in Missouri, and there’s so many great broadcasters throughout the state on either end. Obviously, anybody my age remembers Jack Buck, what he did with the Cardinals and his national work with CBS Radio and a lot of television work that was kind of understated.

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And then I’ve always been a huge college sports fan. Growing up in Columbia, Missouri, a college town, not just watching the Mizzou teams that I had a rooting interest in back then, but all of college sports – a lot of guys that I looked up to that are still in the business today that have been so helpful to me. Sean McDonough would be one. Brad Nessler is another.

The descriptor you used a moment ago, they’re not screamers. They’re going to give you the information. Their voices will rise when the moment calls for it, but they’re not going to be screaming in the first quarter.

I was always taught, your voice should match the energy on the field. Your enthusiasm should, as well. But if you peak in the first quarter, then you have nowhere to go in the fourth quarter, when the game is on the line.

You grew up with the Big Eight Conference, and now conferences are growing to 16 teams. Your alma mater, Missouri, has been in the SEC for a decade, along with Texas A&M. Texas and Oklahoma will join. As conferences grow, do you miss the days of the Big Eight, the eight- to 10-team conferences? What do you think of this latest expansion?

This expansion is good in terms of reuniting some old rivalries and histories that we’ve lost – Texas-Texas A&M chief among them, continuing Oklahoma-Texas. One of Missouri’s greatest wins, by the way, was when Oklahoma came to Missouri and “GameDay” was in town, and Missouri knocked them off.

What I miss are the intricacies, the relationships that go back generations. Missouri and Iowa State playing for the Telephone Trophy. Who knows about the Telephone Trophy? It was information passed down through generations, and you get to know those schools and the players that came through there. So, when you start fresh, there’s a lot of relationship building that has to occur.

It’s a matter of progress, and I think both the SEC and the Big Ten are doing the right things for their partners, and therefore for their fan bases. They’re giving them security, and that’s great.

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I just hope that we keep a lot of the relationships and the fervor for the game that is essentially grassroots. And if they can find a way to keep that in college athletics and still grow, that’s great. That’s fantastic. And I think there’s a lot of money to be paid and a lot of money to be shared in this industry. It’s just a matter of staying real and true to your roots. It can be a delicate balance.

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Let’s also remember what this will allow Greg Sankey to do. It’s going to allow him, probably, to push for a nine-game SEC schedule. I would guess that’s coming in the not-too-distant future, especially the value that brings to the TV partners, but also adjusting the scheduling where it’s more of a conference and you see teams more regularly. That’s how you build those relationships and build that history. That’s going to be a very important part of what the SEC will be going for.

Let’s talk food. Are there are few places in the SEC where, when you draw their game, you’re like, ‘Awesome, I know I’m eating here on Friday?’

If I’m going into Ole Miss, I’m on the first flight out of Atlanta, and I know I’m going to land in Memphis a little after 8. I’ll grab a coffee at the airport, and I can jump in the car and be at Big Bad Breakfast after their breakfast rush. At Ole Miss, there’s a thousand restaurants you can choose from – City Grocery right there on the square is probably No. 1. Taylor Grocery, a little out of town, if you want to get some catfish. Bouré on the square. Here’s a secret: If you want to go to Big Bad Breakfast and there’s a long line, go next door to Snackbar. It’s the same menu. No line, typically. Sit at the bar. Get a mimosa. 

College Station, we found a fantastic place last year. Cole and Jordan are big breakfast burrito guys. They’ve kind of gotten me on that track. And there’s a beautiful restaurant in Bryan, Texas, called Jesse’s Taqueria, run by a guy named Jesse, who is an ex-con who got out of prison, he found the Lord, he got his life right, and he opened this Mexican restaurant that has the best breakfast burritos I’ve ever had. And Friday nights at A&M, I’m always at Republic Steakhouse.

I made sure I found over the years the best steakhouses in every one of these towns, so if that’s what you’re looking for, I’ve got you covered. Theo’s in Fayetteville. In Lexington, Tony’s is my original favorite, and the food is best at Tony’s. The atmosphere is a little more lively at Jeff Ruby’s.

A man can’t dine on red meat and red wine alone. The Gout Man is going to track you down. In Gainesville, Dragonfly Sushi whenever we get the opportunity. Hard to get in. No reservations, but patience is a virtue there, and it’s well worth it.

How about your top few venues to call a game in the SEC?

Texas A&M is just different. The entire campus experience is different. Their marching band is different. The cheerleaders are different. The stadium is different. That’s No. 1 on my list.

I’ve got Neyland Stadium toward the top. I appreciate history. Neyland Stadium is a historic, old stadium that still has all of those same bones. The setting right by the river and the Vol Navy is right there in terms of top game-day experiences.

LSU at night, that’s a different animal.

Florida during the day, that’s hot and steamy and fun.

I could go all the way down the list, but I like those few at the top, because they separate themselves with character more so than some of the other stadiums.

If you could draw up the broadcast schedule, which game would you claim for yourself this year?

I have such a great, healthy respect for rivalries. Our crew has been lucky over the years to do Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech. Those games mean a lot to me, because I know they mean a lot to the respective fan bases.

I’d be tempted to go with Alabama-A&M, because of the recent history with Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban, and I think it’s probably going to be a pretty good game, given what happened at Kyle Field last year and A&M’s ability to take down Alabama.

But it’s got to be the Iron Bowl. I don’t care what anybody’s record is, that’s a rivalry game that is a centerpiece every college football season. And Auburn really showed why last year. That game always delivers. It always draws a big audience.

If one team could wreck that Alabama-Georgia party and reach the SEC Championship in Atlanta, who would it be?

If you asked me which team or teams could knock off either one of those programs on any given Saturday, we could be talking for a while. 

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But to make it to Atlanta, not only do you have to beat that team, but you have to beat pretty much everybody else on your schedule, barring tiebreakers. I just don’t see anybody else in the West having the strength to win every game, to be focused enough and have the depth to win the division over Alabama.

Could Arkansas beat Alabama? Yeah. And I think A&M could beat Alabama in a single game. They proved it last year. 

They just don’t have the depth, and the quarterback play and the coaching at an elite level like Alabama to do it the whole way.

That leaves the East, and the caveat is, will Chris Rodriguez’s absence for Kentucky last long enough to cost them a game? I don’t know the answer to that. Will they need Chris Rodriguez to beat Florida? Will he be in that game? Can they win without him? I think they probably can win without him.

So, the only one I think would really have a chance to reach Atlanta other than Alabama or Georgia would be Kentucky, and right behind them, Tennessee. But that’s going way out on a limb.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Also, check out his podcast, SEC Football Unfiltered, or access exclusive columns via the SEC Unfiltered newsletter