Q&A: John Morris
In 1995, John Morris (BA ’80) succeeded legendary sportscaster Frank Fallon as “The Voice of the Baylor Bears” when Fallon retired. Morris now serves as Baylor’s assistant athletic director for broadcasting, and does play-by-play on broadcasts of Baylor sports including football, men’s basketball and baseball. In 2019, he was honored as the Texas Co-Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. In this Q&A, Randy Fiedler, director of marketing and communications for the College of Arts & Sciences, talked with John about his early days, his time as a Baylor student and his 34 years behind the microphone on Baylor game days.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Kentucky. My dad was from Garland, outside Dallas, and was a religion major at Baylor. He met my mom at Baylor and they got married. After he graduated, he went to Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, so I was born in Louisville. My dad went on to pastor churches in Louisville, Winchester and Somerset, Kentucky, and then our family landed in Danville, Kentucky. From the fifth grade on, I lived in Danville and graduated from high school there.
How much did you know about Baylor when it came time to choose a college?
Since my mom and dad both went to Baylor, I knew about it. From a distance, I liked it, but then I came down to Waco for a visit and really liked it. A lot of my friends went to the University of Kentucky, which was just 30 miles away. But I felt like part of college was getting away from home a little bit, so I got 1,000 miles away. It was an easy choice to make to come to Baylor, and it’s safe to say I was the only person in my class in Danville High School who went here. It turned out great.
Did you know early on that you wanted to pursue broadcasting as a career, or did you realize that after you were at Baylor?
I was kind of geeky in that since I was a teenager, I just loved broadcasting and wanted to do something in that. I didn’t know exactly what, but I thought sports broadcasting would be great. There was a guy in Danville in our church who ran the local radio station. This guy, Steve Bertram, did a board shift and then did all the sports for them. Steve would let me hang around him when I was a kid and made me feel like I was working and that I was helping. I’m sure I wasn’t doing anything, but he was very nice to let me hang around. And that really fanned the flame of being interested in broadcasting.
Did you get the chance to go on air before coming to Baylor?
Yeah, a little bit. I worked at the radio station, mainly on the night shift, and during the summer, that meant for the most part airing the broadcasts of Cincinnati Reds games. It was great because I was getting paid by a commercial station.
Did you play sports in high school?
A little bit. I was very, very average. I played baseball — that was my sport — and Danville High School was really good in all sports. They were and still are, but that was kind of the limit for me — just baseball.
When you were at Baylor in the late 1970s, did you have the chance to get some practical experience in broadcasting?
Yes, but it was a lot different. I started at Baylor in 1977 and graduated in December of 1980. At that point, KWBU-FM was a radio station run completely by the students — it wasn’t an NPR affiliate yet. We were doing the whole thing, which was great hands-on experience. At the same time, the only commercial broadcasts of Baylor sports that were being done were for football and men’s basketball. [The faculty] told us, “Except for those two sports, you can put whatever you want on the air,” and we said, “Great.” So, we broadcasted Baylor baseball games, we did women’s basketball, we did volleyball, and maybe some softball in there as well. We were on our own to broadcast whatever Baylor sports we wanted to.
That’s a lot of responsibility for students to take on. Were there any downsides?
The only bad part was that Frank Fallon [the “Voice of the Baylor Bears” from 1953 to 1995] was still at KWTX Radio in Waco then. He didn’t come to Baylor as a faculty member until 1981, and the broadcasting program took a huge leap forward when he arrived. But before Frank, while I was there, we really didn’t have much oversight. We didn’t have anyone listening to the tapes of broadcasts we did and saying, “Hey, you’re really bad –– go find another major,” or saying, “Here’s what you need to do to improve.” But it was still good, practical experience and I thought it was very beneficial.
During your time as a student at Baylor, were there any courses or professors that you remember as being especially important to you — or ones that you just really enjoyed?
One that stands out is a class taught by Dr. George Stokes. He had a class that was kind of famous — Voice and Diction. I really liked it, and I would have taken it twice if they had let me. Another that stands out is the class where we got practical experience in broadcast news. We would create a newscast — each time, somebody would be the director, somebody else would be the producer, and somebody else would be the floor director and camera operator. We also took turns doing news, weather and sports reports. Although it was in a classroom setting, it was good hands-on experience for all of those jobs.
What was your first exposure to Baylor broadcast legend Frank Fallon?
When I came to Waco, it didn’t take me long at all to know that I needed to know Frank Fallon, “the Voice of the Baylor Bears.” I made it a point to hunt him down and introduce myself. Later, when I was working as a sportscaster with KWTX-TV in Waco, Frank was still there at KWTX Radio. By then I was doing a lot of Baylor coverage, so he and I would cross paths quite often at press conferences and things like that. I respected Frank Fallon from day one so much. He was a mentor to me like nobody else. I wouldn’t be where I am now without him.
How did you and Frank begin working together?
I began working in sports at KWTX-TV in Waco in 1980, and I started working with Frank in 1987, doing color for Baylor football broadcasts. Frank said, “I think we’d like to make a change in our football broadcast. I’d like for you to work with me.” It was like a bolt of lightning when Frank Fallon said that to me. We worked together on Baylor football broadcasts for eight years, and it was the best learning experience anybody could have. I mean, Frank was just the best. He was such a great person, a mentor and a great teacher.
When did you begin broadcasting Baylor basketball games?
It turns out that [Frank] had a conflict on doing play-by-play for Baylor basketball games on Saturdays, and he asked me to fill in for him. I started doing Baylor games in 1984, filling in for Frank on Saturdays with Pat Nunley doing color for the most part. Then, when Frank retired after the 1994-1995 school year, I was fortunate enough to follow him doing play-by-play for Baylor. I never make the mistake of saying I “replaced” him, because I don’t think anybody will ever replace Frank.
After all of those years doing color commentary on broadcasts with Frank, what was it like when you succeeded him and began doing play-by-play yourself? How different are those two jobs?
They are very different. I always felt like I was more suited for play-by-play. Our model here now is to have former student athletes in a particular sport to be our color analysts, because they’ve got all that knowledge based on experience. For that reason, I always felt a bit inadequate doing color. And Frank and I would have conversations about it. He’d say, “No, you’re just another set of eyes. You just talk about what you see.” When I did [play-by-play] starting in 1995, it was a huge change.
When you and your broadcast team call up statistics and background information so quickly, it sounds as though that comes natural to you, even though there’s a lot of preparation behind that. Give me an idea of how you prepare for games.
Well, that’s the goal — to make it sound natural and conversational. But for anybody who does the job and does it well, there’re hours of preparation that go into that to make it sound as though, “Oh, this is just off the top of my head. I’m going to throw this little fact in there.” And it’s different for each sport. For football, you’ve got all week to prepare and learn numbers and learn stories and things you want to talk about in tying the two teams together. With basketball, it’s usually two games a week, sometimes three, so the preparation is more rapid. And then baseball is different because it involves more storytelling, since it’s slower-paced and you’ve got more time to get into stories while you’re doing play-by-play.
Is there one sport you enjoy covering more than all the others?
I like them all because they’re different from each other, and they’re all different preparation-wise. Baseball kind of builds on itself. If you do a three-game series, what you talk about on Friday is going to be different than what you talk about on Saturday and Sunday, because you just build on what happened on Friday and Saturday to get you to Sunday. So, that’s one of the things I like the best –– broadcasting the different sports and being able to cover each of the sports that we have here at Baylor.
Which sport requires the most preparation to cover?
Probably football, because again, we’ve got all week to do it. And there’s also 22 players on the field and 100-plus players that could be in the game at some point. Size-wise and numbers-wise, there’s just so much different information to learn with football compared to basketball, when there are 10 players on the court and probably 12 or 15 maximum on each team. Also, doing football games we’re further away from the action. We’re way up in the press box, looking down on the football field. But in basketball, except for this year with COVID, we’ve got a closer view at courtside.
And both the preparation and what we hear on game day is a team effort, is it not?
No question. I mean, on football game days, J.J. Joe and I are the main voices you hear, while you also hear from our sideline reporter, Ricky Thompson. But then Bob Baker is our engineer, and a guy named Dave Shook is back in the studio. And for most games, we also have a spotter and a statistician up in the booth with us who contribute. They’ll point out who made that tackle, or give us a stat in our ear. When they talk to us their voices don’t go out over the air, but we rely on them. And then, even before game time, people in Baylor Athletic Communications have given us all the notes and the stats and everything leading up to the game. So, there are a lot of people involved, and it takes everybody doing their job to make it a good broadcast.
Even though you’re a Baylor employee doing a Baylor broadcast, do you feel a responsibility to be as nonpartisan and even-handed as you can with your comments?
Definitely. There are two schools of thought on this. Some broadcasters make their broadcasts a contest between “we” and “they.” “We” is definitely the team you’re working for, while “they” are the opponents. But I learned from Frank Fallon to do a good middle-of-the-road broadcast. The best description he gave was to do a completely unbiased broadcast from a Baylor perspective because most of the listeners are going to be for Baylor — and that makes sense. We’re of course going to be more excited when Baylor does something than when the other team does something, but there’s no excuse for downing the other team or slighting them. I think you’ve got to be fair to both schools, but then again, I think there’s no question if people listen to us, they know it’s a Baylor broadcast.
Do you get recognized when you are out in public? Do people come up and make comments or ask you questions?
Yes. Because of my longevity of doing TV in Waco, and then broadcasting so many Baylor events on radio, as well as having a daily radio show –– all of that has made me pretty recognizable. Ask my wife about when we go to H-E-B if I get stopped by people who want to talk Baylor sports. I do.
How do you react to all that attention?
Well, in places like the grocery store or anywhere we are, if we get stopped a lot and people want to talk, that’s fine. I think that’s part of my job. I feel like I’m an ambassador for Baylor and Baylor Athletics, so when I run into somebody, I’m not going to cut them off. I want to talk to them, and if they want to talk to me, that’s great. I welcome that opportunity to visit with people in that way.
Besides preparing for upcoming game broadcasts, what other things take up your hours at work?
There’s a lot of those other duties. Besides the prep time getting ready for broadcasts, we’re also making sure that the groundwork has been done with equipment and other things to be able to travel to a place like, say, Lubbock and successfully do a game. Bob Baker, our engineer, does a lot toward checking that out. I also do a daily Baylor sports feed that runs every day, as well as daily Big 12 reports and a podcast we now put out once a week that’s been fun to do. That podcast was kind of an addition to my duties brought on by COVID, but it’s been really fun. So, there’s always something to do. One of the greatest things about my job is that there is always something to do –– always something new, and every day is different.
Last fall during televised football broadcasts, we became able to watch you and your team in the booth, thanks to an online video feed. I’m betting that proved very interesting for the fans, but was being constantly on camera something that you and the team were able to adjust to easily?
That’s been interesting, and it was fun to hear the comments from that. The only thing that we have to be aware of now is that sometimes viewers can hear us talking among ourselves during breaks. We never say anything bad — I’ve never said anything where I thought, “Oh, I wish that hadn’t gone out.” We just to have to be aware that the camera is on, and that all our comments are going out. It hasn’t really changed anything we do to broadcast the game, and it provides fans a behind-the-scenes look inside our booth.
While the COVID-19 pandemic obviously has affected things such as in-person attendance at Baylor sporting events, has it significantly altered the way you do your broadcasts?
Yes –– quite dramatically, really, with travel and the new protocols we have to undergo like everybody else. For example, in our booth, we now try to really limit the number of visitors we have in there. Normally, people are coming in and out the whole time, and that’s fine. But now we try to limit that. We’ve got a little Plexiglass shield between us up there on the front row, and we are always wearing a mask except when we’re broadcasting –– right up until the time we start the game. Traveling to games now has been interesting. We don’t travel with the teams this year, as we used to. We travel separately from the team for safety. So, there’s been quite a few things we’ve had to get used to and adhere to because of COVID.
Because of COVID-19, we’ve gone from packed stadiums and arenas to venues with very few fans in attendance — or sometimes no fans at all. Has that new stadium atmosphere changed the way you broadcast a game? Do you have the same energy you get when the crowds are going wild?
It has changed things. Usually, the energy in the stadium is what drives the broadcast. The students always have so much energy, and I’ve missed them being there in full force. It’s sure going to be nice when we get back to full crowds and the energy they can bring.
Is there a part of your job that you consider your favorite?
I would say the best thing is game day. If you think about it, everything revolves around the games — all the previews, all the reviews, the coaches’ shows and all of that — you’re talking about the game. Everything revolves around that. It’s unscripted, and I’ve got to be able to adjust and put words together in the right order and describe what’s going on. That’s the best part — the game is the thing.
What was it like being a part of the Baylor men's basketball team's road to the national championship this year?
It was an absolute thrill for Pat Nunley and I to be able to call first a Big 12 championship, then a national championship. Pat and I have worked together doing games for 36 years and we have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. So, to be able to witness to the Season of JOY was so much fun. We both agreed that we're most happy for Coach Drew, who had this vision from day one and went to work to make it happen. What a blessing!
Looking ahead, how do you feel about the future of Baylor athletics? Will the excellence that Baylor has built with its teams continue to grow?
I definitely think it will because of the people. We’ve got very good people in place. That goes from the administration on campus supporting athletics to Mack Rhoades, our athletic director, who is very good, and all our associate ADs with their roles. And then, we’ve got great coaches in place here, and Baylor has made a commitment through funding facilities [and] funding scholarships. There are none of our coaches who can say, “Well, I didn’t get that recruit because Baylor didn’t do something.” The support is where it needs to be for Baylor to be a top-tier school, both athletically and academically. I think the future is very bright. We’re in a great place, with a lot to be proud of. And it’s only going to keep getting better.
Finally, is there anything about your past career or what you’re doing at Baylor now I haven’t asked about that you want to mention?
I just I can’t say enough about Frank Fallon, because I learned so much from him and appreciate him. In my mind, Frank will always be the Voice of the Baylor Bears. I’m the caretaker of this position for a while, and while I love it and am going to give it my all, eventually I’ll hand it off to somebody else. But in my mind, Frank will always be the Voice of the Baylor Bears and anything we do moving forward that’s positive, he gets credit for it because we learned from him and try to live up to the standards that he set. I just can’t say enough about Frank.