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Sports media: Barnhart grew up with Illini; now Illini are growing up with him

Brian Barnhart, with former basketball analyst Jerry Hester, grew up going to Illini basketball games with his father, who had season tickets since 1960. | University of Illinois Athletics

Brian Barnhart knew there was no way to sugarcoat it.

The Illinois football team trailed No. 5 Ohio State 28-0 in the first quarter last season in Columbus. There was no hope of a comeback. But the show – or, in this case, the broadcast – must go on.

“Our team was young, and we were beat up near the end of the year,” said Barnhart, the radio play-by-play voice for Illini football and basketball. “But you can’t pretend, ‘Hey, it’s gonna turn around any minute.’ You can’t say that.”

And it didn’t turn around. Illinois lost 52-14 en route to a 2-10 record.

“I don’t think it does anybody any good to jump on the kids because they’re trying. Everybody’s trying,” Barnhart said. “But no matter what the score is, my job is to be professional. And just be honest and analyze the game.”

That’s exactly what Illini fans hear when they listen to Barnhart, who begins his 17th season behind the mic Saturday, when Illinois hosts Kent State (11 a.m., BTN, 670-AM). With a distinctive voice, Barnhart delivers a solid call with excitement and humor.

He’ll be joined by former Illini All-America offensive lineman Martin O’Donnell, who returns for his fourth season as color analyst, and former Illini and Bears running back Jason Davis, who debuts as the sideline reporter.

Barnhart has witnessed many games like the Ohio State debacle in recent years, but coach Lovie Smith has him believing he can add some optimism to his objectivity this season.

“He’s very optimistic, and I kind of feel that, too,” Barnhart said. “I think Illini fans are eager to see [saying] OK, we’ve had a couple of years of revamping the roster, we’ve been working under the hood, so to speak. Let’s take it out, and let’s see some improvement.”

Barnhart didn’t attend Illinois (he went to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia), but he was weaned on the Illini. He grew up on the family farm in Tolono, Illinois, and he’d go to Illini basketball games with his father, who had season tickets since the late 1960s. He didn’t get to many football games because his father was in the field harvesting crops in the fall.

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As the oldest of five siblings (he had three brothers), he had the first pick of basketball games, and he saw some dandies. Barnhart was at Assembly Hall on Jan. 11, 1979, when Eddie Johnson hit a 15-footer in the final seconds to beat Magic Johnson and No. 1 Michigan State.

Initially, Barnhart didn’t attend Liberty to be a broadcaster. He was a history major. But he switched after forming a friendship with a student majoring in broadcasting. They became roommates, and the relationship led to one of Barnhart’s early influences.

“His goal was to be the voice of the North Carolina Tar Heels, who was [the late] Woody Durham,” Barnhart said of his friend. “When we started out together broadcasting on the campus station, we’d listen to tapes of Woody Durham just to hear how he called a game and the excitement in his voice and the inflections and everything else.

“My friend never got to be the voice of the Tar Heels. Woody was there for a long, long time.”

Barnhart didn’t hit the big-time calling basketball. He was one of two radio play-by-play announcers for the Anaheim Angels in 1998 and ’99. But when the team opted to employ one person for play-by-play and one for color commentary, Barnhart, the junior member of the crew, was out of work.

The Montreal Expos were a potential landing spot in 2000. Barnhart had called games for the Texas Rangers’ Class AAA affiliate in Oklahoma City, which was owned then by Jeffrey Loria. When Loria bought the Expos, he offered Barnhart the radio job.

But a dispute between the team and the radio station over revenue kept the English broadcast off the air when the season began. The timing didn’t work out for Barnhart, so he decided to return home. It might have been the best decision of his career.

“I decided instead of living in California and having an uncertain future, I’d come home and figure it out from there,” Barnhart said.

He was hired by WDWS in Champaign to do news on the morning show. He eventually filled in at times for longtime Illini voice Jim Turpin. Barnhart apparently made a good impression because then-Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther reached out to him to gauge his interest in replacing Turpin when he retired in 2002.

Now, Barnhart is synonymous with the Illini, joining the pantheon of the school’s broadcasting mainstays, including Larry Stewart, Dick Martin and Turpin.

“Where it really comes home is when I’m speaking to students at the University of Illinois, and they will come up and say, ‘Hey, I grew up listening to you,’” Barnhart said. “Then you start to realize, wow, I have been around long enough for these young people to grow up with me as I’ve done the games.”

Lada gets extension from ESPN

Jen Lada, who hails from Spring Grove and worked for Comcast SportsNet Chicago from 2013 to ’15, signed a multiyear deal to remain with ESPN that will be announced Friday.

Her new roles include contributing to the revamped morning show “Get Up” and occasionally hosting “SportsCenter.” She will continue to serve as a rotating host on “College Football Live” and as a reporter on “College GameDay.”

“I’m thrilled and proud to be continuing my career at ESPN,” Lada said. “Where else could I captain and contribute to discussions on studio shows, patrol the chaotic college football sidelines and tell emotional, uplifting feature stories? ESPN has created a unique space for me to showcase all of those skills.”

‘Hawk Day’ is Sunday

The White Sox dubbed Sunday “Hawk Day” in honor of Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, who will retire after the season, his 33rd in the booth. Hawk will be joined by former Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski on the NBC Sports Chicago broadcast.

On Sept. 13, NBCSCH will air the documentary “Hawk” at 7 p.m. The network and the Sox teamed up to chronicle his life for the 60-minute tribute, which features in-depth conversation with Hawk, as well as numerous interviews with others close to him.