His Final Roar

Courtesy of Deborah Burst

His Final Roar

Jim Hawthorne, LSU’s Voice of the Tigers, signs off for the last time

Inside the shadows of Tiger Stadium is Louisiana State University’s athletic building and home to Jim Hawthorne’s office. Packed up and ready to go, Hawthorne reaches inside one of the towering boxes and pulls out Shaquille O’Neal’s size 23 tennis shoes. He plops one on the floor and says with a chuckle, “Try this one on for size.”

The iconic Voice of the Tigers began broadcasting LSU basketball games in December 1979, with baseball and football following soon after. He announced his retirement as LSU’s director of broadcasting in the spring of 2015. Fans reluctantly began counting down the days till his last signoff at the end of the 2016 basketball season.

You would think that looking out his office window, gazing at that massive football temple, the pinnacle of LSU’s campus, would affect you, your personality, maybe an over-inflated ego with office walls and shelves filled with awards and trophies.

Hawthorne may be larger than life to LSU fans, fellow radio announcers and anyone who loves sports, but he’s probably the humblest and most down-to-earth gent you’ll ever meet. The Voice of the Tigers has called more than 2,000 games, home and away, including 383 football games. And he has never, that’s right, never missed one football game.

Now his office walls and shelves are empty. His collection of score cards for the six national baseball championships are packed away along with boxes of football programs, one for every home game he’s broadcast. All that’s left is a clean desk and a sandwich-size bag filled with diamond-studded rings.

BCS Championship Rings Photo


He lines up the rings for the camera, eight in all, six baseball and two football national championships. But that’s just a sample of the Hawthorne 36-ring treasure chest. Besides the national championships, there are rings for the basketball Final Four appearances, along with the Western Division and Southeastern Conference championships.

It all began in 1961 with Hawthorne sitting behind the microphone spinning records and calling sports. A veteran play-by-play radio announcer for more than 50 years, he was just as comfortable broadcasting nail-biter games as singing country music at the renowned Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. Matter of fact, besides the iconic coaches and players, he has shook hands with music legends like Merle Haggard, Tom Jones, Neil Diamond and the Righteous Brothers.

In 1967, he was the first in his family to earn a college degree, graduating from Northwestern University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, with a major in speech and journalism. But he’ll tell you the real education came working as a student for KNOC, Natchitoches, alongside his mentor, Norm Fletcher, doing play-by-play for the Northwestern Demons’ football, basketball and baseball games.

Hawthorne moved to Shreveport in 1969 to work for radio station KWRH, calling everything from high school to professional games. In addition to broadcasting for Centenary College and Texas League Baseball, Hawthorne, joined by the legendary Larry King as his color analyst, served as announcer for World Football League games.

His infatuation for both sports and radio came from what some may think is an unlikely source: his mother, Marguerite Hawthorne.  “She was one of the biggest sports fans I know with LSU games on one radio and the Louisiana Hayride on the other,” Hawthorne said recalling his childhood without television. “As a kid, second grade or so, I would lay in bed every night and turn the dial until I could hear crowd noise and stop because I knew it was a ball game.”

At an early age, Hawthorne was convinced he would grow up to be a major league baseball player, a center fielder he notes in his book, The Man Behind the Voice. He paints an all-American scene from the 1950s, specifically 1953, when he was nine years old and listened to the Baseball Game of the Day with Al Helfer on the Mutual Radio Network.

After listening to so many games, he began to create the scene on an old gravel road, reciting his own version of play-by-play while swinging at rocks with a broomstick. “It was something I enjoyed doing. It was playtime,” he recounts in his book. “I had no way of knowing at the time that I was practicing what would turn out to be my chosen profession.”

He then began listening to John Ferguson calling LSU football games on Saturday nights. “The loud sound of the crowd and the picture that John painted fascinated me, and I soon grew into a big Tiger fan,” he explains in his book.

And then in 1954, he experienced his first trip to Tiger Stadium, a place he imagined over and over again while listening to the radio. In awe of the stadium and the brand new press box that had just opened, he thought of John Ferguson and longed to hear him while watching the game. Little did Hawthorne know that more than 50 years later, he would be in the same press box broadcasting its final game, as he prepared to move to a new press box.

Just as Hawthorne and his family did in the 50s, thousands of fans listen to the Voice of the Tigers on the radio. Turning down the sound on the television and turning up the radio has been a long-held LSU tradition. And true tailgating fans blast his voice on mega tailgating speakers.

Like the young Hawthorne, Chris Barnhill didn’t have television as a seven-year-old and had to rely on an old radio in his bedroom. With the antenna pulled out as far as it could go, he would turn the knob until he found Jim Hawthorne and the LSU Tigers baseball team. “His voice was almost angelic as he spoke so excitingly about LSU baseball,” said Barnhill, admitting he was hooked from day one. “Riding in the truck with my dad, I would always find LSU baseball and football. Windows rolled down and Jim on the radio.” Chris traveled quite a bit as a child and later as an adult, but he tried his best to keep LSU in his life. In 1996 as a teenager living in Virginia, his infatuation with LSU got Chris into trouble, but even today he admits it was well worth the punishment.

LSU was playing in the College World Series (CWS) in Omaha and trailing Miami, 8-7 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Warren Morris stepped up to the plate with a runner on base and hit the first pitch that came his way. Even today, 10 years later, the replays of the Warren Morris walk-off homerun for the 1996 CWS championship still brings tears to the eyes of LSU baseball fans. It has clearly become Hawthorne’s most legendary call: “Line drive, way back there, way back there, HOME RUN! TIGERS WIN! TIGERS WIN! I don’t believe it. It’s his first homerun of the year. HOLY COW!!”

Although Chris was watching it on TV, it just wasn’t the same as listening to Hawthorne. So he did what any “bleed-purple-and-gold” fan would do, he called a friend in Louisiana. “I stood in my living room watching the game on TV and had the cordless phone to my ear. I saw it before I heard it, but I loved the call so much more than seeing it,” he said with enthusiasm. “I started jumping up and down, yelling and cheering. That call by Jim will always be my favorite call of all time.”

But there was another baseball game happening at the same time – one Chris was supposed to be playing in – and he was late, not making it to his game until the third inning. “I got benched for that game and the remainder of the season,” Chris explained. “Some people have asked me if I regret that decision, but I can honestly say I don’t regret it at all.”

With a big smile on his face, Hawthorne admits he has heard some crazy stories about that call. “Men have told me they were driving and pulled to the side of the road, jumping out of their cars, screaming and running around,” he recalled. “There was a festival in Bunkie, and they were broadcasting the game over the PA system, and everything and everyone came to a complete halt.”

The Les Miles Show Photo


Listening to Hawthorne is an LSU ritual. No matter the sport, whether baseball, football or basketball, or where they are, whether home, car or tailgating, Hawthorne is there with the ultimate fans, and they can hear his enthusiasm and sometimes his frustration. And there are a number of details not always seen on television.

“TV announcers are just reinforcing what the viewer is seeing; my job is to paint the picture so they can see everything,” Hawthorne explained. “Not only the play, but the clouds rolling in, how the batgirls just threw a foul ball to a fan… And there’s nothing like a sunset against Tiger Stadium.”

During a recent fan call-in radio show, Hawthorne received a moving testament. “The guy told me he had been totally blind for 27 years, and listening to me was like sitting right there in the stadium watching the game,” Hawthorne said with a smile. “That was the highest compliment I could ever get.”

Another faithful fan, Sadie, a young girl from Louisiana now living in Texas, has been calling the Les Miles show every week during football season for the last five or six years. Both Hawthorne and Miles have a rapport with the young lady, now 12. In the beginning, her dad helped with the questions, but now she has her own list. In turn, Miles asks her about her water polo team.

Hawthorne once had the pleasure of meeting her in person. “It was fan day at LSU held every year in August, and there was a line waiting for my autographs,” he said, building up the story. “I asked her name and when she told me Sadie, I looked up, and her daddy was just grinning ear to ear and said, ‘Yep, it’s THAT Sadie.’ I really enjoyed talking to her.”

One thing the fans like most about Hawthorne is his emotion; after all he’s a huge fan and it shows. And although rare, there are those devastating games. So how does he maintain control?  “As a broadcaster you have to be professional. It’s a job, but it’s an emotional job, and we work as a crew,” he said. “But when you look back on the number of games that LSU wins and all of their championships, it’s more positive than negative.” In the 2015 LSU Arkansas basketball game, the one that assured LSU would enter the NCAA Tournament; Hawthorne gave another one of his signature calls:

Jim Hawthorne Photo

courtesy of Deborah Burst

“…22 seconds left, tied at 78, LSU has the ball…19, 17 seconds…Grey working one and one, a long way from the basket. Grey trying to make something happen, 5 seconds, Grey to Hornsby for the win, from the corner, Goooooood, Goooooood! And the tigers win the game! Keith Hornsby buried a three-ball at the buzzer! LSU tigers have upset the 18th ranked team in the country! Holy cow what a great play, what a great job by Grey to use up the clock to get it in the corner and Hornsby had no fear in his eyes when he threw up the three-pointer and knocked it down.”

Hawthorne’s voice sounded hoarse after that play. The veins in his neck likely bulging and his face as red as the Arkansas bench. Sure Hawthorne knows the lingo, but what about those calls in the last seconds, the ones that determine the game? And with everything so fast paced, how does he do it?

In his usual professional manner, he explains how he doesn’t think of the thousands of listeners, nor does he even think about talking into the microphone. He doesn’t have time to think; he’s just calling the game.

“People don’t realize this, but out of all the sports, basketball is the easiest game to call,” he said, going on to explain that the faster-paced the game, the more there is to talk about. “Baseball is much, much harder than basketball because in a two-and-a-half-hour game, you have about 20 minutes of actual action, so you have to come up with a lot of information to fill the gaps.”

Oddly enough, Hawthorne has never watched a LSU game—at least not the way a fan watches the game. “When you’re doing play-by-play you’re constantly watching the ball, not really watching the game,” he said, comparing it to tunnel vision. “You’re watching the quarterback staying in the pocket, you got to stay with the ball, you can’t watch down the field.”

Many have asked what he will do in retirement, and you can bet Jim Hawthorne will never sit still. He admits country music will continue to be a big part of his life and that fans may still hear his voice on the radio every now and then. But the one thing he looks forward to the most: “I can’t wait to kick back in front of that big screen and watch an LSU game.”


All in the Family

Hawthorne is married to the former Juanita Carol Thomason. The couple has a son, Joseph William; two daughters, Jaime Lynn and Amanda Ruth; two granddaughters; two grandsons and one great granddaughter.

Jim and Daughter Mandy Photo


Hawthorne’s youngest daughter, Mandy (Amanda) Hawthorne Serignet, became a huge sports fan and can remember at an early age sitting in the baseball press box at Alex Box Stadium and the broadcast section of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for basketball. As a teenager, she flew on the team plane to some of the out-of-town basketball games when Dale Brown was the coach. She still recalls meeting LSU basketball star Shaquille O’Neal.

“I sat right next to Daddy while he worked, and the only rules were no talking, yelling or clapping, which being a sports fan was hard to do,” she said. “I was in grade school when I meet Shaq and had never seen anyone that tall. My jaw dropped, and I almost fell backwards trying to look all the way up, and Daddy was just laughing at me.”

Mandy is married with three children, Justin (20), Bailey (11) and Allie (8) and lived in Baton Rouge most of her life until she and husband Damon, moved with their two youngest children to Nashville in 2012. She commented that back home people wear headphones during the baseball, basketball and sometimes football games.

“We have Tennessee and Vanderbilt games here, but nobody wears headphones at games, nobody turns down the volume on the TV to listen to the radio,” she explained. “They don’t have a man like my daddy calling the games, a man who was given the Chris Schenkel award.”

In a basketball game at the University of Tennessee, Hawthorne, along Mandy, Bailey and Allie, were invited to ride on the LSU team bus by coach Johnny Jones. Bailey had a team program, and the coach invited him to sit up front with him. Jones autographed his picture inside the program then stood up and introduced Bailey to the team. He then passed the program around the bus and asked the players to autograph their pages. “Bailey was so excited, he was speechless and all colors of red,” said Mandy. “That program will be a forever family heirloom.”

Hawthorne calls and final signoffs

If you’re a LSU fan, one of your favorite Hawthorne signature calls is “Holy Cow,” often said with much enthusiasm. Most of the time it meant something good but sometimes something bad as well. And it’s not from his own making, he fashioned his version of “Holy Cow” listening to Harry Caray, legendary base-ball announcer for St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs.

Chris Sciambra’s walk-off run 2015 Super Regional game against University of Louisiana, Lafayette {ULL): “Fly ball, well to right field, it could be, it might be, it is TIGERS WIN, TIGERS WIN! Sciambra hits it into the right field bleachers and LSU wins in a Walk-Off, 4-3. HOLY COW!”

Charlie Hanagriff, Jim’s baseball color analyst, shares his final signoff with Jim at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge: “What a privilege and pleasure it was to sit beside you for LSU Baseball for the past 14 years, I’m so appreciative of you for the opportunity for our friendship and for you being such an important mentor for me in this field. I’ll remember forever the great memories we’ve experienced together. For all the great calls and thrilling finishes and the wonderful enthusiasm you brought to LSU over the course of your career. I know I speak for many, many Tiger Fans everywhere tonight when I give the best to you and your family in your retirement, and I say a deep heartfelt thank you.

Jim Hawthorne’s response: “This is my final game in Alex Box Stadium and I thank all the gentlemen including Charlie, whom I have worked with in calling 2000 games. In my 32 years as the Voice of LSU Baseball, you all have made my job much easier. And to the great Tiger nation of baseball fans, you make a game at The Box the greatest experience in all of collegiate baseball. I thank you for that and I’m really proud and honored to have been a small part of it. I look very much forward to the games at the College World Series next week but for the final time. From Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field, thank you and good night.”

His signoff at the College World Series in Omaha: “Several months ago when I visited Coach Paul Manierie to tell him personally of my decision to retire from baseball broadcasting at the end of the season, he told me he hated to hear that but since that’s the case he said, ‘I guess I’ll just have to get you back to Omaha one more time.’ And he made good on that promise. Although it didn’t end in the manner we hoped it would, I’m really proud of this team and all the thrills they have given me, in this, my final season.”

“After 17 trips to the College World Series, 60 games, and 6 national titles it’s time to say a heart-felt very best wishes and so long from Omaha.”