A Winning Season
Meet the man behind the voice of the Wildcats
BY JOSH CAUDILL
Tom Leach, Voice of the Wildcats, is living history.
He ran across a scratchy cassette tape this summer. It was from 1986, and he remembers, “the reason I saved it was that it was the first time I ever worked on the UK Network. I kept stats for the game. I put it in to listen to it, and Cawood [Ledford] was doing the wrap up at the end of the game and I realized that it was the Florida game.” He couldn’t have known at the time it would take more than three decades for the football program to repeat that kind of history.
Leach joined the UK Radio Network in 1989 and took over play-by-play voice for Kentucky football eight years later, adding the basketball responsibilities in 2001. His “office,” on many evenings this time of year, is “the best seat in Rupp Arena.”
He has covered Final Fours and national championships with the UK Wildcats. He’s covered a World Series, and attended a SuperBowl. Earlier this year he was trackside for Justify’s Triple Crown victory. He describes with gratitude the fact that “the big events I grew up following as a kid, I’ve got to be a part of.”
As early as middle school, Leach knew he wanted to grow up to be the voice of the Wildcats, though he admits, “I don’t think I fully appreciated how narrow the target was when I was in middle school.”
A five-time sportscaster of the year, he says, “I remember thinking I’d like to be in Cawood Ledford’s seat. I grew up listening to Cawood and Ralph [Hacker] do the Kentucky games and I grew up as a Reds fan so I heard Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall so I always said that I had great training for being a play-by-play guy.” He was “trained” by “the people I grew up listening to—better than any class I could’ve taken.”
As a junior in high school, he started working at a radio station in Paris. He fondly recalls that he still has another “scratchy copy of the first time I was on the air from September 16, 1977 over at Montgomery County…I was keeping stats and at halftime and at postgame, I would come on and do a report. I lobbied them for a job and they hired me to do that and that would be my two times to get on the air. Halftime because it would give the play-by-play and color guy a chance to go to the bathroom. I would come on for a few minutes and give some stats.”
He acknowledges, “I thought I was pretty good but I was awful. But that got me in the door and got [me] a job working weekends to be a DJ, produce some news, do some commercials, a little bit of everything.” He worked at the small station all through college and his first full-time job was in Mount Sterling.
Retracing his career path for us, he says, “In the mid 90s, I had Jim [Host] critique a tape for me and he said, ‘You’re not ready for this.’ The thing about Jim is that he’s going to be straight with you. I remember at the time that it was a little deflating —because you’re thinking. ‘All my life, I’ve wanted this job and the guy who is going to hire me doesn’t think I’m ready and what if this comes open sometime soon?’’”
Encouraged by Ralph Hacker, he did his time in high school sports, and says, “Looking back, it was great advice, because I got to hone my skills doing a game every week. Like a golf swing, I got more repetitions and got better. By the time the job did come open, I was better prepared and had improved to the point that Jim felt I was ready for it.”
At the beginning, he says, “I had a one year contract. I had mostly high school experience so it was a leap of faith for Jim. I didn’t have as much of a resume of college work as other people who wanted the job. I knew I needed to do well to keep the job. I had the job, now I needed to keep the job. I always say I’m grateful to Tim Couch, Hal Mumme and Craig Yeast for a lot of great moments in my first year that helped ingratiate me with the Kentucky fans.”
“The Kentucky fans are going to let you know if you’re not doing the job because they expect excellence from their teams and their broadcasters and everything.”
He says, “When Jim Host hired me, he referenced how Claude Sullivan would pore through the media guides for facts and nuggets of information. He said the challenge for you is, ‘Your listeners shouldn’t read anything in the beat writer’s story the next day that they had not already heard on your broadcast the day before.’”
He does his homework.
“I’ve got a document on my computer I update on Sunday after every game and there’s a heading of records that could fall today—last block punt, last fumble returned for a touchdown, last 50-yard field goal—all kinds of facts that I can easily access…”
He does not, however, practice his calls. “I think for a basketball game or a football game since there are so many ways it can end, that it will be very difficult to kind of script something. I try to take it as it comes. The one that was a little different was the 2012 NCAA Championship game down in New Orleans. I thought Kentucky would win the game so as the day went on, I tried to think of different things that might seem appropriate to wrap it up. I didn’t write anything down, but I did think of it because something like that will have a life beyond the game.”
Win or lose, he loves the job. “The Big Blue Nation has been great to me. People ask me if I ever get tired of talking about it. Even when a season or a game doesn’t go well, you get invested in a team just like fans do, but I’m never in a hurry for the season to end because I got into this to do play-by-play and I only get to do that about 50 times a year — so I try not to take it for granted. I still look forward to it. I enjoy the preparation just as much as the games.
Cawood Ledford once told him, “You sound better when they win.” He says, “I have come to have great appreciation for Cawood’s line — and my first game, Tim Couch threw three touchdown passes in the first quarter up 21-0 on Louisville so there couldn’t be a better way to get started as the Kentucky broadcaster.”
He never loses sight of the legacy, adding, “The thing with Claude Sullivan and Cawood Ledford, they set the bar high. Ralph continued that.”
He says, “I love what I’m doing and I hope to continue to do it at a high level and going back to the Cawood line, ‘You sound better when they win’ —John Calipari has made us sound very good, and Mark Stoops is making me sound very good the last few years in football.”
I have a great family. They’re very understanding of what a crazy schedule is. My wife [Robyn Rabbeth] was in TV as a news anchor so she understands the crazy hours because she worked them.” The family lives the seasonal life of a typical sports family. In his free time, he says, “I play a little golf. I’m a horse racing fan, so I do some work for Keeneland, so I’m around racing —and in the summers, I’ll get more into following racing. Summer is usually when I’ll take vacations with the family because there’s not much time to do that from the middle of August until after the Kentucky Derby.”