By Stephen Burnett
Tom Leach has had several tasks on his “bucket list.” Since 1997, he has fulfilled one of them: to be the broadcasting voice of the University of Kentucky Wildcats. But only recently was he able to check off another item: to call another NCAA championship, for the men’s basketball team.
“I had covered Final Fours before, in ‘96, ‘97 and ’98,” Leach said. “Wasn’t doing the play-by-play, but was there doing shows, and working on the pre- and post-game stuff. … It had changed a little bit from 1998 to 2011. You had the larger arena, and so the broadcast spot and your sideline isn’t as good at the Final Four.” Unlike in usual games and stadiums, in this case the basketball court is elevated, he said. “It’s the big stage for college basketball.”
Last year brought Leach’s first trip to that higher platform of the Final Four, trailing the Wildcats as their games’ play-by-play announcer on 630 AM, WLAP in Lexington. Now, after his second Final Four, the tournament’s adrenaline rush can’t be exceeded, he added.
“It’s a great ride,” Leach said. “To see the unselfish way that they played and how hard they played, it was great fun to be following them on a game-by-game basis. … It was a great thrill. They were so much fun to watch, and a good group of guys to be around, and so it was easy to wish them well in following them.”
Since childhood, Leach aspired to the enviable position of UK sports broadcasting.
“I always was a sports fan,” he said. “Grew up in a small town. Played whatever was in season. … And I grew up as a Cats fan and a [Cincinnati] Reds fan, and so in pre-ESPN days, I listened to Cats games and Reds games on the radio.
“I loved sports, but realized at some point that I wasn’t going to pursue it professionally as a player. So I think probably your options there are either football coaching track or media track.”
Leach took the media track. At 16, he began working at WBGR in Paris. His job was covering and announcing local high-school sports. He continued to work there during his college years, and also put in part-time work as a sports editor for the Paris Daily Enterprise.
Leach graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1983. His first post-college job was at WMST out of Mt. Sterling, covering Montgomery County basketball games for one season.
One year later, he had come to Lexington to work at 590 AM, WVLK. His job included news and whatever sports he could get a chance to do. Still that included play-by-play announcing for local high school games; that paid off when he became the station’s sports director in 1987.
In 1989, he joined the UK Radio Network, hosting postgame scoreboard and call-in shows.
By 1997, Leach had moved beyond high-school games and added UK football play-by-play to his repertoire. Then in 2001, with the retirement of former basketball announcer Ralph Hacker, Leach was the voice of both Wildcats teams — football and basketball.
For many, these are enviable jobs, Leach said. But the workload and hours don’t come easy.
“There’s more hours that go into it than maybe some people appreciate,” Leach said. “Much like the players don’t just show up for the game, you don’t just show up and [announce] the game. There’s a lot of time that goes into it. Hours are certainly anything but normal. … But it’s a job that a lot of people would trade places in a heartbeat [to have].
“In some ways, the job is easier doing Kentucky games than doing high school games,” Leach explained. “You have weeks where you might have games two or three times a week during the month of November. The preparation that goes into a broadcast takes some time, so you have to balance the time to make sure you get everything done.” For Leach’s duties, that includes preparation for pre-game shows and interviews, spotting boards, game announcing, and more.
“But it’s not like that was a surprise, and I actually enjoy doing the preparation, so there was no real downside to it,” he said. “You just have to make sure you stay on top of things.”
Every year, November is likely the most intense month of all, due to the overlapping schedules of the UK men’s football and basketball teams. During a prolonged championship tournament such as the recent season, the time-management and skills required are increased even more.
Before football games, Leach spends at least 23 hours in preparation work — going to practices, overviewing statistics, preparing spotting boards, and writing notes for a broadcast.
Basketball games don’t take as much time, because the spotting boards aren’t as complex and fewer games are held each week. Leach also has plenty of help in assembling statistics and records, thanks to the internet — a resource that other announcers had been without, he said.
More effort must also go into taking care of his voice. During fast-paced SEC tournaments, his voice can be stretched, and colds have certainly proved a challenge. “I think this year was the first year when I didn’t have to take a single drop of any cold medicine the whole year,” Leach said. “I drink a lot of water, keep hydrated, and keep the vocal cords from getting too dry.”
For his family responsibilities, Leach counts himself fortunate to be married to another media professional — Robyn Rabbeth, a former anchor for WLEX-TV. “That helps that she had an understanding of the unusual hours that come with a media-related job,” Leach said. “She’s always been very understanding.” That’s especially needed, every year from late February to April, when he is gone on broadcasting business most of every weekend.
The Leaches’ children are older now, meaning they can deal better when Dad’s away doing radio work, Leach said. “Definitely when they were younger, it was more of a strain for her to have to juggle everything,” he added with a laugh.
Most recently, Leach has not slowed down. Even during the summer months, when UK football and basketball teams are practicing and preparing for their next seasons, another popular Kentucky sport is in the community’s focus: horse-racing. “I do a lot of work with Keeneland with their website, and as a fill-in host on the in-house TV,” he said. “I do some radio work for them, then I do some work around the Derby, talks to corporate groups who come in for the Derby — talk about the history of the race and the handicap of the race.”
All that, along with his daily radio program on 630 AM from 9 to 10 a.m., The Leach Report, keeps Leach working to outpace his own schedule almost all year long. “After Derby, it slows back down until football gears back up in August,” he said.
Leach doesn’t know how long he will keep up this pace. Just as a UK coach is dependent on his job performance and employers, Leach’s sports broadcasting is based entirely on employers’ and the public’s evaluation of his job. “It’s a year-to-year contract, so there’s a certain element of that you don’t have any control over!” he said with a laugh. But to be sure, having reached a position like this, doing what he loves while keeping up with the teams he loves, Leach has no aspiration to be anywhere else. “But you know, you never know what comes down the road.”