Always on call: Gary Cohen’s life behind the mic

Every sport has an offseason, but Gary Cohen rarely gets time off.

A 24-year veteran, the play-by-play man spends all months of the year behind a microphone. As SNY’s television announcer for the New York Mets and the radio voice of Seton Hall basketball for AM970 The Answer, Cohen is always on the call somewhere. He works other college hoops games, too, like the wild Kentucky-North Carolina Elite Eight matchup on March 26. That night he was on the dial for Westwood One.

Gary Cohen has been SHU’s play-by-play man since 2003-04. Photo via SHU Athletics.

Cohen’s top priority is baseball, but he makes it a point to see some action on the hardwood. He welcomes the challenge of a tricky schedule that often overlaps.

“I’m actually really lucky the Mets and SNY have bent over backwards to allow me to do as much basketball as possible,” Cohen said.

Cohen has been on the Mets broadcast team since 1989 and with SNY since 2006. As college basketball season ends, baseball season begins.

Challenges start to arise for Cohen when spring training baseball starts in February and college basketball enters March Madness.

He missed just one game during Seton Hall’s regular season this year, but a problem would have come about if the Pirates had made the NCAA National Championship game on April 3 since that is Mets’ Opening Day.

Before television, radio was Cohen’s first love. A graduate of Columbia University in 1981, Cohen got his first job in professional broadcasting in 1983 as the voice of Minor League Baseball’s now-defunct Spartanburg Spinners. Beyond baseball, Cohen announced games for ice hockey and college football.

After joining the Mets broadcast team, and before starting with Seton Hall in 2003, Cohen was the play-by-play announcer for St. John’s men’s basketball on WFAN. That’s what eventually led him to Seton Hall.

“I had actually been doing St. John’s for seven years, but that ended because they changed radio stations,” Cohen said. “Keith Meyers, who was then the Associate Athletic Director [at Seton Hall], reached out to me.”

While his work for the Mets may be more well-known to the public, Cohen finds his heart in college basketball.

“I love college basketball,” Cohen said. ”It’s always been a huge part of what I’ve done since I started as an undergrad at Columbia, and it’s probably my favorite sport.”

Dave Popkin, Cohen’s partner on The Answer, said the enthusiasm Cohen brings to a basketball broadcast is easy to notice. He said he gets a kick out of watching his partner in his element, especially in the closing minutes of tight games.

“It’s been an education for me working with him the last 14 years,” Popkin said. “Just to see the fervor with which he still prepares for and cares about every broadcast.”

Popkin went on to explain that both make it a point to listen to each other’s work away from The Answer. Despite being a Yankees fan, Popkin regularly tunes into SNY to hear Cohen.

Cohen never planned to be on television. His radio success put him in high demand on the small screen, but it was the opportunity to join the Mets broadcast team that intrigued him.

“I’m a radio guy, that’s how I grew up. It’s only through the quirk of the introduction of SNY that I became a television broadcaster with the Mets,” Cohen said. “I had resisted a lot of other opportunities to go to TV before that, so it’s a double bonus for me to be able to do these [Seton Hall basketball] games, because it keeps my hand in radio at a time when my day job is doing television.”

Keith Hernandez (left), Ron Darling (middle) and Gary Cohen (right) have been SNY’s Mets broadcast team for 12 years. Photo via MLB.com.

Cohen has spent 12 years in the SNY booth alongside analysts and former Mets teammates Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. The crew brings both sharp knowledge and occasional banter to its audience.

“It’s a match made in heaven kind of deal,” Darling said. “The most difficult part about a three-man booth is the traffic during the game – who speaks when. We never really had that problem from day one and that never happens. Keith does the hitting, I do the pitching and Gary does the steering and we kind of figure it out.”

Instead of a play-by-play man, Darling calls Cohen a “caretaker of Mets history.” Darling added Cohen is “meticulous” in his preparation. Integrating him into the rotation among Darling and Hernandez was a smooth transition from the start despite the two former players having already formed a bond.

“It was more Gary having to include us in the conversation more,” Darling said. “Gary is one of the great baseball voices of all time, so he can carry an entire broadcast by himself without Keith or I. But he’s generous enough that he learned very quickly to include us.”

With Cohen’s schedule so hectic once baseball season hits, calling Seton Hall basketball games in essence ends up being what he does in his free time. One day, Cohen will be calling a Mets spring training game in Florida. The next day, he will be on the call for Seton Hall, whether in Newark at The Rock or at Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament.

Darling recognizes the drive in Cohen that allows him to take on so many responsibilities.

“Gary is a special human being. He could balance 1,000 things, I’m sure,” Darling said. “Gary’s forte is, of course, baseball broadcasting, but he could do anything he chose to do. He chooses to do Seton Hall basketball games because he has a love for college basketball.”

Baseball and basketball are two different animals, but so are broadcasting for television and radio. In baseball, there’s more downtime between action, and a viewer can see it all unfold on TV. Basketball, however, is fast-paced, and on radio, Cohen is the artist that brings the game to life for listeners.

“This feels totally normal to me, this is what I grew up doing,” Cohen said of his basketball radio work. “I love the fast pace of the game, I love the quick thinking and the vocabulary that goes into it. I love being able to bring the game to life for people who can’t see it. To me, the great craft of radio is allowing people to see the game in their minds, and basketball is the perfect vehicle for that.”

Cohen added that sitting close to the game, too, helps him capture the emotion, pace and physicality of the action.

Both Seton Hall and the Mets have experienced success in recent years, but to Cohen, every game is just as enjoyable. That said, of all the games Cohen has announced in his career, he noted one that continues to stand out.

“Last year was fantastic, to win the Big East Tournament and go to the NCAAs for the first time since Dave and I’s first season. That’s when we got in the Tournament,” Cohen said. “But it had been a long time, and it was a thrill, it really was.

“That Big East Championship game against Villanova in The Garden was one of the special moments I’ll treasure for a long time.”

Popkin has fond memories of that games as well. He recalls a collected Cohen before the tip and after the buzzer. In between, however, was a different story.

“He’s always calm before and after every game, but in-game he really gets ramped up and I know the Seton Hall fans appreciate that,” Popkin said. “I remember on that last call when [Isaiah] Whitehead had the three-point play and Seton Hall went on to the upset win. [Gary] had a great call, of course, on the Pirates winning. Then I waited a beat and I said, ‘That ball sat on the back of the rim for 23 years’ and he laughed and that just kind of put an exclamation point on it for both of us. It was one of the more memorable games I’ve called as well.”

With two busy schedules, Cohen has expressed a love and care for his craft. Others recognize his hard work, as well. In November 2016, Cohen was one of eight nominated for the Ford C. Frick Award, an honor the National Baseball Hall of Fame presents each year for excellence in broadcasting. Cohen was also nominated in February 2017 for a New York Emmy for sports play-by-play.

“It’s trending as north as a career can trend,” Darling said. “He’s gonna be a Hall of Fame announcer someday. He’s gonna win many Emmys. All of those things are going to come his way just because he’s a special talent.”

Elizabeth Swinton can be reached at elizabeth.swinton@student.shu.edu or on Twitter @eswint22.
Gary Phillips can be reached at gary.phillips@student.shu.edu or on Twitter @GaryHPhillips.

Author: Editorial Board

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2 Comments

  1. Seton hall Parent here. I absolutely love Cohen’s calling Seton Hall Basketball. Many nights I shut the TV sound and have him on the radio.

    Nice article as a Seton Hall parent I am proud to read quality like this……..

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks Chris! Always a pleasure to get to tell these kinds of stories!

      Post a Reply

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