‘Cats win it all’: Alexandria resident celebrates two decades as voice of Villanova

‘Cats win it all’: Alexandria resident celebrates two decades as voice of Villanova
Ryan Fannon, left, with longtime Villanova radio engineer Joe Gaines and basketball color commentator Whitey Rigsby at the 2018 title game in San Antonio. (Courtesy photo)

By Duncan Agnew | dagnew@alextimes.com 

Ryan Fannon is a typical family man.

The Alexandria resident works at Bishop Ireton High School and loves spending time with his wife, Laura, and their three kids, Ryan, 9, Maggie, 8, and Grace, 3. He, along with many Washingtonians, took a day off to witness the Capitals Stanley Cup victory parade with his family in June. Before leaving for work every morning, he debates the intricacies of the Wizards roster with Ryan Jr., and he rarely misses a family outing or one of his kids’ games.

Six months of the year, though, Fannon spends most of his evenings and weekends on the road. He wrapped up his 20th season in April as the official voice of Villanova University basketball. As if he wasn’t busy enough, he’s also been calling Villanova football games as a color analyst or play-by-play announcer for 25 years.

It’s the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Fannon.

“I used to sit in my house and practice broadcasts of Orioles games, and I always had a dream of being a sports broadcaster,” Fannon said.

Fannon is a graduate of Villanova himself, and he worked in student radio there. While he was in radio, he asked football and basketball coaches for sports broadcasting recommendations. Shortly after Fannon graduated, he had a stroke of luck – the Villanova football color commentator left his position, and the coaches encouraged Fannon to apply for the job.

“They took a shot on a young kid who had just graduated from Villanova,” Fannon said. “The coach said ‘I really like your enthusiasm and passion, and we’re gonna give you a chance and see what happens.’”

Five years later, after earning the Villanova community’s trust as a dependable broadcaster, Fannon got a call to apply for his dream job: the play-by-play voice of Villanova basketball. That call began a journey that has taken him to the Maui Invitational, three Final Four playoffs, two national championship games and even the emcee’s chair at a Philadelphia parade celebrating his Wildcats.

It was Fannon’s parents who planted the seed that would grow into a lasting love of football and basketball and, eventually, a career. Fannon, a multi-generation Alexandrian, attributes his obsession with sports to his dad, who played football at the University of Virginia, and his on-air talent to his mom, a former professional actress.

“I was just very comfortable talking in front of groups and people because I think I just got a lot of that ham from my mom and the love of sports from my dad,” Fannon said.

Although he grew up going to UVA games, Fannon transferred loyalties to the Wildcats after his dad attended the 1985 Villanova basketball national championship game at Rupp Arena in Kentucky. When college decision time came around a few years later, Fannon told his parents he wanted to move to Philadelphia. He didn’t know his choice would change the course of his career.

“Never in a million years did I think I would become the radio play-by-play guy at Villanova — the school I went to, the school I loved,” Fannon said. “It just goes to show that anything can happen with a few lucky breaks and working hard.”

His brother, Frank Fannon, said hard work and commitment runs in the family. Before Ryan Fannon turned 10, the two had built a lemonade stand, created a paper route and started a sibling lawn business. After college, they teamed up again to work in mortgage sales for seven years before Ryan Fannon left to be a fundraiser for his high school alma mater, Bishop Ireton. Still, nearly 40 years removed from their first financial ventures, not much has changed for the brothers.

“We’re very fortunate because we’re not only brothers, but we’re best friends,” Frank Fannon said. “… Our lives have pretty much been together this whole time growing up.”

Much of Fannon’s success in broadcasting is a direct result of the work ethic that he developed while growing up, but one bad experience in college has fueled his intense preparation for every game. When he first called a football contest as a student radio host at Villanova, he fumbled through what he described as an abysmal broadcast. After the game, one of his fraternity brothers called him out for his less-than-stellar performance.

“I remember the sinking feeling that I felt because I knew I hadn’t done enough homework,” Fannon said. “… I remember saying to myself ‘I will never, ever feel that way again,’ so ever since then, I can honestly say I’ve never not been fully prepared for every game I’ve gone into.”

Now, he spends many hours a week putting together charts for football and basketball games. Among other pregame rituals, he handwrites phonetic spellings next to every player’s name on the roster so as to ensure correct pronunciation.

“He works very hard,” Frank Fannon said. “… He’s kind of an old-school guy, so he handwrites out on file folders the positions of the football players and things like that, and he tapes it up in the [broadcast] booth.”

Over the years, that hard work has paid off. In 2009, Fannon called both his first Final Four in Detroit and Villanova’s Football Championship Series triumph. Despite that whirlwind year, nothing can quite compare to the 2016 Final Four in Houston, where Kris Jenkins beat the buzzer against North Carolina to give the Wildcats a national championship for the first time since 1985. Fannon’s call of that game-winner became an instant classic for Villanova fans around the world.

“Cats win it all! Cats win it all! Cats win it all!” Fannon proclaimed.

Several days after Villanova secured the championship, he emceed the victory parade in Philadelphia. That day, he found dozens of people handing out t-shirts with his iconic words clearly printed on the front. Indeed, the Cats had finally won it all.

“I could live 200 more years, and I will never be able to realistically top that,” Fannon said.

Ryan Fannon’s family, including father-in-law Eugene Finnegan, daughters Maggie and Grace, wife Laura
and son Ryan Jr., made the trek to Houston for the 2016 national championship game. (Courtesy photo)

Fannon said the cherry on top of that championship was having his whole family— wife, three kids, brother and father-in-law—in attendance to witness history that night. In fact, earlier that week, he had flown from Louisville, where Villanova had clinched a trip to the Final Four, to Naples, Florida, where his family was vacationing for spring break. After two quick days off, he piled his wife, kids and 88-year-old father-in-law into a van and drove the 22 hours to Houston for the 2016 Final Four.

“If you call national championships and your brother’s not there, your wife’s not there, your kids aren’t there, they’re not enjoying it with you. It’s always about the people,” Fannon said. “This is about relationships, it’s about experiences, it’s about travel, it’s about family and friends sharing a common passion together. It’s so much more than the game.”

Fannon met his wife close to home at a Bishop Ireton athletic banquet in 2002. After they started dating, he gradually shifted his life from Philadelphia to Alexandria, and he’s happy to have three kids aboard the Villanova bandwagon with him today.

“The kids and I listen to almost every game,” Laura Fannon wrote in an email. “… Being able to share his passions with his children has been so much more fun than he ever imagined.”

Every week, Fannon’s oldest two children help him prepare for games by quizzing him on team statistics, player names and other key information. When they watch basketball games from Alexandria, they’ll mute the TV to hear his radio broadcast instead. Within days of the 2016 national championship, Ryan and Maggie had memorized their dad’s famous call of Jenkins’ buzzer-beater. Recently, three-year-old Grace started talking about that unforgettable shot, Laura Fannon said.

Ryan Fannon poses with former Wildcats star Josh Hart, who was a member of the 2016 team and now plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, at the 2018 championship game. (Courtesy photo)

Life got just a little bit sweeter in 2018, as Fannon was able to share yet another Villanova basketball championship with his family. The broadcasting wasn’t quite as stressful this time around, with the Wildcats besting each opponent by double digits along their path to victory. That winning feeling was just as sweet, though, as Fannon returned to Philly as parade emcee for an encore.

With two national championships in three years, the Villanova teams of the last half-decade rank as some of the best in college basketball history. Even with all that recent success, coupled with the sacrifices and busy schedule it takes to be a part-time broadcaster, Fannon doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon. Thanks to an “incredibly supportive wife,” he’s ready to live out his dream for many years to come.

“My life is very fulfilled, and I’m very challenged still in both of my jobs, with a lot of work left to do on both, and I feel like I can grow a lot as a broadcaster still,” Fannon said.

Laura Fannon said her husband’s broadcasting work is far from a secret when it comes to family and friends. Thanks to their added interest in Villanova sports and their awareness of the Fannons’ rare setup, an unusual lifestyle remains manageable and exciting for Laura Fannon and the kids.

“So many people support us in so many ways, and we are so grateful for all of this support,” Laura Fannon said. “Not only for the extra cheering they all do now for the Cats, but in all the ways they help us continue to make our very unique life ‘normal for us.’”

Frank Fannon said Ryan Fannon often jokes that his goal is to broadcast longer than famed Dodgers radio announcer Vin Scully, who manned the microphone for a whopping 67 years.

Fannon, with 25 years of experience under his belt, is primed for 42 more to match Scully’s remarkable longevity.

“You do what you want in life and you work hard and you have fun,” Fannon said. “… When you have a great network of family and friends, and you find something you love to do, that’s as good as it gets.”