Paul Keels, Ohio State's play-by-play announcer, comes home to Xavier this week
A door opened for Paul Keels as a student at Xavier University in the late 70s.
He was wise enough and eager enough to walk through it, and that first step set the stage for a broadcasting career that's spanned more than four decades.
"When I was there at WVXU, we did high school football on Friday nights, did GCL games," said Keels, a 1975 Moeller High School grad. "And then at that time, there was no commercial station to carry Xavier games. So the student station did it. And they hired a professional play-by-play announcer, a guy that was actually a former player at Xavier, Dave Piontek, and then a handful of us students kind of rotated and did games with him."
Even when Keels wasn't on the broadcast, he'd bring a tape recorder and practice calling the games by himself.
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"At Schmidt Fieldhouse, there was kind of an upper perch where hardly anybody sat. I think it was an older press area," said Keels. "And I would go up there with a tape recorder and just practice doing some of the games and listen back to it just as a way to try to get some experience."
In 1979, Keels stopped attending Xavier because he got his first full-time radio job at WLW as a news reporter.
In 1980, he was hired by a station in Detroit, "and when I got there, they said, 'Hey, by the way, have you ever done any basketball before?' And I gave them a tape of some of the Xavier games I did and ended up getting to do one season of the Detroit Pistons," Keels said.
From there, he switched stations and spent five seasons covering the University of Michigan, then returned home and spent nearly a decade on the University of Cincinnati broadcast team. He did radio for the Bengals for one season during that time, and that led him to Columbus in 1998, where he's been ever since as the play-by-play announcer for Ohio State football and men's basketball.
When Ohio State visits Xavier on Thursday night in the Gavitt Tipoff Games, it will be the first time Keels has stepped foot inside the Cintas Center.
"I've never been," said Keels, whose schedule with Ohio State has made it difficult to get back and see a game. "I have great memories of going to games at Schmidt Fieldhouse so I'm curious to see what Cintas Center looks like. I've seen it on TV and heard people talk about it, but now it'll be the first time I've been inside the building."
Keels grew up listening to Reds and Bengals games on the radio. He knew he wanted to get into broadcasting, so he plotted a course and worked to get there.
"There weren't a lot of games on TV and I was kind of hooked with live sporting events on radio," said Keels.
Keels' mother worked at Xavier so he got a tuition break to attend, and the student station was an opportunity to get exposure and experience.
"It was a great opportunity," said Keels. "There's a name that needs to be put out there, Dr. Jim King, who was our faculty moderator at WVXU. And he really kind of settled a lot of the parameters to make sure that it was student involvement and student-oriented.
"That's what allowed me to get my first job. ... I have a great appreciation for the time spent down in the basement of Alter Hall there at Xavier."
Keels also has a great appreciation for what Xavier's men's basketball program has become since he left.
"As a kid, I went to a lot of Xavier football games," said Keels. "Because my mother worked at Xavier for close to 30 years. And we went to a lot of football games and saw what happened when they dropped the football program.
"But the thing that I saw when I was in school there, they were an independent (in basketball). When they first got into a conference, maybe 1980-81 ... and they hired Bob Staak, that's when you saw the program take a step forward. They had just started becoming a little competitive at the end of Tay Baker's time, but when they got in a league and got Bob Staak and the subsequent coaches that followed with Pete Gillen and Skip Prosser ... you could see that they all of a sudden started becoming a little more competitive and winning their own conference, and then to be able to do some of the things that they've done like getting into the NCAA Tournament, which when I was a student at Xavier, you would have never thought that was possible."
Thursday's game marks a full circle for Keels, who gets to return home, to the place where it all started with a tape recorder and a dream.