Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver, Santa Clara, San Jose, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Omaha, Los Angeles, Houston, Omaha and Lincoln.
It’s not an excerpt from the Johnny Cash song, “I’ve Been Everywhere” although it could be.
It’s instead a two-week travel schedule for FOX broadcaster and Nebraska-native, Kevin Kugler. That doesn’t even include his remote broadcasts and interviews like this one. During this time of year, meeting in-person with Kugler is almost impossible.
Kugler does these from his basement. In his words, these “aren’t as thrilling.” Most of his early season college basketball broadcasts are done this way now –- a new wrinkle after the pandemic.
From college days at Nebraska’s student station, 90.3 KRNU, to Unsportsmanlike Conduct on 1620 the Zone in the early 2000s and now on NFL Sundays, the path to the outside world could appear linear. It certainly hasn’t been.
This is his busiest season coming into the holidays, where the NFL slate and college basketball worlds collide for two months of non-stop mayhem.
And, with everything on Kugler’s plate, the vocal wear and tear has a constant presence.
“I didn’t think I had the same kind of energy last night that I had on there Monday for my basketball game,” Kugler said via Zoom in November.
Today, the nine-time Nebraska Sportscaster of the Year sits in his basement surrounded by assorted awards and memorabilia in an old white sweatshirt, just to the left of his remote broadcast station.
“It’s always hard to maintain that energy in the basement, too,” Kugler says, gesturing to the monitor and other broadcast equipment.
It’s Wednesday morning, prep day. One brief moment of respite before the never-ending wheel of travel turns once again.
Kugler has to maintain his voice, which is under almost constant use. Never soda, lots of alkaline water and his favorite, iced tea. He uses the vocalist-designed app, VocalEase, to train throughout the week.
“You have ranges like any other muscle,” Kugler said. “You try to build it and work it a little bit outside of your games.”
Kugler never fails to have a doctor on call in case of an emergency cold or sinus infection.
Kevin Kugler is as busy as it gets. He is the “Everywhere Man.”
It began not with a microphone, but a calculator.
When Kugler arrived at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, being a sports agent was the perfect career.
“I always had an affinity for numbers,” Kugler said. “And so I started in the business college and it just didn’t work. It wasn’t a fit for me.”
So, where was a sports-minded student to go? The answer — Avery Hall for a major in broadcasting.
Kugler said he knew it was the right place from the first semester of classes.
“It didn’t take long,” Kugler said. “I had known what a bad fit was, and so to be in a place with a good fit, I knew it was a different feeling than I’d had in the business college.”
The people, classes and professors all made a better environment. The early days working with Rick Alloway, a broadcasting professor and station manager of KRNU whose thunderous pipes Kugler jokingly covets to this day, were some of the best.
“Those were great days for me,” Kugler said. “They were fun. They were exciting.”
His first shot came just because he was in the journalism college one sunny summer afternoon. Kugler was in the newsroom doing his show with friend John Bishop, who now works for 1620 the Zone. That show was the first call-in talk show on KRNU. Then, a different sort of call came in.
Nebraska Public Television needed a sideline reporter for the upcoming broadcast of the Shrine Bowl. Bishop couldn’t take the opportunity due to work conflicts, so Kugler accepted.
“That was my first opportunity to do anything for money in the broadcast world,” Kugler said.
A simple “yes” started a long-standing relationship between Kugler and Nebraska Public Television.
“Because I was in the J-school,” Kugler said. “Because I was in that physical building and one of two people in that building on a June afternoon. That started me off on the right foot as far as a career goes.”
So, that summer, the Shrine Bowl arrived.
“They paid me $250,” Kugler said. “Which at the time, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m getting $250 to go to a high school football game? This is amazing!’”
In Kugler’s words, his performance that day was “awful.” He didn’t know what was expected of him. He was nervous. He had sunglasses on and chewed gum that someone promptly had him spit out.
“Because I was nervous, I’m chomping on gum while I’m on the air,” Kugler said. “It was bad. It was not something you would ever put on a demo reel.”
Despite how critical Kugler was of himself, a pair of people inside the production truck saw some potential in him that day.
One was Jim Carmichael, Professor Alloway’s college roommate who passed away in 2014 while Kugler was in Sochi for the Olympics but he became instrumental in Kugler’s progression as a broadcaster.
“He was one of my closest friends in this business,” Kugler said. “A terrific person, and he saw something in me that day.”
Kugler said he looks back fondly on those days.
“There are so many great memories from those times from doing the show with John (Bishop),” Kugler said. “The interviews, the guests and the work we did, I’m still very proud of that.”
After graduating college, Kugler didn’t go straight to 1620 the Zone.
“I was living at home as a college graduate,” Kugler said. “You know, you hear all about all that now. I was a trendsetter.”
He landed his first job as sports director at a station in Fairbury, Nebraska. Much like the business college, it wasn’t a good fit and, within six months, Kugler quit.
“The station manager told me at the time when I quit that it was going to be a mistake I would regret for the rest of my life,” Kugler said. “I did not regret that for the rest of my life.”
Next was a year-long stop in York in the same role.
“Make mistakes. Learn how to do play-by-play on a regular basis,” Kugler said if the opportunity. I had carte blanche to do little talk shows or anything else I wanted to do.”
A year later, Kugler was freelancing. But there wasn’t a lot of work and he began to consider getting out of the business. Then, another call came.
The University of Nebraska Omaha tapped Kugler to call its football and basketball games. Again, he said yes.
Soon after, the games switched from broadcasting on 1110 KFAB to 1620 the Zone, and opportunity struck again. Kugler started his own show on the Zone. He called it Unsportsmanlike Conduct.
Then, he connected with the radio giant, Westwood One, by covering the College World Series in Omaha. That led to college football and basketball in 2006, the Final Four in 2008, the NFL in 2009 and Sunday Night Football in 2012.
The timeline appears simple and direct, but Kugler said he repeatedly needed to prove himself.
“There’s moments where you’re not as happy with a call,” Kugler said. “There’s moments where you really feel good about a call. There’s moments where you say something and Deadspin writes a story about you, and you want to jump off an airplane.”
Then, March of 2020. The world shut down, and so did sports.
“I’m out of work for five months and I started thinking back to where I was before this all started,” Kugler said. “Do I have to get another job? Are sports coming back? What are we doing here?”
The Big Ten announced the cancellation of the 2020 football season in August. Kugler, fresh off a radio call of the PGA Championship, had received just one paycheck since sports shut down.
It was a warm evening, and he was out walking his dog, Charlie.
His phone buzzed. A text from his agent.
“You’re on it,” it said.
“I don’t know what that means, but OK,” Kugler replied.
His agent replied with a link and that’s when Kugler knew. In a matter of moments, Kugler had a spot on FOX’s NFL broadcast roster.
“It was a whirlwind thing,” Kugler said. “I went from not having anything to, five days later, being two weeks out from doing my first NFL game.”
Ask Kugler his favorite color commentator to work with and he will be hard pressed to answer. The great Bill Raftery, Sean Morris, Robbie Hummel, Chris Spielman, PJ Carlesimo, Jim Jackson and Mark Sanchez are just a few of the names that come to mind.
Yet, one name carries slightly more weight than the rest: Matt Millen.
Kugler began working with the four-time Super Bowl champion covering BTN college football. Their relationship is a special one but the two don’t often cross paths now.
“I miss him. I miss him a lot,” Kugler said. “I’ve learned a lot from Matt and spent so much off air time with him.”
Kugler can’t count the number of dinners where Millen would want to describe a play. So, he would reach for anything he could find. Salt shakers, napkins and sugar packets combined for a perfect football symphony in motion.
There’s another Millen moment for Kugler that sticks out.
In 2017, Millen’s health began to decline due to heart disease. He needed a heart transplant.
“Time was running out and everyone knew it,” Kugler said. “He never wanted to say it, but he knew it. He was at peace with it.”
Kugler was in Seattle when he got the text. Millen was getting a heart transplant on Christmas Eve.
“I’ve never felt such relief and joy for a person than I did when I got that text,” Kugler said. “It overshadowed every other thing I had done with Matt.”
It’s hard for Kugler to express the gratitude he feels to all of these partners. He’s learned from each one of them.
“It’s just weird to think of, I’m some kid who grew up in Lincoln,” Kugler said. “All these people that I as a kid watched and enjoyed…I’m like oh he’s a friend and he’s a friend.”
The scarcity of national play-by-play jobs is incredible and best shown through an analogy Kugler shared at the beginning of this season with his current color commentator, former Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. During any given week, there are 32 starting quarterback jobs in the NFL. But there are only 16 games and 16 broadcast crews.
Commentators have a better chance of being a starting quarterback in the NFL than filling a play-by-play or color role on a broadcast.
“I’m not ashamed to be from Nebraska,” Kugler said. “I have chosen to live here all these years, because it’s my home. Because I like the people here, and I think it was a good place for my family to be.”
Kugler built his career in the Omaha market. There are distinct disadvantages for a broadcaster compared to working on either coast. He often thinks back to the days on Unsportsmanlike Conduct.
“We did things that maybe people didn’t always care about because we enjoyed doing them,” Kugler said. “Try to have fun on the broadcast because who wants to sit on a broadcast and listen to somebody be sad about what they’re doing?”
Often in today’s world, there is talk about representation, which Kugler believes it matters in sports media, too.
“There is also something to be said for representation from areas like this,” Kugler said. “I would be very happy if somebody got into a chair at Fox or CBS or ESPN or wherever and said, ’Hey, you know what? I’m not the first Nebraskan to get to the spot.”
The Lincoln-born broadcaster whose mileage ledger rivals that of a cross-country trucker won’t be stopping anytime soon.
“It’s a long climb,” Kugler said. “I had those years where it was ‘Do I even do this anymore? Can I even do this anymore?’ But here it is. 2021, I’m still doing it.”