A transistor radio on the bed of his childhood room. That’s what John Coffey estimates as the beginning of his love for sports broadcasting. That love became a career as the “voice of the Bearcats,” and now Coffey’s love vaulted him into a general manager position and a corner office. It all relates back, however, to that one little radio on his bed late at night.
“I still think there is magic coming out of that little box,” Coffey said.
As a child in the small town of Albany, Missouri, Coffey would regularly listen to Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck call St. Louis Cardinals baseball, even staying up to listen late at night when they were playing on the west coast. Coffey felt as though Buck were speaking directly to him, reminding him of the batting average of the third baseman or describing for him the way the curveball ducked into the strike zone centimeters before smacking into the catcher’s glove.
The fascination would continue to grow for Coffey as he continued to grow. It was there when Coffey was attending a tennis camp at Northwest between his junior and senior year of high school when fellow Albany native, and Coffey’s future boss at KXCV-KRNW Radio, Rodney Harris gave him a tour of the radio station on campus. That tour sealed the deal for Coffey. He wanted to be a Bearcat.
The fascination was there on Feb. 20 when Northwest point guard Trevor Hudgins weaved in between two Missouri Southern defenders and hit a leaner as time expired giving the Bearcats the win and their seventh straight conference title. Coffey’s account of that game-winner would earn him an award from the Missouri Broadcasters Association for best radio play-by-play call. The call would also be labeled as Coffey’s best by inbooth partner Matt Tritten.
“It was like you were watching ESPN classic, but you witnessed it first hand, right now. It was cool to be there and be a part of that,” Tritten said of the call.
And the fascination is still there now as Coffey arrives at Wells Hall just after 7 a.m. to do his sportscasts in KXCV studio, 15 steps from his relatively new corner office on the third floor. Coffey took over as station manager for KXCV In October 2019, after the passing of Harris, his longtime friend and the man that first gave him a tour of the station many decades ago.
“This wasn’t the way I wanted to get the position at all. I’m just trying to build on what Rodney was doing as general manager,” Coffey said.
Coffey started at KXCV as a student reporter during his undergraduate stint at Northwest from 1978-1982. After that Coffey briefly took a job as the news director for a station in Fairbury, Nebraska, before returning to Maryville at KNIM in 1983.
Before 1985 there was no “voice of the Bearcats.” The job of calling Bearcat games would fall to students and miscellaneous broadcasters before Coffey became the first and only person to hold that title beginning in the ’85 football season. Coffey has been in the booth for a combined eight NCAA Division II National Championships — six in football and two in basketball — and 30 conference championships.
“For us on the younger end, if you think about any Bearcat moment, anything that’s been impactful in Northwest Missouri State athletics history at least on the basketball and football side, he’s been right there,” Tritten said.
Coffey continued to call Northwest games at KNIM until 1999 when Ken White from Northwest’s relations department reached out to Coffey about helping build the Bearcat Radio Network. Since Coffey’s arrival, the network has expanded to cover much of Northern Missouri and Southern Iowa as well as parts of Nebraska and Kansas. They have affiliate stations in Kansas City, Missouri and Shenandoah, Iowa, and an antenna that broadcasts from Chillicothe, Missouri.
Even as the broadcast continued to expand through traditional radio means and via the internet, Coffey still values the personal aspect of radio. He regularly receives emails from his listeners thanking him personally for being in their car, living room or boat with them as they listen to a Bearcat game. Coffey has been told of people on beaches in Australia and boats off the coast of China listening to his even-keeled voice emanating from KXCV.
“The voice out of that box, you are speaking directly to the listener,” Coffey said.
He remembers one time in particular when a fan had reached out to him that really touched him. Coffey was calling a high school tournament at William Jewell that takes place around the holidays. He noticed that one of the regular attendees wasn’t in her normal seat. He later received a letter from her thanking him for calling the games, saying it was one of the things that helped her get through chemotherapy.
“That’s something I always try to keep in mind when we set up to do a game. There are people on the other end, that you don’t know what their situation is; this could be the high point of their day,” Coffey said.
Even though his listeners never see his face, Coffey is one of the most visible figures for Northwest Athletics. He gets approached almost every time he goes out in Maryville by fans and he says the run-ins are always pleasant and welcomed.
That’s one of the things he values about KXCV and Northwest as a whole: the familial aspect. At larger schools, you don’t get the opportunity to be as close to those in the community, Coffey said. He particularly values the relationships that he is able to build with students.
“It’s fun to see that he not only takes in building that interaction but also teaching us the skills you need for broadcasting and what it takes to be a successful broadcaster,” said Keegan Cooper, a student manager at KXCV, who worked directly with Coffey as an intern over the summer.
KXCV is largely built on student participation with student reporters, like Coffey formerly was, being an integral part of how the station runs. For some student reporters, the “voice of the Bearcats” has a celebrity effect, Cooper said.
“He’s that guy, but he’s still personable,” Cooper said. “He’s so laid back and willing to help students.”
A good-sized portion of current KXCV staff first came through the program as students, including Tritten, who maintained a steady professional relationship with Coffey as he was working at KQ2 in St. Joseph. That led to his return Northwest six years after graduating.
Coffey commonly refers to KXCV alumni as a family. A network that spans just mere feet from his office to radio stations across the country. Coffey attributes the same familial aspect to the MIAA as a whole.
He has been around many of the same people at rival schools for years. And while the rivalry between Northwest and its in-conference opponents may be bitter on the field or court, off of it, Coffey sees more unity than animosity.
“We are all in this together, doing the same thing, and we try and help each other out,” Coffey said.
That’s part of the reason he enjoys road trips to other schools although the ice cream stops might be just as big a reason. Tritten described Coffey as an ice cream fanatic. His favorite flavor is vanilla due to its versatility. His level of love for ice cream is prevalent enough that Don Weast, sports information director at Emporia State, makes sure the freezer is stocked every time Coffey rolls into town.
The detours at locally owned ice cream shops are one of the things that Coffey has not been able to do this year because of the coronavirus wreaking havoc on the 2020 football season and likely the 2020 basketball season.
Coffey stills has the recurring nightmare that he says is common with all broadcasters, that he is late to a game, but this year it feels different. Long nights are spent watching streaming services rather than game film, and KXCV now airs Bearcat Classics in place of live sports for the foreseeable future.
Coffey still manages to keep himself occupied between his new duties as general manager of the station and his time spent on the tennis court. Coffey, who walked on to the Northwest tennis team while he was an undergraduate, still tries to play regularly his girlfriend Amy Adkins to Northwest tennis coach Mark Rosewell. He doesn’t play Tritten anymore though.
“I’m not sure if he’s scared that I’m gonna beat him,” Tritten said jokingly, as to why Coffey won’t play him anymore.
“I don’t know why he wants to keep playing because he hasn’t won a game off me yet,” Coffey said.
As much as Coffey enjoys his free time, he longs to return to the booth and call Bearcat games again and is hopeful that basketball will proceed as normal. For now, he will have to settle for reminiscing about past calls and players, maintaining his undefeated streak against Tritten in tennis and expanding the KXCV family.
In these unsure times, one thing is certain, Coffey’s love for the magic that comes out of that little box will continue even if he isn’t calling games.