JIM MASHEK COLUMN/Randy Lee, ‘The Voice of the Hilltoppers,’ preparing for his 18th season of calling WKU football


His day usually starts before the sun shows up, and sometimes it ends long after most of us have hit the rack.

He wears a lot of different hats, from radio-and-TV sportscaster, to insurance man and property manager and even takeout delivery man, along with a budding venture into health care for international students at Western Kentucky University and elsewhere.

It’s the high-profile gig, however, that prompts sports fans to stop Randy Lee on the street. In the airport, or the coffee shop. The personable 60-year-old West Virginia native has been calling sports on the radio since his college years, and then his early experiences in minor league baseball, when he was doing things like selling advertising to pay the bills and pursue his passion.

And if you see his hat is a Baltimore Orioles ballcap, rest assured that is his team, and nobody has to tell Randy Lee that the Orioles are a game or two up on my New York Yankees in the cut-throat American League East.

“I just like to stay busy,” Lee told me over lunch last week in the bar area at Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen on Nashville Road.

And ultimately, it all starts with his adopted school, WKU, and this fall will mark his 18th season as the “Voice of the Hilltoppers” on the school’s Learfield sports radio network. Lee and his radio team will make the trip to the University of Alabama for WKU’s season opener against the Crimson Tide on August 31 at Tuscaloosa’s famed Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Lee has done coaches’ shows at local restaurants and WKU sports highlights programs that run on weekend mornings. He’s broadcast monumental upsets and gut-churning defeats, and everything in between, all while balancing passion with professionalism.

Lee has covered the Tops in the Sun Belt days, before they joined Conference USA, in 2014, and he’s got a firm grip on the school’s origins in the Ohio Valley Conference, and before that, the E.A. Diddle Era.

“I got the (broadcasting) bug in high school,” Lee said. “The accelerator is still down, in the summertime … I don’t have a lot of free time. That’s why I’ll play tennis at 6 in the morning, not in the evening, after work.

“The thing about this job is you get to work with great people. It makes your job that much more enjoyable.”

And our paths have crossed a handful of times over the years, including the NCAA baseball regional in Oxford, Mississippi, in 2009, when the Hilltoppers took Ole Miss to the limit before dropping a gritty 4-1 decision that sent the Rebels to the Super Regional round.

(I was covering the SEC and the New Orleans Saints in those days with the Biloxi-Gulfport newspaper.)

Randy Lee has made WKU athletics his life’s work, after five years of calling men’s basketball and baseball games for the University of Nebraska, and before that, another five-year stint with the University of California-Santa Barbara, not to mention a stop at Angelo State University in remote San Angelo, Texas.

He’s certainly paid his dues.

“When I came to WKU, and Bowling Green, I didn’t know what was in store,” Lee said. “Todd (Stewart, the WKU athletics director) has always been there for me. Wood Selig was the AD when I was hired, and the fans here have always treated me so special.

“The school’s been great.”

Stewart said Randy Lee’s role within WKU athletics has blossomed over the years.

“Randy’s a historian, in many respects,” Stewart said. “He’s been broadcasting WKU athletics for 17 years … He’s dedicated, respected, passionate … There’s an honesty there, which gives him credibility. No doubt about it.

“He’s become an ambassador for the university.”

Lee has worked with the same analyst, Hal Schmitt, for WKU men’s basketball games since succeeding Mike Legg as the “Voice of the Hilltoppers” in 2007. They called the memorable game from Huntsville, Alabama, in March, when WKU returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years, stopping UTEP, 78-71, in the Conference USA championship game.

“Randy’s a consummate professional, at what he does,” Schmitt said. “He cut his teeth on minor league baseball … He’s immersed himself, in Western culture and sports history, and he’s connected to so many former Hilltoppers. I don’t know of anyone who does the preparation, for a broadcast — not just an individual game, but the schools themselves.

“He loves what he does.”

And Schmitt is right. Randy Lee has immersed himself, in all things WKU.

That’s one of Randy Lee’s missions, to bring the action into the radio in your beat-up 2011 Chevy, your living room, your home on the lake and throughout the Commonwealth and beyond. He’s found a home in Bowling Green, which is understandable, because it became my home in 2019, and it was one of the best moves I’ve ever made.

“The (WKU) fans here are so appreciative,” Lee said. “The school’s been great … Todd (Stewart) has always been there for me. In fact, since I came here, I’ve only sent one audition tape to another school, the University of Virginia, and that was probably in my third or fourth year in Bowling Green.

“It didn’t bother me, at all, when that didn’t happen.”

I asked Randy if he could give me a rundown, of his favorite moments calling WKU athletics events, and he provided me an interesting list within 24 hours of our interview last week.

Here goes, and Lee admits that this isn’t necessarily in any sort of heart-tugging order:

No. 5) WKU basketball 74, North Texas 70,

Sun Belt Conference championship game, 3/6/2012

“North Texas had defeated WKU by 17 points earlier in the season …”

No. 4) WKU baseball 10, Ole Miss 9,

NCAA Oxford Regional, 5/31/2009

Widely considered the greatest team in WKU baseball history, the Hilltoppers came out of the losers’ bracket to eliminate Missouri. A couple hours later, they squared off with Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco’s talented Rebels squad before a crowd of 7,000 or so at Oxford-University Stadium.

(This was the aforementioned game I was covering for a previous employer.)

“WKU had to rally from an 8-3 deficit against an All-SEC closer (Scott Bittle),” Lee said. “Wade Gaynor’s three-run home run in the seventh inning tied it, and Jake Wells’ ninth-inning homer won it for the Tops.

“(Former WKU president) Gary Ransdell was the color analyst on the radio broadcast. He was scheduled to catch an early morning flight in Memphis the next day, for some important college presidents’ meetings on the West Coast.

“Right after it ended, Gary excitedly told Julie, his wife, on the radio broadcast to let them know he wasn’t going to make it to California. He said, ‘I’m staying in Oxford one more day.'”

(One of Ransdell’s sons, Matthew, had been a utility infielder for the WKU squad that played in the NCAA Oxford Regional in 2004. Ole Miss turned to Drew Pomeranz, a first-round MLB draft pick, to defeat the Hilltoppers, 4-1, in a winner-take-all game to advance to Super Regional play.)

No. 3, “Black Friday in Huntington,”

WKU football 67, Marshall 66, (OT), 11/28/2014

This wasn’t a surprising choice, given that Randy Lee is a proud Marshall alum and it took place in his native West Virginia. But the game had huge stakes, besides that, as 19th-ranked Marshall was undefeated and playing for a berth in a BCS New Year’s Day bowl game.

“The game set numerous college football offensive records,” Lee said. “The Tops had to win their final five games to earn a bowl game trip to the Bahamas. The two-point conversion pass, from Brandon Doughty to Willie McNeal, denied the Thundering Herd that undefeated season.”

No. 2, WKU basketball 101, Drake 99 (OT),

NCAA Tournament, first-round game, 3/21/2008

I told Randy that I have a vivid memory of this one, as I was in my hotel room in Little Rock, Arkansas, covering Mississippi State in the NCAA Tournament.

The Hilltoppers were a decided underdog to Drake, a No. 3 seed, in Tampa.

“Ty Rogers’ buzzer-beating 3 won it in overtime,” Lee recalled. “The shot-making ability of both teams was extraordinary. Tyrone Brazelton scored 33 points, and the Hilltoppers went on to reach the Sweet Sixteen …”

And, not surprisingly, Numero Uno,

WKU football 32, University of Kentucky 31 (OT), 9/15/2012

“This was the night WKU turned the grass red, throughout Kentucky, with their first-ever win over the Wildcats,” Lee said.

The Tops won it on a gadget play, with Antonio Andrews hitting WKU quarterback Kajuan Jakes for the decisive two-point conversion at Commonwealth Stadium.

“WKU’s Jonathan Dowling had three interceptions, helping provide the Tops with a big lead. WKU had given Kentucky all it could handle the year before, in Nashville, in a 14-3 loss at the Titans’ stadium. The Hilltoppers were confident they had the goods to win in Lexington.”

I asked Randy if he could list his five favorite WKU squads he’s called since joining the Hilltopper Radio Network, and he came up with these:

(I think they all tied for first place …)

2008-09, WKU men’s basketball

“The expectations weren’t high, following a Sweet 16 run and a new coaching staff. But the senior leadership of Orlando Mendez-Valdez and the young talent around him, would develop into a 25-9 team with only one loss to a Sun Belt opponent, and a win over third-ranked Louisville.

“This team lost at the buzzer, to 10th-ranked Gonzaga, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament played at an exceedingly high level. The Tops had already beaten Illinois, soundly, in the first round of the tournament.”

2011 WKU football

“This was Willie Taggart’s second season as the head coach, and the Tops lost their first four games before winning a double-overtime thriller at MTSU. They would proceed to win their next six Sun Belt games, with one loss, against 19th-ranked LSU at Tiger Stadium.

“Despite being passed over, for a bowl game, this was a team that turned around the fortunes of WKU football, after the move from Division I-AA and the transition to Division I. This team had a great ground attack, led by Hilltopper Hall of Famer Bobby Rainey.

“This was only one season removed from a 26-game losing streak. We had 26 consecutive unhappy postgame shows before winning that game …

“WKU would then have six consecutive winning seasons.”

2009 WKU baseball

This was the squad that played so well at Ole Miss, and the Hilltoppers finished 42-20 under former coach Chris Finwood, now in his 13th season as the head coach at Old Dominion University.

“This team had EVERYTHING. Speed, incredible defense, and top-notch pitching,” Lee said. “Only the 1980 team (which went an amazing 47-12-1 under Joel Murrie, the winningest coach in WKU history) can challenge it as WKU’s all-time greatest baseball team.

“With a share of the Sun Belt regular-season title, WKU beat Missouri and forced the decisive game with Ole Miss, before losing 4-1 in the regional final to the Rebels.”

2017-18 WKU basketball

“This was the best passing team of any I’ve called since coming to WKU in 2007. Darius Thompson and Lamonte Bearden found the open (WKU) players all the time. Justin Johnson had an all-conference season at power forward, and Taveion Hollingsworth had one of the greatest freshman seasons in school history.

“A Bearden runner, that fell off the front of the rim at the buzzer, allowed Marshall to win the Conference USA championship game by a single point.”

Randy Lee has been one of the constants, along with WKU’s familiar red-and-white colors — like most colleges, the Tops incorporate some black into their color scheme for home uniforms — for all these memorable moments, and teams. Lee has time for former WKU players, for journalists, and certainly for Hilltopper fans across the Commonwealth, and beyond.

On August 31, in what promises to be a steamy night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Randy Lee will be at the mic, in historic Bryant-Denny Stadium, calling the action as WKU coach Tyson Helton begins his seventh season with the daunting challenge of opening against the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide.

It’s a long way from the Lee family farm in Grafton, West Virginia, where the late Bob Lee and his wife, Camilla, raised their two sons, Randy and his elder brother, Rodney Lee, a FedEx employee in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

“You can feel Randy’s passion, on the radio, or when he’s on TV,” WKU athletics director Todd Stewart said. “He wants us to win, but he’s not a ‘homer.’ I’ve done some baseball games with him, in the radio booth, and that might be his best sport. It’s really worked out for us, as a university, and hopefully for Randy, too.

“He’s got a very heavy schedule, with everything he does away from broadcasting, but there’s a level of continuity, a familiar voice calling our games. And he goes from one sport, into another, almost seamlessly. We’re really lucky to have him.”