by Steve Kaufman



Tony Vanetti likes the sound and feel of dried leaves crunching under his shoes.

To him, that means fall. And fall means football.

This fall, though, Vanetti will not be at his usual place on September 16, when the University of Louisville hosts Clemson, defending national champions. For 12 years, the radio sports jock was doing a pre-game show, sometimes at old Cardinal Stadium (“great atmosphere, the older fans and fraternity boys”) and sometimes inside the Trager Center with the Petrino Family Foundation (“great buffet”).

Instead, Vanetti will be reinventing his radio persona, for the third time in his 25-year career.  Just last April, Vanetti began doing a political-entertainment talk show on WHAS from 6-8 p.m., following his friend and mentor, Terry Meiners, on the air.

That doesn’t mean that much of Vanetti’s heart and mind aren’t still in sports. He’s jazzed at the way the commonwealth’s two big universities have moved football front and center in the sports conversation.

“This used to be a college basketball and high school football town,” he says. “Now it’s a college football town. A Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Louisville? Are you kidding me??”

Even before Tom Jurich, Bobby Petrino and Lamar Jackson put Louisville football on the national map, though, fall and football were special to him.

“Tailgating at Cardinal Stadium was the best,” he says. “You could set up wherever you wanted, drive up onto the grass and park your truck next to a tree. We had an entire bar that we’d take off the truck, complete with bar stools.”

Bars have played heavily in Vanetti’s past. It was at a bar that his radio career was launched. It was in bars that his career, and life, nearly hit the rocks.

“I was in a bar with some buddies, holding court,” the Louisville native recalls about the incident nearly 30 years ago. “And a guy came up to me, said he was the new afternoon drive guy on 96 WQMF, that he just got this job, and asked if I could write some jokes for him and do some characters.”

A fateful day for Vanetti.

Sports and politics are both all about opinions. The facts themselves almost don’t matter. People want to hear what you think.

“So I went down, wrote a couple of bits, watched while he did his thing and then, afterwards, I asked him, ‘Do you get paid for doing that?’ He said he did, and I asked, ‘Mind if I keep hanging around here?’ ”

For three years, he got coffee and lunch for the staff, drove a van, set up remote locations, filled in for every person who went on vacation, did whatever needed to be done. The payoff was a weekend on-air shift.

“Then, when I was 23, they gave me my own drive-time show,” he recalls. “Here was a kid with no training, no background, doing a show on one of the most famous rock stations in the Midwest.”

It was heady times for a youngster dropped into the world of big-time radio and, more than that, into the world of partying, booze and rock-and-roll. There were consequences. Like two DUIs. And a divorce.

Twelve years ago came the first reinvention. “First, I got sober,” he says. “I just quit!”

It wasn’t easy. “Your brain is smarter than you are, it has found that it likes being drunk and creates situations and anxieties to make you go back to drinking. I knew it and fought through it.”

Plus, he says, “I wanted to find out what I could achieve if I were one hundred percent Tony, not hung over all the time. I was successful and I was a drunk. What could I do if I were sober?”

He found out over the next 12 years, switching to sports radio with one of the most popular talk shows in Louisville, on QMF, 100.5 The Fox, WKRD and WHAS. And now politics. How different will it be?

“Less so than you’d guess,” he says. “Sports and politics are both all about opinions. The facts themselves almost don’t matter. People want to hear what you think.

“We call it ‘hot takes’ – strong opinions. If you believe something, don’t go wishy-washy; go either side, and go hard. If they disagree, they’ll say, ‘That dumb sonofabitch Vanetti was wrong’ – but they’re saying your name.”

“Coaching my son was the greatest father-and-son experience there is,” he says. “The most rewarding time of my life. I encourage everyone to do that.”

But what about missing the press booth and the sports banter? Sober Tony’s priorities are different. Such as his wife, Jackie, who divorced him in 2006. They remarried in 2008.

“Jackie’s a big-time U of L fan, and she watched years of games by herself,” he says. “Now I’ll be around on Saturday afternoons. We’ll be watching together.”

Family is first and foremost for Sober Tony. “I screwed myself over, I don’t want to screw my kids over.”

He coached son John in football the last eight years at Holy Trinity Parish School, going to back-to-back Toy Bowls. (John, 14, is now a freshman at Trinity High School, and a Steinhauser Scholar.)

Tony and Jackie also have a daughter, 11-year-old Maggie, at Holy Trinity. Jackie coaches field hockey and volleyball there.

“Coaching my son was the greatest father-and-son experience there is,” he says. “The most rewarding time of my life. I encourage everyone to do that.”

He says he gets a lot of “Hey, Tony” shoutouts around town. But the biggest kick, he says, “is walking through Kroger and hearing some kid shout, ‘Hey, Coach Vanetti!’

“That’s my journey. My transformation is complete.”