"He and I used to play a lot of stickball growing up," says Donald Lewis, a financial planner who lives in Atlanta and remains Holliday's best friend. "And it's funny, but he used to announce the games while we played them. I never thought much of it then, but it's obvious that it was practice for him. He was a great athlete, he just didn't have great size. But he's always been one of the nicest people I've ever met, as far back as I can remember."
Holliday's blend of passion and kindness was particularly apparent during a game Feb. 11 against Duke, when Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez scored 18 points to lead the Terps to a 72-60 win.
"GREIVIS! GREIVIS! GREIVIS!" Holliday bellowed into the microphone after a layup by Vasquez put the Terps up 13 late in the game. "Boy, he has really been a spark today, and now Mike Krzyzewski wants a timeout!"
It was a career day for Vasquez, who grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, but Holliday had an ulterior motive for shouting Vasquez's name with such enthusiasm. A few days before the game, Vasquez relayed to Holliday that his parents and family in Venezuela listened religiously to Maryland games on the Internet.
"But Greivis," Holliday asked, "do they understand any English?"
"They don't," Vasquez replied.
"Then how do they know what's going on or how you're doing?"
"Usually by how much excitement you have in your voice when you say my name," Vasquez told him.
And so Holliday decided to put a little extra oomph into his words, realizing that even in a foreign language, sometimes in radio you manage to connect with people in a way that's hard to explain. Holliday is quick to point out that he's not, by any stretch, an iconic figure like Vin Scully, Ernie Harwell, or even Chuck Thompson. But still, he can hardly walk into a restaurant or stand in line to buy a soda without waves of people walking up to shake his hand and ask him what he thinks about the Terps.
"It's kind of an uneasy feeling when people walk up to you and tell you, 'You know, we turn down the sound on our TV sets and turn on the radio,'" Holliday says. "They say stuff like, 'Don't you ever retire,' and that's really, really nice. But it also makes me a little uncomfortable, because I don't put myself in that league with some of these other guys. It's hard for me to make that connection."
Holliday has a computer in his office, next to his plaques and souvenirs he's gathered over the years. And like many people in the athletic department, he does check out, on occasion, what the Internet message board buzz is saying about him. He knows it's silly, but he does it anyway. His critics, though small in number, say he's slipping a bit. That he doesn't follow the action as well as he used to, or that he forgets to bring up the clock, or stumbles over players' names too often. And though he mostly dismisses it, or argues that it is the right of the fan to complain, the look on his face when he discusses it suggests their words sting. Just a touch.
His peers counter by saying that it's a far more difficult job than he makes it look. It's Holliday who has to throw questions at basketball coach Gary Williams just seconds after the final buzzer goes off. And Williams, as well as Terps football coach Ralph Friedgen, can be surly and intense, even in victory. When they lose a close game, every question can feel like walking on eggshells, even though Williams and Friedgen consider Holliday a friend.
"You can't be a journalist in that situation," Holliday says. "No way. ... I've learned over the years that there is a certain way you can go when they win. Anything goes. But if they lose, there is no joking. It's get them on and get them off."
In some ways, Holliday sees himself as the first line of defense for Williams and Friedgen, especially when he hosts their weekly radio shows at various restaurants in the area. People stand up or call in, unscreened, to offer their pointed criticisms.
Says Sandusky: "It's an unbelievably difficult tightrope walk, and you can't even begin to appreciate just how difficult it is unless you've done the job. You have to be honest, but you also have to be able to talk to a coach who is emotionally strung out and possibly upset after a loss. And you have to do it in such a way, knowing that next week you're going to have to talk to him, and you might have to talk to him for six years, or 10 years, or 20 years. If you're just the listener's advocate, and you pound on a guy, you'll wear out your welcome pretty quickly. But if you just throw softballs, you'll have no credibility with your listeners. Johnny handles it so well."
Friedgen says Holliday helped him navigate, in some respects, the difficult waters that are common for a first-time head coach. Before getting the Maryland job, Friedgen had never been saddled with the numerous media responsibilities he has now, and wasn't always at ease behind a microphone. Holliday helped him relax.
"He's so easy to work with," Friedgen says. "Our radio show is one I think we actually both enjoy and have fun with. I'm amazed at how prepared he is. He's got all these facts and figures on his yellow pad, and the conversation never dies. He throw lines at you that just put you at ease. I don't know that I've ever seen him flustered."