With the death of Chet Simmons on Thursday, I thought I would bring you some of the programs that he helped to bring into fruition as an executive at both ABC and NBC Sports, then as the first President of a fledgling cable sports network known as ESPN. Without his guidance, ESPN would have never got off the ground. He gave ESPN the broadcast standards that are still held today. You may not know the name of Chet Simmons, but his influence on NBC Sports in the 1970′s and ESPN in its early infancy cannot be forgotten. So today, we salute Chet Simmons and look at the programs he helped develop over the years.
Simmons began his sports television career with an entity known as Sports Programs Inc. which would later evolve into ABC Sports in 1961. And with ABC, a 13 week summer replacement anthology series began known as Wide World of Sports. The replacement series did not off the air until 1997.
This is a promo that I think dates back to the late 1960′s or early 1970′s.
Here’s a longer version of the promo.
As you can see, Wide World spanned the globe to find the constant variety of sport, whether it be a track & field competition, tennis, surfing, Little League Baseball and the like. Here’s a close from 1983.
Simmons moved to NBC and was instrumental in keeping the network in the NFL, MLB, NCAA Tournament, Wimbledon and also helped to gain the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. He also helped to develop NBC’s version of Wide World of Sports, SportsWorld. This is an open from 1987.
Here’s an open from the NFL on NBC from 1973. NBC had the AFC package on Sunday afternoons and alternated the Super Bowl every year with CBS. It also had a very good stable of announcers including Curt Gowdy, Jim Simpson, Jay Randolph, etc.
In the early 1970′s, Simmons helped NBC to secure the rights to the NHL and aired a Game of the Week plus the Stanley Cup playoffs. Here are the final seconds of Game 7 of the Philadelphia Flyers-New York Rangers and on the call were Tim Ryan and Ted Lindsay.
However, the NHL did not garner ratings for NBC (sound familiar?) and dropped the sport in 1975.
Throughout the 1970′s, NBC was the network for Major League Baseball and thus, the World Series. Here’s the open for Game 4 of the World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and Oakland A’s. The late Curt Gowdy opens the broadcast with a commercial billboard and then introduces the game. This is great stuff.
In 1979, Simmons moved to ESPN and helped to develop SportsCenter, the anchor of the network at the time. Here’s the very first SportsCenter broadcast on September 7, 1979, started by Lee Leonard who introduces George Grande at the anchor desk.
Among the people Simmons brought to ESPN from NBC included Jim Simpson, Paul Maguire and producer Scotty Connal. At ESPN, Simmons brought in Leonard and Grande whom you saw in the previous video. He also hired Bob Ley, Chris Berman, had a hand in hiring Cliff Drysdale and Dick Vitale. One of the early events Simmons obtained was the early round of the NCAA Tournament and here are two games which eventually led CBS to buy the Tournament outright and get the rights to the 63 games.
In 1981 in the Sweet Sixteen, BYU took on Notre Dame and ESPN showed this moment live to the country. Danny Ainge took the ball the length of the court to defeat the Fighting Irish coached by Digger Phelps. Ignore the intro and outro of BYU-TV.
In 1987, Princeton of the Ivy League and a #16 seed took on #1 seed Georgetown of the Big East at the Providence Civic Center. By this time, ESPN was well established in the NCAA Tournament and here are John Saunders and Dick Vitale talking about the game and highlights. The best part was Vitale’s stunned look at halftime when Princeton went into the locker room with the lead. Calling the game were the legendary Mike Gorman and Ron Perry.
Chet Simmons had the vision to air the NFL Draft, something which then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle was puzzled as to why anyone would be interested in doing so, but it turned out to be a truly made-for-TV event. Here’s a portion of coverage from 1983. George Grande, Bob Ley and Chris Berman are there for ESPN.
Simmons left ESPN in 1982 and became the first Commissioner of the United States Football League, originally a spring football entity and the first TV contracts were signed with ABC and ESPN. Here’s a game from 1984 between the Philadelphia Stars and Pittsburgh Maulers as called by ESPN original and former NBC Sports announcer Jim Simpson.
And here’s the USFL on ESPN open.
Simmons left the USFL after being forced out in 1984 and later became a consultant and professor. As you can see, Simmons’ legacy at three networks is a big one. And he cannot be ignored when looking at the history of sports television.