Chet Simmons, who served as ESPN’s first President when the network started in 1979, has died at the age of 81. Simmons began in sports programming in the 1950s and was instrumental in the development of ABC’s Wide World of Sports in the 1960s. He became the first President of NBC Sports in 1977. The Archive of American Television Chet Simmons on December 16, 2008; the interview is not yet available online, below is an excerpt.
Chet Simmons was interviewed for four hours in Atlanta, GA. Simmons spoke about his early interest in following sports, on radio and in print. He noted his work selling time to small radio stations in the Southwest, meeting Edgar Scherick at this job. He described working in television mentored by Scherick (who taught him the business) and Jack Loubelle (who taught him television production), for their company Sports Programs, Inc.— working as a jack-of-all-trades production assistant, at first on big ten basketball. He talked about the expansion of the company under their exclusive deal with ABC and spoke frankly about Scherick’s difficult personality (and abrupt depature from the company), yet complimented his successes. He related a story of how the company, under Scherick, was able to get the rights for college football away from NBC in the mid-60s. He also described the working methods of Roone Arledge and his growing stature as a legendary figure in television. He outlined the concept of ABC’s Wide World of Sports and described how the show launched Jim McKay as a major sports announcer. He recounted how he came to work for NBC, spoke about his colleagues, and acknowledged how he became the first President of NBC Sports— the title created in 1977 for the first time. He spoke about his disappointment in losing college basketball to CBS due to disinterest internally and how this was the beginning of NBC’s loss of dominance in sports. He recalled hearing about a “sports-all-the-time” network that was being bandied about and the call he received to hire him to run this new Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (EPSN). He outlined the idea of the network by Bill Rasmussen (and his embracing of newly developed satellite technology) and spoke openly about how he was responsible for Rasmussen’s leaving the network. He talked about the contribution of Getty Oil executive Stuart Evey to early ESPN as well as NBC veteran Scotty Connal’s contribution to getting the network on the air. He described getting the sports coverage necessary to fulfill the network’s (eventual) mandate of 24-hour sports. He looked back on the first day’s programming and the emotions he felt, comparing it to the birth of a child. He outlined the kinds of sports the network showed and noted their breakthrough in programming with college basketball. He commented on the network’s location in Bristol, CT; described his management style; spoke about the network’s Sportscenter; and described how he came to leave the network. Lastly, he talked about his appointment as the Commissioner of the United States Football League. The interview was conducted by Paul Leone.