Veteran ESPN President passes of natural causes

Former ESPN prexy Chet Simmons died March 25 in Atlanta of natural causes. He was 81.

Simmons left a mark on the early days of broadcast sports television and the formative years of sports on cable via ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and the launch of ESPN.

Simmons started his long career in sportscasting in 1957 with Sports Programs, which soon evolved into ABC Sports, where he was instrumental in the development of “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” He became president of NBC Sports and later of ESPN, and was founding commissioner of the United States Football League.

Simmons joined ESPN as president and chief operating officer in 1979, just prior to the network’s launch Sept. 7. Among his most notable achievements were “SportsCenter,” television’s first comprehensive coverage of the early rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and the NFL Draft telecast.

He was an unabashed advocate of the ESPN mission. When asked, “Who will watch sports 24 hours a day?” Simmons turned the query on its head, understanding the key wasn’t round-the-clock viewers, but round-the-clock accessibility.

“Chet Simmons’ leadership and vision in our first years were absolutely critical to ESPN’s survival,” said George Bodenheimer, president, ESPN and ABC Sports. “He was the only industry president to have pioneered both sports broadcasting in the late ’50s and cable television in the late ’70s. His legacy lives on in ESPN’s culture, stellar employees and commentators, and innovative programming.”

Simmons influenced or launched the commentating careers of Jim Simpson, Merlin Olsen, Greg and Bryant Gumbel, Sandy Koufax and Dick Vitale, among others.

In 1982, Simmons left for the USFL as the league’s founding commissioner, serving until January 1985. In subsequent years, Simmons served as a media consultant to Madison Square Garden and the Marquis Group; an adjunct professor at the U. of South Carolina; and as a member of the Savannah Sports Council and Film Commission.

Before ESPN, Simmons worked at NBC for 15 years, holding a variety of positions, culminating as president of sports in November 1977. At NBC, Simmons helped in the development and growth of “SportsWorld.”

Born in New York City, he earned a B.A. in broadcasting from the U. of Alabama, and did graduate work in radio and television at Boston U. He served in the Coast Guard after leaving BU.

In 2006, he was inducted into the U. of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences Hall of Fame. In 2005, he received a lifetime achievement award at the 26th annual Sports Emmy Awards.

In addition to following the Crimson Tide, he was a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and later, when they left town, became a New York Yankees fan.

He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Harriet; four children; and nine grandchildren.

Donations may be made to a scholarship fund being established in his name at the U. of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences.

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