Industry Reacts to Passing of Former NBC Sports, ESPN President Chet Simmons
Chet Simmons, the first president and CEO of ESPN in 1979, president of NBC Sports prior to joining ESPN, and an important part of Sports Programs, Inc. (later to become ABC Sports) in 1957, died of natural causes on March 25 at the age of 81.
Simmons had a profound effect on the sports TV production industry and Simmons’ legacy at ESPN lives on as dozens of ESPN’s current staff were under his guidance in those early years. And beyond those dozens are countless others he influenced and worked with during his career.
“A beloved pioneer of American sports has left us,” says Dick Ebersol, Chairman, NBC Universal Sports & Olympics. “He will be sorely missed by anyone whoever met him or was touched by his great talents. Our thoughts are with his family.”
Chuck Pagano, ESPN executive vice president, technology, was at ESPN when Simmons joined as president and he recalls early concerns that Simmons, who joined ESPN from NBC Sports, would bring a large organization mentality that would not fit with the start-up mentality of ESPN.
“Instead it was a love fest because of his personality, leadership, style, charisma, and attention to people,” says Pagano. “A lot of him is still evident in the organization today as he and Scotty [Connal] established norms of behavior. We needed a father image of someone who had played in the [sports] space and he was the right one to get people together.”
Adds George Bodenheimer, ESPN and ABC Sports president, “Chet Simmons’ leadership and vision in our first years were absolutely critical to ESPN’s survival. He was the only industry president to have pioneered both sports broadcasting in the late ’50s and cable television in the late ’70s.”
Simmons was born on July 11, 1928, in New York City, and was raised in Ossining, N.Y., and Pawtucket, R.I. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in broadcasting from the University of Alabama, and did graduate work in radio and television at Boston University. He served in the Coast Guard after leaving BU.
Simmons joined Sports Programs Inc. in 1957 which soon evolved into ABC Sports. He worked in creating the inaugural television program package for broadcasting the American Football League and his work with the AFL was important in the leagues early success and eventual merge with the National Football League.
He then joined NBC Sports and Michael Weisman, NBC Sports, executive in charge of production for “Football Night in America” credits Simmons with being a pioneer at the network.
“We weren’t our own division, sports was part of news and then under him it became its own division,” says Weisman. “He dealt with people so well and dealt on all levels with people. He could deal with production assistants to league commissioners to network higher-ups and he was well liked across the board. There are some executives that deal upwards very well but the production assistants liked him as much as the executives and the league commissioners and rights holders.”
After serving briefly as president of NBC sports in the late 1970’s, Simmons was the founder and first CEO of ESPN in 1979. He was very important in developing ESPN’s signature broadcast, Sportscenter, and also developed the concept to televise the NFL draft. At the time of ESPN’s launch Simmons said, “There’s no question that cable television sports is at the same stage right now that network sports was 15 or 20 years ago. I’ve lived through the evolution of sports on television, and what lies ahead for cable television is incalculable at this point.”
“Chet Simmons was a pioneer in sports television, and was the first executive at the ‘big three’ networks to recognize the potential of cable television,” said ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen. “When Chet left NBC to join our team at ESPN in 1979, it gave our fledgling network instant credibility. My thoughts and prayers are with Harriett and the Simmons family at this time.”
Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports, EVP of Operations and Production Services, credits Simmons with being one of the true visionaries. “I had a conversation with him as he was leaving NBC and going to ESPN and none of us thought it had a prayer, who would want to go to Bristol, CT, and where was it?,” recalls Aagaard. “He laughed and said it would be the biggest thing in sports TV. I always gave him a lot of credit and he always brought good people with him like Scotty Connal.”
Jerry Steinberg, Fox Sports, SVP of field and technical operations, also worked closely with Simmons also counted him as a friend and more. “He was a mentor and a saint,” says Steinberg. “He was with me through some dark days and was always there for me.”
Geoff Mason, ESPN executive producer, says that friendly, caring spirit extended to sharing the credit for success. “That to me is the nicest thing that I could every say about him,” says Mason. “I loved him and there aren’t many people in this business who have not been touched by Chet Simmons in one way or another.”
One of those people is Mike Rokosa, now VP of Engineering at the NBA, worked with Simmons at ESPN in those early years and says Simmons instilled confidence in the team has carried on.
“Having come from NBC Sports, Chet and Scotty made a bunch of us kids feel like we were part of big time television before we even got on the air and long before ESPN was considered a success,” he says.
ESPN anchor Bob Ley, whom Simmons hired for SportsCenter the first week of the network’s operation, echoes that sense of mutual trust and credibility. “He brought this young network immediate expertise and credibility,” he says. “His legacy is seen in his family and his grandchildren, and professionally in the foundation he laid so well and profoundly with those of us who now celebrate his life.
In 1982 Simmons left ESPN to launch the United States Football League in 1982 and signed TV contracts with ESPN and ABC. Simmons was honored by the National Television Academy at the 2005 Sports Emmy Awards with the Sports Lifetime Achievement Award, a highly respected honor.
“The last time I saw Chet was at our 25th Anniversary and the first words out of his mouth were “Chuck, how are you and how’s your mother Helen?,” recalls Pagano. “I had not seen Chet for 20-plus years but he still remembered my mother’s name. Chet was simple a class act and a wonderful human being.”
ESPN anchor Chris Berman, hired by Simmons approximately one month after the network launched, says what ESPN viewers see today would have never been possible without him. “We’ll miss him as a mentor and as a friend,” says Berman. “All of us will be forever indebted to Chet Simmons.”
Simmons had been living in Savannah and Atlanta, Ga., since 1986. He is survived by his wife Harriet of 53 years; his four children Pam, Jed, Pete and Nikki; his daughter-in-law Jana Simmons; his sons-in-law Randy Miller and Micah Goldstein; and nine grandchildren Ella, Zach, Claudia, Streeter, Ben, Zander, Jack, Reid, and Tyler.
Additional reporting by Carolyn Braff