Legends Behind the Lens: Jack Simmons
One of the industry's nicest guys was also a the linchpin of Fox Sports’ success
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
By Jason Dachman
Upper management, production, remote operations, studio operations, on-air operations, accounting, purchasing, and even the mailroom — Jack Simmons has done it all in nearly five decades at Fox Sports and NBC Sports. And he has done it while being one of the most well-liked and -respected individuals in the business. By leveraging his experience in nearly every sector of the industry, he became the axis on which Fox Sports turned during his 20-plus years as SVP of production operations.
“To me, Jack has always been the center of Fox Sports,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and former Fox Sports Chairman David Hill. “That’s because he is like the jigsaw-puzzle master: he pulled together the elements of production, programming, promos, commercials and made sure it went where it had to go. He always managed to get everything done. No one knew what it was like during a Super Bowl as much as Jack. He was always on top of it and handled it perfectly.”
A veteran of eight Super Bowls, 19 World Series, 13 Daytona 500s, three Summer Olympics (home-base master control), five Stanley Cup Finals, three BCS Championships, two French Opens, and three Heavyweight Championship Fights, the 25-time Emmy Award winner has seen it all in his storied career.
A Brooklyn Boy Finds His Inner Peacock
Born in Brooklyn, Simmons grew up in Valley Stream, NY, spending summers at Breezy Point in the Rockaways. His father, a WWII Navy vet, supported the family by working on the Brooklyn waterfront.
“I think watching my father work and his work ethic is what really drove me in life,” says Simmons. “But, at the same time, everyone in my family had a great sense of humor. That’s always been very important to me.”
He attended Becker College in Leicester, MA, for a year, but, during a January 1970 jaunt into Manhattan, he and a friend took a tour of NBC headquarters, and Simmons found his true calling.
“[30 Rock] was the greatest thing I had ever seen. I remember looking down in Studio 8H and seeing Bob Hope and Raquel Welch and I was truly star-stuck,” he recalls. “That [tour] was on a Monday. I started the job the following Monday, and I stayed at NBC for 24½ years.”
Moving Up the Ranks at 30 Rock
After just a few weeks in the mailroom, Simmons was elevated to executive messenger, running errands and delivering mail for the likes of NBC President Julian Goodman and Chairman David Adams.
He quickly worked his way up the ranks, earning a promotion to assistant buyer in the purchasing department and then moving on to accounts payable, where he became supervisor overseeing 20 people at the age of 23.
“I found my niche at that point,” he says. “I realized that I loved [the television business] right away. During those early years, I got to discover the company by interacting with people from all the different departments. I think I built a reputation that I could get things done. I also started meeting the unit managers in the sports department and learned that I would love to get into that.”
Breaking Into Sports: A Whole New Sportsworld
In 1978, Simmons got his first big break in sports when he landed a job as a scorer on the weekends for NBC’s NFL 78 studio show. He impressed the staff and on-air talent enough to secure a gig as Bryant Gumbel’s talent assistant on NFL 79 and then became a unit manager for NBC’s 1980 Moscow Olympics coverage.
“I have loved traveling the world and going to sporting events, but I’ve always loved the studio especially,” he says. “I really enjoy being around the studio and being a part of that team. On that 1980 Olympics, I didn’t go to Moscow, but I worked virtually nonstop for two weeks. Bryant Gumbel was sleeping on the floor outside the edit room. We were all working towards the same goal. I think that’s how you really learn to work in this business.”
Says Steve Hellmuth, who shared a desk with Simmons when he started at NBC in 1979, “Jack is one of the great operations executives of our industry. Rising from the mailroom at NBC to SVP at Fox Sports, he did it by keeping his head down and outworking and outthinking the next guy, and telling a few stories and sharing a few beers along the way. Jack parlayed all his sports savvy and production knowledge into a role as the cash register at Fox Sports, working in master control to express all the advertising inventory in Super Bowls, World Series, and every Sunday for the NFL.”
By the end of 1980, Simmons was a full-time unit manager for Sportsworld, overseeing primarily boxing productions for the anthology series in destinations from Madison Square Garden and Atlantic City to Monte Carlo and Rome. In addition to boxing, he also worked a host of major events — including multiple World Series, college bowl games, and the 1987 World Championships of Athletics in Rome — and, by 1987, worked his way up to manager of advanced planning for NBC Sports.
“Jack brought a natural approach or a ‘Breezy Point’ style to Sports Broadcast Operations,” says Ken Goss, SVP, remote operations and production planning, NBC, who worked with Simmons as a fellow unit manager at NBC. “Whether he was on location or in the studio, Jack displayed a friendly disposition, often swapping stories or just saying hello. Jack’s ease with people enabled him to get the job done in a high-pressure atmosphere. His professional style and personal manner is truly one of his outstanding attributes, and I am proud to call him both a life-long friend and a colleague.”
California Dreamin’: Heading to the West Coast
In 1990, Simmons made the most drastic change of his career, accepting a job as NBC Sports’ manager of West Coast Operations and moving his family to Los Angeles. Running a one-man show out of the West Coast office, he continued to cultivate his reputation as a jack-of-all-trades. “I got to be an on-air operations manager, a tech manager, a production manager, a mobile-unit salesmen, a field producer — I did everything. It was the best job ever. I became a service to the East Coast: when they needed something on the West Coast, I took care of it. It really rounded me out.”
“[Legendary sports-broadcast executives] Don Ohlmeyer and Dick Ebersol thought that Jack Simmons was like a rock, would always do the right thing, and was incredibly conscientious. So it didn’t make it a terribly hard decision to ask Jack to join Fox Sports.” – former Fox Sports executive David Hill
A Fledgling Fox Comes Calling
When newcomer Fox outbid CBS for the NFL rights package in December 1993, the entire industry was thrown into flux. Simmons was an established West Coaster, when David Hill’s L.A.-based upstart came calling, and he accepted a job as director of production with Fox Sports.
“[Legendary sports-broadcast executives] Don Ohlmeyer and Dick Ebersol thought that Jack Simmons was like a rock, would always do the right thing, and was incredibly conscientious,” says Hill. “So it didn’t make it a terribly hard decision to ask Jack to join Fox Sports.”
Simmons, along with the rest of the newly hired Fox Sports team, was thrown directly into the fire: tasked with building an entire sports franchise over the course of a summer. He faced the challenge of not only helping coordinate a massive studio and postproduction-facility buildout but also training an entire crew with minimal experience in a live–sports-production setting.
His role as a conduit between the technical and production teams proved to be integral for Fox to have its sports operation up and running in time for football. “It was all-hands-on-deck every day all summer,” he recounts, “but we managed to get over a lot of those early technical wrinkles and difficulties.”
Says Ed Goren, Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and former president of Fox Sports, “I don’t think there’s anyone, [including Hill and me], who had a greater passion for Fox Sports than Jack Simmons. He brought an enthusiasm that I’d never seen before. But we were also a very small organization in 1994, and Jack had everything involved with an NFL weekend all buttoned down. Without him, considering the volume of games, things could have very easily fallen through the cracks.”
Building the Fox Sports Operation
Over the ensuing two decades, Simmons became a staple of Fox’s NFL Sundays, not only overseeing game-day operations at Fox Sports’ broadcast center but also serving as one of its biggest cheerleaders.
“His passion for what we were doing on the weekends with live events was second to none,” says Jacob Ullman, SVP, production and talent development, Fox Sports. “He showed everybody that he came into contact with that you can do great and meaningful work and enjoy and appreciate every second of it. In short, Jack made Fox Sports a better place to work.”
Simmons also built a strong relationship with the ad-sales team, selling extra spots in case of unforeseen commercial breaks (overtime games, NASCAR rain delays, etc.), providing affiliates with additional ad opportunities, ensuring maximum use of virtual-signage opportunities within the game, and developing many strategies that have become commonplace but were groundbreaking at the time.
“I knew there was real money to be had in some of these [ad] spots that weren’t being taken advantage of,” he says. “So I looked for every opportunity, and I think people appreciated that.”
Says Fox Sports President/COO/Executive Producer Eric Shanks, “Jack came to Fox with a tremendous big-event sports background and, from day one, created an atmosphere of innovation and experimentation within production and operations. We were trying a lot of new things with advertising, and Jack brought it all to life. There were a lot of crazy things happening as we got the NFL and other sports [rights], and his approach was always that we could make it all happen.”
A Deep Love of Country and Respect for the Military
Of all Simmons’s accomplishments at Fox, he is perhaps best remembered for his role as liaison for Fox Sports’ military initiatives. Its telecasts regularly honored the military and incorporated patriotic elements, including live studio shows from military bases in Afghanistan, Seoul, Qatar, and Fort Bragg, NC.
“Jack became our champion [for] the military, and the military really respected him,” says Hill. “Jack’s love for the military has been undying, and what he’s done for Fox Sports is invaluable.”
For his efforts, Simmons and the Fox NFL Sunday team were honored with the Armed Forces Foundation’s Patriot of the Year Award in 2009.
“His works and dedication to military causes have always been a cornerstone of Fox Sports’ charitable efforts,” says Ullman. “He was the impetus for much of this and spearheaded these efforts.”
Since retiring last year, Simmons has continued his work with the military, serving as an Army Reserve Ambassador for the 63rd Readiness Division (a position that carries the protocol equivalent of a major general), reporting to the Office of the Chief of the Army Reserve. He also continues to spearhead Sports Video Group’s VIP (Veterans in Production) initiative.
“Jack’s work with the military and his passion and caring for the men and women in our military is one of his biggest accomplishments,” says AT&T Entertainment Group SVP, Content Operations, John Ward, who worked for Simmons at Fox Sports for a decade.
Whether It’s Personal or Professional, It’s All About Family
Always a family man first and foremost, Simmons and his wife, Wendy, have been married 43 years and have two children, Brendan and Katie. The Simmons sports-broadcasting legacy is now a multigenerational affair: Brendan serves as an EIC for Fox NE&O (and is lead EIC for NFL on Fox and other major events), son-in-law Sal Cocco is an ops and live-event producer at DirecTV, and, before motherhood, Katie was a production manager for MTV and also worked at Fox Sports.
However, Simmons’s family runs much deeper than blood. He mentored a cavalcade of successful sports-production and operations executives during his time at NBC and Fox.
“Jack brought out the best in people and trusted people to do their job. He is responsible for helping develop and shape the careers of many people — including me,” says Ward. “His work mentoring the next generation of talent in our industry is one of his biggest accomplishments. Simply put, he left it better than he found it.”
Of his ability to mentor the industry’s next generation, Simmons reflects, “I like to help people, especially young people, and give them opportunities because I started at the very bottom with nothing in this business. The thing I’m most proud of at Fox is that I was given the opportunity to successfully teach and train people. Looking back, I’m so proud of how smoothly it’s running. I hope that my legacy is that people who have worked with me know what to do and how to do it well.”
The video in this profile was originally produced in 2017. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.