He has been out of the fast lane of college athletics for about a decade, but few people have run the race longer, harder and better than former LSU All-SEC basketball star Joe Dean Sr.
For 40 years, his careers as a Converse shoe company vice-president, as a SEC basketball television analyst and as LSU’s athletic director seemed to blend effortlessly together along with his summer basketball camp in Mississippi.
So much so that even at age 80, when Joe appears at a SEC basketball tournament to visit old friends, or on his annual sojurn to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, he’s still greeted the same way.
“Hey String Music!”
“String music” was Joe’s TV analyst catchphrase every time a player would drop in a perfect shot in which you could hear nothing but the ball ripping through the net.
It’s a phrase that probably will never die, partially thanks to Joe’s son, Joe Jr., who has followed in his father’s footsteps as an SEC basketball player (Mississippi State), athletic director (Birmingham Southern) and as a SEC basketball TV analyst.
“Joe Jr. works in at least one `String music’ once a game every time he’s on the air,” says Joe proudly.
What many people never realized about Joe is he had been one of the most influential people in college basketball for almost two decades. In the summer of 2007 when the SEC was celebrating its 75th anniversary, Joe was named the 18th most influential person in the history of the league.
Once upon a time, before Sonny Vaccaro became the fastest talking basketball shoe salesman in America, there was Joe, extolling the virtues of Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars. Not only did he persuade most college teams, especially in the South to wear Converse, but he also was instrumental in signing NBA legends Julius Erving, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to Converse endorsements, as well as tennis greats Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors.
And before there was Dick Vitale filling up the ESPN airwaves with “Get a T.O. babeee,” there was Joe Sr. telling us about Kyle Macy’s “stringgggggg music in Lexington, K-Y.”
When you combined his salesman skills and broadcast talent, Joe was the guy college basketball coaches and athletic directors called when both sides were looking for the same thing – to fill a coaching vacancy. Joe was a one-man search committee, a walking Rolodex.
“I’d call home each night from the road,” Joe says, “and Doris (Joe’s late wife) used to say to me, `They must be firing coaches.’ I’d say, `Why?’ She said, `Because they’re all calling.’ I don’t know if I could get a guy hired, but I could get him in the hunt. Athletic directors would call me asking if this coach or that coach would be a good fit for their school.”
It was Joe who hooked up Eddie Sutton and Kentucky in 1986 when the Wildcats were seeking a coach. He also brought Dale Brown and LSU together in 1972-73.
“(Former LSU athletic director) Carl Maddox came to me,” Joe says, “and he said, `I don’t know of any basketball coaches. I told him he needed to meet this young Washington State assistant named Dale Brown. Carl met Dale at my house. They were supposed to meet for 40 minutes. They ended up talking for three hours. Carl called me and said, `Is this guy for real?’ ”
Joe’s job with Converse provided him countless contacts. But it was his weekly work as one of the original TV analysts on the SEC’s Game of the Week telecasts that made him a household name.
It’s ironic that back in the late 60s and on through the 70s, the SEC had a “Game of the Week” basketball telecast, but no weekly SEC football telecast. The league had to depend on getting exposure every once in awhile on ABC’s College Football Game of the Week.
Why did basketball get exposure? All because of a guy named Eddie Einhorn, who still to this day is part-owner and vice-chairman of the Chicago White Sox.
“Eddie was a delightful fellow who loved college basketball, and back in the 1960s there was no real TV for college basketball,” Joe recalls. “About 1965, he went around the country and tied up every major conference with a TV contract to do a game every Saturday afternoon in that region. He lost about $6 million before he got some major sponsors for the network he called TVS.
“I think the game that turned the corner for college basketball on TV was that Houston-UCLA game in 1968 in front of 52,000 in the Astrodome. That game was the first to go national. I was at the game and Houston’s Elvin Hayes put on a show as Houston won. At the end of the game, 50,000-plus fans were standing and chanting, `E, E, E, E.’ They were flashing it on the scoreboard.”
Originally, Joe wasn’t involved with the SEC telecasts. The first color analyst, paired with play-by-play announcer John Ferguson (who was the longtime radio play-by-play voice for LSU football), was former NBA and LSU basketball star Bob Pettit.
Pettit did it for a couple of years, but grew tired of it. Former Kentucky star Cliff Hagan replaced Pettit, but quit to become the athletic director at Kentucky. Next was former Wildcats’ standout Frank Ramsey who resigned to coach the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels.
After three years, Einhorn was at the SEC spring business meetings when he asked Georgia athletic director and former Auburn basketball coach Joel Eaves who he should hire as his next basketball color analyst.
Eaves didn’t think twice.
“Call Joe Dean,” he said. “He played in this league, he’s the Converse guy in this part of the country, he knows everybody and everybody knows him. He communicates well. He’d be great for you.”
So on Feb. 7, 1970, Joe Dean, who had been doing analyst work for other conferences and some Notre Dame games, made his debut as the SEC’s sole TV color analyst. And he picked one heckuva game to break in – Alabama beat LSU, 106-104, on a day in which LSU’s Pete Maravich scored a league-record 69 points. It’s a mark that still stands.
“I just remember I was as nervous as I could be,” Joe recalls.
That first season, Joe was the analyst on about eight games.
“The season had been over about two months,” Joe says, “when Eddie called me and said, `I want to use you again.’ I said, `Was I good?’ He said, `I don’t know if you were good or not, but my wife thought you were pretty good.’ ”
So for the next 18 years until Joe resigned his announcing job to become LSU’s athletic director in 1987, he was the voice of SEC basketball, first working with Ferguson and later Tom Hammond. He even worked 10 games with the late Skip Caray, the former Atlanta Braves’ announcer, someone Dean regarded as a real pro.
“One time, we’re riding from Atlanta to Auburn to do a weeknight game,” Joe says. “I said to Skip, `You’re a pro at this business and I’m a rookie. Nobody has ever said anything to me. Tell me what to do to be better.’
“He said, `Joe, you’re good. Don’t change one thing. You’re a color analyst. You’ve got a lot of stuff with you, the string music and all of that. That’s what color guys should do. You don’t want to be the play-by-play guy. Do what you do. People want to hear that. Don’t be something you’re not.’
“Skip is the only person who said something constructive to me. I had a tendency at times to talk too much. You get into it.”
Joe also enjoyed his time with Hammond, someone he regards as a friend, but said play-by-play announcers as a group was generally insecure.
“I’d work with a guy that I hadn’t worked with before, and they weren’t very friendly,” Joe says. “They thought you might take their place. They resented some jock that hadn’t come up through the ranks.
“So I used to always start off by saying to an announcer I just met, `I’m Joe Dean. I’m a shoe peddler with Converse. That’s what I do for a living. This is just a hobby for me. All I want to do is color.’ I’d put them at ease immediately because I knew the way they were. It was unbelievable.
“No one ever came to me and said, `You need to do this or you need to do that.’ No one ever tried to do anything to help me get better. I was flying by the seat of my pants. I think the networks worked with their people, but that was just my experience.
“I didn’t have any training. They stuck a mike in my hand and told me to start talking. I started off working with John Ferguson and he’d been around a long time. John would say, `Relax, let it flow.’ That’s the way John was. But the director and producer said nothing. After 18 years, nobody said much.”
Joe’s folksy act – he’d talk about eating dinner with the school president in one breath and then scream “A stufferino for Reggie King” in the next sentence – played well.
It was Einhorn who encouraged Joe to drop in his catch phrases, like stufferino (a dunk) and string music.
Where did string music come from?
“String music started in Indiana as a kid,” says Joe, who was raised in New Albany, Ind. “There was a family in my town named Fougerousse. They were German and had two boys who were athletic. They took the backyard, stripped it, oiled it, pounded it down and had a basket at each end like a full-court. They had a box on the back porch full of basketballs. There was always somebody back there bouncing and shooting. That’s the way they wanted it.
“On Saturdays and Sundays, there would be 30 or 40 kids back there playing 3-on-3. That’s where I learned to play, playing against older kids.
“That’s where the sayings came from – `a tickling of the twine,’ `in the blue for two,’ and `string music.’
“So when I started doing television, I did so many bad games in the early going that Eddie encouraged me to do anything to stimulate the game and create excitement. He said, `Do anything you can to jazz it up.’
“For some reason or other, string music is what caught on.”
So much so that eventually various cities throughout SEC country would stage Joe Dean sound-alike contests, like one year when the league tournament was played at Rupp Arena in Lexington. Whoever could imitate Joe Dean the best would get prizes.
“I hear about the contest a couple of hours before the game when I’m at the arena,” Joe says. “A couple of newspaper guys tell me about it, and say, `Why don’t you call in, say you’re somebody else, enter the contest and have a little fun.’
“I did. I gave a fake name and address, and I didn’t win the contest. There were people who called in who did Joe Dean better than Joe Dean. Not only did I not win, I didn’t finish in the top three.”
Joe treasures his time in all his careers, but being a TV analyst and promoting SEC basketball still holds a special place for him, dealing with such colorful coaches as Brown, Georgia’s Hugh Durham, Auburn’s Sonny Smith, Alabama’s Wimp Sanderson and Florida’s Norm Sloan.
“(The late) Dr. Boyd McWhorter, when he was commissioner of the SEC,” Joe says, “said to me at one of the SEC spring meetings, `You do a great job of selling our league. I appreciate you being a bit of a houseman. I feel like you should be. It’s the only league you do.’
“There may have been times I wanted to say something critical, but I was trying to sell the Southeastern Conference basketball. Dr. McWhorter pushed me a bit to do that, and I thought it made sense.”