By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
The ballroom at the Atlanta Hyatt Regency was transformed last Thursday into a Who’s Who gathering of 32 SEC coaches in eight sports that had combined for a vault full of national championships.
The occasion was the joint announcement by ESPN and the SEC that August 2014 is the launch date for the new ESPN-operated SEC Network.
The day of pomp and circumstance gave South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier a cause to pause. Twenty-five of Steve’s 33 years in college athletics, starting as a 1966 Heisman Trophy winning quarterback at Florida and later as the coach of the 1996 national championship Gators, have been spent in the SEC.
“You know, I think besides bowl games, I might have played on TV once as a player, and it was a regional telecast,” Steve said. “This (the SEC Network) is a big deal.”
For old-timers like Steve, 68, and even this decade-younger sportswriter, the thought of a 365/24/7 SEC Network is hard to imagine. We come from an era where basically there were a handful of college TV games per week, usually on ABC with Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson calling games wearing their bright yellow network blazers.
In fact, the first college football game ever to be aired in prime-time – Alabama’s 33-32 shootout over Ole Miss in Birmingham’s Legion Field – was televised on ABC in 1969 on the 100th anniversary of college football.
Schenkel called the game “the epitome of college football.” Alabama led at the half 14-7, before Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning turned the game into a shootout. His 504 yards total offense stood alone for a SEC single game record for more than 30 years before being tied. The mark was just broken last season by Texas A&M’s Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel.
The floodgates to televised college football opened on June 27, 1984 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the case of the NCAA vs. the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. The Supreme Court decided the NCAA’s television plan violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. The ruling freed individual schools and conferences to negotiate contracts on their own behalf. The year after the Supreme Court decision, nearly 200 games were televised, compared to 89 to the previous year.
Tim Brando, one of the first play-by-play voices hired for syndicated SEC weekly football telecasts, has fond memories of those telecasts. It propelled the Shreveport, Louisiana native on a career that took him first to ESPN, and later to CBS where he’s studio host for college football as well as hosting his Monday through Friday TV/radio simulcast talk show.
“Any televised games on a SEC campus in the 1980s and in the early 90s was still considered pretty big,” Tim recalls. “We always felt wanted and appreciated when we got there. Later when I worked with ESPN and would do a SEC game, production crews from other parts of the country were like `Wow, these people are really excited to see us.’
“I always felt that being on TV in our part of the country was a bigger deal than more densely parts of the country like the Northeast. The welcome mat was always out back then. We were treated like royalty.”
As TV coverage progressed, so did ways to put viewers in the middle of the action, such as sticking a live microphone in a basketball huddle during a timeout.
During one SEC tourney game featuring Florida, tart-tongued late Gators’ coach Norm Sloan wasn’t happy with his team’s shot selection. He let them know about it with a string of expletives captured live.
Joe Dean Sr., the granddaddy of SEC TV analysts in all sports, did his best to save the day working with play-by-play announcer Tom Hammond.
“Well Tom, I’ve known Norm Sloan a long time,” said Joe, “and I just want all the Moms and Dads out there to know Coach Sloan normally doesn’t use that language.”
It’s ironic that while the explosion of televised football took flight in the 1980s, it was weekly syndicated SEC basketball telecasts that started in 1966 which marked the SEC’s first regularly scheduled TV events.
Right in the middle of it was Joe Sr., a former All-SEC basketball star at LSU in the mid 1950s who played alongside the legendary Bob Pettit. Joe, a native of New Albany, Ind., eschewed a possible pro basketball career to work for Converse Rubber Company, which sold basketball shoes to almost every college team in the country.
In his travels as a salesman before becoming a company executive who helped Converse sign Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Chris Evert, Joe befriended coaches from coast-to-coast. Few people nationally, especially in the South, knew basketball as well as Joe.
Syndicated college basketball telecasts began in the mid 1960s thanks to Eddie Einhorn, who today is part-owner and vice-chairman of the Chicago White Sox.
Einhorn was a huge college basketball fan who in 1965 went around the country and tied up every major conference with TV contracts to televise regional games every Saturday afternoon. He lost about $6 million before he signed major sponsors for the network he called TVS.
The game that saved Einhorn, and proved that televised college basketball could be viable was the 1968 Houston-UCLA game in front of 52,000 fans in the Astrodome. The game was the first to be televised nationally.
“I was at the game and Houston’s Elvin Hayes put on a show as Houston won,” Joe remembers. “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.”
Joe wasn’t involved with the first SEC basketball telecasts. Play-by play announcer John Ferguson (the longtime LSU football radio play-by-play voice) was first paired with Pettit for a couple of years, followed by former Kentucky stars Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey.
After Ramsey resigned to coach the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, 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.
“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, who had been doing analyst work for other conferences and some Notre Dame games, debuted as the SEC’s analyst.
“I was as nervous as I could be,” recalls Joe, whose first game was a 106-104 Alabama victory over LSU on an afternoon in Tuscaloosa in which LSU’s Pete Maravich scored a league-record 69 points. It’s a mark that still stands.
Joe worked eight games that first season, but immediately made an impression. His nasal, sometimes gravelly voice was distinctive as was his catch-phrase “String Music!” whenever a player swished a big shot.
It was Einhorn who encouraged Joe to drop in his catch phrases.
So where did string music come from?
“String music started in Indiana as a kid,” says Joe. “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.”
Joe’s first season as announcer had been over two months when Einhorn called him.
“Eddie said, `I want to use you again’,” Joe says. “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.’ ”
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.
“No one ever came to me and said, `You need to do this or you need to do that’,” Joe says. “No one ever tried to do anything to help me get better. I was flying by the seat of my pants.
“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.”
The best advice Joe ever got, which he solicited, was from the late Caray.
“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.’ ”
Joe stayed true to himself. SEC basketball fans loved his folksy style – 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 – and the league coaches, players and administrators appreciated his approach.
“(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.”
Tim Brando grew up watching Joe. So it made sense that early in Tim’s career, he looked forward to doing SEC syndicated football and basketball telecasts. Syndicated SEC football started on Atlanta-based TBS and moved to Charlotte-based Raycom which first teamed Jefferson-Pilot Communications before Lincoln Financial bought Jefferson-Pilot
“Those early window games before ESPN came along with all their platforms were some really great games, because we got third pick behind CBS, which didn’t have a SEC game every week, and ESPN,” Tim says.
“We some great Florida games in 1995 and 1996 when Spurrier really had it going. We had the Arkansas upset at Alabama in 1995 when J.J. Meadors caught the game-winning TD pass from Barry Lunney on a controversial play. I did Peyton Manning’s last game in Knoxville in 1997 as Tennessee’s quarterback.
“I did Arkansas’ last home basketball game in Barnhill Arena in 1993, driving from St. Louis to Fayetteville in a rental car after our plane couldn’t land in Fayetteville or Fort Smith because of bad weather. Rick Schaffer, Arkansas’ sports information director, basically guided me to the arena through backroads over the phone. I walked into the arena, changed and got in front of the camera 30 seconds before we went on the air.
“And I’ll never forget LSU and Ole Miss football in 1997. LSU had just beaten No. 1 Florida in primetime TV and LSU’s worst nightmare was the next week – having to play Ole Miss in a 11:30 a.m. TV game.
“LSU fans always believe their team plays better at hight. They think day games jinx the Tigers. I arrive in Baton Rouge for the game that week for the Ole Miss game, and I’m almost booed out of town. Like it was my fault that I personally scheduled the game at 11:30 in the morning.
“As it turned out, Ole Miss won (38-21) and (then-Rebels’) coach Tommy Tuberville successfully gambled so much that I coined his nickname ‘The Mississippi Riverboat Gambler.’ I can see still an Ole Miss tight end named Rufus French, running wide open all day against LSU.”
Brando believes on the SEC Network you’ll be able to see French being chased by Tigers’ defenders all over again.
“I think the spring and summer (on the SEC Network), you’ll see rebroadcasts of those games,” Tim says. “You might have to be a hardcore fan of those teams to remember those games, but if you’re a big-time consumer of everything SEC, you’ll probably remember most games, too.”
That’s what ESPN is counting on. Because the SEC Network will be almost as much about the past as it will be the present.
The pride and the passion of the league wasn’t built overnight, but it certainly made an impression on Justin Connolly, ESPN Senior Vice President, Programming College Sports Networks, who will oversee the SEC Network.
“I attended the BCS National Championship game in January (easily won by Alabama over Notre Dame),” Justin said. “During the third quarter, I was in awe when a large crimson-clad section of the stadium broke into the famous SEC chant. That is truly unique. There is not another conference in America where that sense of pride and that sense of belonging translates into such a public display.
“Our aim is to bring the passion and the identity of the SEC on screen.”