Early in 1979, NBC Sports president Chet Simmons told colleagues that he was leaving the broadcasting giant to help start a 24-hour all-sports cable network based in Bristol, Conn. "The common reaction was, 'You're going to go where?' And, 'You're going to do what?'" says Ken Aagaard, who was then broadcast operations manager at NBC Sports and is now an executive VP at CBS Sports. That venture became ESPN, one of the runaway business success stories of the late 20th century.
At the time, however, it was a huge gamble. Simmons, who died of natural causes last Thursday at age 81, had first risen to prominence in the television sports industry at ABC under the legendary Roone Arledge and in 15 years had made NBC a major player by nurturing such properties as the renegade AFL. His career was secure, but the leap to cable was in character: Simmons will be remembered as a fearless visionary who routinely made career moves that others in his position wouldn't have considered.
Simmons became ESPN's first president, shaping, among other programs, SportsCenter and the network's full-bore coverage of the NFL draft. When he left in '82 Simmons took his career in an entirely different direction, becoming commissioner of the fledgling USFL.
Colleagues remember Simmons not only for his considerable business legacy but also for his personal touch and ability to spot and promote talent. In '75 Simmons hired Dick Enberg, then doing play-by-play for the Angels, to work at NBC Sports. "I spent years sending Chet letters and what we called 'wires' back then," recalls Enberg, now at CBS. "I showed up [unannounced] at his hotel room once. I guess I wore him down. But the thing about Chet was that he saw the whole business through the people he hired. That is very rare."
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
Mexico's national soccer team is planning to bring a 16-foot, 3½-ton replica of a 21-foot-tall, gold-plated angel monument from Mexico City to the World Cup in South Africa as a good-luck charm.
FEARLESS LEADER Simmons (above, third from right) presided over SportsCenter's opening night, Sept. 7, 1979.