At about 7 p.m. local time some 34 years ago today, ESPN debuted from its work-in-progress Broadcast Center in Bristol, Conn.
For all the planning involved in the conception of the first all-sports television network by founder Bill Rasmussen, the opening moments on air Sept. 7, 1979 were ad-libbed.
“Everybody at the networks at that time was using teleprompters. I said, ‘We don’t need teleprompters,” said George Grande, who with co-anchor Lee Leonard (who welcomed audiences to “sports heaven”) launched the network’s programming with the first SportsCenter. “We wanted [anchors] who knew sports, who understood sports, who could ad lib about the stories of the day. As long as I ran SportsCenter, we never used them.”
For Grande, Leonard, Chris Berman, Bob Ley, Tom Mees and several other pioneering SportsCenter anchors, working without teleprompters was “a red badge of courage.”
Grande, who helped Front Row commemorate 50,000 SportsCenter episodes last year, is a former USC baseball player who also served as an intern for Vin Scully and was a CBS News colleague of Walter Cronkite before joining ESPN.
The first SportsCenter was to last 30 minutes before seguing to a 30-minute preview of the 1979 college football season and then the marquee event: Slo-pitch softball.
Among Grande’s first SportsCenter news items was the report of Chris Evert’s US Open victory over Billie Jean King; Evert is now an ESPN analyst covering the US Open this week.
But technical problems scuttled planned live SportsCenter interviews with University of Colorado football coach Chuck Fairbanks and actor John Forsythe. Um, John Forsythe? Huh?
With Getty Oil footing the bill for the startup, ESPN needed some Hollywood pizazz to balance the Munster hurling and Canadian football. Getty Oil executive Stu Evey’s Hollywood connections helped land Forsythe, who at the time was famous for being the voice of Charlie in television’s original Charlie’s Angels.
“At that time, Charlie’s Angels was the No. 1 show on television. To have John Forsythe be a part of [ESPN’s debut] was a coup,” Grande, 67, recalled. “And the other part of it, too, was that ESPN was the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. For the first three years, they worked on the possibility of putting together a movie network. . . . It never happened, but it was something that was in the works.”
Without the planned live interviews – Fairbanks and Forsythe’s cameos eventually were taped, Grande said – it was time to improvise.
So years before passionate sports discussion became a staple of programming, Grande and Leonard launched the prototypes for PTI and First Take on the fly.
“I said to Lee, ‘Are you in favor or opposed to a playoff system in college football?’” Grande recalled.
“He said, ‘I’m in favor of it.’ I said, ‘I’m in favor of it, too, but you take the ‘pro’,and I’ll take the ‘con’.”
Grande and Leonard filled time with the debate before introducing Bill Flynn, “who was the President of the NCAA at that time, and who was in the studio. So we knew we had him,” Grande said, chuckling.
That’s a glimpse of the start of a “magic carpet ride” Grande was on with ESPN for 10 years until he pursued Major League Baseball announcing gigs with the New York Yankees, St Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. In 2009, Grande concluded 17 seasons calling television play-by-play full-time with the Reds.
Grande’s was Scully’s intern in Los Angeles even while helping the Trojans to a 1968 College World Series title. Including calling about 20 Reds games this season, Grande has covered Major League Baseball in some capacity since 1965.
Grande and about 70 other ESPN employees that first day “knew things were going to be chaotic. We knew things weren’t perfect. Anybody who was there the first four or five years can attest to that — this was a magic carpet ride that started on that night. I think we all knew we were involved in something special.”
To see more ESPN artifacts, click here.
By Sheldon Spencer
ICYMI: Highlights from the past week on Front Row
• The Mark Sanchez “Butt Fumble” play is retired after 40 straight weeks at the No. 1 spot on SportsCenter’s “Not Top 10: Worst of the Worst” list.
• The Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos lead the pack of favorites to win Super Bowl XLVIII as 35 of ESPN’s NFL experts share their predictions for 2013 season.
• See college and pro games differently with ESPN2′s Colin’s New Football Show, kicking off Sunday. Host Colin Cowherd shared a sneak peak in this video.
• The Walt Disney Company, ESPN and Special Olympics are teaming up for new global initiative. SportsCenter anchor and NFL Live host Trey Wingo, an advocate of Special Olympics, shared his perspective.
Row of Four
Our favorites from across ESPN over the past week
• From Rick Reilly: Four college players didn’t shoplift. No, these four spirit-lifted
• From J.A. Adande: Why the “Glove” fits in Hall of Fame
• By Steve Wulf: World Golf Hall of Fame is missing some very important people
• Enjoy an array of photos from ESPN Images