Former ESPN president dies at 81

Updated: March 26, 2010, 8:56 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

Sports broadcasting and cable pioneer, Chester R. "Chet" Simmons, who served as president of ESPN when it launched in 1979, died of natural causes Thursday in Atlanta. He was 81.

As a founding father of sports television, Simmons started in 1957 with Sports Programs, Inc., which soon evolved into ABC Sports, where he was instrumental in the development of Wide World of Sports. He became president of NBC Sports and later of ESPN, and was founding commissioner of the USFL.

"Chet Simmons' leadership and vision in our first years were absolutely critical to ESPN's survival," said George Bodenheimer, president, ESPN and ABC Sports. "He was the only industry president to have pioneered both sports broadcasting in the late '50s and cable television in the late '70s. His legacy lives on in ESPN's culture, stellar employees and commentators, and innovative programming. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Harriet, and his children."

Added ESPN anchor Chris Berman, hired by Simmons approximately one month after the network launched: "Chet did so much more than take a chance on us young people 30 years ago. He took a chance on ESPN. What you see today would have never been possible without him. We'll miss him as a mentor and as a friend. All of us will be forever indebted to Chet Simmons."

ESPN anchor Bob Ley, whom Simmons hired for SportsCenter the first week of the network's operation, added: "I will forever treasure the trust that Chet placed in all of us at the beginning in 1979. He brought this young network immediate expertise and credibility. His legacy is seen in his family and his grandchildren, and professionally in the foundation he laid so well and profoundly with those of us who now celebrate his life."

Simmons was born on July 11, 1928, in New York City, and was raised in Ossining, N.Y., and Pawtucket, R.I. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in broadcasting from the University of Alabama, and did graduate work in radio and television at Boston University. He served in the Coast Guard after leaving BU.

Simmons had been living in Savannah and Atlanta, Ga., since 1986. He is survived by his wife Harriet of 53 years; his four children Pam, Jed, Pete and Nikki; his daughter-in-law Jana Simmons; his sons-in-law Randy Miller and Micah Goldstein; and nine grandchildren Ella, Zach, Claudia, Streeter, Ben, Zander, Jack, Reid, and Tyler.