Mark Story: Joe Dean Sr. was basketball's evangelist to football-crazy South

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 18, 2013 

When they write the definitive history of Southeastern Conference basketball, there will be no dispute over the two most significant figures: Adolph Rupp and Pat Summitt.

In the next tier of those who made historic contributions to SEC hoops one will find Joe Dean Sr.

Dean Sr., the early-1950s LSU basketball star, longtime executive with the shoe company Converse, former LSU athletics director and father of ex-Kentucky assistant basketball coach Joe Dean Jr., died Sunday at 83.

For those of us who came of age in the 1970s, Dean Sr. is best remembered from the Saturday afternoon telecasts of SEC basketball games that were syndicated to TV stations around the South. Starting in 1969 up until he became the AD at LSU in 1987, Dean Sr. was the color analyst on those broadcasts, working first with former LSU play-by-play man John Ferguson, then with Lexington's Tom Hammond.

"Anybody who followed SEC basketball back then thought of Joe," Larry Conley, the former Kentucky Wildcats standout who eventually replaced Dean as color analyst on the SEC broadcasts, said Monday. "You could mention Joe Dean to anyone in the SEC, even the fans who really only cared about football, and they knew him. In the South, Joe was 'The Basketball Guy.'"

In the Precambrian Era of sports media that was the '70s, there was no ESPN and there were not, oh, 637 college basketball games on TV every night of the winter. Back then, many people's only exposure to basketball in the South came from the SEC game of the week.

"When Joe started, SEC basketball was not that far removed from the days when they would hire assistant football coaches as the head basketball coach," Hammond said. "It was not far removed from the days when (basketball) was just a place-holder, something to do in between the end of football and the start of spring football practice. Joe was very much a pioneer in bringing awareness of basketball to the South."

To SEC telecasts, Dean Sr. brought an enthusiasm for basketball that bubbled through your TV screen. He had a voice more gravelly than a country road and a penchant for the corny but memorable catch phrase.

Long before Dick Vitale rode ebullience and goofy sayings into iconic broadcasting status, Dean Sr. was filling the airwaves of the South with "Stuff-a-rino!" for slam dunks.

His most famous phrase was for a jump shot that hit nothing but net. In Dean-speak, if Jimmy Dan Conner ripped the nets with a jumper in Memorial Coliseum, it was "St-uh-rrrr-ing music in Lexington, K-Y."

"String music" became Dean Sr.'s personal calling card. "For years, anytime I ever saw him, our greeting was 'String Music!'" Jim Host, the longtime Lexington-based college sports marketing executive, said Monday.

One thing that was never a part of Dean Sr.'s game analysis was critical commentary. "Joe sort of looked at it like he was there working for the schools and the coaches," Conley recalled. "He was not going to say anything that he perceived as detrimental."

Dean Sr.'s say-no-evil policy extended to the referees.

If an offensive player had reached into his sock, pulled out a gun and shot his defender in order to clear a path to the basket; if the refs then called a foul on the defender for sliding over into the path of the bullet, Dean Sr. would never have labeled that as a bad call on the air.

"No, he wouldn't criticize," Conley, who worked for Dean with the Converse company, said. "Joe, it wasn't in his makeup to criticize."

Though it became the source of much of his fame, Dean Sr.'s broadcasting was only part of his involvement with college sports. At LSU, the New Albany, Ind., product was a hoops star, the second player in school history (behind his teammate Bob Pettit) to exceed 1,000 career points.

Starting out as a salesman, Dean Sr. became a national executive for Converse. He served 14 years (1987-2001) as LSU athletics director, the longest tenure for any AD in the school's history. In 2007, The Birmingham News chose Dean Sr. as the 18th most influential person in the history of the SEC.

Last year, Dean Sr. was elected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame, going in with a class that included Host and former Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall.

"We were introduced (to the crowd) on the floor at the Final Four," Host recalled, "and Joe (Dean) turned to me and said, 'This is probably the greatest night of my life.' I told him, 'Joe, for everything you did for basketball, especially in the South, no one deserves this more.'"

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory.

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