Fleming Promoted the Brawl

  • By John Antonik
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  • February 07, 2011 02:01 PM
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Another Pitt-West Virginia basketball game can’t go by without at least mentioning the late Jack Fleming, who died 10 years ago sometime during the afternoon of Jan. 3, 2001 before West Virginia played Georgetown here at the WVU Coliseum.

Had Fleming lived 28 more days he would have witnessed at least his 130th WVU-Pitt basketball game if not more (there were 140 of them played during Fleming’s lifetime).

Much of the passion, emotion and, yes, vitriol, that has become an integral part of this longtime series (game No. 181 takes place tonight in Morgantown, West Virginia leading the series 95-85 for those who like to keep count) can be attributed to Mr. Fleming.

It was Fleming who used to tell the story about sitting on his mother’s lap on the porch at their house next to old Mountaineer Field and watching the burly Panther football players get off the train and walk into the stadium to do battle with the Mountaineers.

“See those guys,” momma Fleming would tell her son. “You are going to learn to hate them for the rest of your life!”

Fleming never forgot his mother’s words, and he did his best to promote his dislike for the Panthers, even after he was hired by Art Rooney to announce Pittsburgh Steelers games in 1958.

Fleming’s reputation in West Virginia as a first-class announcer was never quite duplicated in Pittsburgh, mainly because he never chose to take the politically correct route when it came to his West Virginia allegiances.

That stance cost him dearly in the Steel City, where allegiances are so important. Can you name another major sports city in the United States where some of the town’s top sports journalists weep after their hometown teams lose big games?

Yes, that happens in Pittsburgh.

You can count on one hand the number of guys ever to walk this planet who have called four Super Bowl victories. That alone should elevate an announcer to iconic status in the franchise’s home city, but not Fleming. The only reason many of his calls are even used by NFL Films today is because others don’t exist.

Jack’s description of the “Immaculate Reception” has become a permanent part of our nation’s sports lore and the only reason it was even retrieved by NFL Films was because NBC’s Curt Gowdy blew the call. Gowdy had terrible eyesight and by the early 1970s he couldn’t call a game without at least two spotters and a television monitor right in front of his face.

During that same period of time Fleming was at the top of his game, easily ranking among the four or five best play-by-play guys in the country. That’s why the Rooneys tolerated some of Jack’s antics when it came to the Backyard Brawl, even when it became apparent to them that Pittsburgh Panthers fans were also Pittsburgh Steelers fans and that it may hurt business.

Eventually in the mid-1980s, following a couple of unfortunate public incidents, one involving some former Pitt players dumping a cup of urine on Fleming’s head while he was announcing an ECAC tournament basketball game in Morgantown and another time when some Pitt fans found out that he was in a Pittsburgh hospital and made threatening late-night calls to his room, the Rooney’s decided enough was enough and they told Fleming to cool it.

I recall Jack once telling me the story about how Mr. Rooney told him that he was getting the fans whipped into a frenzy and that it was not good for anyone. After that meeting, Fleming took heed to Mr. Rooney‘s advice and began to tone down his act.

In his later years, Jack’s daughter, Sandy, once told me that the WVU-Pitt games were no longer as enjoyable to her father and that he usually had to take a valium just to calm his nerves enough to announce the games.

I’m sure if Fleming were alive today he would enjoy watching Bob Huggins and Jamie Dixon match wits on the court. Both are among the very best in the business. Yes, Jack hated Pitt, but not as much as he liked perfection.

I’m also fairly certain somewhere up above Jack has got his set tuned to ESPN for tonight’s big game - with the volume turned down, of course.