The world of sports television production is a small fraternity. On Friday, March 15, we lost a local legend. For Mountaineer fans, he was a man you never met or heard, but for those of us who work in the television business, especially for the Mountaineer Sports Network, his work was as prominent and meant as much to us as Jack Fleming’s or Woody O’Hara’s. His name was Nick Smith, and he was the television director for MSN during the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. His gruff commands for our technical crew are legendary among broadcasting professionals both in the state, and nationally. His voice is one that many long-time TV pros continue to fondly imitate as we recollect our funny stories of a man we respected and loved.
I first met Nick in the early 1980s when I was a broadcast student at WVU. He was already a legend in our business statewide and I can honestly say that he intimidated me when I finally had the opportunity to work for him to broadcast the WVU-Maryland game in 1986. At the time, the Mountaineer Sports Network tape-delayed most of the football games to TV stations throughout the state and would soon begin to produce the award-winning Mountaineer Magazine weekly television show WVU sports fans enjoyed for many years.
Nick was born in Arkansas, served as a cinematographer during the Vietnam War, and then came to West Virginia to produce documentaries for the WWVU Public Broadcasting. Though he wasn’t a native West Virginian, he grew into an unabashed cheerleader for the Mountaineers, and that came through in the MSN broadcasts. His adopted home and University became his passion and he made sure that his son became a WVU alumnus.
In 1990, Nick hired me full time at the WVU Radio & Television Services Department. We produced all of the video for WVU, not only the sports for MSN, but also all of the educational videos, recruiting videos, training videos, and national TV commercials for the President’s Office. Long-time fans will remember the famous “Christmas Card to America” for the 1987 Sun Bowl where I joined 5,000 of my fellow students in Woodburn Circle to be a part of the video to introduce America to our University and wish the country a happy holiday. Nick directed, shot, and edited that commercial, along with many, many other videos to promote WVU to the world. During my first few days working for Nick in 1990, he butted heads with a senior WVU administrator on what he perceived to be the best way to market the University. We gravitated to this gruff man who told people “how it was,” who fiercely defended his TV production staff, and who worked daily to promote and protect his beloved and adopted University.
Though I did not know it at the time, Nick was grooming me to replace him. His method was “tough love,” and the fear and intimidation that I first felt turned to opportunity and respect. In January of 1994, Nick met with me privately to let me know that after nearly 20 years he had decided to leave the University and start his own business. He told me that he had recommended that I be named as his replacement to direct the programs for the Mountaineer Sports Network. I was then just 27 years old, was devastated by his departure, scared, honored, and excited at the opportunity. Nick then gave me the most important advice I’ve ever received in my life: lead with the best for WVU in mind; to always support and defend my crew, to make sure that I left my mark on what I did for the University, and most-importantly, to make sure that when I was done at WVU that I put them in a place to succeed and excel after I was gone. THAT is Nick Smith’s legacy to WVU and to me. He left me with a solid foundation. In the 19 years since I have served as director for the Mountaineer Sports Network and the manager for the University’s Television Department, I’ve done all of those things. And it has been a pleasure to honor Nick and his legacy.
Nick never left me. Years after he left, we would find time to spend together and talk about where I had taken the shows that he had created, and to offer his advice on how to make them even better. He was so proud of what we had accomplished after he left, and I made sure to remind him that he had laid the base for everything we did. In 1987, WVU played an overtime football game at Syracuse that was scheduled to be tape-delayed statewide on the MSN affiliates, but ESPN chose to air the final few minutes live on their network - which was the first time in history that they took a regional broadcast live on their network. Fans from that time period will remember the performance against Syracuse was one of the factors that led to the Sun Bowl Committee choosing to invite the Mountaineers to play in their game.
In my opinion, if it wasn’t for that broadcast, many wouldn’t have known about West Virginia or its brilliant young quarterback Major Harris - or the fact that Nick was instrumental in the creation of the first magazine-format college football coaches show (Mountaineer Magazine), or the first ESPN2 broadcast produced by a regional production crew (WVU at Rutgers basketball) and so many other first that he was involved with here at WVU. Suffice to say, in our very small fraternity of television production, WVU and MSN are widely respected as one of the best in the country by our peers, and Nick Smith was instrumental in creating that respect.
Over the past 19 years since Nick left WVU, I have had big shoes to fill with the legend of Nick Smith, and I’m proud to say that I’ve honored his advice to make sure that the reputation of West Virginia University and the Mountaineer Sports Network are our top goals. As I’ve said before, the world of sports television broadcasting is a small fraternity and because of my experience with MSN and the respect that we hold nationally, I’ve had the opportunity to direct live events for ESPN for the past 10 years. Through my travels throughout the country with ESPN, I continually run into other broadcasting professionals who not only know about the Mountaineer Sports Network, but also hold MSN in high regard for our history and our reputation for high-quality television production. This wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the foundation laid down by Nick Smith and his crews through their decades of broadcasting WVU sports. And we’re proud to continue to uphold that tradition.
Mountaineer Nation lost a behind-the-scenes hero last week. I lost a friend and a mentor. But all of us should be proud of what Nick Smith did for our beloved University. He was a great television director, a great man, and a true Mountaineer. I will miss my friend.
- Scott Bartlett MSN Television Director WVU Television Manager
Behind the scenes look at MSN from the early 1990s