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Jack Fleming remembered as a broadcasting perfectionist

Sunday, January 07, 2001

By Paul Zeise, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Woody O'Hara sat in front of a microphone in the studios of the Mountaineer Sports Network Thursday afternoon to talk on the air about longtime partner Jack Fleming, who died the night before.

Jack Fleming was the voice of the Mountaineers since 1947. "He wanted things done right all the time and he wasn't afraid to tell you when you screwed up. But his bark was much worse than his bite. He loved people," said Tony Caridi, who replaced Fleming as the play-by-play man for West Virginia football and basketball. (Associated Press)

As O'Hara began speaking, he paused for a minute. He could hear Fleming's voice in his head tell him, "Get that damn gum out of your mouth before you go on the air."

It was one of the many lessons that O'Hara, who still is the color commentator for West Virginia basketball and football, learned from Fleming, who he called the "best play-by-play man ever."

"Not chewing gum on the air was one of Jack's cardinal rules, and here I was breaking it while paying tribute to him," O'Hara said. "But I can tell you, he was such a professional and a perfectionist, that he made all of us who worked around him that much better. The greatest tribute I can give him is that I've always tried to emulate him because he was the best.

"But I lost more than a mentor, I've lost a true friend."

O'Hara spent 28 years as the color commentator while Fleming called the action for the Mountaineers. Like so many others, he was a fan of Fleming's work.

"I think Jerry West said it best," said Mike Parsons, West Virginia assistant athletic director and the executive producer of the Mountaineer Sports Network. "[West] was on one of our talk shows and called Jack 'an artist with words'. That says it all because among Jack's many talents, the one that stands out the most was his ability to tell the story and paint a picture of what is happening on the field."

Fleming, 77, died at his home Wednesday night. His funeral was yesterday at the Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church, and he was buried in Kingwood, W.Va. There will be a memorial service in his honor at 2 p.m. today at the Suncrest United Methodist Church, Drummond Chapel in Morgantown, W.Va. The service will be broadcast by WVAQ-FM (101.9) and WCHS-AM (580). At 8 p.m., WAJR-AM (1440) will replay the service.

A 1942 graduate of Morgantown High School, Fleming became the "voice of the Mountaineers" in 1947 when he began broadcasting West Virginia basketball and football games. He broadcast games for the Mountaineers for more than 42 years, retiring in 1996. From 1965-93, Fleming was the play-by-play man for the Pittsburgh Steelers. His most famous call is that of the "Immaculate Reception" in 1972.

Fleming also broadcast games for the Chicago Bulls in the pre-Michael Jordan era and called games for the Pittsburgh Rens of the ABA.

The fact he was in demand as a broadcaster says something about Fleming's abilities. But working for so many different teams in different locations made for some nervous moments.

Often, Fleming would call a game in West Virginia and then have to fly somewhere else, sometimes to the West Coast, to call a Steelers game the next day.

"Sometimes it would be a half hour to kickoff and Jack wouldn't be there," said Joe Gordon, the Steelers' former public relations director. "We'd all be nervous and scrambling around to find a backup plan, and then with about 10 minutes until he was scheduled to go on air, he'd show up and sit down like nothing was wrong. But he always made it and he always did a first-class job. He never let anything slip."

"Almost every time we'd be on the charter with engines rolling and I'd be at the door waiting for Jack," West Virginia Athletic Director Ed Pastilong said. "And then we'd have to figure out a way to get him out of some small towns or whatever and get him to where the Steelers were the next day. He was amazing though, because he loved that existence and thrived on the pressure of getting from place to place and he never missed a beat on the air. There was a peace about him once the microphone got turned on."

Although Fleming's career officially began at West Virginia University, O'Hara said it actually started when Fleming was a patient at a U.S. Army hospital in White Sulfer Springs, W.Va. A veteran of World War II, Fleming was a navigator in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was shot down over France. He parachuted into a tree where he was rescued by a group of women.

"His career actually almost was over before it started because he tore up his mouth in that incident," O'Hara said. "But while he was recuperating in the hospital, he began to do daily sports reports over the intercoms for the other service people in the hospital at the time."

Fleming was a perfectionist and enjoyed a good meal. Actually, he enjoyed dessert.

"I think he was an ice cream guy," Parsons said with a laugh. "And there were some days that I'd turn in his expenses for reimbursement and the tab for the food would raise an eyebrow or two from my superiors."

Tony Caridi replaced Fleming as the play-by-play man for West Virginia basketball and football, but he knew him well. Caridi worked as a spotter for Fleming for 11 years.

"He cherished the dining process more than anyone I ever met," Caridi said. "He wasn't into those quick bites you usually are forced into when you're on the road. He always wanted a sit-down meal at a restaurant that began with shrimp cocktail and ended with a big dessert and perhaps a drink of wine. That's just how he was.

"But that was also how he was about broadcasting ... he wanted things done right all the time and he wasn't afraid to tell you when you screwed up. But his bark was much worse than his bite. He loved people."

One of the biggest tests of Fleming's patience came in 1970 when he was teamed up with Myron Cope on the broadcasts of the Steelers games. Cope was a magazine writer at the time and had no formal training in radio. He would often ramble on about a play while Fleming was trying to call the action. According to Cope, that irritated Fleming to no end, but the two eventually grew into one of the longest and best partnerships in NFL history.

"He'd snap at me a lot back then, and we always had this by play between us," said Cope, who is expected to speak at the service today. "But it was always great fun and we were very close friends. But it wasn't limited to the booth. Sometimes on charters I'd be trying to sleep and here he was eating these four-course meals and keeping me awake. I'd tell him to keep quiet, and he'd point out the window at the wing and say 'Why don't you take your nap out there.' "

Pastilong said Fleming, although more famous nationally for his calls during Steelers games, was always a proud West Virginian and became an icon throughout the state.

"There is somewhere close to one million people in West Virginia, and Jack probably touched every one of them in one way or another," Pastilong said. "Our fans loved him because he was such a homer, but he was very proud of his West Virginia roots and that's who he was. And, truthfully, many West Virginians love the Steelers, and a big reason for that is their familiarity with Jack."

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