By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
They didn’t know, really, who or what he was, the kids who worked at the Boston Beanery on Patteson Drive, which had been Nick Smith’s hangout for 20 or so years, right up until he died this past week at age 72.
Oh, they knew his love for his wife, Peggy J. Myers-Smith, and for West Virginia University and its athletics, and how, when there was a game on television, he would be sitting there, drinking his drink out of his glass, the one they saved for him. He didn’t want any part of going up the street to the Coliseum or down the street to the stadium, because he’d put his time in there.
Besides, Nick Smith was supposed to be viewing the game on television.
After all, he had invented it.
Ask Mike Parsons, who has spent three decades in the department and now serves as deputy director of athletics with television and radio responsibilities high on his list, growing out of early days of working with Nick Smith when he 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.
“Everything we have done at West Virginia in the video world started through Nick Smith,” Parsons said Monday after attending Smith’s funeral. “To this day, his mark is still all over everything we do.”
And through MSN, WVU has always been a frontrunner in the sports broadcast field.
Nick Smith was born in Arkansas and served as a cinematographer in Vietnam before coming to Morgantown and going to work for WWVU Public Broadcasting. He was talented, ahead of his time, rough around the edges, yes, and gruff and somewhat intimidating to those who worked for him, but he loved them, too.
And, in truth, they loved him for they realized he was turning them into people prepared for success in their chosen field.
“Nick will have several legacies. and one of those legacies is in being a mentor professionally,” Parsons said. “There’s a video (of behind the scenes in the production studio during the 1986 Maryland game) playing on our website and that was played at the funeral where you won’t know the people who are showed in it, but they are people who have gone on to work at TBS or on the March Madness program, several went on to work at ESPN at Bristol, some at ESPN in California, and many stayed here and still put West Virginia University on the air.”
One such person is Scott Bartlett, the who runs MSN right now and who wrote a tribute piece to Nick Smith on the WVU website.
He wrote that “his work was as prominent and meant as much to us as Jack Fleming’s or Woody O’Hara’s. His gruff commands for our technical crew are legendary among broadcasting professionals both in the state and nationally. His voice is one that many longtime TV pros continue to fondly imitate as we recollect our funny stories of a man we respected and loved.”
Parsons admits that he was another who owes most of what he has done in the television field to Nick Smith.
“He was a mentor to myself, frankly. He taught me a lot about television and the production aspect of it. I gained an appreciation of it through him,” Parsons said.
But there was much more to Smith, who was a fun-loving character, opinionated about almost everything from sports to politics, which made him a central character in the cast at the Beanery, and cantankerous in both life and his profession.
“Nick never turned down a challenge. Whenever we came up with an idea, he’d figure a way to make it happen,” Parsons said. “We didn’t have the greatest resources available to us. He elevated the production quality, and he never walked away from a challenge to do something.”
You can go back to the 1989 Fiesta Bowl when West Virginia played Notre Dame for the national championship.
“We wanted to do a couple of shows from out there — just little hour-long shows — but he said to do everything we wanted to do, you just can’t do with a camera. You need a TV truck and a satellite uplink,” Parsons recalls.
Those do not come cheaply or easily, unless you had Nick Smith working on it.
“I’ll be darned if he didn’t talk a guy out of Columbus into driving a trunk all the way to Phoenix for our two hour-long shows. We had a full-blown production truck for that,” Parsons recalled.
And then there was a trip to the Gator Bowl.
“We were doing the regular routine, all the TV programming we did around the Gator Bowl, but we also had a basketball game being played at the Meadowlands in New Jersey,” Parsons recalled.
They were thinking of cancelling the broadcast of that game because of the logistics.
Nonsense, Smith said.
“Nick wound up getting a private plane. We left Jacksonville early one morning, flew to Teterboro Airport, did the game, got back on the plane, flew back to Jacksonville with a stop in South Carolina for fuel and got back at about 4:30 a.m.,” Parsons recalled.
“Quite an adventure, especially since he had his son, Martin, with him and he was about 12, had a broken leg and he got sick on the plane. That was one of those adventure stories, one of those I could tell about life on the road with Nick.”
This was life with Nick Smith, who was laying the groundwork for all that was to come.
“You know, we produced games directly for ESPN in the early days. You’d never have that today, but when they were first on the air, they aired our broadcasts. A lot of that goes to Nick because of the professionalism he brought to it,” Parsons said.
And it wasn’t just sports.
“Longtime 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,” Bartlett wrote. “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.”
And Parsons recalled a terrible flood in southern West Virginia in the ’80s that led to a telethon to be produced at the cultural center.
“At that time, very few people in this state had done live television. They came to us at MSN and asked us to produce the whole telethon. Other than Nick, including myself, I’m not sure anyone had a clue what we were in for or what it would take, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t pull it off and Nick was the one behind it,” Parsons said.
We had John Denver, Kathy Mattea … all this talent. It was on every station in West Virginia and he pulled it off.”
A few months back Smith took ill, but right until the end he was rooting for Bob Huggins to straighten out his team and find a way to get them one final run in the NCAA Tournament for him to watch at the Beanery.
It wasn’t to be, and that’s why, on St. Patrick’s Day, they held a tribute to Nick Smith, his glass filled at his seat at the end of the bar with his drink in it … and, you can take this for what it’s worth, but at the end of the day, when they took the glass away and closed up shop, it was only half full.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.