Stuart Scott, a longtime anchor at ESPN, died Sunday morning at the age of 49.
Among the features of the new ESPN studio in Bristol is a wall of catchphrases made famous by on-air talent over the years. An amazing nine of them belong to one man — from his signature “Boo-Yah!” to “As cool as the other side of the pillow” to “He must be the bus driver cuz he was takin’ him to school.”
That man is Stuart Scott, and his contributions to the sports lexicon are writ large. But they are only one aspect of his legacy. When he passed away, he left behind so much more. He inspired his colleagues with his sheer talent, his work ethic and his devotion to his daughters, Taelor, 19, and Sydni, 15. He defied convention and criticism to help bring this network into a new century. He spoke to the very athletes he was talking about with a flair and a style that ESPN president John Skipper says, “changed everything.”
“He didn’t just push the envelope,” says sports radio host and former ESPN anchor Dan Patrick. “He bulldozed it.”
And he saved his best for his last year on the air. At the ESPYs on July 16, shortly before his 49th birthday and following another round of cancer surgery, Stuart accepted the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance with strength, humor, grace and these eloquent words: “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”
So while the grief is deep at ESPN over the death of Stuart Scott, so is our gratitude. He was as popular on-campus as he was in the airports he passed through and on the sidelines he worked over the last 22 years. He brought so much to the party, and he will continue to do so, through the people he inspired, and the language that he liberated, and the audience that will remember him.
Steve Levy, who came to ESPN shortly before Stuart in August of 1993 and served as his co-host for the first “SportsCenter” from the new studio last June, put it this way: “I think the audience recognized that when Stuart was on, there was going to be something special. And to his credit, he brought something special every night he was on.”
“SportsCenter” anchor Jay Harris, who grew up watching — and hoping to be — Stuart, says, “Think about that phrase, ‘As cool as the other side of the pillow.’ It’s a hot, stifling night. You’re having trouble sleeping. But then you think to turn the pillow over, and, Wow, it’s cool, and it feels so good.
“Well, that’s who Stuart is. He is ‘the other side of pillow,’ the man who made sportscasting cool. God bless whoever it was who thought to rearrange the bedding at ESPN.”
Stuart was born in Chicago, but he, along with two sisters and a brother, spent his formative years in North Carolina, where their father was a postal inspector who always had time to play after work. Stuart went to Richard J. Reynolds High in Winston-Salem and then the University of North Carolina, where he played wide receiver and defensive back on the club football team, joined Alpha Phi Alpha and worked at the student radio station, WXYC. After graduating in 1987 with a degree in speech communication, Stuart was hired by WPDE-TV in Florence, S.C. He says that’s where he first came up with the pillow metaphor. “People say I stole it from a movie,” he told an interviewer in 1998, “but I first thought of that and said it on my first job … I just liked it.”
His career path took him from Florence to Raleigh, North Carolina, to Orlando, Florida, and in his pre-ESPN clips, you can feel his energy, hear his music and sense his on-camera charisma. At WESH, the NBC affiliate in Orlando, he first met ESPN producer Gus Ramsey, who was beginning his own career. Says Ramsey, “You knew the second he walked in the door that it was a pit stop, and that he was gonna be this big star somewhere some day. He went out and did a piece on the rodeo, and he nailed it just like he would nail the NBA Finals for ESPN.”
He first met ESPN anchor Chris Berman in Tampa. “He stuck out his hand and said, ‘One day I look forward to working with you.’ And I said, ‘Well, I tell you what, we’ll save you a seat.’ And I’m really thrilled that he was right on. [Later] I said, ‘Stu, maybe you were the Swami.'”
The person most responsible for bringing Stuart to Bristol was Al Jaffe, ESPN’s vice-president for talent, who was looking for sportscasters who might appeal to a younger audience for ESPN2. “One of the producers on a story we were doing on the Orlando Magic told me about this young guy he really liked. I followed up and found out that Stuart’s contract was up soon. He sent me a tape, and even then, he had an amazing presence — I felt the viewer would sit up and take notice when he was on the air.”
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May you rest in peace Stuart Scott…”Boo-Yah!”