The dean of college basketball in the South

Tom Hammond’s trove of memories from back-road trips across the South with Joe Dean is filled to the brim.

Through the 1980s, the announcing tandem for SEC basketball games on Jefferson Pilot’s Saturday broadcasts passed the hours talking hoops and horse racing, with Dean’s sandpaper-worn voice filling the car.

Yet Hammond can’t divulge the full set of details about his favorite leg of the journey. Outside of Athens, Ga., a patrol car pulled Dean over for a traffic stop. After strolling up to the car, the officer told Dean, then an executive for marketing at Converse, about the moving violation.

In his rasp, Dean didn’t plead his case.

“That’s as good as I can drive,” Dean told the officer. “I can’t do any better.”

“Go on, go on,” the officer told him.

For Hammond, who has gone on to a lengthy career with NBC Sports, it encapsulates the essence and influence of Joe Dean, who died Sunday at age 83.

“He was sort of a larger-than-life character when you heard that voice and the expressions,” Hammond said. “You just knew immediately who it was. He was hugely important in popularizing basketball in the South.”

Taking measure of Dean, who was a standout player and later athletic director at LSU, involves tracing his lines of influence across a territory devoted to the gridiron. From the time his gravelly voice entered homes in 1969 and until 1987, he was a quiet apostle for a sport in a region where it filled the idle months until spring football.

Perhaps it’s his famed catchphrase “String Music!” that sticks with a certain generation. Or maybe it was the Dixie Basketball Camp founded at Lakeside Oaks in 1966. Perhaps it was Dean’s deep Rolodex, assembled over 29 years at the Converse Rubber Company, that he mined to help young coaches land gigs on junior-college and collegiate coaching staffs.

“Joe Dean did it for the right reasons,” former LSU coach John Brady said. “Now it’s done for money and ego. Joe Dean did it because he loved the sport and wanted to promote it. He did it before it was fashionable to do it. He did it before TV made it something everyone wants to do for whatever reason. He did it simply because he loved it, and he loved people.”

As Brady grew up in McComb, Miss., it was a short jaunt to Southwest Mississippi Junior College, where the Deans moved the basketball camp after seven years. While playing at Belhaven College from 1972 until 1976, Brady served as a counselor, continuing the tradition of nightly pick-up games that started in high school against Joe Dean Jr. that led to a friendship.

“I got a chance to be impacted by his positive way of doing things,” Brady said. “The way he interacted with people and how he affected a room when he walked into it and his personality — all of it had an impact on me at a young age.”

Twenty years later, Dean plucked Brady, now the head coach at Arkansas State, from Samford University to take over for longtime coach Dale Brown. The consigliere during the search was Joe Jr., who dined with Brady at Samford before his father put an offer forward.

“What I don’t think people will understand is how many guys like me he helped,” Brady said. “Whether it was a high school coaching job, getting interviews at colleges or introducing a guy to a basketball coach, that has an opportunity to influence a young man’s life. He did all those things for young people.”

Brown watched him wield quiet influence after Dean took over as athletic director in 1987. By then, Dean had been worn thin by the demands of flying out every other week to Converse headquarters in Boston. On top of that, Dean had taken on a Wednesday broadcast in addition to his Saturday commitment — a workload shouldered by Dean to spread a gospel of sorts.

“There’s a lot of guys now, and it sounds funny, that don’t love it the same way but still announce it,” Brown said. “But he knew it, and he loved it. He saw how basketball was the orphan left aside.”

Once, Brown asked Delta how many air miles he had racked up and was told the amount was roughly 2 million. “Who’s ahead of me?” Brown asked.

“They said Joe Dean,” Brown said. “It was either double or triple mine.”

For Hammond, Dean was a forerunner to the well-suited and polished analysts that populate TV broadcasts in droves. But there was a sublime simplicity and passion that shone through.

“In the days when he was broadcasting, there weren’t 200 channels, and the business wasn’t quiet so cutthroat (with) too many channel choices where you had to be controversial to draw attention to yourself,” Hammond said.

That subtlety and humility left Brown affixing the best honorific possible on Dean.

“He was old school,” Brown said, “in every sense.”