Between The Lines
By Billy Woods
The great Jack Eaton was finally ready to call it quits behind the WMC Channel 5 cameras as sports director/anchor when this newspaper broke the news of his retirement in June 1991. His most memorable quote from the full-page tribute was: “I’m ready for something different, even if that something is nothing.” The most bombastic, bigger-than-life sportscaster in Memphis history, with a strong tie to West Memphis in the 1990s, passed away Wednesday at age 86. He will be remembered for a broadcasting style that was unique, accurate, hilarious and even controversial when he wanted to be. We will not see the likes of Jack Eaton ever again. Who could forget broadcasting gems like: “Welcome to an evening of basketball, Memphis State style.” “The shot is imminent…it is airborne…it is cleanly in the cotton.” “The worst call in the history of basketball.” “Thermodynamically the Louisville kicker cannot hit this field goal…Great Scott he hit it.” As the Yugoslavian National Team’s point guard headed down court, Eaton blurted, “Here come the Commies.” After Big Jack was criticized for calling the Yugolsavians Communists, he replied, “What else would you want me to call them? The Capitalists?” The legend of Jack Eaton was most closely associated with his radio play-by-play for the Memphis State Tigers. In 1973 as the Tigers were building momentum toward an NCAA Tournament runner-up, Channel 5 filmed a promo for the local Tiger telecasts. In it, with the Tiger players and head coach Gene Bartow close by at the Mid-South Coliseum, Eaton ended the promo with a hook shot from about 30 feet that touched nothing but net. He later told me that was Take 2. In Eaton’s final fling as a play-by-play man, he was the voice of the short-lived Memphis Mad Dogs of the Canadian Football League, which featured such oddities as three downs instead of four and a 55-yard-line. In one game, Eaton could be heard on the air calling a Mad Dogs kickoff: “He’s at the 30, the 35, the 40, the 45, the 50…Great Scott the 55, the 50…” You can add Eaton to the list of Memphis TV/radio celebrities during the 1960s and 1970s along with Magic Land’s Dick Williams, George Klein, Rick Dees, Dave Brown, Lance Russell and Dick Hawley. At 6-foot-6 Jack was an imposing presence with a set of God-given pipes that were unmistakable. When he laughed, you never forgot it. I idolized the man as a youngster in Blytheville. I happened to catch the Gene Bartow Show on Channel 5 one Sunday when I was in the sixth grade. I was immediately hooked on Tiger basketball. And boy did I ever want to follow in Big Jack’s shoes. I set out to be a sportscaster, turning down the volume on my TV and calling the game in front of my mom and dad with my tape recorder rolling. The sportscasting gig, obviously, never worked out. But I met Jack’s son Todd in 1980 at Memphis State University in my first semester there. We had two classes together and hit it off immediately. As most of you reading this already know Todd is the best friend I’ve ever had. My right-hand man. That connection led to a friendship with his dad and, of course, that made me feel privileged…which I was. Beginning in 1992, Todd teamed with David Pike and Joe Todd for West Memphis Blue Devil football broadcasts on old KSUD. The trio stayed in that role through 2002. Every once in a while Jack would ride to the road games with us, sometimes with Tommy Martin driving. Jack would sit in on some of the play-by-play, and as Pike himself would tell you, it added much color and professionalism to the production. David Pike Blue Devil Broadcaster for 25 years recalls of Jack, “What I remember most about Jack Eaton, was how he was so professional-sounding. He would step into the booth when I was doing the color for the Blue Devils and Jack’s ability to see the field and convey to the radio audience what was happening was mesmerizing to me. His son, Todd, and I would sit back in awe as we realized anytime we had to follow his Dad’s performance in the booth just how inadequate our broadcast must have sounded. He was a true professional.” Another tie to West Memphis was Jack’s love for the great Keith Lee. During Keith’s wild recruitment out of WMHS, in an attempt to lure the 6-10 superstar to Memphis, Jack took it upon himself to drive over here and interview Keith at his home. Jack took Todd with him. Before leaving, Todd told Tiger coach Dana Kirk that he would persuade Lee to sign with the Tigers. The interview didn’t go so well. The soft-spoken Lee kept telling Jack he was going to Arkansas State. That was that. A week after Lee inked with Memphis, Kirk cornered Todd and said, “I heard you didn’t say anything to (Lee) during the visit.” Todd replied, “I got him here didn’t I? I told you I would and I did.” In the mid-1990s I asked Jack to consider writing a weekly sports column for this paper, which he immediately accepted. The column ran for a couple of years, hitting on the Memphis sports scene, the SEC and even some national topics. Many of the top Memphis sports journalists have super-sized egos. Some of them barely got their heads through the entrances of Fed Ex Forum, The Pyramid, the Mid-South Coliseum or the Liberty Bowl. Jack had zero ego. Zero. He once told me, “I’m a simple guy, with a simple name.” Never once did he consider himself a celebrity, even though he was probably the biggest celebrity in the Mid-South region. I love Big Jack Eaton to this day, even though he’s passed from us. The memories he gave us, however, will linger. See you soon Big Man!