Rabalais: Legacy of ‘Mr. String Music’ extends well beyond LSU

Advocate file photo by Bil Feig -- Joe Dean gestures as he answers questions during a news conference.
Advocate file photo by Bil Feig -- Joe Dean gestures as he answers questions during a news conference.

When he answered the telephone, there was no thinking you had a wrong number.

“JOE DEAN!” came the voice on the other end of the line. It was a loud, deep, slightly gravelly tone that sounded exactly like it came from where he did, straddling the Ohio River, born in New Albany, Ind., a bridge away from Louisville, Ky.

It was a voice that would make James Earl Jones sit up and take notice. It was a voice that generations of Southeastern Conference basketball fans got to know in his nearly two decades of calling SEC basketball games on television with his trademark “String Music!” signature line.

It is a voice that was stilled Sunday after 83 years, but not truly silenced. For there was no one in LSU athletic history quite like Joe Dean, and his legacy at the school he loved and throughout the sports world is certain to endure.

A great basketball player. A legendary broadcaster. A successful business executive with Converse, back when Converse was the Nike of athletic shoes. The longest-serving athletic director in LSU history. And the founder of the Dixie Basketball Camp, which has influenced literally generations of young men.

No one who ever wore the purple and gold or sat in the LSU athletic director’s chair had quite the résumé he had. Few had as much of an impact on SEC basketball and sports overall.

“He was a showman,” said Jimmy Rayburn, of Raycom Sports, which handled the SEC basketball TV package for years.

“I can’t think of anyone who impacted intercollegiate sports on more platforms than Joe Dean,” long-time broadcaster Tim Brando said.

“Joe Dean’s influence on the SEC has been profound,” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said.

It is also a complicated legacy to be sure. Dean went from beloved former player and broadcaster to frequently being vilified by the fans who once adored him, mostly because he hired Curley Hallman to be LSU’s football coach in 1991.

Dean had to fire Hallman after four years and a 16-28 record, giving Hallman the ignominious distinction of being the only man to coach more than one year at LSU and leave with a losing record. Dean then hired Gerry DiNardo, and the two remained friends even after Dean, with then-LSU Chancellor and current NCAA President Mark Emmert, fired him in 1999 after a second consecutive losing season. That followed three winning “Bring back the magic” seasons for DiNardo, LSU’s only winning football campaigns from 1989 to 2000.

If Dean came up short on those hires, he hit the Powerball jackpot with the next one. Nick Saban may be public enemy No. 1 for many LSU fans now, but there is no question he changed the culture of LSU football and athletics and set the Tigers on an unprecedented path of success.

Dean’s detractors will say it was Emmert’s hire, not his. It was Emmert who insisted on offering Saban the then-stunning sum of $1.2 million per year — LSU’s offensive and defensive coordinators are now paid in that ballpark — while Les Miles makes $4.3 million per season.

Dean maintained for years, probably to his dying day, that he could have gotten Saban to leave Michigan State for a million or so. He could be stubborn, and he loved a fight, once winking his eye after he and an LSU employee went toe-to-toe after a long and loud argument in his office.

However you view the Saban hire, the fact is it was Dean’s basketball ties with former Ole Miss player Sean Touhy that helped LSU make the connection with Saban’s agent, Jimmy Sexton.

The rest is history, the most glorious chapter of LSU football whose first line is written by a pair of former SEC gym rats.

“He deserves a great deal of credit for our success,” said Saban, who took time out of his blinders-on in-season schedule to issue a statement about Dean’s passing, which probably says as much as anything.

It’s a painfully sad autumn at LSU, with Dean’s death coming two months after the passing of former football coach and athletic director Paul Dietzel. We picture them at their highest moments — Dietzel being carried off the field in victory, Dean calling a game on press row or celebrating one of his LSU teams winning a championship — and somehow we forget the swift passage of time and our own lives.

If Joe Dean could be an example or inspiration to anyone, it was in this way: Always keep trying. Do something. Make a decision, make a play, make the effort. If it’s wrong, then do something else. Dean never stopped doing, even in his twilight years, quietly using his basketball contacts to help schools in their coaching searches.

Pulling the strings, as it were.

Mr. String Music, to the end.