Like a father seeing a child attain a major accomplishment, David Healy reveled in seeing one of his offspring win the Classic.
Healy, who worked for JM Associates about a decade ago, was the man with the plan for college bass fishing. He was ecstatic to be there to see Jordan Lee win the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods in Houston.
“In my little career, whatever I’ve done, it’s nice to do something that had a little lasting impact,” Healy said. “It’s gratifying to see a kid come through that system … and he probably has no earthly idea how it started.”
Healy was the impetus behind the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series, and few know exactly how he actually got it off the ground.
The idea to have colleges compete began was a business proposition that didn’t float anyone’s boat, at least not right away. But with Healy’s pushing and prodding, the circuit finally did get a start once he convinced Jerry McKinnis to give the go-ahead.
The original concept was developed in 1999, as Healy was working in his office in downtown Little Rock. It came when he discovered a troubling gap in fishing trends.
“Statistics showed that 88 percent of kids have gone fishing by time of 12, then they disappear from the industry at around 18 or so until about 25,” he said. “If we could back that up four or five years, what would that impact be for the industry?”
JM was doing work for FLW at the time, and Healy presented a plan to start a college circuit to Irwin Jacobs, but he didn’t move on it. Neither did ESPN in subsequent years as JM began producing TV for the Bassmasters.
Healy didn’t give up, though.
“In 2003, I was up at Jerry’s place and we were shooting with Denny Brauer,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m going to float an idea by you and here’s the rational.’ We started talking about it, and I fired up Jerry and Denny.
“Jerry finally just said, ‘Let’s make this happen.’”
Steve Bowman, who sat across from Healy in the office, heard the idea a lot and agreed it was good. He, Healy and a cameraman worked on making it happen.
“This is a great idea but nobody wanted to do it,” Bowman said. “We were talking about it for 3 or 4 years before we finally said we’re just going to do it. So we started calling colleges and we put it together.”
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Bowman recalls the process of telephoning campuses around the country in 2003 to check which ones even had bass clubs. The idea of a national championship coaxed six schools into accepting invitations to compete on Arkansas’ Lake Monticello – Purdue, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Illinois, Stephen F. Austin and Iowa. There was also the promise of a show on fledgling ESPN U.
Healy worked on getting a sponsor, and he came up with a catchy name of College Smash Mouth Fishing. For Bowman, smashed pertained more to the condition of some of the anglers’ boats.
“It seemed the first couple of years I was the tournament director and the service crew,” said Bowman, adding some fished from Jon boats using a 5-gallon bucket to fill up their livewell. Things like a flashlight duct taped onto a stick for a light pole were common. Flatbottoms with 40-horsepower motors showed up, as did big bay boats and walleye rigs.
Stephen F. Austin won that first event, while former B.A.S.S. employee Rob Russow’s Illinois team – whose trolling motor was held together with a 6 penny nail – was second.
“I had to take the trolling motor off my boat for one team another year,” Bowman said. “Other teams had dead batteries and I gave them mine from my boat and then out of my truck. One day I sat there at the ramp all day because my truck couldn’t start.”
But the circuit grew, and the name changed to College Bass Championship. Word had spread that there were competitions for college bass clubs with TV exposure. There were 36 teams the second year then 70, and Healy secured a title sponsor.
The JM workers even helped show schools how to get involved.
“Bowman and I wrote the charters for how they could start a club,” Healy said. “You needed to have a minimum of four members. If you could have a B.A.S.S. member as a faculty advisor, that was a good thing … how to get club funding, sponsorship, etc.”