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.”
STARTED WITH ELBOW GREASE, DUCT TAPE
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.”
When McKinnis (along with Don Logan and Jim Copeland) purchased B.A.S.S., college jumped into hyper speed as he wanted the college champion in the Classic. In 2011, Andrew Upshaw became the first, defeating Stephen F. Austin teammate Ryan Watkins in a head-to-head match after they won the team title. Upshaw advanced to compete in the 2012 Classic on the Red River, taking 31st.
In an attempt to avoid teammates facing off for the bid, the format was changed the next year, with the three top teams advancing in a six-man bracket event. It backfired somewhat as brothers Matt and Jordan Lee of Auburn advanced to face off.
Matt won that year, but Jordan made the bracket again the following year and won his Classic berth to Guntersville, his home lake where he posted the highest college qualifier finish of sixth until he topped that this year.
“I’m sure it would have found its way, because everybody got into it,” Healy said. “At the heart of it, the idea was right, which is we have to create a better platform for younger people to get involved. We can’t wait until they get in mid 20s to get into the sport.
“But it’s like every good idea. There’s a million good ideas, but the ones that happen are the ones somebody cares about, and every day tries to work on it.”
After leaving JM for an opportunity at a large firm in Atlanta, Healy now works independently on projects, like the one that had him in Houston outside the Expo organizing the Shell Bassmaster Get Hooked on Fishing presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors.
Healy said he’s proud that his brainchild has grown so significantly, as well as the shoot-off high school series. Seeing Lee become the first college angler to win a Classic was also satisfying.
“It’s kinda come full circle,” he said, “and it was nice to be present for it.”
COLLEGE QUALIFIERS IN BASSMASTER CLASSICS
|2012||Andrew Upshaw||Red River||31st|
|2013||Matt Lee||Grand Lake||46th|
|2015||Brett Prueutt||Lake Hartwell||50th|
|2016||Trevor Lo||Grand Lake||55th|
|2017||John Garrett||Lake Conroe||42nd|
LEES SAY COLLEGE FISHING PAVED WAY
Matt and Jordan Lee say they wouldn’t trade their college fishing days for anything. They had a blast, learned a lot, made lifelong friends and got well inside the proverbial industry door.
“Fishing in college was just so much fun. Times I definitely miss, fishing with my friends,” Jordan said. “Fishing team style events is just a lot of fun, especially hanging around your college buddies, all the same age. That’s the No. 1 thing I miss, the comradery. I made a lot of my best friends through college.”
Matt said they definitely have more friends from college fishing than from just hanging out in college. All their best friends were on teams with them or competing against them
“It’s like our own little fraternity. You all have the same passion,” Matt said. “On the weekends, instead of going to football games, you’re going to fish a tournament or just going to fish.”
There are a number of college anglers who fish the Bass Pro Shops Opens circuits, and the Elites include former college competitors Jonathon VanDam, Brandon Card, Josh Bertrand, James Elam, Brett Preuett, John Hunter, Brock Mosley, Dustin Connell and Clent Davis.
They all have that common bond, and it’s a given that college fishing helped them climb the ranks. Looking back, Matt said it seemed like a surprisingly quick ride.
“We always joked, we’re being Bill Dance, George Cochran, in little local tournaments,” Matt said. “I always thought it was a far-fetched idea to be able to do it for a living, but we just got crazy with it.
“My career is because of college fishing. If I didn’t have college fishing, I probably would have a job and try to afford to fish tournaments … probably still be working my way up. I went from one in thousands of college kids to all of a sudden I’m fishing the Classic, then with (sponsors) Carhartt and Dynamic.”
Jordan sees their Classic births as giant steps for both.
“As far as on the competitive side, us making it to the Classic, it’s opened up a lot of doors for me, through sponsors, just people knowing you,” he said. “It’s just been huge for Matt and I getting in the sport.
“Qualifying for the classic, my first one, it really boosted my career. It gave me the opportunity to fish on a lake I knew. That was a big deal and that was probably one of my favorite moments … besides this (Classic).”