Bob Beattie created the concept of the U.S. Ski Team while coaching at the University of Colorado in the early 1960s, co-founded skiing's World Cup tour in 1966, enjoyed a successful career as a commentator for ABC's "Wide World of Sports" and remained an influential figure in the sport well into his 80s as an outspoken member of the ski team's trustees.
But one image from the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics stands out in the life of the longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident who died Sunday at age 85. It is a black-and-white wire-service photo of Beattie with his arms around the necks of Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga after they became the first American men to win Olympic medals in skiing, claiming silver and bronze in the slalom.
The man they called "Beats," who simultaneously coached the CU and Olympic teams, had been promising American men would finally break through in Innsbruck. Europeans found the notion laughable until Kidd and Heuga made history in the final men's race of the Games.
"I think he appreciated that moment more than Jimmie and I did," Kidd, the longtime director of skiing at the Steamboat ski resort, said Monday. "We were too young, 20 years old, we didn’t realize how that was going to change our lives. Bob, at that finish line, in that black-and-white photo, he knew how significant that moment was. He was ecstatic. He was the guy that was bragging about us. He was telling everybody — the media, at fundraising events, when we were checking into hotels — that we were going to win medals. That grin on his face said it all."
Beattie was more than a coach. He was a born promoter, a cross between Vince Lombardi and P.T. Barnum with a little bit of Howard Cosell thrown in. He would do everything in his power to bring attention to American ski racing.
Two years after the 1964 Olympics he co-founded the World Cup tour with French coach Honore Bonnet and Serge Lang, a journalist for a national sports newspaper in France. Beattie covered four Winter Olympics for ABC, including the legendary call of Franz Klammer's death-defying gold medal run in downhill at the 1976 Olympics that made Klammer a national hero in Austria and even brought him a measure of fame in the U.S.
“I always question myself, did my run make Bob more famous, or (his) commentary made me famous?” Klammer said at a 2012 tribute for Beattie in Aspen. “I became a household name in America.”
Beattie was born in Manchester, N.H., and was a three-sport athlete (skiing, football and tennis) at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he later coached in the late 1950s. In those days the New York Giants football team held its summer training camps in Burlington, Vt., where Beattie would sneak under the fence to study practices and take notes. The offensive coordinator was Lombardi. The defensive coordinator was Tom Landry. Beattie was more like Lombardi and coached like him.
"I always wanted to be a coach," Beattie recalled in an interview with The Denver Post in 2006. "That’s all I ever wanted to be. I never wanted to be a student. I can remember to this day how Vince Lombardi, he wasn’t the head coach, but he was running the program."
In fact, when Beattie left Middlebury in 1957 to become the ski coach at CU, he insisted he would not take the job unless they let him coach football as well, and he coached under Dal Ward. In either sport he coached the way Lombardi did, driving his athletes relentlessly. But as the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s loved Lombardi, Beattie's skiers loved him.
"It was incredible, how he pushed us in physical conditioning," said Bill Marolt, a former CU athletic director who raced for Beattie at CU and at the 1964 Olympics. "I remember running around in a little training area just over the hill from the football stadium down by Boulder Creek that he'd cleared out where we trained, called The Pit. You'd hear him in the background, ‘We won't be out-conditioned! We won't be out-conditioned!' Everybody would be going, ‘Gosh, is he nuts?' "
Beattie's CU teams won NCAA championships in 1959 and 1960. He had a bitter rivalry with University of Denver coach Willy Schaeffler, a German immigrant who was drafted into the Nazi army, captured and tortured by Russians during the war and escaped to join the anti-Nazi resistance in Austria before emigrating to the U.S.
Schaeffler built his DU teams with European talent while Beattie focused on recruiting Americans.
"We were both very competitive, but we did respect each other," Beattie said. "At one point, the athletic directors at both schools sat us down at a meeting in Boulder and they said, ‘We’re two schools of higher learning, we really should get along better.’ Of course we ‘agreed’ completely, and that weekend we just went right at it. We just disagreed on everything."
For the top international racers in those days, there was a handful of European "classic" races such as the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel, Austria, and the Lauberhorn in Wengen, Switzerland, but there was no World Cup. America's top ski skiers only came together every two years for the Olympics or world championships and were on their own otherwise. Kidd recalls the U.S. racers being told when they went to Europe the winter of 1961-62 in advance of the world championships in Chamonix, France, that the U.S. Ski Association only had enough funds to send them one way, so they'd better get good enough results to pay for return trips home.
"Everybody on those teams came to Boulder and trained," Marolt said. "We went to school, or if kids didn't go to school, they had jobs. Beats went around to all the fraternities and sororities and asked them to put up one Olympic skier, give them room and board. You had the whole Olympic team living in fraternities and sororities on the CU campus."
Beattie changed that model in 1965, creating a real team that competed together through the World Cup season under USSA auspices. Working with Lang and Bonnet, he created the World Cup by taking the existing classics and adding other races to create points-based competitions and crown season champions. Beattie insisted the World Cup include races in U.S., because it was all about promoting the sport.
"The idea was to link these competitions together in a way Americans would understand," Beattie said. "The Hahnenkamm or Lauberhorn meant nothing to Americans, but the World Cup meant something."
Beattie coached the Olympic team again in 1968 but left the ski team in 1970 and moved to Aspen, founding a domestic circuit called the U.S. Pro Tour and the citizens racing program NASTAR. In 1975 he moved to Woody Creek, 10 miles down valley from Aspen, where he became good friends with writer Hunter S. Thompson.
"He was crazy," Beattie said of the gonzo journalist, "but he was a very, very loyal friend and he loved Woody Creek."
In recent years Beattie remained passionate about the sport and the national team, regaling in the success of Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller and others. He was a regular at World Cup races in Aspen and Beaver Creek.
He could be critical of ski team management and talent development, especially in recent years when the team began demanding less accomplished racers on the national team pay up to $30,000 to compensate the team for their travel costs. Beattie found it maddening because he said it prevented racers of modest means from reaching the top. He enjoyed acting out the role of irascible icon.
“Why do you want to get old if you don’t stir the pot?” he would say with a mischievous cackle.
For Kidd, news of Beattie's death brought to mind a reunion with others from his era who have passed away. When Steamboat legend Buddy Werner was killed in a Swiss avalanche shortly after the 1964 Olympics, Beattie claimed the body and brought it home. Heuga died a few days before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Spider Sabich died of gunshot wounds in 1976 after being shot by his girlfriend, French singer-actress Claudine Longet. Beattie was supposed to have dinner with Sabich that night.
"Beats would not want us to be sad," Kidd said. "He lived 85 years and very few people on the planet have crammed such an incredible life into 85 years. Now, just like Jimmie Heuga, he’s up in heaven. He and Jimmie and Buddy Werner and Rip McManus and Spider and a bunch of their friends are having a great time up in heaven. They’re all probably skiing chin-deep powder and yahooing and just having the greatest time.
"I think it’s not a time to be sad, it’s time for celebration of Beats and his life."