Bobby Murray two-time Classic Champion. Photo Bass Master Magazine February 1979.

In 2005, ESPN held The Greatest Angler Debate, a debate that would crown one angler as the greatest-ever bass angler.  The Debate looked at all the best anglers from the start of competitive bass fishing (1967) through 2005 and both anglers and media cast their votes.  Rick Clunn and Roland Martin were the final two standing with Clunn eventually winning the title of the Greatest Bass Angler ever.  Today, nearly 20 years later, this argument as to which is most important still goes on.  In Classic ’79 and The Debate, we’re going to dive deeper into this argument from it’s beginning.

Back in 2005 when the Debate was going on, arguably the best angler of all time, Kevin VanDam, was absent from the list due to him not being around long enough.  This was even mentioned numerous times on ESPN, and that if they’d included him, he’d probably have won.  Since 2005, KVD went on to win two more Classics (tying Clunn’s record) as well as a few more high-profile events. 

The other problem we’re facing – and this was apparent to me the last go-around – should anyone ever do the GAD version 2.0, is how do you compare anglers fishing in different organizations.  ESPN owned BASS (no periods) and when they did version 1.0 of the GAD they only included anglers who had fished Bassmaster.  Now there is MLFLW and the former FLW.  How do the anglers who fished or are fishing other leagues get compared to each other.  Example 1, Jacob Wheeler.  Wheeler has won on nearly every level of bass fishing and has won the highest caliber of events – minus the Bassmaster Classic.  Would this keep him from being considered as the greatest angler ever?  I guess we’ll have to wait for the next edition of the Greatest Angler Debate, if there ever is one.

A couple of weeks ago Brian posted a piece on AOY vs. Classic Winner. The piece got a lot of attention – pieces like this always do – but I have a few things to add to it. If you have that issue of BASS Master Magazine (Feb 1980), you’ll see that they devoted five full pages to this debate – or debacle – if you want to call it that. It was a big deal and this article started the debate amongst anglers and the media that eventually led to the Greatest Angler debate that ESPN held nearly two decades ago.

Let’s first look at the stats up through the 1979 season.  The Classic had been held eight times (’71 through ’78) and the Angler of the Year had been awarded 10 times (’70 through ’79). Here are the AOY and Classic statistics prior to the 1979 Classic.

B.A.S.S. AOY and Classic Winners Through 1979
Angler of the Year
BASS Masters Classic Champion
Bill Dance*
Roland Martin
Bobby Murray
Lake Mead, NV
Roland Martin
Don Butler
Percy Priest, TN
Roland Martin
Rayo Breckenridge
Clark Hill, SC
Bill Dance
Tommy Martin
Wheeler Lake, AL
Roland Martin
Jack Hains
Currituck Sound, NC
Jimmy Houston
Rick Clunn
Lake Guntersville, AL
Bill Dance
Rick Clunn
Lake Toho, FL
Roland Martin
Bobby Murray
Ross Barnett, MS
Roland Martin
Hank Parker
Lake Texoma, OK/TX

Looking at the AOY list it’s easy to see that Roland “owned” the AOY in the ‘70s. Everyone else was fishing for second place. Dance got the inaugural win, won it two more times in ‘74 and ‘77 and Jimmy Houston got the title in ’76.

The AOY list leaves out a lot of information, though. It doesn’t show that Dance left competitive fishing in 1971 to spend more time on his TV show, Bill Dance Outdoors. Dance would stay out of competitive fishing for nearly 18 months before he’d come back. It’s difficult to say what would have happened to Roland’s two AOY trophies in ’71 and ’72 had Dance not stayed away from the trail.

Another thing that doesn’t show up in the list, as Brian shared in his piece, was the amount of time Martin spent prefishing events. Martin went into every tournament prepared. Harold Sharp even said this in the comments section of Brian’s article. “Roland wanted 10-12 spots where others were happy with 3-4.”

Roland Martin receives his 5th Angler of the Year Trophy at the 1978 Bass Master Classic. Photo Bass Master Magazine Feb 1979.

Now, looking at the Classic winners list, we see a list that has more than three names on it. Six different anglers, at that time, had won the Classic – two of which had won it twice. If you look at these anglers and the lakes they won on, it’s kind of interesting. Murray won his first Classic on a lake he’d never seen but was a world away from the type of water he’d ever fished. Murray had been on Ross Barnett a number of times before he’d won his second Classic event but still, he put together a winning pattern and pulled off his second title.

Clunn, a resident of Texas at the time, pulled off his two wins on waters far from his home and considerably different than what he was used to fishing. The same can be said for every other angler who had won the Classic at that time. All of these anglers had limited, if no, experience on the Classic waters, yet they were the ones who figured out the fish the fastest.

So, just from this little analysis, it’s safe to say that both of these awards are two different beasts. Maybe we can say the guy that prepares the most for every qualifying event has the best chance of winning the AOY and the guy who is fastest on his feet has the best chance at the Classic title. Nothing you didn’t already know, right?

Back to The Debate

At the time, Martin was fishing more than 200 days a year and from Murray’s quote, “We don’t have the time to pre-fish all the qualifying tournaments like Roland does. Sure, he wins Bass Angler-of-the-Year. He works for that title when the rest of us can’t,” all the anglers knew they were fishing for second fiddle unless something catastrophic happened to Martin’s year.

But Martin was quick to rebut those comments when he told Owen Taylor this:

Rick Clunn won back-to-back Classics in 1976 and 1977. He would go on to win two more and become the first angler to win four Classics. Photo Bass Master Magazine February 1980.

“Three years ago, I did more pre-fishing than I do today and it probably helped me. But today I do very little pre-fishing and I’m still able to win Bass Angler of the Year.”

Taylor then went on to write, “During 1979, Martin pre-fished three of the major tournaments he entered before THE Classic. He sacked a second place in one but also finished out of the money in two others.”

Roland went on to say, “The guys think I have all this free time and nothing else to do but pre-fish tournaments. If they think that’s my advantage, great. But it’s obviously not.”

Roland states in the article that to him it’s more important to be consistent throughout an entire year than it is to be a one-event wonder. His reasoning was:

“Nothing pleases sponsors more than consistency. They’ll decide on who to sponsor by evaluating a record, not just a single tournament. They want someone who’ll do well all along, placing well in the money and in the standings.”

Rick Clunn had a much different outlook on how he would make it, though. Here are his words as written by Taylor.

“I studied other people and how they had built their careers. They made themselves, you might say, by winning THE Classic. And I determined that was the only way for me to make it.”

Taylor then went on to write, “He [Clunn] couldn’t pre-fish the Classic, so he chose to pre-fish none of the qualifying tournaments. In 36 B.A.S.S. events, Clunn has pre-fished only twice, and he has solicited no advance information, to speak of.”

Clunn then said, “If you do a lot of practicing, it will tell on you when you reach the Classic. You’ll lose confidence. You’ll lose the ability to fish cold on a strange lake, like you must in the Classic.”

Who’s Right?

Looking at the official B.A.S.S. Record Book for the day, Roland Martin was the leader not only in BASS Master Tournament wins but also in money won with $103,221.84. All of this money was won from qualifying events alone. Clunn, on the other hand, had never won a qualifying BASS Master event, yet he was ranked second in all-time money with $96,917.56. Most all of this was from his two Classic wins. Bobby Murray, ranked third in all-time money with $61,789.87, won about 50% of his cash in Classic and qualifying events.

Bill Tippit, the guy who started the mess by asking Martin what was more important at the ’79 Classic dinner had this to say.

“Among the pros, Bass Angler of the Year probably ranks as the most prestigious of the two. It’s a title that shows outstanding achievement during the whole season. On the other hand, winning the Classic carries more weight with the public. The Classic receives THE publicity. And the purse for THE Classic is much higher. The money draws attention, by itself, especially for the weekend fisherman who sees some guys making thousands of dollars for three days of bass fishing.”

Taylor had something important to add to that comment.

Bill Dance, who at the time, ran a close second to Roland Martin in Bassmaster AOY awards. Notice his boat sponsor.

“Also, the very nature of the tournament elimination system focuses public awareness on THE Classic. Compare it to professional baseball: no single game or even a league race ever receives as much ink and air time as the World Series, itself. The same holds true with the B.A.S.S. Tournament Trail and the Classic.”

In the end I think it boils down to the old adage, “Do what works for you.” Obviously anyone who aspires to become a professional bass angler would give their left handed Chronarch to have careers that equal those of Martin, Dance, Murray and Clunn. None of these anglers can complain about their careers as they’ve all accomplished so much. Yes I would bet that Roland would love to have won a Classic but when all is said and done, his career is nothing but spectacular.

The whole Greatest Angler Debate, in my eyes, was a little premature, contentious and Jerry Springer-esque. I say that because how can you compare the anglers without solid metrics. Really what they were comparing was apples and oranges. In my opinion The Debate should have been about the best five anglers to have ever lived. That way all forms of metrics would have been valid and we would have had a good answer.

As for being premature, I think they should have held The Debate maybe five years later when they could award the obvious winner. Even at the time, the anglers and panel were talking about KVD as the shoe-in for the next Debate. Why pit the forefathers of our sport against each other when there was no definitive or clear answer among the top 3?