Sailing with ‘Pilot’ Packer all the way

Published 4:53 pm Friday, February 3, 2023

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It’s a jingle that often finds its way to my overly crowded brain and I find it amazing that I still remember the words.

Waaaaaaaay back in the day, in the 1960’s and 70’s, Pilot Life and Jefferson Standard (insurance companies) launched an advertising campaign on televised games featuring Atlantic Coast Conference basketball teams. Someone (author unknown) came up with a catchy little song that was played during commercial breaks of those games. It goes like this:

“Sail with the Pilot at the wheel,

On a ship sturdy from its mast to its keel.

He guides through storm and wave,

Insures you while you save.

Sail with the Pilot o’er the seas,

He’s got plans for every growing family.

Worries are far behind you,

There’s really peace of mind, too.

When you sail with the Pilot all the way,

So get on board the Pilot ship today!”

Oh, the memories that jingle brings back. I fondly remember jumping on my bike and riding a quarter mile or so to the home of my cousins (Debby and Bunky Johnson) to watch ACC basketball games. Of course, TVs back then were black and white, but we didn’t care.

If it was a Saturday afternoon contest, Bunky and I would venture outside at halftime for a game of one-on-one basketball in his yard. We would pretend to be UNC stars Larry Brown, Billy Cunningham, or Larry Miller…or NC State stars Eddie Biedenbach, Larry Worsley, or Tommy Mattocks. I would also provide the play-by-play action as if I were some hot-shot broadcaster.

If it was a night game, we would stay indoors the entire time, but you learn not to root against ‘Carolina inside the home of Glenn “Stumpy” Johnson. He bled Carolina Blue.

All those memories came flooding back on Friday of last week after learning of the death of Billy Packer. No, he didn’t write the “Sail with the Pilot” jingle, but, like me, he could recite each and every word.

Packer’s broadcasting career began in 1972 when he was called upon to fill in as a color analyst for an ACC hoops contest. That first game served as a catalyst that served him well as Packer became a mainstay among other ACC basketball broadcasters of that era…namely Jim Thacker and Bones McKinney.

Born Anthony William Paczkowski in Wellsville, New York in 1940, Billy was the son of Lehigh University basketball coach Tony Paczkowski. Not too long after his son was born, Mr. Paczkowski changed the family name to Packer.

After earning all-state honors as a high schooler in Pennsylvania, Billy Packer attended Wake Forest, where he was named All-ACC in 1961 and 1962. He helped lead the Demon Deacons to three ACC regular-season titles and their first Final Four appearance in 1962, when Packer was named to the all-region team. He served as an assistant basketball coach at Wake Forest from 1965-69 before finding his true calling as a broadcaster. He spent more than three decades working as a color analyst for television coverage of college basketball.

As Packer became more of a household name, especially along the famed Tobacco Road of the ACC, during his career with Raycom Sports, he was also attracting attention from the major television networks.

Packer first worked at the network level with NBC (1974–1981) and then CBS (1981–2008). He covered every NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship, including the Final Four, from 1975 to 2008. For many years he also covered ACC games for Raycom Sports.

The last game he saw in person was the last game he broadcast, the 2008 national championship game between Memphis and Kansas.

Packer was the author of Hoops, Why We Win, and a number of other basketball books.

He received a Sports Emmy for Outstanding Sports Personality, Studio and Sports Analyst in 1993.

One of his sons, Mark Packer, told The Associated Press that his father had been hospitalized in Charlotte for the past three weeks with several medical issues and ultimately succumbed to kidney failure.

“He really enjoyed doing the Final Fours,” Mark Packer told the AP. “He timed it right. Everything in life is about timing. The ability to get involved in something that, frankly, he was going to watch anyway was a joy to him. And then college basketball just sort of took off with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and that became, I think, the catalyst for college basketball fans to just go crazy with March Madness.”

But one of the best stories I read about Packer came from John Dell of the Winston-Salem Journal. In that piece, which was published on Friday of last week, Dell wrote about Packer befriending a talented young player back in the late 1960’s by the name of Charlie Davis, who was among the first Black basketball players at Wake Forest. As a young teen, I remember watching Davis play for the Demon Deacons. He went on to become the first Black player to win the ACC’s coveted Player of the Year Award in 1971 (the same year I graduated from high school).

“Their friendship went far beyond the court. To show the extent of that devotion, when Davis was passed over for a job at Wake Forest in the early 1990s, Packer took himself out of the Wake Forest Hall of Fame,” Dell wrote in his article.

He went on to say that after leaving Wake Forest, short of graduating, to play in the NBA, Davis came back and earned his degree in 1990.

Dell wrote that “Packer told the Greensboro News & Record that when Davis graduated, it was one of his “proudest moments…. after the ceremony, Charlie came to my house and we just started crying together.”

Perhaps, without knowing it, the jingle writer from long ago was some sort of psychic and envisioned how Billy Packer would impact the lives of so many…..“Worries are far behind you, there’s really peace of mind, too, when you sail with the Pilot [Billy Packer] all the way.”

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7207.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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