I think my interview had been conducted with me in a three-piece brown suit – hey, it was 1980 – the same one I’d worn in a brother’s wedding and one which I’d donned for my high school senior portrait.
I was about to begin my freshman year of college, but gave a call regarding a sportswriter needed at a local daily. I figured it’d be best during the interview to keep my opinion to myself regarding the sports editor’s column from a year-plus earlier when he had written what a boring game the Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Penn State had been. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! THE GOAL LINE STAND TO END ALL GOAL LINE STANDS?!
I kept that opinion to myself, was hired, and haven’t held in many opinions since.
Grant Hall was the sports editor. When I hear his name today, I don’t know whether to thank him for kick-starting my career or use his name in vain. He told me after I was hired there was no need to wear a suit to the office. The next time he saw me he told me I needed to wear more than jeans and pitching sleeves. I was quite confused. What were slacks and khakis?
Tuesday will mark the beginning of my 40th year in this business. It began on Aug. 20, 1980, in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, covering a preseason football game between my alma mater, Fayetteville (I moved there prior to my junior year), and the home team. Guys I had played pickup basketball games with, including Skip Holtz, were now subjects in my stories.
I remember Tim Horton’s junior high playing days. He’s been at several colleges as a running backs coach, including at Auburn. He now coaches at Vanderbilt. They don’t come much better than him or his family.
Skip, now the head coach at Louisiana Tech, is the son of Lou Holtz, he of William & Mary, North Carolina State, New York Jets, Arkansas, Minnesota, Notre Dame, South Carolina and ESPN fame. Skip was fun-loving, and as far as I know, still is. Lou was tough on seasoned writers, so you can imagine how a starry-eyed 18-year-old felt when he brought down his wrath on a youngster who should have been more worried about college classes the next morning than breaking a rule NO ONE TOLD ME ABOUT regarding talking to his freshmen players. I was skinny back then, yet still towered over Lou. Nevertheless, he gave me as good a %$# chewing as I’ve received in four decades. When I see him on TV today, I still have a knee-jerk reaction to want to slowly exit the room.
Over the years, I’ve covered some great ones, such as Mike Singletary at Baylor, Billy Ray Smith at Arkansas, Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State, where a quarterback would grow up to be “a man,” Mike Gundy, who is now well beyond 40.
Jamelle Holieway was running wild on the field while Barry Switzer’s Sooners were running wild at Oklahoma. A player I had covered in high school playing at OU told me he was afraid to sleep in the Bud Wilkinson House (football dorm), where Brian “The Boz” Bosworth later said there was gun, steroid and cocaine use taking place. Oklahoma was not OK during those days. Switzer, who wrote “Bootlegger’s Boy,” ran as wild a group as a stock contractor raising rodeo bulls.
I’d cover Georgia and Georgia Tech and even crazy Jerry Glanville’s failed run with the Atlanta Falcons for a season, return to Alabama during the Gene Stallings and Pat Dye days, and make more even more stops before coming home to Alabama for good in 2013. There were stints along the way covering college football for a Southwest Conference (now defunct) magazine, MSN, The Sporting News’ SEC Weekly, doing a two-hour daily talk show, a side job as a play-by-play announcer for about 15 years, and for about five years publishing a magazine for the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
Regardless of where I’ve been across seven states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas), everyone thought their football was bigger... and better. For many, it just wasn’t, and from Friday nights to Saturday afternoons, the size of the crowds usually held the truth.
I left sports in 1998... well, kinda. I don’t think I’ve ever not covered some level of football, regardless of which field and department of media I was in at the time.
Dumbest quote? No doubt it was Danny Ford explaining a struggling performance in a narrow win against then-lowly Memphis. “You don’t have to be no scientific rocket to figure it out,” Ford said, as myself and two other writers bit our lips to keep from laughing. (Read that quote slowly, which is exactly how Ford spoke.)
Funniest quote? Lineman Tony Cherico, an All-American, after being asked what it was like tackling Auburn star Bo Jackson in the 1984 Liberty Bowl. “I wouldn’t know,” deadpanned Cherico.
Funniest quote runner-up? Then-Florida head ball coach Steve Spurrier, responding to a college newspaper reporter’s question about passing for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of a rout. “I’m sorry, I missed the sign coming in from the airport that said it was against the law to pass in the fourth quarter here.”
I remember games in six inches of snow when I could hardly hold a pen to take notes, and I saw young men do things on the football field that I still talk about today whenever someone will listen.
Starting season 40 with Eufaula and Lakeside, I can’t wait to see what’s next.