Keith Dunnavant

Keith Dunnavant is a nationally acclaimed media professional who writes biographies and history books, produces documentary films, and frequently appears as a historian on the television networks.

Deftly straddling the worlds of journalism and entrepreneurship, Dunnavant has spent the last four decades moving from one challenge to the next, building a career in press boxes, newsrooms and the shadowy past while covering sports, business, media, culture, politics and aviation, and developing several innovative and award-winning editorial brands.

Keith has conducted more than 10,000 interviews, including many with the greatest names in sports history. He knows how it felt to sink into Paul “Bear” Bryant’s office couch; see the lingering pain of torture in Jeremiah Denton’s eyes; sit in an empty clubhouse with Pete Rose; experience Buster Douglas’ satisfaction when Mike Tyson finally conceded defeat in boxing’s greatest upset; and talk East-West relations with Ted Turner, rock ‘n roll with Huey Lewis, hitting with Hank Aaron, space flight with Jim Lovell, writing with Tom Wolfe, and law with Melvin Belli.

His seven non-fiction books include 2019’s SPY PILOT, the epic tale of Cold War figure Francis Gary Powers and the son he left behind to deal with his controversial legacy. Utilizing thousands of pages of previously unpublished correspondence and once-classified CIA documents related to May 1, 1960, when Powers’ U-2 fell out of the Russian sky, Dunnavant worked with Gary Powers, Jr. to sketch a vivid picture of the coal miner’s son and the once-secret surveillance program, delicately connecting the shock waves reverberating through two generations.

Dunnavant’s bibliography features several of the most celebrated football books of the last two decades, including definitive biographies of Bart Starr, Joe Montana and Bryant, who made it possible for Keith to work his way through the University of Alabama. He has been called “one of America’s greatest sports authors and historians” by ESPN’s Paul Finebaum and “the first certified NCAA-ologist” by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED legend Frank Deford.

Writing books at the collision of sports and culture, and revealing larger truths that strike at the heart of the American experience, Dunnavant endeavors to infuse his narratives with the texture of fiction. In THE MISSING RING, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2006, he focused on the 1966 Alabama football team’s pursuit of perfection in an imperfect world, taking readers deep inside Bryant’s program in a simpler time, before scholarship limitations, widespread telecasting, and the rising tide of individualism, as the country and the sport teetered on the brink of change. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the still-escalating Vietnam War, the book unfolded through the eyes of dozens of mostly overachieving athletes who viewed their scholarship and the education it represented as the ticket to a better life, and showed how they struggled to hold onto the precious red jersey and chase a third straight national championship while dealing with the friction of competition, psychological pressure, pride, shame, and roiling history. Praising the book as “evocative and provocative,” SPORTS ILLUSTRATED said, “You can now add to your literary starting lineup THE MISSING RING.”

A decade before THE MISSING RING entered the Alabama lexicon, Simon & Schuster published COACH, Dunnavant’s Bryant biography, in 1996. The book offered a revealing portrait of the man’s rise from poverty in rural Arkansas to become college football’s greatest coach. While exploring his extraordinary gift for leadership and the various triumphant moments of his life, especially during his remarkable quarter-century at Alabama, where he won six national championships and emerged as the foremost Southern icon of his time, the author also brought a new level of reporting to the controversial Junction training camp at Texas A&M; the scandalous allegation that he conspired to fix an Alabama game against Georgia; and his tendency to drink to excess, disclosing for the first time that the coach once checked himself into a treatment facility.

COACH became the primary source material for two television documentaries featuring Dunnavant’s commentary: An episode of ESPN’s SPORTSCENTURY franchise and CBS Sports’ THE BEAR. Widely recognized for his expertise on college football, he has been a featured historian on several other documentaries, including HBO’s Emmy Award-winning BREAKING THE HUDDLE, ESPN’s HONOR ROLL, Showtime’s AGAINST THE TIDE, and EPIX’s SCHOOLED, as well series including THE TOP 5 REASONS YOU CAN’T BLAME…, CLASSIC NOW, SEC NATION, and COLD PIZZA. He appears in ESPN’s multi- part coverage of college football’s 150th anniversary, including THE AMERICAN GAME, and SEC Network’s multi-part league football history, SATURDAYS IN THE SOUTH. These documentaries premiere in the fall of 2019.

A familiar voice to talk radio listeners, for many years Dunnavant was utilized as a college football analyst on a long list of national, regional and local programs. He has made hundreds of appearances, including on the Paul Finebaum Radio Network, One-on-One Sports, Sportsbyline USA, Sports Fan Radio Network, Sirius XM, and Westwood One.

In AMERICA’S QUARTERBACK, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2011, the author examined the overachieving life of Bart Starr, the 17th -round draft choice who led Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships in seven years as professional football stormed out of the shadows. With Bart and his wife Cherry opening up as never before, Dunnavant weaved an intimate portrait of the Ice Bowl hero, a life profoundly shaped by two tragedies and the contradictory forces of doubt and unconditional love. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called it “one of the best sports history books you will read.”

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana became one of the most beloved athletes of a more cynical age, when two devastating player strikes damaged the NFL’s connection to fans. In MONTANA, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2015, Dunnavant explored the journey of a man who repeatedly defied the odds, on the field and off, becoming synonymous with the heart-pounding rally and leading the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories while mastering Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense, surviving a career- threatening injury, and warding off the challenge of a gifted young rival.

Keith began researching the book that would become THE FIFTY- YEAR SEDUCTION in 1991, when he was a sportswriter covering the realignment fever rippling through college athletics. Ultimately published in 2004 by St. Martin’s Press, the book focused on television’s manipulation of college football, the rise of the all-powerful NCAA, and the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Board of Regents decision, the earthquake which ushered in the sport’s modern age. He connected the dots all the way back to an obscure figure named Franny Murray and “The Big Bluff” which set college football on a collision course with itself. SEDUCTION became required reading for college sports administrators and was utilized as a textbook at several universities. THE NEW YORK TIMES called it “a fascinating tale of intrigue and betrayal.”

Determined to keep stretching himself, particularly as a storyteller, Dunnavant has recently expanded into documentary filmmaking and has two films in the pipeline. It took him 14 years to bring one story to life, one story consistently ignored by other media and which desperately needed to be told.

THREE DAYS AT FOSTER focused on the long-overlooked African-American athletes who shattered the color barrier at the University of Alabama, in the shadow of segregationist Governor George Wallace’s defiant 1963 stand in the schoolhouse door. Eager to reach beyond the swirling mythology, and using Foster Auditorium as a symbol of change across a half century, Keith tracked down most of the key figures in the evolution and convinced them to speak on camera for the first time. The film demonstrated how those early black athletes tapped into a force more powerful than hate, helping Alabamians begin to see beyond black and white.

In 2013, TDAF became an official selection of the Sidewalk Film Festival, where it premiered to a standing ovation, and the All- Sports Los Angeles Film Festival, where it captured the second place award. As a result of the film, for the first time, three men who walked on to the all-white Bama football team in 1967 were recognized for their contributions by the A-Club letterman’s association.

Profoundly influenced by his father, broadcaster Bob Dunnavant, Keith grew up around his family’s radio stations in Athens, Alabama. All of the Dunnavant boys were inspired by their father’s contagious belief in the art of the possible and his ability and impulse to innovate, which enabled him to become an FM pioneer, the founder of the state’s first news network, and the producer of several nationally syndicated programs. Keith was also marked by the example of his five older brothers, who stoked his precocious nature. Three worked in the media, including eldest brother Bob Jr., a widely respected newspaper reporter who helped shape his development as a journalist. Keith learned about newsgathering, advertising sales, announcing, and creative thinking by closely observing his role models, negotiating the first tentative steps toward his own media career during his elementary school years.

As an eighth grader, he marketed a sports-oriented publication to a local McDonald’s franchisee, earning a small profit and proving he could combine content and sponsorship. After publishing an advertiser-supported football preview booklet and distributing it around his hometown during the summer before he entered high school, Keith created his first real media job: convincing the publisher of a weekly newspaper, THE JOURNAL, to allow him to launch a sports section—and devising a strategy to fund his own salary.

Venturing beyond his local high school/small college mandate, Dunnavant began covering SEC football and basketball, becoming a regular in the press boxes at Alabama, Auburn and Vanderbilt before he was old enough to own a driver’s license. He tried to fade into the crowd, not wanting to give away his age, but on a memorable night in March 1980, the high school freshman unwittingly created a stir by doing his job: asking a question that caused C.M. Newton to storm out of a post-game press conference, never to coach another basketball game for the Crimson Tide. Soon he moved up to part-time positions with bigger papers in neighboring cities, THE DECATUR DAILY and HUNTSVILLE NEWS. Those teenage years also included work as a local cable TV sports announcer; more entrepreneurial media ventures, including the syndicated radio series CAPSTONE CAPSULE; and recognition as Alabama’s Student Journalist of the Year. He parlayed his early experience into a full scholarship to Alabama, thanks in large part to an interview with Bryant in his Memorial Coliseum office in June 1982.

Joining the Alabama sports information staff as a student assistant in the summer of 1983, Dunnavant worked closely with the Crimson Tide’s football, basketball, baseball and swimming programs, living in athletic department housing and eating his meals at the Bryant Hall training table. Seven times his writing and editing was honored by the sports information society CoSIDA, including his work as managing editor of the TIDE TIPOFF basketball game program. As the SID for baseball, Keith traveled with the team and created and edited the game magazine ALABAMA BASEBALL TIMES.

In 1986, he gave up his athletic scholarship to become sports editor of the campus newspaper, THE CRIMSON WHITE, and a special correspondent for the BIRMINGHAM POST-HERALD, while continuing to burnish his reputation through prized summer reporting internships with THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION and the DALLAS TIMES HERALD.

By his senior year in 1988, when he captured the William Randolph Hearst National Writing Award and became the first undergraduate to be recognized by the Alabama Sportswriters’ Association, Dunnavant had been writing about major college sports for nine years. His enterprise packages on college football parity, the bowl system, the impact of the Board of Regents decision and other subjects found a national audience through the Scripps Howard News Service. His in-depth examination of the Alabama athletic department’s finances, which revealed that the Crimson Tide empire was running a $2-million annual deficit, prompted a story in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and a mention on NBC News.

Keith turned down several college jobs at big papers across the country—including the coveted Alabama beat at THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS—to accept an entry-level position at the LOS ANGELES TIMES. Staying in Alabama, where he was on a first-name basis with everyone associated with the program, and becoming a big fish in a medium-sized pond was the safe play, but he didn’t want to play it safe. He wanted to accomplish a once seemingly impossible goal of writing for the country’s best sports section, to see where working among the best might lead.

After handling a variety of assignments, from California Angels sidebars to the profile of a swimmer who defected from East Germany, Dunnavant was recruited to New York by a sister Times Mirror publication, the weekly sports business magazine SPORTS INC., where he covered the intersection of games and money. This pivot into the competitive world of Manhattan journalism put him in position to be hired by THE NATIONAL in 1989.

Conceived by one-time Princeton classmates Frank Deford and Peter Price and financed by Mexican billionaire Emilio Azcarraga, THE NATIONAL was the first coast-to-coast daily newspaper devoted entirely to sports. Mounting a frontal assault on established reading habits and a series of formidable logistical problems, it featured the greatest collection of sportswriting talent ever assembled under one roof: Dave Kindred. Scott Ostler. Mike Lupica. John Feinstein. Charles Pierce. Chris Mortenson. And editor-in-chief Deford, the most celebrated and elegant sportswriter of the age.

Slightly more than a decade after talking his way into a small-town newspaper job that didn’t exist, Dunnavant joined many journalists he admired on a remarkably ambitious enterprise. One of the youngest writers with a Heisman vote, he traveled the country on the college football beat, cementing his reputation for authoritative writing about the sport. While sketching profiles about the leading coaches and players of the day and covering many of the big games, he also leaned heavily on the knowledge and sources he had been cultivating for years to break news and provide trenchant analysis on the unprecedented structural upheaval spurred by Notre Dame’s decision to bolt the College Football Association television package. He also covered college basketball, Major League Baseball, the NFL, and sports television.

When THE NATIONAL folded in 1991, an unqualified journalistic success but unable to overcome severe distribution and advertising challenges, at a time when no one knew the Internet age loomed just over the horizon, Dunnavant walked away from the security of his sportswriting career. It was a gigantic roll of the dice, because he had a very bright future on the sports page, but he believed the time was right to pursue several other long-simmering ambitions, including operating his own regional magazine.

After relocating to the Atlanta area and founding Solovox Publishing, Dunnavant began to implement a radical plan. By creating and leveraging a unique licensing program with partner radio and television stations across the Southeast, he invented a new way of publishing. Many broadcast executives rejected the scheme and insisted it would never work, even some who had dabbled with lesser print products. Many times, Solovox director of licensing Richard Vogt was politely shown the door. But Dunnavant and Vogt were persistent, knocked on a lot of doors, and eventually convinced several forward-thinking broadcasters to embrace Solovox‘s “New Paradigm in Magazine Publishing.” Seizing the opportunity to blaze a trail and establish a new revenue stream with a real magazine, pioneer licensees including Hoyt Andres of WSFA-TV and Nick Martin of WQLT-FM committed significant dollars, air time and personnel to the initiative. By solving a funding and marketing riddle, the college football magazine DUNNAVANT‘S PAYDIRT ILLUSTRATED took flight without a seven-figure bank loan or an angel investor, marrying the power of print and broadcast to drive fans into retailers including Blockbuster Video and McDonald‘s. The unconventional strategy Keith once sketched on a coffee-shop napkin—shaped by the way his father taught him to think—ultimately produced a publication with a circulation of 125,000 and annual system-wide sales of more than $2 million.

Employing a skilled team of writers and photographers including Vincent Coppola, Tim Wendel, Alex McRae, and Scott Freeman and emphasizing the kind of sophisticated narrative features typically published by much larger magazines, PAYDIRT took readers deep inside the sport, earning the trust of discerning fans across the region. Dunnavant‘s feature on disgraced former Florida coach Charley Pell‘s battle with depression, which had caused him to attempt suicide, won Best of Show in the Green Eyeshade Awards, making PAYDIRT the first independently owned publication to capture the most prestigious regional prize in Southern journalism. It was the first of 28 times the Solovox magazines would be honored for editorial excellence.

While editing and publishing PAYDIRT; launching his book career; writing three college football features each year for the 1 million-circulation SPORT magazine; starting a 12-year run of covering sports business for BUSINESSWEEK; and writing occasional pieces for publications including MEDIAWEEK, THE NEW YORK TIMES, and ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, he simultaneously utilized some very different muscles. The lengthy narrative profiles he wrote for the glossy monthly ATLANTA magazine on Hamilton Jordan, Bobby Cremins, Nancy Grace, and Lewis Grizzard allowed him to go deeper and broader, exploring the lingering impact of a loved one’s violent death, one impulsive middle-aged decision, and other dramatic storylines. In a 2015 retrospective, ATLANTA recognized “The Prosecution Never Rests” as one of the Ten Great Reads from the ‘90s.

The success of PAYDIRT validated Dunnavant as both entrepreneur and editor, and he was eventually recruited back to New York as managing editor of MEDIAWEEK, where he led a team of staff writers and contributors to produce cover stories on prominent media figures and issues. His portfolio was later expanded to include responsibility as chief editor of the supplement ADWEEK MAGAZINES’ SPECIAL REPORT, where he directed coverage of the 2000 national elections. One of the rare individuals who has served as the supervising editor of magazines in three distinct genres (sports, business, and general interest), Dunnavant further demonstrated his versatility as executive editor of ATLANTA magazine, where he enhanced his reputation for narrative and service journalism and oversaw the 40th anniversary issue, which won a Gold Medal from the City & Regional Magazine Association.

A former director of the Magazine Association of the Southeast, Dunnavant has proven to be a serial entrepreneur and magazine visionary, leading three more Solovox titles from the germ of an idea to profitability, marketplace acceptance, and industry recognition: DUNNAVANT’S SPEED! ILLUSTRATED covered NASCAR’s Winston Cup circuit. SOUTH WALTON LIFE focused on the affluent beach destinations of Florida’s 30-A area. CRIMSON REPLAY took Solovox online and chronicled Alabama football history, featuring not just written content but also two podcasts as well as branded and conceptual streaming video, including the interview program DISTANT REPLAY and the game show TAILGATE SHOWDOWN.

A former adjunct professor at Alabama, where he taught a class on the history of sports television, Dunnavant has guest-lectured at the University of Michigan, George Washington University, Jacksonville State University, and the University of North Alabama, and has addressed a long list of civic, sports, alumni and business groups across the Southeast, including the Atlanta History Center, the Alabama Press Association, the Balch & Bingham law firm, the Emerald Coast Red Elephant Club, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the Montgomery Quarterback Club.

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