Quick Hits

Excerpts from a life of chasing deadlines
By Keith Dunnavant

Peyton’s Place

Peyton Manning takes the ball in his right arm and executes a perfect seven-stop drop, scanning the horizon for an easy mark. A few steps behind him on this sweaty June morning, Chicago Bears quarterback Steve Walsh waits his turn, trying not to look intimidated by the kid with the famous genes.

Before them on the infield of Tulane’s track stadium, where the aroma of freshly cut grass permeates the air, a dozen New Orleans area pros in shorts and sneakers battle for control of the passing lanes. With training camps opening in less than a month, the local veterans gladly run all the plays they can get. After all, who knows when some young punk’s going to snare your million-dollar job?

But the kid? Sometimes, Archie Manning’s 18-year-old son feels out of place, especially when his new friends start trading war stories. “They’re talking about how to pick off Montana and I’m talking about my senior year of high school,“ Peyton says with a teenager’s wonder. Yet, when Manning takes a football in his arm, he knows he’s where he belongs. Like his father, he has the power…

Sport Magazine, 1994

Ex-Ranger Comer tries to turn Cleveland staff around

ARLINGTON—A young Cleveland Indians reliever winds up in the bullpen of near-empty Arlington Stadium, fires, and shakes his head in disgust as his fastball misses, low and away.

Steve Comer, watching nearby, approaches the pitcher for a pep talk.

“You know what the difference between hitting your spot and not hitting it is?“ asks Comer, the Indians’ pitching coach. “Six inches. That’s all. Six inches is the difference between a good pitch and a bad pitch, between a strikeout and a home run.“

It’s hard to believe the problems facing Comer, a former Rangers pitcher, are so small. But it’s no more than a succession of six-inch intervals that separates the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching staff, the best in the American League, from Cleveland, the worst…

Dallas Times Herald, 1987

Gillen happy with his new dream job

CINCINNATI—Deep down inside, where an ambitious young English teacher lurks, Pete Gillen knew it was time to let go.

Twenty years ago, when he was that guy sprouting Robert Frost, quoting the passage “And miles before I sleep“ as if he were talking about himself, Gillen decided upon his dream. He wanted to be the head basketball coach at Notre Dame.

So what if that seemed about as likely as his becoming pope? It was his dream. So what if he was an English teacher without a team? It was the kind of dream he could chase, running harder every time he remembered how some wiseguy told him he would never get into college, never make the basketball team, never do anything great.

The Notre Dame job equaled ultimate success to Pete Gillen. It meant he would never have to prove anything to anyone ever again.

So when Notre Dame Athletic Director Dick Rosenthal called Xavier AD Jeff Fogelson last week, asking for permission to talk to Gillen about Gillen’s dream job, Gillen told Fogelson to say, “No thanks.“

After all those years of working toward that dream, Gillen passed it by because he no longer needed it. It was there, and that was enough. He chose to let it go. He said he wanted to be happy…

The National, 1991

Editor’s Letter

One morning in August, I found myself sitting inside a CNN trailer at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, listening to Rick Kaplan curse the wind.

“The other networks talk about what a bullshit story this is,” the then-president of CNN/U.S. lectured his political team, battered by weak ratings and the big three’s decision to reduce coverage of what some clearly considered a waste of time. “Well, it’s not. This is important. What could possibly be more important than electing the next president of the United States?”

He was right. Even though the public’s political apathy in these prosperous times is impossible to deny, this election, like all, hangs heavy with drama and potential impact. All you have to do is look deep enough…

Adweek Magazines’ Special Report, 2000

Playoff talk makes bowl officials edgy

Scraps of crumpled paper litter a corner of Deloss Dodds’ desk, each touting the ultimate college football playoff plan devised by some attorney, salesman or truck driver.

“If someone has come up with an idea and scribbled it on paper, I have it,” said Dodds, the athletic director at the University of Texas.

What he does not have is a way to calm the fears of a frightened bowl community.

Bowls insist a playoff system would ruin their 18-game lineup that will contribute more than $51 million to college athletics this year.

“It would lead to the extinction of the bowls,” said Sugar Bowl executive director Mickey Holmes. “We could not co-exist…”

Birmingham Post-Herald, 1987

The Legacy of Lewis Grizzard

…At a time when his immense talent and intellect had earned him fame as a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, best-selling author and stand-up humorist who could command $20,000 for a one-hour monologue, the insecure little boy inside the tormented man felt like an imposter. He never believed he deserved his success. “I live in fear,” he often told his friends, “that somebody’s going to tap me on the shoulder, take it all away and say, ‘You’re just Lewis Grizzard from Moreland, George. You don’t belong here.’”

Even golf had a way of making him feel like an outsider. During his days as a journalism student at the University of Georgia in the 1960s, Grizzard and fellow sportswriter Chuck Perry often were invited to play at the prestigious Athens Country Club as guests of a member. Invariably, when the two impoverished students were waiting for a tee time, club president Henry Cobb would approach them with a contemptuous expression. “Are you boys here by invitation?”

“Mr. Cobb knew who we were, but he just wanted to drive home the point that we weren’t members…that we didn’t belong,” recalls Perry. “Well, Lewis never forgot that. He resented that for as long as he lived.”

Later in his life, Grizzard could have played any course in America, in most cases without a greens fee, so great was his fame. But at the time of his death, he held membership in at least seven private golf clubs, including the Athens Country Club. “A big part of joining the Athens Country Club was to stick it to Henry Cobb in his grave,” Perry says…

Atlanta Magazine, 1999

Alabama coach accused of previous abuse

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—University of Alabama basketball coach Wimp Sanderson, who was forced to resign last week amid charges that he struck a female employee in March, was accused of a similar attack by the same woman two years ago, the woman’s lawyer said.

Nancy Watts, Sanderson’s long-time secretary, reported the alleged incident to the university’s personnel director, according to her attorney, John Falkenberry.

No official charges were filed at that time, but Falkenberry said Watts included the earlier incident in a complaint filed last week with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The university’s handling of the earlier complaint is important because under federal law, employers are required to investigate all sex harassment charges and take appropriate steps to prevent further incidents…

The New York Times, 1992

Douglas glad Tyson knows who’s champ

WESTERVILLE, Ohio—When Mike Tyson appeared on the television in John Johnson’s suburban Columbus living room Tuesday, James (Buster) Douglas’s carefree smile faded into an icy stare.

Silently, Douglas rose from the couch and stood glaring into the eyes of the man he had knocked out Saturday night for the heavyweight championship of the world. By that time, it was official. Both the WBA and WBC had joined the IBF in recognizing Douglas as the new champion. But in those opening moments of Tyson’s press conference, shown live from New York, Douglas looked more like a victim than a victor. An official protest from the Tyson camp over the now infamous long count hung like a dark cloud each time Douglas spoke.

In the aftermath, Tyson-Douglas seemed more like an election than a fight, and Douglas stood there stone-faced waiting for the loser to concede. Finally, Tyson replaced Don King at the microphone and Douglas’s chest heaved as Tyson began to speak.

“I’m not the champion anymore…and my objective is just to get the title back,“ Tyson’s voice squeaked from the set.

Slowly, a smile came across Douglas’s face. He reached out to low-five Johnson, his manager, and smiled an even bigger smile. “It’s about time he admitted it,“ said the new champion of the old.

For Buster Douglas the fighter, the moment meant little. His impressive work was in the can, part of history. But for Buster Douglas the man, it was crucial. Pride was at stake. A man has to hear the other man say he was beaten. Hearing those words meant more than the screams of 3,000 fans who showed up at Columbus International Airport to welcome him home to a town that no so long ago had all but ignored him…more than the song penned in his honor…more than the award presented by the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.

Even more than the call from Arsenio Hall.

“For them to have said I didn’t win was an insult,“ Douglas said. “It was a shot to my pride. But now at least he admitted that the fight is over…”

The National, 1990

How will the pros size up Michigan’s Morris now?

TAMPA, Fla.—Jamie Morris stuffed a pair of wristbands into his blue-and-gold Michigan travel bag and zipped it shut for the final time.

Suddenly serious, he jumped from the locker-room bench and crouched his 5-foot-7, 183-pound frame into a running position.

“I’ve always taken a lot of kidding about my size,“ said Morris, a senior. “But I used to have this coach who would tell me, ’Jamie, if those trees in front of you are too tall, just chop ’em down to size.“

Chop-chop by turning on the speed, or flashing the slippery moves, or even running over the sequoias with chainsaw-like grit. Morris did it all in rushing for a career-high 234 yards and three touchdown to lead Michigan past Alabama 28-24 in Saturday’s Hall of Fame Bowl…

Birmingham Post-Herald, 1988

The Cable Guy

The image is burned into my memory. I’ll always remember Ted Turner as a cowboy crooner.

Nearly 20 years ago, when I was a high school student working part-time as a sports announcer for a local cable channel in Huntsville, Ala., Turner’s larger-than-life presence towered over the lobby outside of our studio. The giant cardboard poster, created by the Turner Broadcasting promotion department, featured a grinning Ted dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots and a western shirt, strumming a guitar. It was captioned, “I was cable when cable wasn’t cool,“ an obvious rip-off of a popular country song.

The clever gag succeeded in reminding cable operators, at a time of mounting competition, how Turner had blazed a trail through the virgin wilderness. It was also a snapshot of Turner in a more profound sense: His flamboyance. His hubris. His ability to mock himself and not worry about looking like a fool.

In those simpler days, before Atlanta started taking itself so seriously, Ted Turner was like a poster child for the city’s unreconstructed soul. To the outside world he was the face of Atlanta’ untrammeled ambition, the often outrageous entrepreneur who gambled big on the prescience of his unconventional ideas and sometimes even bigger on the words he allowed to escape from his mouth, unfiltered by thoughts of political correctness, caution or even good sense…

Atlanta Magazine, 2001

Plummeting Atlanta sent to deep-six

ATLANTA—The Falcons’ swan dive to a new depth of mediocrity took many forms in a 24-13 loss to Phoenix Sunday. Penalties. Turnovers. Poor quarterbacking.

But mostly, the freefall of the once-cocky, now 3-10 Falcons could be seen and heard in the way usually combative Coach Jerry Glanville framed every remark with the pensive manner of a man at odds with his own bravado.

“For the first time,“ Glanville said softly, “I cannot come in here and say, ’At least we’re improving,’ because we’re not. We’re regressing, and I’m not sure why. We’re not playing like the Falcons should be playing…“

The National, 1990

A battle for survival

When the U.S. Supreme Court revoked the NCAA’s monopoly of college football television three years ago, some people considered it an emancipation proclamation sure to help the rich become richer.

But freedom exacted a high price.

TV appearances are up but revenues are down at most major schools. The giddy get-rich-quick mentality of 1984 has faded, and schools are merely trying to survive.

“We’re just trying to hold our own in what is a declining market,“ Southeastern Conference Commissioner Harvey Schiller said…

Birmingham Post-Herald, 1987

It’s back to back-up for Carlson

CINCINNATI—The seven-day old legend of Cody Carlson evaporated into the mist at Riverfront Stadium on Sunday. Surely no NFL quarterback has ever fallen from Player of the Week to just plain weak so hard, so fast.

Someday, with grandchildren on his knee, Commander Cody will talk about Sunday, Dec. 30, 1990, and smile. He will linger on the highs of completing 22 of 29 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns, of coming from nowhere to replace the injured Warren Moon and lead the Oilers past Pittsburgh and into the playoffs.

But he will try hard to forget Cincinnati’s 41-14 AFC wild-card victory over the Oilers on Sunday…

The National, 1991

Yanks’ success on field keeping Steinbrenner silent and happy

ARLINGTON—New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whose public criticisms of stars such as Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield have often overshadowed his team’s play, has been relatively quiet this year.

Steinbrenner even praised Winfield last month when he experienced a hitting spree with Don Mattingly and Ricky Henderson injured and out of the lineup. And the outspoken owner has remained silent during Winfield’s recent slump.

“Something must be up,“ Winfield said, smiling sheepishly inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Arlington Stadium…

Dallas Times Herald, 1987

Gender War on the Playing Fields

Four years ago, Brown University gymnast Amy Cohen refused to go quietly. When her school, faced with financial pressures, eliminated four varsity sports—women’s gymnastics and volleyball and men’s water polo and golf—Cohen and other female athletes sued Brown for allegedly violating Title IX, a 1972 federal law that bars discrimination on the basis of sex.

Amid a flurry of lawsuits on behalf of women’s sports, Cohen vs. Brown has emerged as the most important test of the law that will shape college athletics into the next century. In the three years since the plaintiffs won a U.S. District Court victory that validated the Office of Civil Rights’ (OCR) three-pronged test for compliance—including the controversial “proportionality“ concept—colleges large and small have reluctantly begun a shift of resources from men’s to women’s programs. (Proportionality means that schools must allocate resources and opportunities for sports on the basis of the male-female enrollment.) “The Brown decision was like a 2-by-4 to the head of all those people who had refused to comply with the law,“ said Lynette Labinger, a Providence lawyer who represented Cohen, with the backing of the Washington-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

Now, forces on both sides of the issue are nervously awaiting an imminent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston that could either affirm or overturn Judge Raymond J. Pettine’s decision. Gender-equity advocates fear that a defeat would result in a rollback of the gains they have achieved. And many university administrators worry that an affirmation of the lower-court decision could mean further cuts in football programs even as pressure builds to generate additional revenue to pay for the costs of implementing gender equity…

BusinessWeek, 1996

The Agony of Victory

A decade ago, when “Big D” was a moniker and a chest-thumping attitude, Dallas seemed like the city of the future. Little brother no more to downstate Houston, Dallas emerged as the financial center of the Southwest and the prototype of the new Sunbelt metropolis. Dallas was booming, and nothing symbolized the boom more than the building cranes that dominated the once sleepy downtown, lining its wide streets with glass and steel monuments to unbridled optimism.

Seeking the promise of low crime, low unemployment and high expectations, foreigners from places like New York, California and Illinois flocked to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex at the rate of more than 100,000 per year. These were impressionable minds for the taking, and A.H. Belo, owner of the venerable Dallas Morning News, wanted them. But so did Times Mirror, parent of the old afternoon-turned-morning paper, the Dallas Times Herald.

What ensued may go down as the last great newspaper war…

Mediaweek, 1992

Larry King and profiles will reign

SEATTLE—In one of the tense days leading up to the Goodwill Games, Tony Verna watched his vision come to life through Cynthia Cooper’s eyes.

On the television screen inside the International Broadcast Center, Cooper recounted the gang-related death of her brother and the other obstacles she overcame to become one of the stars of the U.S. women’s basketball team. Near the end of the two-minute segment she narrated and produced, Cooper sat with her mother, flipping through a photo album. When she came upon an unflattering teen-age picture, she covered the photo with her hand and began laughing uncontrollably.

“That’s natural, that’s real,“ said Verna, the Games’ executive producer. “You can’t produce those kind of real feelings. You can only stand back and let it happen. That’s what we intend to do.“

The success of the Goodwill Games’ television production will hinge on the unorthodox and in some cases, the raw…

The National, 1990

Stanley letter perfect

ARLINGTON—Picture Rangers catcher Mike Stanley at the plate: Gripping his bat. Planting his feet. Checking his notes.

Checking his notes?

“I guess it’s kind of unusual,“ Stanley said. “I write these abbreviations on the ends of my bats. They are little reminders of things I want to do when I’m at the plate.“

Like H.T.T.B.—Hit Through The Ball.

Or K.Y.H.D.—Keep Your Head Down.

Or O.O.T.P.—Out Over The Plate.

“Everybody has an angle—this is mine,“ Stanley said.

Call him strange.

Call him forgetful.

But don’t call him back to Oklahoma City, because the note-worthy experiment has helped Stanley win the starting catcher’s job with the Rangers…

Dallas Times Herald, 1987

Miami, not Bowden, takes a bow

MIAMI—Bobby Bowden, college football’s original Mr. Gadget, pulled another fast one against No. 6 Miami Saturday.

He ran traps, not reverses; dumped it off short instead of running flea-flickers; and lost a shot at his 200th career win at least partially because he coached (you’d better take a seat for this) conservatively.

Don’t misunderstand. Miami’s 31-22 victory over No. 2 Florida State before 80,396 at the Orange Bowl wasn’t close. The Hurricanes pronounced their return to the national championship race with a masterful defensive gameplan and the surprisingly potent one-two running punch of Leonard Conley and Stephen McGuire.

But even after FSU fell behind 24-6 at the half, the Seminoles played as if the late Woody Hayes was whispering in Bowden’s ear…

The National, 1990

As dangerous as a broken fruit jar

On a bright spring morning when many of his University of Kentucky teammates are playing golf or lounging around a pool, Tim Couch sits inside a darkened film room searching for chinks in his armor. Interceptions. Poor reads. Sacks. Forced passes. Amid the flickering light of a video projector, the record-setting quarterback uses his free time to look for flaws in his own performance.

Several months before he will face another blitz, Couch holds a remote control in his hand and fast-forwards past dozens of perfectly executed reads and throws worthy of a college football highlight film. He even zooms past the touchdown that beat Alabama and cemented his status as a Kentucky sports icon.

“I don’t spend much time looking at the plays that worked,“ explains the 6-foot-5, 223-pound junior. “You can learn so much more by looking back at what you did wrong and figuring out what you should have done in that situation. The idea is to learn from your mistakes so you won’t make them again.“

After critiquing several failed plays, Couch lingers on an interception he threw against Georgia last season. He watches it over and over again, breaking it down frame-by-frame. The miscue still bothers him because a victory over the Bulldogs could have given the Wildcats a winning season and a bowl bid, and the competitive young man is determined to learn something from the experience to make himself a better quarterback.

“Got too cocky,“ he says. “We’re not supposed to throw over a defensive end but I got away with it several times last year, so I got to thinking I could do that all the time. Then that guy taught me a lesson…“

Dunnavant’s Paydirt Illustrated, 1998

Lawyer says baseball will reinstate ex-Dodgers pitcher Howe

Former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Steve Howe, whose drug problems prompted his second suspension from American baseball last year, has been reinstated to play in the minor leagues, his lawyer told the Dallas Times Herald Tuesday night.

Attorney John Lence said the reinstatement goes into effect Sunday. This clears the way for Howe to sign with any major league team, including the Rangers, who have reportedly expressed a strong interest in the former National League Rookie of the Year.

“This is the go-ahead we’ve been waiting for,“ Lence said…

Dallas Times Herald, 1987

Great Expectations

Terry Bowden is having trouble sitting still. Like some gum-snapping teenager on a sugar rush, he walks around his sun-baked Auburn University office as he talks, the boyish excitement seeping through his words. Even when he sits in front of the window overlooking the practice field on this late spring morning, he fidgets. Sitting still has never held much appeal for Bobby and Ann Bowden’s most impatient son.

Ever since he realized, at the ripe old age of 13, exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, Bowden has pursued his goals with single-minded devotion. Even before he became the youngest college head coach in the country, he was obsessed, like some clock-watching chess player, with his next move. He was headed for the big time, and quick. Sometimes, he couldn’t sleep at night because the future never seemed to arrive fast enough. He often worried how one bad career choice might derail his master plan and rob him of his destiny.

Now the 38-year-old boy wonder sits inside his own Technicolor dream.

Every time Bowden departs the large corner office that Pat Dye built but couldn’t keep, he is greeted with a mix of appreciation and awe. School children timidly ask him for his autograph. Adults just want to shake his hand, as if what he has could rub off. After becoming the first rookie major college head coach to lead his team to an undefeated season, Bowden can no longer satisfy his aspirations by chasing names and numbers in a record book. The eternal striver must compete with himself.

“I always want to maintain a certain level of anxiety,“ Bowden says between sips of a canned soft drink. “Every moment of my life, I want to have a healthy fear of failure. I want to be anxious about losing my job if I don’t do it well. I never want to lose that anxiety, because if I do, I’ve stopped pushing myself.“

The 5-foot-6 bundle of ambition has always known where he was going. But where does such a man go from the top of the world?

Dunnavant’s Paydirt Illustrated, 1994

Life After Death

On the day the football died, Mitchell Glieber felt dirty.

The elaborate pay-for-play scheme uncovered by enterprising reporters and National Collegiate Athletic Association investigators had transformed Southern Methodist University into the ultimate symbol of college sports corruption, a cautionary tale featuring overzealous boosters and complicit administrators. When the college governing body lowered the boom, imposing the so-called “death penalty“ on a day forever marked as a dubious milepost in the sport’s evolution, Glieber felt a combination of loss and shame—splattered by the indignation of a scandal-weary nation.

“To many people, we’ll always be a bunch of outlaws,“ remarked Glieber, a former Mustangs defensive back who was not implicated in the scandal. “That still hurts…”

Sport Magazine, 1993

Auburn’s Burger embroiled in controversies

AUBURN, Ala.—Auburn quarterback Jeff Burger gripped his sore right ankle, lifted it forward, then backward, and smiled at the result of this simple display of power.

“After all that I’ve been through, it feels great to have a problem that I can reach out and touch,“ Burger said of the sprained right ankle that kept him out of practice for three days recently.

Charges of plagiarism and a scuffle in a restaurant that resulted in an NCAA violation left Burger’s college career at the control of others this summer.

“It was a pretty helpless feeling,“ said Burger, a 6-foot, 211-pound senior.

But the two unrelated incidents were resolved without suspension. A pardoned Burger will lead fifth-ranked Auburn against the University of Texas at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday in the season opener for both teams…

Dallas Times Herald, 1987

Will the Past be Prologue?

A clay bust of Adolph Rupp, the man who built the University of Kentucky’s basketball dynasty, casts an ominous shadow in the office of Joe Burch, the man who’s trying to save it.

The work of art offers a weighty reminder of Rupp’s legacy of four national championships, 27 Southeastern Conference titles and one overriding fear.

These days, Kentucky fans have nothing to fear but tradition itself…

Sports inc. magazine, 1989

A Rocket blast aborted

MIAMI—Everyone kept waiting for something historic, for a new page of Orange Bowl lore, for Ken Calhoun stepping in front of Turner Gill’s two-point pass or Tommy Nobis denying Joe Namath at the goal line.

And then it happened. The Rocket exploded. But it wouldn’t count.

With 35 seconds left and Notre Dame trailing No. 1 Colorado 10-9 in an Orange Bowl yawner, Raghib (Rocket) Ismail fielded a Buffaloes punt at his own nine, spun around one defender and raced 91 yards for a would-be Notre Dame touchdown and apparent Irish victory.

But then the most important game in the wackiest of college football seasons turned, appropriately, on a flag…

The National, 1991

Build, build, billed

TUSCALOOSA—Taze Fulford searched his desk, a telephone receiver tucked to one ear, looking for an answer to his boss’s question.

The man on the other end of the line, then-Alabama athletic director and head football coach Ray Perkins, wanted to know the Crimson Tide’s bank balance, and within a few minutes, business manager Fulford found the figure, read it to Perkins and went back to work.

Then, a few days later, Perkins, perhaps by accident, perhaps by design, mentioned that his empire had $16 million in the bank. It was a statement that made all the papers three years ago—and one that continues to make Alabama officials crazy today.

“The figure was correct, on that particular day,“ Fulford said. “It was early in the fiscal year, when we had collected most of our revenues but still had eight or 10 months of salaries, scholarships and other bills to pay. Yet people took that to mean we had $16 million in savings, which simply wasn’t true, then or now.“

Now, as Alabama officials fight to sell the controversial “Tide Pride“ priority ticket program, Perkins’ statement continues to cause problems, 18 months after his return to pro football. Some alumni and friends of the university cannot understand why, amid such apparent prosperity, Alabama would need to initiate a fund-raising program. But the numbers don’t lie. Though the department continues to prosper financially in the post-Paul “Bear“ Bryant era, the absence of a priority ticket plan left it teetering in or near the red for the past three years, according to figures obtained by the Birmingham Post-Herald…

Birmingham Post-Herald, 1988

Fiesta’s bold move changed bowl structure forever

It was either a tragic slap at tradition or a triumphant blow for the future.

The Big Four zigged.

The Defiant One zagged.

The college bowl structure, a world of unchallenged order and unquestioned tradition, will never be quite the same.

Closet rebels smiled smugly when the defiant Fiesta Bowl stepped out of line, did not wait once more for the big boys’ crumbs, and cut its own deal. The nerve. The gall. The future.

The Fiesta lured Miami and Penn State to Tempe, Ariz. to decide the national championship, but many people probably did not realize something larger also was being decided last New Year’s.

The Big Four steamed.

The Big Five emerged…

Birmingham Post-Herald, 1987

The horse race goes to the Merry Mex

PARAMUS, N.J.—At the moment Sunday the U.S. Senior Open became a horse race instead of a golf tournament, a balding, middle-aged man stood behind the 18th green at Ridgewood Country Club and watched the leaderboard with anticipation.

When the attendant replaced Lee Trevino’s 12 with an 11—indicating the Merry Mex had bogeyed to leave him just one stroke ahead of Jack Nicklaus—the man leapt up and started shouting at the top of his lungs.

“Go, Jack, Go! Go, Jack, Go!“ he repeated, inciting a chorus of cheers not so much against the popular Trevino, but in favor of the legendary Nicklaus…

The National, 1990

Welsh taking Virginia to the big dance

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—Don’t think of Virginia Coach George Welsh as bland, despite overwhelming evidence. Just consider him a dinosaur.

Somehow, in a game dominated by blow-dried coaching monsters who occasionally do a little coaching between endorsement deals, Welsh survived with his spit-and-polish Navy understatement and his preference for long drives in the country over long squints into the spotlight.

Fun? Sure, the guy knows how to have a good time. He loves a good polka.

“Now, there’s a dance,“ said Welsh, a man caught at once in a time warp and a media blitz…

The National, 1990

Whup-ass Politics

When Bill Byrne walks in to the Chinese restaurant near his office in downtown Marieta, a waitress brings him his usual glass of lemonade. He thanks her for her thoughtfulness. It’s a bright spring day, and the chairman of the Cobb County Commission isn’t mad at a blessed soul. He has already spent nearly two hours discussing his underdog bid to win the governor’s mansion in 2002—everything from the mathematical imperatives of a statewide Republican candidacy to the lingering political residue of the controversial anti-gay resolution he championed nearly a decade ago.

But I need to know one more thing: Did he really threaten to kick the ass of Marietta Daily Journal publisher Otis Brumby Jr? Suddenly, a cloud rolls across Bill Byrne’s sunny day.

“Oh, yeah,” Byrne says, the hint of a smile rising across his lips. “One day that will happen. One day our paths will cross.”

The chairman and the publisher have been feuding for nearly a decade over what Byrne considers unfair treatment in the local paper, hardly an unusual complaint for a powerful politician with larger ambitions. But the rift demonstrates an important point about the combative ex-Marine, who was re-elected to his third term in a landslide last year. Most elected officials would deny the animosity or at least talk it down. After all, why antagonize a powerful media institution when you can avoid it? But instead, Byrne has accentuated it, made it personal. He’s a man looking for a fight—and he can’t wait to go toe-to-toe with Gov. Roy Barnes…

Atlanta Magazine, 2001

USC Lacks Confidence and Points

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—USC forward Chris Moore could see it in his teammates’ eyes, their body language, their listless expressions of self-doubt.

“Our guys would come down the court, pull up and take a shot, watch it miss and then dwell on it,“ Moore said. “You dwell on it, you get beat.“

After the Trojans’ 78-69 loss to Alabama before 7,123 fans at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Saturday, Moore dwelled on the disturbing trend that has sent his team to a 1-4 start.

“These guys have no confidence,“ said Moore, a Birmingham native who led the Trojans with 14 points. “When you miss, you miss. You forget about it, go back on defense and play hard. You get the ball back and you believe you’re going to make it when you shoot. But this team doesn’t believe.“

Not only did the lack of offensive confidence hurt the Trojans, it caused mental lapses on defense, according to Moore. And more often than not, easy Alabama baskets followed the Trojans’ poor execution.

“It’s hard to guard somebody when you’re still thinking about that shot you missed,“ Moore said…

Los Angeles Times, 1987

College football’s new era is a click of the dial away

The dominos have just started to fall, but they began rocking in the wind years ago.

As much as some people would like to blame Notre Dame or Penn State, the chain reaction now reshaping college football resulted more from a gradual evolution than a pivotal push. For the past quarter-century, the game has been surrendering to television inch by inch. Realignment in TV’s image was always just a matter of time.

Some said it was a concession to progress in 1965 when NBC pursued the Orange Bowl to move to prime time. But it was really the first in a series of white flags. Once TV money became more important than gate receipts, today’s headlines were inevitable.

“Once, TV was a novelty,“ said Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles, whose school voted to join the Southeastern Conference last Wednesday. “But as the dollars kept accelerating, and we started to depend on it, I guess we sealed our own fate.“

The future remains murky, but the one certainty is change. By the mid-1990s, perhaps sooner, major college football will consist of a smaller group of schools, consolidated into a handful of superconferences arranged for the sake of TV dollars. A new era is at hand, with new rules. While the SEC and Metro Conference battle it out for expansion teams, the 76-year-old Southwest Conference fights for its life.

The SEC, Big Ten, Pac-10 and Atlantic Coast Conference will survive and prosper because they control TV sets, but the SWC, Big Eight and Western Athletic Conference need to merge or expand to survive…

The National, 1990

Another Beating for Birmingham

It has been 25 years since the nation watched civil rights protesters, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., being beaten by police with billy clubs, attacked by police dogs and sprayed with fire hoses as they marched through the streets of Birmingham, Ala.

Today, Birmingham, hub of a metropolitan area of 916,000 residents and the nation’s 43rd largest market, is racially integrated in ways even King could not have dreamed. But the events of 1963 left the city with a reputation that still festers in the nation’s consciousness. Birmingham remains a city with an inferiority complex, in desperate need of a pat on the back.

The latest attempt to garner such acceptance sits vacant now, gathering dust, debt and ridicule.

The Birmingham Turf Club, opened in March of 1987, was supposed to be the calling card of a progressive New Birmingham. Even Atlanta didn’t have a horse track, after all. And neither does Birmingham now. The track has been bankrupt and dormant since its first meet ended on Halloween 1987.

There is an irony to the Turf Club story, which hearkens back to King’s marches.

In 1985, one year after local politicians pushed a horse racing bill through the state legislature, the Birmingham Racing Commission had to decide on one of the three applicants for the new track’s only operating license. A group known as Birmingham Downs seemed sure to win. Its presentations were solid, its ambitions were modest, and, above all, its pockets were deep. But the group could not meet one Commission requirement: 30% minority ownership.

A group known as Greater Birmingham Sports Associates could, however. Though poorly financed, GBSA, which later became the Turf Club, won the license because it promised to meet the minority ownership quota.

“We knew they were weak financially,“ said Mayor Richard Arrington, who is black and who also chairs the Racing Commission. “But minority ownership was important to us. I don’t regret how we handled it.“

The failure of Alabama’s first horse track is inexorably linked to that decision…

Sports inc., 1989

Of the Duffer, By the Duffer, For the Duffer

When he hatched the idea three years ago, more than a few people questioned Robert Bronner’s grip on reality.

For months, Bronner, chief executive of Retirement Systems of Alabama, the state’s ultraconservative, $12 billion pension fund, crisscrossed the state trying to win support for a bold plan: to build a string of seven world-class public golf courses designed by one of the sport’s legendary architects. The largest golf course construction project ever would lure tourists to Alabama, improve the state’s image, and generate a profit to boot, Bronner insisted. As if the immensity of the undertaking wasn’t bold enough, Bronner expected developers to donate land and cities and counties to provide streets and services, thus limiting the fund’s exposure to $150 million.

Recalls Hugh Wheeless, the Coors beer distributor in Dothan, Ala., and one of the trail’s developers: “I thought he was nuts.”

BusinessWeek, 1993

Wild, wild change in NFL playoffs

NEW YORK—In a move to maximize television revenues, the NFL announced Thursday a revamped playoff structure that will include two more games and force one division winner in each conference to play a first-round game against a wild-card team.

The new format resulted at least partially from pressure by ABC, which agreed to a four-year package built around Monday Night Football that network sources indicated is worth between $900 million and $1 billion.

Sources said ABC demanded more games to meet the NFL’s steep asking price. The contract calls for the network to show 17 prime-time Monday night games in 1990 and 1991, 18 in 1992 and 1993, Super Bowl XXV in 1991, and three prime-time preseason games and the Hall of Fame preseason game each year. In addition, the network will broadcast two Saturday first-round playoff games each year, the carrot that sealed the deal.

The playoff changes amount to the first modification in the league’s championship structure since the introduction of a second wild-card team in each conference in 1978…

The National, 1990

UT sanctions not serious, NCAA says

Violations cited against the University of Texas football program are not considered major and do not place the school in jeopardy of receiving the so-called death penalty, NCAA officials said Thursday.

“This is not considered a major violation because it does not carry sanctions in regard to television or bowl games,“ said Wisconsin law professor Frank Remington, chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions.

The NCAA on Wednesday placed Texas on two years’ probation—although the period could be reduced to one year—for 51 rules violations that occurred during the past seven years. Sanctions included a reduction of scholarships from 25 to 20 next season and a reduction in the number of on-campus recruiting visits from 95 to 75 next year.

“It’s a serious penalty, but the committee did not make it a major penalty,“ said Dave Didion, the NCAA’s assistant director of enforcement…

Dallas Times Herald, 1987

Georgia Tech enjoys a perfect ending

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—Even before LSU tipped off against Georgia Tech Saturday night in the second round of the Southeast Regional, Coach Dale Brown had been contemplating life without sophomore sensation Chris Jackson.

Then, with 2:42 left, next year’s reality slapped him in the face.

When Jackson fouled out for only the third time in his college career, which ended with his post-game announcement that he will enter the NBA draft, the desperation could be seen in the faces of LSU players. A few moments later, it could be seen in the off-balance shot of Vernel Singleton, which bounded off the rim with seven seconds left and LSU down by one.

Jackson, the Tigers’ offensive and spiritual leader, the man who would have taken that final shot, was forced to sit on the bench as Georgia Tech locked up a 94-91 victory and headed for Friday’s Southeast semifinals against Michigan State…

The National, 1990

White’s Tigers set their sights on another SEC title

AUBURN, Ala.—As early as March, Auburn Coach Pat Dye sensed it. But for months, with doubletalk and indecision, he hid his feeling about the kid who did not act like one.

Letting a redshirt freshman quarterback a national championship contender can produce many results, most of them disastrous. Dye is not a gambler by nature, but he saw something in Stan White, something more than a nice passing touch. Dye spotted a calm, assured player and believed White’s teammates would, too.

So Dye, who admits that by vacillating among three quarterbacks in 1985 he squandered one of his most gifted teams, took a chance on the kid. He started unproven White over senior Frank McIntosh and stayed with him.

Auburn (6-0-1) enters the final month of its campaign for a fourth straight Southeastern Conference championship by facing Florida (6-1) on Saturday. And White is neither the liability some expected at the start of the season nor the Mr. Handoff some advocated. He is the glue holding the Tigers together, and despite inconsistency, he is the only bright spot in an otherwise lethargic and unproductive Auburn offense.

“At some point, I stopped being a freshman quarterback and just became a quarterback,“ White said. “There was a point in the Ole Miss game when we had to win the game in the fourth quarter, and I had to look in the players’ eyes and let them know just how we were going to win the game. You can’t use the freshman thing as a crutch after that…“

The National, 1990

Trying to follow the Bear’s tracks

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—The mirror, not Paul (Bear) Bryant’s shadow, is Gene Stallings’ biggest enemy.

The wrinkles and flecks of gray that stare back at him are constant reminders that college football’s youngest head coach in 1965 is still trying to prove himself in 1990. Fifty-five is an odd age and Alabama a curious place to shed training wheels.

But the head coaching failures that the years cannot mask are now being hidden by Bryant’s shadow. Despite a career .381 winning percentage, the third man to try to fill the shoes of major college football’s winningest coach is strangely in sync with a legacy that fans criticized Ray Perkins for eschewing and Bill Curry for embracing. But at some point in the rough period of transition likely to follow Saturday’s era-opening game against Southern Mississippi, Alabama supporters may be forced to link Stallings’ future with a difficult but inevitable question:

Was Bryant right?

And if he was wrong, what then?

“I know that my ties to Coach Bryant helped me get this job,“ Stallings said. “But I know I’ve got to win to keep it.“

Forget credentials. Alabama hired Stallings on faith…

The National, 1990

Monthly stipend wanted for athletes

It was a few days before Christmas a couple of years ago and Baylor tight end Kobe Fornes thought everyone was going home. He still remembers his introduction to one of the great contradictions of college sports.

“I was walking out of the athletic dorm, on my way home, and several of my teammates were standing around outside,“ he said. “I asked them when they were going home. But they said they weren’t going home. They couldn’t afford to. I didn’t know what to say. I felt really bad.“

The financial crunch for some student-athletes is hardly seasonal. Often the stars on the field, those who might go on to fame and fortune in the NFL, cannot afford an occasional pizza with the guys, dates with the girls or holiday rituals with the family.

They are the victims, some coaches and athletes say, of a college scholarship unfulfilled.

“It’s like we’re being punished for being athletes,“ Fornes said…

Dallas Times Herald, 1987

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