The Skywriters Tour Hits Some Bumps
By BUDDY MARTIN
College football fans got most of their information from local newspapers in 1966, and the printed words of local beat writers and columnists were thrown on their doorsteps, voraciously consumed. Largely, the SEC was a Southern tale in 1966. Members of the SEC Skywriters were storytellers and some of their higher profile colleagues were semi-rock stars, not all of which were on this flight.
Newspapers were not only relevant, but dominant. There was no Internet, no cable, no national sports network, no national newspaper and only a handful of sports-talk radio shows — mostly heard on low-powered AM stations in less-than-prime time. There were very few SEC games on national TV. The rise of Sports Illustrated brought an occasional flash of national attention to the region, but mostly about that Man in the Houndstooth Hat.
The first Skywriters Tour group was a collection of Caucasian males of varied ages, backgrounds and interests. They hailed from papers in Florida (8), Alabama (4), Tennessee (3), Mississippi (2), Georgia and Kentucky. Two were from wire services. From ages 25 to about 60, these men are mostly from the South, but are surprisingly somewhat politically diverse. Among the group are a novelist-to-be and two future sports editors of major New York City newspapers.
Long before pretty-boy sports anchors of TV were serious players in local sports journalism, the Kings of the Press Box were the Royal Guard of college football in the South. Their names and bylines were well-known: Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal, Tom Siler of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Fred Russell of the Nashville Banner, Raymond Johnson of the Nashville Tennessean, Benny Marshall of the Birmingham News, Bill Lumpkin of the Birmingham Post-Herald, Peter Finney of the New Orleans States-Item, Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald, Tom McEwen of the Tampa Tribune … just to name a few giants of that era.
Of them only Johnson, Marshall, Lumpkin and McEwen were aboard that maiden Skywriters flight. Others passengers were: John Logue, the Atlanta Journal; Neil Amdur, Miami Herald; Buddy Martin, (Florida) Today; Jack Hairston, Jacksonville Journal; Bill Bondurant, Fort Lauderdale News; Tom Kelly, St. Petersburg Times; Bob Bassine, Orlando Sentinel; Bill Clark, Atlanta Constitution; George Smith, Anniston Star; Jimmy Smothers, Gadsen Times; Larry Boeck, Louisville Courier-Journal; Lee Baker, Jackson Daily News; Wayne Thompson, Jackson Clarion-Ledger; Edgar Allen, Nashville Banner; Ed Harris, Knoxville News-Sentinel; Austin White, Chattanooga News-Free Press, Ron Speer, Associated Press; and David Moffitt, United Press International.
The Ghost of Grantland Rice
In the South, where the poetic voices were still allowed, admired and sometimes even encouraged, the sports writer/columnist was often a celebrity. They wrote the gospel, often with grace and style. And they knew stuff you couldn’t get anywhere else – unless Google, Twitter and Facebook had been invented back then.
Sometimes in late afternoon or on late nights in press boxes, those aspiring wordsmiths labored long and hard over lead paragraphs, perhaps striving for the pure gold that memorialized Tennessee-born Grantland Rice with his classic lead on the 1924 Army-Notre Dame game in the New York Herald-Tribune: “Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. …”
Rice, by the way, was an iconic Southern literature figure who grew his roots in Atlanta and Nashville more than 60 years prior to the fist Skywriters Tour and ultimately became one of New York’s most famous columnists and writers.
In the early 1960s, a young Grantland Rice wannabe occupying an assigned press box seat among the denizens of “The Toy Department” was a privilege akin to a Major League Baseball rookie walking into the dugout for his first All-Star Game. The press box on Saturday was a veritable Newspaper Cooperstown wax museum of flesh and blood. There was a pecking order, to be sure, but also a chance for apprentices to rub elbows with greatness.
“I remember writing on deadline and watching Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal type a lead on his typewriter, crumble up the page and throw it on the floor,” recalls Skywriter pioneer George Smith about covering an SEC game. “I told my friend next to me ‘There’s stuff on that floor that’s better than anything I could ever write.’”
The Skywriters were like a flying press box, however, but more diversified because the writers came from all over the SEC and not just two teams playing on a Saturday.
Sports writers were generally underpaid, overworked and usually under-valued in journalism, particularly at non-unionized outposts in the South. And yet they normally went about their jobs cheerfully and passionately like it was honor and duty – if with a touch of journalistic cynicism. They made it fun. Or attempted to. And sometimes they made fun of themselves – but never their work.
Former National Sports Daily, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Dave Kindred recalled: “When I think of Southern sports writers, I think of a fraternity, a bunch of guys having a good time. To me that’s what Southern sports writers always were. They were protective of their turf. Tribal. Nothing else mattered. The Big Ten didn’t matter. Who the hell cared about the Big Ten? The Pac 10 was another world away.
“At that time, all anybody cared about below the Mason-Dixon Line was SEC football. East of the Mississippi River and South of the Mason-Dixon Line, that was their world. The Skywriters covered that world,” said Kindred, who later joined the 1969 Skywriters for one campaign.
Loran Smith, Georgia’s sports information director at the time, recalled: “Newspapers were pretty much the only media. They were really big back then. Radio was pretty localized. TV wasn’t very prominent, but even when it did none of those guys would think of going to Oxford, Miss., or Baton Rouge, La., or Tuscaloosa, Ala. – but the writers did.”
Sometimes Things Got Testy
“Fun,” however, was not an adjective used to describe the original SEC Skywriters. At least not in the early years. And especially once some serious topics were uncorked and the blowback began from certain coaches or schools.
Frankly, on the SEC Skywriters Tour, a few coaches felt like the writers were semi-interlopers bent on exposing their secrets. And when the subject of race was broached, at least one member was un-invited to return.
A rigorous work schedule for the 1966 press gang quickly discouraged much frivolity. It challenged mind and body. Adding to the stress of deadlines was the flying in and out of small-town airports in a primitive bucket-of-bolts airplane. The high drama came to a head when the pilot was forced to abort landing at Auburn because of a stray cow on the runway.
One writer, George Smith, swore the tip of the wing clipped the top of a pine tree as the plane struggled to pull back up as the pilots circled to take a mulligan. Another writer, Logue, said there were branches in the landing gear. Later, it was learned that the pilot and co-pilot had often been closing the hotel bar the night before early morning flights.
“A few of us are having a late night drink at a Holiday Inn where we’re staying,” Smith remembered. “The two pilots are wrapped around some hard drinking at the bar. It is 2 a.m.; at 6:30 we take off. Those cats had to still be drunk.”
I remember seeing Raymond Johnson clutching a pillow like it was a lifeboat vest. Instinctively, we all began hunching forward as if to help the plane’s momentum. We couldn’t have cleared it by more than 25 feet. That night we did visit the bar – and the cocktails tasted especially good.
Scary, but a chance to poke some fun as well.
From that day forward, and on ensuing Skywriters Tours in the immediate future, every time the charter flight landed somewhere for the Auburn stop, Hairston of Jacksonville would whip out his harmonica and play “Nearer My God To Thee” over the PA system – the hymn familiarized by the sinking of the Titanic.
The Typewriter Serenade
The chatter of the typewriters could be heard late in the night from the tap-tap-tapping in motel rooms, mostly Holiday Inns. That sound defined the mission. The Skywriters’ job was to glean some new information, nail down quotes and describe what was being seen and heard, then write it and send to their offices via Western Union. It was like sending out the first courier of the Pony Express by today’s standard.
The early stops were mostly uneventful and in coachspeak, but still interesting and somewhat informative. And then there was Tuscaloosa, Ala., and a chance to watch Paul “Bear” Bryant conduct a Crimson Tide practice from his coaching tower.
As if he were conductor Arthur Fiedler lording over his Boston Pops Orchestra, Bryant dispatched groups of players from spot to spot over several practice fields with the sounding of an air horn. Alabama’s practice came off like a well-oiled piece of machinery. Bryant put on a show for the writers.
“Perkins, get over here with the offense,” Bryant shouted to his two-way star Ray Perkins who was at defensive back. The senior captain trotted over to the offensive huddle and began displaying the receiving skills he would later use that year to lead the Tide to a national championship with 33 catches for 490 yards and 7 touchdowns.
“The Bear” always knew how to play to the house. He didn’t just talk about it. He showed it to you. Perkins made All-American and went on to play four years for Don Shula’s Colts, catching a pass from Johnny Unitas in the AFC Championship victory over the Raiders and a trip to Super Bowl V.
In 1966, what we were about to witness was the prelude to a season that now seems so obsolete – a time before the SEC had earned enough respect to win a popular vote in the polls.
Alabama was still the scourge of the league, with Bryant unleashing an 11-0 undefeated season on the SEC as co-champion with Georgia.
The Crimson Tide trounced Nebraska 34-7 in the 1967 Sugar Bowl but didn’t win the national championship because teams weren’t re-ranked after the bowls back then.
Because Michigan State and Notre Dame tied 10-10 but didn’t play in a post-season game, they were both ranked ahead of the Tide. However, they did earn the respect of Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who when asked if they were greatest team in the country after winning the first Super Bowl replied: “I don’t know yet – we haven’t played Alabama.”
One Mississippi One, Two Mississippi…
On the final few legs of the tour, the first hint of controversy reared its head in Oxford, Miss.
Ole Miss had been the focal point of a race riot in 1962 during the attempted admission of African-American James Meredith to the segregated school. The first African-American was about to desegregate SEC football, though actual integration of the sport was several years away. Sports writing was no longer just about the games. Off-field stories were becoming more important.
Ten years after Brown vs. Board or Education of Topeka, Kan., integration was on the cusp. But rarely did the topic of race come up in sports lexicon – conversation or print. Great black southern athletes tended to migrate to the north where they became stars and future high NFL draft choices. Those differences were about to be brought to light by print journalists, but cautiously. The integration of the SEC was only one of the many complex issues about to be confronted. And it was a clumsy subject.
African-Americans were playing football only at all-black schools in the South. Segregation Down South was a political/sociological firestorm for newspapers — but not yet an athletic one. This is a precursor for the Skywriters. While there is regional pride, there is also regional prejudice. Football, however, is not a place for debating ideology.
The University of Houston, an independent school unencumbered by conference guidelines, had become the first team in the South to integrate in 1962 with running back Warren McVea, who once rushed for 155 yards against Michigan State. Nate Northington was about to finally break the color barrier and enroll at the University of Kentucky for the fall semester in 1966 after declaring his intentions two years earlier.
It cuts both ways. Segregation virtually prohibited inter-conference play, thus some of the white SEC stars were not exposed to the national audience.
Ole Miss under Johnny Vaught was an SEC powerhouse, already having won six conference championships, including an unbeaten No. 3 ranked team in 1962. But the Rebels were about to go into a tailspin.
In Oxford, Amdur wrote that the problems at Ole Miss were related to larger issues of race generational disconnect, with these words appearing in the Miami Herald: “The rise and fall of Lafayette County, so vividly depicted in William Faulkner’s fictional trilogy, is for real in University of Mississippi football. Call it age, apathy or apartheid, but the Southeastern Conference is catching up with Johnny Vaught.”
Amdur zeroed in on the lack of black players in Oxford, the advancing age of Vaught’s coaching staff and what he sensed was a lack of passion in the once-proud program, which previously had produced those six SEC champions. As for integration? Vaught was proudly defiant: “By the time we find one (black player) good enough,” he said, of integration, “I think I’ll be gone.” But the Mississippi coach also acknowledged his program’s deficiency.
“It takes one to catch one,” Vaught told a group of the Skywriters – a quote which eventually took on its own life as a print version of a viral tweet. “Everybody jumped on that one,” Lumpkin recalled, “including Ron Speer of the Associated Press. And it went nationwide.”
“You’re Not Welcome Here…”
It was an ominous sign for those SEC programs long sheltered from controversy by friendlies in the press corps, where race had been heretofore an off-limits topic. But there were several 20-something-old writers in the Skywriters fold, and the “outside press” touching sensitive subjects such as race, coaching tenure, soft schedules and recruiting added another prickly layer to the relationship.
The following year, when the Skywriters plane landed in Oxford, Amdur was greeted by an Ole Miss official who informed him: “You’re not welcome here.” (Amdur never wavered, stayed, wrote and boarded the Skywriters plane later that day.)
That same year the SEC would become integrated with the enrollment of Northington at Kentucky, who had no idea what would await him at Kentucky.
Although only a freshman, Northington knew he could hold his own against peers. But as an African-American who would become Kentucky’s first non-white football player – and the first black football player in the all-white Southeastern Conference – Northington was less certain. He dislocated his shoulder in his first game and ultimately left school to attend Western Kentucky.
Kentucky’s only other black player at the time, Greg Page, became paralyzed after suffering a spinal cord injury during practice and he died 38 days afterward.
It would be 1972 before all 10 SEC schools were integrated – Ole Miss would be the last – and 13 years between national titles for the conference, its longest drought in the modern era. Thirty-four years later in 2006, with squads of mostly African-American athletes, the SEC exploded with a remarkable seven straight national championships, beginning with Florida’s defeat of Ohio State.
Postscript: By 1966, even with Alabama’s national titles, a Southern football player has not won a Heisman Trophy but once in 23 years. Florida quarterback Steve Spurrier was considered one of the leading candidates, yet Spurrier would play an entire 1966 regular season without being on national TV.
Spurred on by aggressive coverage from members of the Skywriters Tour, a national campaign by Florida Sports Information Director Norm Carlson and the school’s willingness to make their prized athlete available to the media and promote his candidacy, Spurrier would go on to win the Heisman that year. Joe Durso of the New York Times happened to be at the game where Spurrier kicked the winning field goal to beat Auburn. The field goal put Spurrier over the top, ahead of Purdue’s Bob Griese.
If they weren’t already aware of it, SEC coaches were reminded that sports writers could also be a huge asset in advancing the cause of college football programs – even if they did sometimes stir up a little dust.
(Retired New York Times sports editor Neil Amdur contributed to this story.)
NEXT: As the Skywriters roll on, the cast gets bigger, the planes get bigger, and the stories become larger than life. The agenda is more liberal and relaxed for social time. Accommodations improve and so does the social interaction. Time is made for cocktail hour in the new agenda. And then – poof – one day, after 17 years, the Skywriters Air Force is grounded. After 32 years of being stationairy in Birmingham, Ala. SEC Media Days is moved to Atlanta in 2018. p>