Hidden Treasure Uncovered: Two ‘Missing’ Skywriters Surface
Another in a series about the inaugural flight of the SEC Skywriters Tour which helped inspire the biggest college preseason football extravaganza on Earth: SEC Media Days
By BUDDY MARTIN
They were working stiffs. Their parents were survivors of The Great Depression when any job was a good job. So getting paid something –- anything – to go watch and write about a football game felt like grand larceny.
Most of the writers would have done their jobs for nothing. They felt privileged to hang out with like-minded guys who celebrated life and good times with equal zest – food and football, swapping lies and cavorting together in the friendly confines of their personal space. Only this time they shared that space with the intermingling coaches and players.
This Press Box had wings. The original SEC Skywriters were sports competition junkies, football addicts, usually gregarious in nature, always as thirsty for a story as they were an adult beverage.
Of foremost concern were development of their stories, how responsive and available the players and coaches might be to their questions, how to transmit their copy back to their offices and, lastly, what kind of accommodations had been reserved by Tour Director Elmore “Scoop” Hudgins.
Finally, what would be the protocol and boundaries for probing questions? Would we be welcomed by the schools and the programs? And how would we handle our logistics problems in getting our stories back to our office? There would be deadline pressure on top of long, hot, gritty days.
Prior to the SEC Skywriters Tour, the working relationships between writers and SEC coaches in 1966 were a mixed bag. Those relationships were often forged locally by daily customs and work routines, but so-called “outsiders” were not often privy to those local insights. There were considerations given, however, and coaches were afforded a benefit of doubt because of their willingness to cooperate. It was reciprocal.
In one-newspaper towns, without competitors to fear, those relationships were often borne out of a working routine, even if it did almost smack of allowing subjects to control the news.
“In those days, only one writer from our local paper covered our practice, so if I suspended five players, I could ask him to delay the story for a few days,” recalls one SEC head coach.
These coaches, lionized by fans and accorded comfortable salaries with reasonable job security, were also masters at media manipulation. On the flip side, they were usually cordial, accessible to the media, would take a call from a reporter or, on some occasions, would allow an impromptu visit –- even after hours – and perhaps share a beer or cocktail.
This was as opposed to today where almost everything is orchestrated in an open press conference – unless you are a member of the controlling media partner like ESPN, CBS, NBC, ABC, etc.
On the other hand, the early Skywriters enjoyed more extended interview periods, with open access to practice. That semi-intimate atmosphere, plus breaking bread with the 21 interlopers, began to result in relationship bridge-building over the years – just as Scoop Hudgins had hoped.
As former Georgia Assistant Sports Information Director Loran Smith said, those associations were girded by the genteel influence of Southern hospitality. When it came to digging their heels in, however, the sports writers didn’t back off.
“The newspaper business was pretty much the only media,” said Smith. “Newspapers were really big then. Radio stations, even the big ones, didn’t travel. Television wasn’t prominent, but even when it became prominent, none of those guys would think of going to Oxford, Miss., or Baton Rouge, La., or Tuscaloosa, Ala. They just didn’t do that.”
George Smith of Anniston, Ala., remembers that coach-writer relationships as meaningful, socially acceptable and professionally productive. “We could have a drink together, chat and share thoughts – but they understood that when their team played badly, or a story broke about something questionable going on at their schools or on their watch, we weren’t going to dodge it. That was the code.”
This was going to be a different media, with new faces and new questions. In a few days, the group of 21 would find out about that after experiencing its first blowback from a controversial story in the Miami Herald about Ole Miss and segregation. Much to the displeasure of many coaches, the subject of race and the absence of black athletes were not going to be avoided.
As I embarked on a journalistic journey about the SEC Skywriters in 2014, the first order of business was tracking the names of the people from the almost-famous photo in front of the DC3. Over the next four years after an exhaustive search I was able to identify all 21 and speak to what I thought were the only five living subjects: Neil Amdur (Miami Herald/New York Times), John Logue (Atlanta Journal/Southern Living Magazine), Bill Lumpkin (Birmingham Post-Herald) and George Smith. Four years later I learned that Bill Bondurant (Fort Lauderdale News) and Tom Kelly (St. Petersburg Times) were also alive.
The post-World War II generation didn’t even offer us clues like Hansel and Gretel did by leaving breadcrumbs on the trail. Some of the original Skywriters departed from the sports department via promotion, or moved to another paper, or city. Unfortunately, much of their work has vanished since many newspaper libraries have been abandoned by cost-cutting measures.
Tracing their footprints was exhausting – more like excavation than research. My search for the remaining living charter members of the 1966 Skywriters Tour took many twists. Many personal queries, hundreds of phone calls and emails later produced two more members in mid-2018 and they happily joined the trip down memory lane.
I found most of them in decent health, fairly good spirits and sharp-witted – even if not every fact was immediately accessible to their recollection. Overall, however, they remembered it fondly and could share some colorful, insightful stories. Although hard facts were difficult to come by, stories were still being shared – albeit somewhat different versions.
Two thirds of the 21 are missing or dead. Most of them don’t participate in social media, so connectivity was virtually non-existent.
But to supplement my story, I also connected with other writers, media directors and coaches who were either involved or came along a few years later.
From Part 2: College Football in Black & White
“The typewriter keys of these intrepid storytellers will sculpt the black-and-white, analog world of a dynasty in its infancy – their words transmitted by Western Union back to newspaper offices where the stories are set in hot lead before being rolled into a cardboard matt which will mold the press plate.”
The mood as we boarded the McDonnell-Douglas DC 3 aircraft on Sept. 4, 1966 was mixed – partly adventurous, partly somber and partly reluctant. All curious. And a little fearful. As the 21 willing subjects had packed their suitcase for a week in September of 1966 and prepared to lug it across 2,551 miles, along with a 15-pound typewriter, we had no clue about how things were going to work or how working conditions might pan out.
Our expectations were probably low – interviews with coaches and players, a warm bed, a cold beer perhaps and a safe flight. Some trepidation would be warranted, however, given the nature of the danger we would encounter – especially with the aged aircraft and the questionable sobriety of their pilots.
According to the website Flying-Tigers.co.uk, the 25-year-old DC 3 was “a fixed-wing propeller-driven airline. Its cruise speed (207 mph or 333 km/h) and range (1,500 mi or 2,400 km) revolutionized air transport in the 1930s and 1940s. Its lasting effect on the airline industry and World War II makes it one of the most significant transport aircraft ever made.”
Reportedly it was utilized during World War II to “Fly The Hump” over Burma. And it certainly made an impression on us. We had “hump” of another kind to negotiate. To be honest, the aircraft was a Bucket of Bolts.
Most Skywriters would have settled for just a safe plane and some sober pilots who could have navigated the short runway of Auburn more effectively. Later, we found out that pilot David Hardin and co-pilot David Ritter from East Coast Flying Service in Jacksonville were seen almost nightly closing the motel bar – usually over-served and well-lubricated right until last call. This was duly noted after the aborted landing at the Auburn airport – a sight so scary that Auburn Sports Information Director Buddy Davison, himself a pilot, actually closed his eyes while watching us from the ground.
Aside from that near-miss debacle, there were the daily inconveniences of packing and unpacking suitcases and transporting those bags to their final destination. (I would arrive home in Florida without my bags at the conclusion of the trip – two suitcases full of mostly suits, sport coats, dress shirts and ties, which were the attire of the week for many. After a month of protesting, the airline sent me a check. Only to find the bags 10 days later – and, yes, I cashed the check.)
Successful coaches like Bear Bryant at Alabama, Ralph “Shug” Jordan at Auburn, Johnny Vaught at Ole Miss, Ray Graves of Florida, Charlie McClendon at LSU and Vince Dooley at Georgia were more consumed with trying to deal with this new dominant force out of Tuscaloosa than wrestling with the integration issue. However, there wasn’t the win-at-all-cost obsession of today, but there was pressure to beat their rivals, post a winning record and qualify to play in one of the few big bowl games.
In those days, it was borderline rude to publically ask questions about player misbehavior, conduct unbecoming of them or their coaches as well as matters of such things as race, academics or money.
However, they couldn’t keep the genie in the bottle much longer. That may have been the most groundbreaking aspect of the SEC Skywriters Tour.
From Part I: College Football in Black & White
“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.”
Over the years I have kept up with Amdur. We first re-visited about the group in 2014 and wondered if there was a story to be written about the fate of the individuals. For the 50thanniversary in 2016 we began attempting to locate our former colleagues, but to little or no avail. I managed to find five, along with some of their contemporaries, and wrote several pieces about “back in the day.” But information and details were scant.
Paul Finebaum of the SEC Network asked me at dinner one night during the SEC Media Days if I thought a Skywriters story would be candidate for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. I thought about it and then agreed that it might but was puzzled about how to round up the suspects.
Several years and a half-dozen conversations with TV types didn’t produce a groundswell of support. Although most of them enjoyed the story, key people didn’t feel it was compelling or controversial enough. So I had made little or no progress. Later in 2018 the conference showed an interest in pitching our tale for their SEC Storied series, but nothing ever materialized.
So I promised myself I’d carry on anyway and finish telling part of the story in written form. That meant retracing my steps.
Finally, I heard back from former Fort Lauderdale News sports editor/columnist Bill Bondurant, a retired Alamo Rental Car executive living in Indian Wells, Calif., and former Palm Beach Post Editorial Page Editor Tom Kelly (former sports editor of the St. Petersburg Times) still living in Florida.
Both Bondurant and Kelly recalled fondly their relationships with various coaches which they still relish today; both also lamented the changes since. Universally, all seven Skywriters felt the erosion of writer-coach relationships hurt modern journalism and had definitely stolen most of the romance and charm of the profession.
Back then there was an unspoken agreement with coaches. “It was like ‘I’ll be your friend until you backstab me,’” said Bondurant. “It wasn’t proper taking a personal meeting or dinner and using what was said in that conversation the next day in the paper against the coach after befriending each other. People just didn’t do that then.”
Records, newspaper clippings and mementoes were harder to come by. Amdur had kept a couple of his from the Miami Herald. In 2018, I discovered all of the columns by McEwen from the 1966 trip, a few by Kelly from the St. Petersburg Times and other random articles – including a couple of my own.
It was important also to document the serious work of those who engaged in journalism, lest these men be disparaged as a members/good-ole-boy network out for the drinking and carousing, with a back pat and a blind eye toward their coaching chums.
In many cases the underpinning of these writer/coach relationships was trust. Nonetheless, even the veteran writers weren’t given to sweeping things under the rug. Even Bryant wasn’t given a pass. Even some of the “old guard” writers were beginning to raise questions about change.
Nothing changed the game like Amdur’s criticism of Ole Miss and its defiance of segregation. The fact that black players from the South were showing up elsewhere and profoundly impacting programs could not be unnoticed. But Johnny Vaught was not alone – the whole SEC lagged behind.
Example: In his pre-tour column, Tampa Tribune Sports Editor Tom McEwen referenced it this way: “Kentucky has two Negroes on scholarships, on its freshman team.”
From Part 2: College Football in Black & White
“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.’
“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 Nate Northington at Kentucky, who had no idea what would await him.”
It wasn’t all Woodward & Bernstein – frivolity was encouraged and remembered as well.
It was Bondurant who won the trivia contest: What was the name of our flight attendant?
“Freida,” he said. “I remember she would walk up and down the aisles and say the same thing everyday. ‘Coffee, tea … Coh-Cola’ – that’s how she pronounced it – ‘or Sprite?’”
Bondurant spoke frankly about The Kitty Hawk. “The plane was an absolute piece of crap and not air-conditioned until it was in the air,” recalled Bondurant. “I guess the pilot opened some kind of vents once we were airborne.”
What made the SEC beat interesting and fun was the access granted by some coaches to the writers. Bondurant remembered going bass fishing with Florida Coach Ray Graves on Saturdays. Kelly, others and I cherished the post-game dinner parties with writers and coaches at Graves’ home.
Lumpkin once went to an Ole Miss practice – not on the Skywriters Tour, but on a solo trip prior to that — and asked Coach Billy Kinard if he could talk to some of his players from Alabama in order to write story about them for the Birmingham Post-Herald. Kinard turned and said to his players: “How many of you are from Alabama?” About a half dozen raised their hands. “OK, talk to Mr. Lumpkin here and then come out to practice.”
It turns out there was a little bit of wisdom in the idea of “Scoop” Hudgins about the writers getting to know some of “our folks.” The SEC Skywriters Tour did enhance those relationships for out-of-town writers.
Kelly recalled how much he had learned to respect Bear Bryant. The image he’d personally had of the Alabama coach a few years before the first Skywriters Tour turned out not to be the same.
“John Crittenden (Miami News) and I went up to Tuscaloosa a few years before and had arranged to interview Bryant,” said Kelly. “I was fairly prepared to dislike Bryant because (a) he was so successful and (b) he didn’t have any black players. We met him in is office and he just was not anywhere near the mental picture I had built up of this ‘aloof tyrant.’ He was a helluva guy.”
Kelly wasn’t the only one of the “foreign media” impressed with Bryant.
FROM PART 1: College Football in Black & White
“(John) Logue recalled a rare occasion in the late 1960s when he and colleague Jack Hairston of the Jacksonville Journal wound up almost inadvertently overindulging with Bryant and having to deliver the inebriated Alabama coach back home, whereupon they were confronted at the door by an angry Mary Harmon Bryant, the ‘Mother’ Bear.”
The drinking stories notwithstanding – and don’t get the idea that Alabama’s coach made it a habit of hosting Happy Hour with the writers, because those were rare – just the chance to observe Bryant’s Alabama practices in motion was like watching finely tuned machinery: Bear directing the interchanging of a half-dozen units from his tower with the burst of an air horn.
At the Alabama workout that day on the SEC Tour, Kelly and I were among those fascinated with Bryant and came away feeling we had been observing the CEO of IBM in an outdoor board room.
William Faulkner Residence
Over the next few years, Kelly and I ventured out on a few side trips apart from the SEC tour. One unforgettable evening we took a long taxi ride from our Oxford, Miss., motel to the wooded residence of famous author William Faulkner, who wasn’t home. The cab waited while we scaled the gate then walked down the long driveway with pebbles crunching under our feet.
A blazing full Mississippi moon sliced through the pine trees on to the roof of the dark house as we stopped about 20 yards away and stood in semi-awe, speaking no words. It seemed like 15 minutes but was likely only about two when we turned and walked back the gate, where the taxi awaited, engine still running. Fifty-two years as we reminisced, Kelly and I found it no less of an enchanting experience. Mission accomplished.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Kelly.
Ironically, Kelly wound up making a friend at Ole Miss and went back several times to serve as a visiting professor. While I admire Faulkner as a great Southern novelist, I still wade through the convoluted writing style of the great Faulkner with difficulty and have never finished reading “The Sound and the Fury.”
The post-World War II emergence of college football as a showcase in the South grew organically and exponentially with the success of programs at LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Georgia Tech and, mostly, Alabama.
Before Georgia Tech dropped out of the SEC in 1964, Bobby Dodd had the Yellow Jackets ranked in the Associated Press Top 10 five times in the 1950s – more than any other SEC team. Ole Miss was second with four.
The most-prized goal was winning the SEC title and going to a bowl for most programs, due mainly to the fact that there was no clear path to a national title because polls were taken at the end of the regular season and not decided by the bowls.
The SEC, however, began to be mentioned in the conversations about the national picture more readily as the 1960s drew nigh.
The SEC closed out the 1950s with a flurry. Jordan’s Auburn team was SEC Champion in 1957 and had the No. 1 AP ranking but was on probation and couldn’t play in a bowl. LSU was crowned national champ by the AP in 1958, thanks to Paul Dietzel’s three-platoon system and the highly publicized Chinese Bandits – a backup defensive unit.
“One team you don’t want to forget about was Ole Miss,” said Doug Dickey. “They had a great run in the early sixties.” Before integration.
This, however, was nothing in comparison to what Bear Bryant was bringing.
“There’s no question,” said Loran Smith. “Bear Bryant changed everything. He wanted to win national championships.”
This was a different way of thinking. According to Dickey, then coaching at Tennessee, “everybody was worried about winning the SEC – the national championship wasn’t something you worried about … Whatever happened, happened. Win the SEC and go to the Sugar Bowl. And most teams recruited in the Southeast.”
As the 1966 season approached and the SEC Skywriters Tour began to focus on key story lines, there were none more compelling than Bryant, his colorful persona, controversial style and the juggernaut he was building for an unprecedented run.
Everybody was Bear Hunting. Before stepping down as Georgia coach in 1960, Wally Butts had tried to take him down with an expose about Bryant’s alleged illegal, off-season summer conditioning program.
Bryant had always been a lightning rod. He was preceded by legendary folklore like the story about him wrestling a bear in an Arkansas circus to earn his moniker … the oft-told story of the brutal training camp for “The Junction Boys” at Texas A&M and the subsequent successful turnaround of the Aggies’ program … and his sonic-boom landing in Tuscaloosa, returning to his alma mater because “Mama Called” which had all the SEC coaches atwitter in 1958. One of them was Butts, whose Georgia team had won the SEC in 1960.
Bryant’s presence was already being felt and the heat was turned on. Bear’s rebuilding program was about to vault Alabama into an unbeaten 11-0 season and a national championship in 1961 – the year after Butts stepped up to athletic director in Georgia.
One day Butts telephoned Executive Sports Editor Jim Minter of the Atlanta Journal in mid-summer.
“I want you to drive over to Athens and meet with me and Bill Hartman (former coach and Georgia booster/fundraiser),” Butts said to Minter. Butts told Minter it was important to college football.
“Coach Butts said, ‘That damn Paul Bryant is doing the same thing he was doing with his summer conditioning program at Texas A&M,’” Minter recalled.
When he arrived in Athens, Minter was given a $10,000 check made out to him and asked if his newspaper could use it as funding for a photographer to take photos of any illegal activities by Bryant and expose Alabama’s off-season workouts.
Ostensibly, it was to pay for undercover work on a plantation in southern Alabama where Bryant was said to be running illegal summer workouts. But the clear purpose of Butts was to “run Paul Bryant out of college football – and if you did that you would have done the greatest service ever done to college football,” Minter said.
When Minter took the check back to Atlanta and consulted with his boss, the idea was nixed. When asked if his sports department could do the story without taking the money, Bill Fields, the managing editor, noted that it was “not our job to police college football.”
Ironically, a few years later after that the Saturday Evening Post published a story charging Butts and Bryant with collusion in attempt to “fix” a game between Alabama and Georgia after a conversation on Sept. 13, 1962 between the two men was intercepted by a third party.
Butts was out of coaching, having stepped aside in favor of Johnny Griffith. With Joe Namath at quarterback, Bryant was about to win his second national championship. Alabama crushed the Bulldogs in the opening game, 35-0.
These were some of the back stories as the first SEC Skywriters Tour took wing on Sunday, Sept. 4, 1966 out of Atlanta – 13 of the journalists merging with another eight from in Gainesville, where coach Ray Graves, star quarterback Steve Spurrier and Sports Information Director Norm Carlson greeted them on Florida Field, now named after Spurrier.
A few days before the launch from Atlanta, stories were beginning to surface about some schools using academic scholarships for football. Benny Marshall of the Birmingham News wrote and reported on a story originally appearing in the Atlanta Journal about the misuse of academic scholarships by Alabama.
Although some of the SEC schools had raised their entrance standards – ironically it was said to be a buffer to slow down integration after the mid-1950s – it was evident that academic scholarships were also being generously handed out to some football players. At that time, SEC schools were allowed 40 scholarships.
In response to that story, Bryant lashed out: “This thing is absolutely nothing! Any student who can qualify academically is welcome at Alabama. Any implication that we are trying to get away with something is ridiculous!”
According to the Associated Press report, outgoing SEC Commissioner Bernie Moore said the story was “exaggerated” but the league would check into it. There was never a punitive action.
Somewhere along the way the Skywriters dropped “Kitty Hawk” and mentioned a Beatles reference.McEwen chronicled a mini-summation of the 1966 Skywriters Tour in his Sept. 10 column “The Flight of Jiminy” in which he coined “The Yellow Submarine.”
McEwen also mentioned – although it was never verified – that Scoop Hudgins had taken out a $100,000 life insurance policy on each writer. It may not seem like much now, but it would have easily covered most writers’ salary for a decade
In his final analogy, McEwen stated:
“1. Alabama does indeed appear to be the class of the SEC” (in football)
“2. There won’t be a flight of Jiminy Two unless Scoop Hudgins changes airline charters.”
Of course, I might call into question the accuracy of some reports also written by my friend Tom McEwen, who wrote “… one newsman chose to write for (sic) national publication the exciting story that Mississippi would not play Negroes on its team this year or the next. Buddy Martin of (Cocoa) Today said, like writing a story reporting the New York Yankees will not base in Belzona, Miss., this year, but in Yankee Stadium.”
I don’t remember ever having said that, nor have I ever been in – or heard of – Belzona, Miss. But I get the point McEwen was trying to get. I just never said it.
Following the 1966 Skywriters Tour, a few edgy, adversarial relationships between writer and coach begin to surface.
As one of the 20-somethings, working as sports editor columnist of the brand Today newspaper – a forerunner of USA Today – I would emerge from the Skywriters Tour with a mission to change the way I covered the SEC, utilizing a harder edge to reporting. Three years later, I developed a confidential source which turned out to be the usually media-unfriendly Walter Byers, head of the NCAA. I was conflicted about whether to write the story about the upcoming investigation, but at the end had no choice as a journalist.
After Byers read my columns describing a backroom coaching change deal at Florida involving Ray Graves, he announced a forthcoming NCAA investigation at Florida on ethics. I was called a liar by then-president John Lombardi, who later reneged on that comment when he found out the validity of my source. University of Florida was not found guilty of any NCAA violations, but Byers followed up with a comment that his group merely couldn’t get enough witnesses to testify.
So the Skywriters rolled on, with a larger cast requiring larger planes with jet engines. The agenda for a more flexible work schedule and better accommodations ensued and the social interaction increased. Time was made for cocktail hour in the new agenda. And landings improved at Auburn. In fact, the DC-3 beings landed at nearby airports to avoid anymore stray cows.
Legends were born – some rooted in drinking stories. Phillip Marshall from Alabama, son of the Skywriter Pioneer Benny Marshall, said halfway through his first Skywriters tour he thought he was “going to die” while re-boarding the old airplane which had been sitting in the sun all day. The air-conditioner didn’t work until wheels were up. Says Marshall, “A lot of guys got on that plane every day not feeling well from the previous night.”
As the years passed, the tour took on a more relaxed pace. “I remember,” Dave Kindred said of a trip in 1969, “David Housel (sports information director at Auburn) meeting the plane and as we walked off he had cases and cases of beer on the runway!”
Recalled one writer, “Every SEC school usually hosted a dinner party with free food and drink that lasted well in the wee hours of morning, with endless card games and other escapades that somehow didn’t end up on the police blotter or lead to the hospital emergency room.”
Somehow the first SEC Skywriters Tour succeeded. Stories got written and filed and read by those outside the region. Everybody made it back home alive after the inaugural voyage and, despite near-misses and a pothole or two, the Skywriters rolled on for 16 more years.
After 1983, the decision was made to end the Skywriters Tour when the league didn’t attract enough media members to fill a plane. The 1984 tour was scheduled for the same time as the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles – which is where most of us went to work.
A year later, the SEC started hosting its current preseason media days in a fixed location: Birmingham. “Skywriters” became an anachronism.
“I was on every one of those 17 flights,” said Logue, then of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and later Southern Living Magazine. “And those 17 years brought attention in the pre-season to the front page of every newspaper.”
The hearty band of 21 soon began to transition and dissipate over the years as TV embraced the story of SEC football, newspaper reporters and columnists moved down in the food chain and access to coaches diminished. Newspapers gave way to TV and eventually the media websites crowded the room. The national media moved in the neighborhood.
The 21 pioneering birdmen are mostly gone and forgotten – retired, dead or merely dabbling in various other projects. For most of us the years have run together and the stories have faded into oblivion, often difficult to conjure up. Maybe we weren’t Columbus or Lewis & Clark or even Magellan, but we were at least a footnote in college football history from a unique period.
“You will never have anything again like the Skywriters,” said Steve Townsend, who had taken Scoop Hudgins’ role in the transition.
The SEC rocket had been sufficiently launched and new frontiers were reached. “Scoop” proved to be right, for the most part. He was a little man with a big idea – and it worked.
POSTSCRIPT: I came out of the first SEC Skywriters’ Tour with a new wardrobe, thanks to Southern and Delta – and a new perspective. After that I vowed I would push back and question things a little more. Basically, it changed me forever as a journalist and columnist. More than ever, however, I still cherish those times When We Had Wings.