ABOUT THIS SERIES
Each day we’ll turn this page over to one of our sports writers to share behind-the-scenes stories from their years with The Times-Dispatch and News Leader. Steve Clark started at the News Leader as a sportswriter in 1972 before becoming the Metro Page columnist four years later. Steve’s column moved to The Times-Dispatch when the T-D and News Leader merged in 1992, and he continued to entertain readers until his retirement in 2003.
In the beginning: For the first 10 years of my 40-year newspaper career, I was a sports writer, first with my hometown paper, the Winston-Salem Journal, then with the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, and finally with The Richmond News Leader. A few recollections:
Run, O.J., run! Years before Orenthal James Simpson was running from the law in a slow, white Bronco, I saw him running on the turf at Notre Dame Stadium on a gorgeous fall afternoon in October 1967, in the most memorable football game I ever covered.
I was scheduled to cover Florida at Tulane that weekend because we (the Atlanta Journal) covered “Dixie Like the Dew,” a slogan that especially applied to SEC football games. My boss, however, scratched the assignment because the game likely would be a blowout.
It was. The Gators won, 35-0.
Instead of flying to New Orleans, I flew to Chicago, rented a car and drove to South Bend, Ind., to cover the game of the week — No. 1 Southern Cal (4-0) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (2-1). The one loss had been at Purdue, a road game that seldom turned out well for the Irish in those years. Even though the Trojans were ranked No. 1, Notre Dame was favored. Oddsmakers knew the history of this game. USC had lost 10 in a row in South Bend dating back to 1939.
At halftime, it appeared the Trojans’ losing streak in South Bend would be 11 when they flew home to LA. Notre Dame led 7-0 on a 3-yard run by QB Terry Hanratty. Ah, but halftime scores often are meaningless. In the second half, USC switched gears. O.J. ran for three touchdowns and USC’s defense intercepted seven passes.
Final score: Southern Cal 24, Notre Dame 7.
Well, it was better than covering a 35-0 blowout.
Speaking of blowouts: In 1966, I covered the Alabama-Auburn regular season finale at Legion Field in Birmingham. Bama was undefeated (9-0). The defense had given up a total of 37 points, thanks to five shutouts. The offense had scored a total of 236 points. It was one of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s best teams.
Meanwhile, Auburn (4-5) was having a down year. Most of the losses, however, had been by close margins. A dogfight was expected. As their fans always say, when Alabama and Auburn play, you can throw away the record book. In this case, the record book foresaw the outcome.
Alabama 31, Auburn 0.
Many Auburn fans were in the same hotel I had booked. In the lobby the morning after the game, I spotted a man reading the game story in the Birmingham Post-Herald. Another man approached and said, “Did the score change?” Replied the newspaper reader, “No, and it looks even worse in print.”
How the Maryland Rule came to be: When asked to name the best basketball game I covered, without hesitation I say N.C. State’s 103-100 overtime win over Maryland in the championship game of the 1974 ACC tournament in the Greensboro Coliseum.
The Wolfpack went on the win the national championship, while the season ended for a great Maryland team. In those days, only conference champions and one or two independents advanced to the NCAA tournament, so the Terps, ranked No. 4 in the nation, were done. They could have participated in the NIT, but coach Lefty Driesell and his players said no thanks. Playing in a tournament of also-rans seemed pointless.
The injustice of that Maryland team not going to the Big Dance brought about a rules change. Thereafter, more than one team from a conference could play in the tournament. It became known as the Maryland Rule. Next season (1974-75), two ACC teams competed in the tournament. Maryland was one of them. The other was North Carolina, the ACC tournament champ. Maryland, the league’s regular season champion, advanced to the Elite Eight.
How about this starting five: I saw many outstanding college basketball players in the days when most starting lineups featured two forwards, two guards, one center. Considering all the players I saw from my perch on press row, here’s my starting lineup.
F: David Thompson, N.C. State; F: Scott May, Indiana; C: Bill Walton, UCLA; G: Pete Maravich, LSU; G: Phil Ford, North Carolina
Nice punt, Coach: I liked and admired most of the coaches, but, I confess, I had favorites. Ask me to pick one, and it would be Robert Lee “Bobby” Dodd, Georgia Tech’s football coach from 1945 to 1966 (22 seasons).
Bobby Dodd always was available to be interviewed, and team practices were open to the press. He enjoyed hanging out on the sidelines with reporters while his assistant coaches worked with the players. One afternoon at practice, Tech’s punter was having a bad day. Dodd trotted onto the field and showed the young man a few tricks of the trade. Dodd then told the center to snap the ball to him. Dodd took the snap and punted a beautiful 50-yards plus spiral — 40 years after his college days at Tennessee, where he was a quarterback and punter.
One year, Dodd was asked to speak at the Georgia Tech basketball team’s postseason awards dinner. Tech’s season had been disappointing due to a rash of injuries to key players. Dodd noted the adversity in his remarks, and said something I’ve never forgotten. “When you’re hurting, your friends know it, and your enemies don’t give a damn.”
Colorful characters galore: The most colorful by far was Clemson football coach Frank Howard, who offered up wonderful quotes, if you could translate his version of spoken English.
Hal Hayes, a sports writer for the Atlanta Constitution, covered most Clemson games, and when he typed quotes from Howard, he typed them the way Howard spoke, a Southern vernacular you had to hear to appreciate.
Jesse Outlar, the Constitution’s sports editor, received a phone call one day from Howard, who groused about Hal’s way of quoting him. Howard said it did not bother him, but some of Clemson’s influential boosters thought it reflected poorly on the university.
“What can I do about it, Frank?” Outlar said.
“Well, Jesse,” Howard drawled, “tell ol’ Hayes from now on, jest quote me in reglah English.”
Outlar told Hal to keep quoting Howard in unregular English.
Another round, bartender: Hanging out in hotel bars on road trips was considered part of the job. Over drinks you swapped stories with fellow reporters, and you might pick up a story idea or two. You also might meet an interesting character.
The night before the Southern Cal-Notre Dame game, I went to the bar in my hotel and found myself conversing with a nattily dressed little man with a dark blue beret on his head — very Frenchy. He was a musician in town with a chamber music group from New York for a concert at Notre Dame. He was drinking blackberry (or maybe peach) brandy. He thought the brandy would cure a bad case of diarrhea, which was caused, he was certain, by South Bend’s tap water. No bottled spring water in those days.
“I tell you,” he barked, “when you get out of New York City you are camping out!”
He was “The Greatest”: One summer night around 10 in 1970, the Constitution’s sports desk received a phone call from someone saying Muhammad Ali was at a nightclub in Atlanta’s historically African-American district known as Sweet Auburn.
The desk man assigned me to check it out. I drove to the club, which was crowded and loud. Someone led me to Ali, who was only one year younger. I was 29. He was 28. I interviewed him 10 or 15 minutes, returned to the office and hammered out a quick story to beat the deadline. I have no recollection of what I wrote. What I do remember is how physically impressive Ali was and that he obviously had a keen mind.
We found out later that he was in the city to meet with the Atlanta Athletic Commission, which soon decided to allow him to fight a sanctioned match for the first time in nearly four years. When Ali had refused to be inducted into military service in 1966, he was denied a boxing license in every state. As Ali’s appeal wound its through the courts his career stalled until the athletic commission in Atlanta gave him the green light. On Oct. 26, 1970, Ali returned to the ring in a bout with Jerry Quarry in Atlanta’s Municipal Auditorium. Ali won by TKO in the third round. I did not cover the fight.
Sam Huff’s Daddy: For two years in the late 1960s, I was a news reporter for the Dayton Daily News in Ohio. On Nov. 20, 1968, I was sent to cover a coal mine disaster in West Virginia. Just before dawn that morning, an explosion ripped through Consol Mine No. 9 near Farmington. Trapped inside were 99 miners. Only 21 escaped. The other 78 perished. The bodies of 19 never were recovered.
When I arrived on the scene that afternoon, I went to the company store, where press conferences were being held. I struck up a conversation with a retired coal miner named Oral Huff.
“You any kin to Sam Huff?” I asked.
“I’m that boy’s Daddy,” he replied.
As darkness set in, I asked Mr. Huff to recommend a nearby hotel or motel. He was having none of it.
“Come on home with me, boy. You spend the night with us.”
It was a night to remember.
“One summer when Sam was in high school, he went down in the mines one time,” said Mr. Huff, who suffered from Black Lung Disease. “After that, he started hitting people on the football field a lot harder.”
Around midnight I went upstairs to my bedroom and wrote a story on my portable typewriter. The Daily News was an afternoon paper, so my deadline was the next morning. I awoke early and used the Huffs’ phone to call the paper and dictate the story.
Later that day, after thanking Oral and Catherine Huff for their hospitality, I checked into a motel in nearby Fairmont.
The end: My sports writing days ended in the spring of 1976. After covering the Final Four in Philly, where Bobby Knight’s undefeated Indiana team won, I transferred to The News Leader’s news room. As the years have gone by, I often have missed being a sports writer. After all, it beat working for a living.