Finally, I found my voice.
It arrived the other night, on Twitter of all places, as the news of the Bo Pelini audio story broke all around us. Bad words said about the sports writer. One of my Twitter followers offered, “How can you get mad at Tom Shatel? That’s like getting mad at Bob Newhart.”
You know, I used to love the Bob Newhart show. Both of them. Classic ending on the finale of the latter, where it shows him back in the first show and he says he dreamed the second show. Anyway.
I was actually hoping for Oscar Madison. Or, John Schulian.
So I grew up to be Bob Newhart. Which is to say, nice guy. Funny guy. Regular guy. Safe guy.
I’ll take it.
There’s a line in one of my all-time favorite movies, “Beautiful Girls,” which takes place in a small town in the winter. It’s always snowing. Reminds me of Omaha.
The movie is about a group of 30-something guys who fantasize about meeting the perfect woman or relationship and realize at the end that the perfect woman is the one standing next to you. Waiting patiently for you to wake up. This happened to me. Maybe that’s why the movie resonates.
The line comes near the end, where Matt Dillon’s character says, “I’m not the man I thought I would be.” He says it with disappointment, with regret, but also with a surprised satisfaction. He’s looking at the girl he needs to end up with, Mira Sorvino. It’s a pretty good deal. It’s better than he deserves.
There’s a message here about Bo Pelini and the happenings of this week, but first let me tell you about the writer I thought I would be.
I fell in love with journalism in the mid 1970′s, right after Watergate, when everyone wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein, everyone was looking for the big story, everyone wanted to work at the Washington Post or New York Times. That was the fantasy.
By my senior year at Mizzou, I fell in love with Chicago. The three newspapers there were big and bold and in full color. The writing was incredible. My super heroes were sports columnists John Schulian of the Chicago Sun-Times and David Israel of the Trib. And, of course, the pope himself, Mike Royko.
These guys took no prisoners, on a daily basis. They were beautiful assassins, carving up coaches and athletes with incredible prose. That’s what you did then. Yeah, there were traditional word smiths, like Joe Falls and Joe McGuff and Furman Bisher and Blackie Sherrod. But this new breed, including Skip Bayless in Dallas and Mike Lupica in the Big Apple, these were the guys who got it done. They were young and brash and had attitude and talent and they mowed down whoever was in their way.
This is how I thought it should be done. What I found out was, you had to have the stomach for it.
After a brutal collapse and loss to Colorado in 1978, I wrote a column for the Missouri student paper that named an “All-Goat Team.” There were countless others. On my way up the ladder of newspapers, I used various folks as steps. I’ll never forget getting a call from one of the sports desk editors, saying he had gotten a call from the tough-guy high school football coach in Jefferson City, Mo., very upset over questions I had asked and begging me to not write the story. I’m certain I didn’t flinch.
There were lumps along the way. Norm Stewart. Jack Hartman. Billy Tubbs, the day he coached his first Final Four game in 1988, was on me about a line I had written. Woody Widenhofer screamed and mocked my stuttering.
My favorite story, if you want to call it that, came during the 1978 American League playoffs, Yankees at Royals. I covered it for the Columbia Missourian, the J-school paper. Before one game, I went up to Reggie Jackson and apparently asked something really stupid. Reggie smirked and said, “You’re from Kansas City, aren’t you?” and walked away.
Of course, I couldn’t get enough. After the game, Reggie was talking to a circle of New York writers. I poked my head into the conversation. I figured out it was an off-the-record conversation with Reggie telling the scribes what George Steinbrenner should be doing. He took one look at me, called me a name and said, “Excuse me, this is a private conversation” and proceeded to berate me with a few words that might make Pelini blush.
Over the years, I stopped looking for trouble, though I didn’t avoid it, either. I also listened to advice when it was offered. One of my favorite pieces of advice came from an old friend, Tracy Ringolsby, then the Royals beat man and a Hall of Fame baseball scribe. After I managed to make half the Royals clubhouse want to string me up, Tracy pulled me aside and said, “Don’t get personal. You don’t have to take cheap shots to be critical. Just tell the facts, let the stats tell the story.”
Great advice. Which I still struggle to follow at times!
Fast-forward to 1991, and my arrival at the Omaha World-Herald. Dream job. Not the Washington Post. Better. I love college football.
First order of business: find a voice. A style. A character. A home base you can fall back on. Who are you? That’s the trick to a column.
As some of you may remember, my first several years I wrote some things that were not always complimentary. It was that guy again, the guy I thought I wanted to be. Mike Grant. Damon Benning. Scott Frost. Danny Nee. The list of those I stepped on was longer than that. Some may never forgive me. I certainly don’t blame them. There’s a way to turn a phrase without twisting the knife.
Now, there are those who say this is the way you have to be, this is what a columnist does. And there’s truth to that. If that’s who you want to be. You can’t have a conscience, if that’s the way you feel. You have to write honestly.
But you have to be honest with yourself, too. You have to be you. You can’t try to be Jim Murray or Rick Reilly. Only they can be Jim Murray or Rick Reilly.
That’s the lesson, as I’ve grown older, as I’ve had kids. Find out who you are. Then be that guy. The readers are smart. The readers see when it’s forced. They know when it’s not genuine. Then you have no shot to get their respect. I think readers still crave the truth. And honesty.
Anyway, I’ve also found, after all these years, that I didn’t like being the assassin as much as I thought I would. I don’t have the personality for it. I like story-telling, humor, reporting and perspective.
A columnist cannot be afraid to tell the truth. That’s still my goal, but if there’s a gentler approach, a funnier approach, a story to tell, that suits me, too. There’s a lot less of that in today’s media world.
If that’s lame, well, I’ve been called worse.
That’s what made me laugh about the Bob Newhart line this week, and why the Pelini comments had no impact on me. I was more concerned about what my girls might hear at school.
The funny thing is, my relationship with Bo is better than most coaches I’ve worked with. It’s open, brutally honest. You can have a hot debate and by the end put your sword down and agree to disagree and move on. As a sports writer, that’s what you want.
I haven’t always been able to do that, and I think my relationship with Pelini has benefited from all the different coaches I’ve covered over 35 years.
Bo is one of the most unique characters of the bunch. I think he should have coached basketball in the Big Eight in the 1980′s, a decade-long Broadway Show where the actors stomped on the sidelines and used colorful language and the audience loved them.
Pelini definitely should have been a football coach in the 1960′s, 70′s, or 80′s. Even in the early 1990′s, Tom Osborne met with three media people after practice each day. Bo is so much better off to the side — why I like to “walk out” with him after news conferences. He would have been perfect back then, when a coach only had to deal with a couple of beat writers and there were no news conferences. When it was so relaxed that locker rooms were open daily.
It’s why Woody Hayes never would have made it in today’s world. Osborne would have hated this constant media buzz and the daily specter of the Internet looming above.
Certainly, there was a time long ago when you could have been recorded without knowing it but never had to worry about anyone ever hearing it.
There was a time long ago when head coaches would have dinner or drinks with you and tell stories that would have fried them had they ever got out. I think Bo was made for those days.
Guess what? Those days are gone, never to return.
I thought about them this week, and that guy I wanted to be, every time a friend or stranger approached me this week and asked, “Man, are you okay?” What I wanted to say was, “This was nothing. You should have seen me back then.”
Back before I became Bob Newhart.
Hey, didn’t he just win an Emmy?