The death of Rick Woodson a couple of weeks ago brings to the forefront a blog piece I'd been planning to write about the glory days of the Shreveport Journal sports department.
Later this week, it will be 21 years since the last edition of the Journal -- March 30, 1991. Shreveport's afternoon paper died that day, and so did a tradition of outstanding sportswriting.
Heck, yeah, I'm biased -- I worked for the Journal in the 1970s and '80s for 10 years, 4 1/2 as a parttimer/high school correspondent, 5 1/2 as executive sports editor. Beginning in 1957, it was the newspaper to which my parents subscribed.
The Journal was always The Little Paper That Could.
The morning newspaper, The Shreveport Times, was "the opponent." It had a bigger staff, more resources, most days more news space, 3-4 times the bigger circulation, and the bigger reputation.
What The Times didn't have, and the Journal did -- this is my opinion -- was a publisher and editor who were sports fans, who cared about sports.
I worked for both papers; I can assure you that those of us who worked in The Times sports had pride and wanted to do a good job.
But it was evident to me over the years that sports was more important at the Journal.
That became even more true when Stanley R. Tiner -- a bigger sports fan than most of us and a knowledgable one -- became the Journal editor in the mid-1970s. But even before then, the Journal became known for its sports writing.
It was a good all-around paper, with some strong writers, reporters and editors in every area -- The Times had its talents, too -- but we felt that sports was the Journal's biggest selling point.
(Trouble was, it only sold 20,000-30,000 copies daily in the '70s and '80s).
This is subjective, and it's my opinion: The Journal sports pages, from about 1970 through the next two decades, were as good as any in the state of Louisiana.
The larger daily papers such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune and States-Item and the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate had some top-notch sports writers and much more space, and some strong sports staffs and some good years, and LSU and the Saints right there to cover. There were good writers, too, in Alexandria and Lake Charles and Monroe.
Can't tell you how many times I heard how "great" the Morning Advocate sports pages were. Trying not to be critical of anyone, but quantity (of space) -- and that paper had it for sports -- doesn't mean quality.
Journal sports meant quality.
It began with Jerry Byrd. That's easy to write. He set the standard for quality writing, and sports, at the Journal. And it ended with Jerry Byrd; he was there when the paper folded, to that point his only job since the day after he graduated from college in May 1957.
I have written a blog on Jerry (http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/06/legendary-man-mr-byrd.html, June 8, 2012); it is one of my most "viewed" blogs.
Jerry will tell you, I think, that he wasn't a special writer his first few years at the Journal. He wrote the standard play-by-play stories, with rote quotes. Not much depth.
Then he began using historical research, primarily on high school sports, to enhance his stories, and more background information on teams and individuals, and better quotes.
Someone at the Journal -- maybe it was Jerry -- came up with the slogan "more than the score." And that was the underlying thought behind the sports approach at the paper.
A few years later, Jerry loved the song by Carly Simon: Nobody Does It Better. Jerry would sing it -- loudly, of course, in that Byrd way -- around the office. He also applied it as the theme for Journal sports.
It wasn't so much the presentation, or the page layouts. We in sports got lots of help from some outstanding photographers and artists (especially Ron Rice in the '80s). The quality came from the writing.
In my time there in the '80s, part of the reason for that was story ideas, many of them generated by Tiner. As the late Bailey Thomson noted in the Journal's farewell edition, Stanley came up with 100 ideas every day. Many of them were sports ideas, and he wanted them executed ... in the next 10 minutes.
Stanley liked reading Sports Illustrated, and he wanted us to be like SI, dig deeper for stories and angles. Honestly, we didn't have SI-type talent -- good as we were -- and we didn't get SI-type pay (still waiting), but what we had, what the Journal always had, was people dedicated to being good, and willing to work all hours.
At the Journal, working all hours was a requirement in sports. There was no other way.
You came in at 6 a.m. or so to put out the paper -- a first edition done by 9 a.m., then a clean-up, find-a-new angle, deal with breaking stories for the city edition by noon. Then, it was phone calls or in-person interviews for next-day or later-in-the-week stories. If you had to cover games, that was almost always at night. If you were going out of town, it was time to hit the road.
In football season, it was cover games on Thursday and Friday nights, write your story in the office that night, and sometimes (more often than I want to remember), get a couple of hours sleep and be back in the morning at 6. That couch at the front of the office wasn't all that great for sleeping.
Part of the fun was coming back to the office with the people covering other games, and rehashing what you'd seen. At some point, though, it was time to write.
A great story, or a readable one, and a strong package of game stories the next day made it worthwhile.
We weren't the "paper of record" -- whatever that means; we left that to The Times. But we wanted to do the sports stories people in town were talking about, and reading.
It took commitment, by those who worked in Journal sports, and a commitment to allow space for the in-depth stories. In the '70s and '80s, the Journal game stories -- high school, college, pros -- were generally much longer than those in The Times. More to the point, we took subjects and did a "major crank" (a term John James Marshall originated) -- the personality pieces, the "What Happened To ..." series, the "project" stories. Those took as much space as we needed.
Many of those became award winners.
We didn't do the job just to win awards. We did it because we loved doing it (and they paid us). But beginning with Byrd and Woodson in about 1970, winning awards was part of the legacy.
Next: The run of sports writing talent at the Journal