Pillars of the FWAA: Fred Russell (1906-2003), Nashville Banner

ffaw_redesignThe Football Writers Association of America is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2015. Founded in 1941, the FWAA has served the writing profession and college football during a time when the world has changed greatly and the sport of football has along with it. In an effort to tell the history of the organization, we will, over the next four months, publish each week a sketch on one of the FWAA’s  most important  leaders — all Bert McGrane Award winners.

The Bert McGrane Award, symbolic of the association’s Hall of Fame, is presented to an FWAA member who has performed great service to the organization and/or the writing profession. It is named after McGrane, a Des Moines, Iowa, writer who was the executive secretary of the FWAA from the early 1940s until 1973. The McGrane Award was first bestowed on an FWAA member in 1974.

For a list of all the winners go to:   http://www.sportswriters.net/fwaa/awards/mcgrane/index.html.

The following is the first installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series, on Fred Russell, the 1981 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

In 1940, Fred Russell’s influence and ability to judge talent was never more evident than when he suggested to Vanderbilt football coach Red Sanders that he should hire a young Bear Bryant.

Russell was then Sports Editor of the Nashville Banner, but had known Sanders from their college baseball playing days at Vanderbilt.  So he merely gave Sanders the heads up on this young assistant coach at Alabama. Sanders had wanted to hire a promising Mississippi State assistant named Murray Warmath. But Russell was pushing Bryant, whom he had first gotten to know as an Alabama player at the 1935 Rose Bowl (1934 season) and later as an assistant for Crimson Tide coach Frank Thomas.

Fred Russell, winner of the 1981 Bert McGrane Award.

Fred Russell, winner of the 1981 Bert McGrane Award.

Sanders stopped in Tuscaloosa, Ala. and interviewed Bryant on his way to Mississippi State. Sanders called Russell back in Nashville and told him, “I got my man” and passed the phone to his new assistant coach.

“Congratulations Murray,” Russell said in a welcoming tone. “You’re going to love Nashville.”

“Who the hell is Murray?” said the voice on the other end. “This is Paul Bryant.”

Sanders went on to coach UCLA to a national championship in 1954. Warmath eventually became the coach at Minnesota and led the Golden Gophers to back-to-back Rose Bowls. That young guy Bryant did pretty well for himself, too.

Russell was a man of influence. “He was a real mover and shaker,” said Doug Segrest, who worked for Russell at the Banner from 1984-91. “He was probably the second most powerful man in Vanderbilt athletics.”

Segrest recalled playing in Tennessee coach Johnny Majors’ annual Kickoff Classic golf tournament and being paired with Joe DiMaggio. Segrest said little to the baseball legend until the ninth hole when DiMaggio found out that Segrest worked at the Banner.

“If I worked with Freddie Russell I had to be a good guy (according to DiMaggio),” said Segrest. “I got a great interview with him. He took me back to his condo and talked for an hour and a half.”

Russell came from tiny Wartrace, Tenn., his family moving to Nashville when he was 6. He attended the Duncan School, Vanderbilt and Vanderbilt Law School — not your normal path to a sports writing career.

His took his first job after law school with the Real Estate Title Company. He lost his job when the company merged with another. He started with the Banner in June 1929. He was offered the choice of selling ads for $25 a week or being a reporter for $6 a week. He took the reporter’s job, covering the police beat. He became sports editor a year later.

“Ever since I began reading the sports pages at seven or eight, I had envied the sports writers as much as the athletes,” Russell once said. “I’d always imagined that sports writing must be the greatest life in the world.”

He named his column “Sidelines.”

Russell covered the first Masters in 1934, the World Series and other major sporting events. He also covered the Tennessee State women’s track team, including Wilma Rudolph, at the 1960 Summer

Olympics in Rome. When he was honored at a dinner in 1953, the guests included Bobby Jones, Red Grange and Jack Dempsey.

He was president of the FWAA in 1965.

“He had a distinctive style,” said Segrest. “He was an easy read and always told you something you didn’t know.”

In a business that breeds familiarity, where copy boys call managing editors by their first names, many people called him “Mr. Russell.”

“The only people who called him Freddie were his peers and family,” said Segrest.

Russell was a practical joker. He pulled one of his best ones on his chief desk guy at the Banner, Bill Roberts. Roberts was from Brooklyn and broken hearted when his Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. In the days of teletype machines at newspapers, a bell would ring to alert the newsroom that a major story was about to move.

One day the Associated Press reported that after one year in Los Angeles, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley was going to move the team back to Brooklyn. Roberts was ready to buy drinks for everyone in the newsroom, before being told that Russell had set up the whole thing and that the AP report was sent only to the Banner.

Russell wrote seven books in addition to the Pigskin Preview for the popular Saturday Evening Post from 1949-62.

He served as chairman of the Honors Court of the College Football Hall of Fame for 29 years from 1963-91 and Southern chairman of the Heisman Trophy selection committee for 46 years. He received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association in 1981. When Vanderbilt Stadium was rebuilt in 1982, the press box was named after him.

The Nashville Banner folded in 1998. Mr. Russell wrote a weekly column for The Tennessean until retiring in 1999.