Pillars of the FWAA: John Mooney, Salt Lake City Tribune

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 second installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series, on John Mooney, the 1983 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

The year was 1969 and Texas and Arkansas sat atop the college football world. ABC-TV had the foresight to ask the schools to move their traditional October game to the end of the season, a Dec. 6 showdown in Fayetteville that became know as “The Shootout.”

John Mooney was the FWAA President in 1969. He had the foresight to write a letter to President Richard Nixon, not only inviting him to the game, but also asking him to present the national championship plaque to the winning team.

John Mooney, the 1983 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

John Mooney, the 1983 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

President Nixon bit on the offer, made the trip to Arkansas and, after a memorable 15-14 Texas victory, presented the trophy to Coach Darrell Royal and his Longhorns.

Notre Dame nearly ruined the impact, leading Texas 17-14 in the fourth quarter of the Cotton Bowl. Then James Street & Co. rallied to beat the Irish 21-17 and clinch the national title. Dick Rosetta, who worked for Mooney at the Salt Lake City Tribune for 27 years before succeeding him as sports editor in 1990, pointed out the true irony of Nixon being put on stage by the FWAA. “Mooney was a lifelong Democrat,” Rosetta said.

Mooney took greater pride in helping bring attention to college football in his part of the country. Players such at Utah State’s Merlin Olsen and Utah’s Larry Wilson achieved All-America status largely because of Mooney’s influence on the FWAA All-America Committee. In 1961, Olsen claimed the FWAA’s Outland Trophy, which annually has been awarded to the best lineman in college football since 1946, and went on to a stellar career with the Los Angeles Rams.

“Hopefully I had a part of bringing football respect to the Rockies,” he once said.

“He was more known outside this state than inside,” said Rosetta, citing Mooney’s relationships with many of the top sports writers and college football coaches across the country.

John James Mooney competed in nearly every sport in high school, football, basketball, baseball, swimming and track. He went off to the University of Iowa where he continued to play sports and was even a member of the boxing team, then an intercollegiate sport. But he achieved much less success in athletics in college than in high school and began concentrating on journalism. He became sports editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Iowan.

He worked for the Chicago Tribune and briefly in New Orleans before moving to Salt Lake City to take a job with the Salt Lake Telegram. He served as sports editor of that paper from 1940-48 before switching to the Salt Lake Tribune, also as sports editor.

Mooney became famous for his notes column, “Disa and Data,” which was also the title of his book. “He probably got more names in the paper than anyone,” said Rosetta.

John Mooney wasn’t just part of the community in Salt Lake City. He was the community.

He donated generously to charities such as the United Way and the St. Vincent de Paul Center, where he volunteered in their soup kitchen. He was a member of the Elks, the Knights of Columbus and the Hibernian Society. The Elks named him Citizen of the Year. He served as grand marshal for the Salt Lake City St. Patrick’s Day parade. The Multiple Sclerosis Society honored him as its Sports Person of the Year at their annual Dinner of Champions.

He received more awards than most of the athletes he covered, including one from the county sheriff’s office in 1985. “John Mooney stayed at boxing events, when nobody else was there, often from 7 p.m. to 2 and 3 a.m., getting winner’s names for the newspaper,” said Sheriff Pete Hayward. “His efforts greatly aided fund-raising efforts for many sports programs.”

Rosetta said that none of the organizations that Mooney belonged to meant more to him than the FWAA. He was a regular at the annual meeting, often paying for the trip out of his own pocket. He knew people from all walks of life, but he liked the people in his own profession the best.

“There is no caste system in sports writing,” he once said. “(Big timers) will share a drink or a story with a guy from the Rockies.”

The press area in Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah was named after him.  He was named sportswriter of the year seven times in the state of Utah.

“He was my hero,” said Rosetta. “He was a pure joy to work for. We had our battles. Mooney was an icon and I was a grunt guy. He referred to me as his illegitimate son.”

Mooney’s last column appeared Dec. 31, 1990. “My greatest fear is to be one column ahead of time and die,” he once said.

Mooney signed his interoffice memos “P.O.J,” which stood for Poor Old John. “That’s how everybody knew him on the desk,” Rosetta said.