The 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 few 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 sixth installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series. Furman Bisher was the 1982 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.
By Gene Duffey
Those were the days of newspapering, long before ESPN and the Internet, when sports writers enjoyed almost unlimited access to the coaches they covered.
Furman Bisher worked for The Charlotte News, covering Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State, in the late 1940s. The News was a p.m. paper with no Sunday edition, so Bisher needed a fresh angle for his Monday story during college football season. It was easy enough to get. He would drive to Durham and meet legendary Duke coach Wallace Wade after the Sunday coaches’ meetings.
“He’d sit in my car and we’d talk for an hour,” said Bisher. “We had a different relationship in those days. That’s something that would never happen in this day.”
Bisher worked for three years as a general reporter and later as state editor at The News before World War II. He spent three years in the Navy Air Corps, splitting time between the Pacific and Pensacola Naval Air Station. He returned to Charlotte in January 1946 and joined the sports department.
In the summer he covered the Class B Charlotte Hornets in the Tri-State League, including spring training in Orlando.
“I wanted to go to the Major Leagues, travel with the team, ride the trains, see all the big cities,” he said. “I still haven’t done that. I rode the bus (with Charlotte), stayed in hotels. I was in the big time.”
James Furman Bisher was born in Denton, N.C., the third of four children. “They never pay attention to the third child,” he said. “I was sort of a nuisance.”
He played basketball and tennis in high school, but no one considered him a college prospect. He enrolled at Furman and worked as manager of the football team. But when Furman dropped its journalism program after Bisher’s first two years there he transferred to North Carolina.
Fortune fell upon Bisher in the form of a college roommate in Chapel Hill.
“He stayed up late, playing cards and drinking whisky,” said Bisher. “He married a girl with a little money, and they bought half interest in the Lumberton Voice.”
The Voice, with a circulation a little over 3,000, hired Furman as its editor.
“I thought I was pretty good,” he laughed. “I was about the whole damn staff. But I was a long way from being a sports writer. It was published in an old house. Every time they started the presses, the whole building would rumble.”
He stayed there nine months. His next stop was the High Point (North Carolina) Enterprise in 1939 as a general reporter. But the sports editor used Bisher whenever he could. He moved to Charlotte next, where he became sports editor in 1948, and a year later he landed the first interview of Shoeless Joe Jackson since 1919, the year Jackson was banned from baseball because of the Black Sox scandal. Bisher then became sports editor/columnist of the Atlanta Journal in 1950.
“It was still a big, bush league town at the time,” Bisher said of the days before the Braves, Falcons and Hawks arrived. “Georgia Tech was hot at the time. They beat Georgia eight years in a row. (Georgia Tech coach) Bobby Dodd was a sports writer’s dream. He would give you the story and write the headline for you. (Georgia coach) Wally Butts, as cantankerous and hot headed as he was, was enjoyable to be around.”
Bisher served as President of the FWAA in 1959.
He fit well into the Atlanta landscape. The job and circumstances at home kept him there.
“I had chances to go to Sports Illustrated, Sport Magazine, the New York World-Telegram, Chicago Daily News, San Francisco Examiner,” he said. “I had a bad marriage and three young boys. I got custody of the three boys and raised them by myself. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t bad.”
That didn’t prevent Bisher from covering major events nearly everywhere they were played.
“I’ve traveled all over the world,” he said. “I’ve been on every continent but Antarctica.”
Tony Barnhart, the 2009 recipient of the Bert McGrane Award and the 1998 FWAA President, worked for the Atlanta newspaper for 25 years.
“He was a pussy cat when I met him,” said Barnhart, who started at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1984. “I understand in the old days he was all fire and brimstone. What a resource. He had the greatest filing system I’ve ever seen.”
Bisher worked at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 59 years before retiring in 2009. Still using the typewriter he started with at the paper in 1950, Bisher continued to write occasional columns and cover some big golf events such as The Masters into his 90s.