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 stories of the members of the organization, we will publish sketches 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 21st installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series. Jimmie McDowell was the 2000 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.
By Gene Duffey
Whenever college football history was made in the state of Mississippi, it seemed that Jimmie McDowell was there.
Working at the Jackson States-Item, McDowell covered the famous 1959 Mississippi at LSU game, when the Tigers’ Billy Cannon returned a punt 89 yards to beat Ole Miss 7-3.
“It was Halloween night,” recalled McDowell. “(Mississippi coach Johnny) Vaught kicked a field goal and sat on it, relying on his defense. Cannon wasn’t supposed to field any ball inside the 15. The ball bounced up right in his face. Some of the Ole Miss players didn’t think he would field the ball and eased up.”
McDowell served as director of public relations and athletic publicity, the precursor of sports information directors, at Southern Mississippi in 1953. The school, then known as Mississippi Southern, scored one of its biggest upsets, knocking off Alabama and quarterback Bart Starr, 25-19 to open the 1953 season in Montgomery. Later, he helped start the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and worked with the Jackson Touchdown Club in acquiring a building in 1992. Three years later he founded the All-American Football Foundation, which has honored media members, athletic directors and college presidents as well as players and coaches.
Nicknamed “Mississippi Red,” McDowell’s tentacles in the college football world extended well beyond the boundaries of his home state. He was involved in organizing the Hall of Fame Bowl that started out in Birmingham, Ala., in 1977 and moved to Tampa in 1985.
He attended his first American Football Coaches Association convention in 1952. He became a regular at the Army-Navy game starting in 1962, when quarterback Roger Staubach played for the Midshipmen. He added the Heisman Trophy dinner to his calendar about the same time. Later, he helped get approval for the Kickoff Classic in the Meadowlands. He still serves as the South Sectional Representative for the Heisman Trophy voting.
There was ink in Jimmie McDowell’s genes. As a ploy to keep her three sons nearby, his great grandmother bought a newspaper in the late 1890s.
“She was probably one of the nation’s first female editors/publishers,” McDowell said.
At 14, Jimmie was keeping score at a city fast-pitch softball game. The editor of the Brookhaven Leader showed up and said the sports editor was on vacation. He asked Jimmie if he could call in the scores. The sports editor actually used his vacation to go to Florida and look for another job. He never came back. That opened the door for McDowell to begin writing about the softball games. He started covering football that fall.
After high school, with World War II raging, McDowell served in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard from 1944 to 1946. He signed up for radio school because he believed it would be a step toward a future career in the media. It didn’t work out exactly as he anticipated.
“Chief, this dot, dot, dash stuff is OK, but when do I start talking?” asked McDowell. “He said, ‘It’s not that kind of radio station.’ ”
McDowell returned from the war and enrolled at Whitworth (Junior) College, formerly an all-girls school. He transferred to Ole Miss, graduating in 1949, and went to work for the Jackson Daily News. He soon became assistant sports editor on a two-man staff.
He left Jackson to take a job as sports editor of the Meridian Star, where he worked for six months. After four years at Southern Mississippi, McDowell returned to the Jackson Daily News in 1955 as sports editor. A year later he switched to the Jackson State Times. But that publication went out of business in 1962. He had a television show on Sundays from 1953 to 1962
He even had a brief stint in pro baseball. He started out with the expansion Houston Colt .45s in 1962, setting up off-season caravans. But traveling secretary Bill Giles wanted the job as public relations director. That prompted the nomadic McDowell to move to New Jersey and land a job as sports editor and columnist for the Trenton Times.
Two years later he was back in the South, named sports editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. He joined the National Football Foundation staff in 1964. At first he was director of public relations and then became Executive Director of the NFF in 1970. He often traveled 265 days a year, dealing with the NFF’s chapters across the country among other duties.
He retired from the NFF in 1991, but then worked for the Liberty Bowl, the Ole Miss Booster Club and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. He formed the All-American Football Foundation three years after leaving the NFF.