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 22nd installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series. Bob Hentzen was the 1993 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.
By Gene Duffey
His license plate probably described Bob Hentzen best. It read “GOBBH,” which stood for Good ‘Ol Boy Bob Hentzen.
He worked in a different era, when access to athletes was much easier, when writers and coaches could become friends, and the smaller the paper you worked for, the more you did.
“His idea of a perfect weekend was covering a prep game Friday night, a college game Saturday and a Chiefs or Royals game Sunday,” said Rick Dean, a colleague of Hentzen’s for years with the Topeka Capital- Journal. “He got to know coaches really well, when you could do that, without ever being a homer.”
Hentzen was named sports editor of the Topeka paper in 1968 and didn’t retire until 1996. He wrote approximately 8,500 columns in those years, in addition to writing game stories and still working the desk one night a week into his 50s. He continued to write a weekly column in retirement.
He covered the first Super Bowl in January 1967 at the Los Angeles Coliseum between Kansas City and Green Bay. The game was known as the World Championship Game: NFL vs. AFL. The term Super Bowl hadn’t been invented yet.
“He interviewed (Chiefs coach) Hank Stram in his hotel room the week of the game,” said Dean.
Hentzen even flew to Los Angeles on the Chiefs’ team plane. He and another writer interviewed Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr in Starr’s hotel room in Santa Barbara that week. Hentzen, realizing better than most that this was the start of something big, saved the game program. It cost $1.
He developed a good relationship with Kansas State basketball coach Jack Hartman, who was known to be rough on writers.
“Hartman would have him over for a drink after a game, probably a couple of hours after yelling at him for something he wrote,” Dean said of Hentzen. “He could stick a needle in people and get away with it, because he was never vicious. He was a very folksy type writer, often humorous. He wrote with that Midwestern flair. He didn’t go looking for controversy, but when it came up, he dealt with it.”
In 1978, veteran NBC announcer Curt Gowdy butchered the names of several Kansas basketball players during an 83-76 loss to UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. Hentzen wrote that he hoped: “Kirk Goudie (sic) does better with the names on his next basketball telecast.”
Ironically, Hentzen later received the Curt Gowdy Media Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In those days several of the major college conference organized trips for the sports writers to visit the campus of each school to write preseason football stories. The format was later changed so that one coach and a couple of players would be brought to a central location.
“He loved the days of the Big Eight Skywriters Tour,” said Dean. “Free food, free drinks, free shirts. That was an era when a lot of gratuities were handed out. We used to kid (Bob) that he never bought a shirt.”
Hentzen recognized college basketball before it was considered a national sport.
“He covered his first Final Four in 1964,” said Dean. “He was covering it in the ‘60s, when nobody else did. He was chartered into the Final Four. He had a name on the national level.”
The United State Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) inducted Hentzen into its Hall of Fame in 1990. Three years later he went into the FWAA’s.
He appreciated the privileges that went with being a sports writer.
“There can’t be many Kansans who have witnessed more memorable games and individual performances than I have,” he once wrote. “Plus, I got to meet, interview, write about and, in some cases, become friends with those making sports history in our state.”
Hentzen didn’t big time his readers. He covered the local college, Washburn University, as much as Kansas or Kansas State.
Jim Merriott worked in the press box while a student at Kansas. In 2006 he wrote for the Oberlin (Kan.) Herald: “The sports writer I admired most was the late Bob Hentzen. (He) helped give me a burning desire to give my readers the best possible sports coverage.”
Hentzen was a bachelor, surprising for a good looking blond guy. He did organize a girls’ softball team that he named the “Tomatoes.”
“It was more of a social thing for him,” said Dean.
“He had the ability to find a column when there was none apparent,” said Dean. “No trip didn’t merit some kind of column. Bad luck seemed to follow him around. If one bag was lost on a flight, it was his.”
He graduated from Oklahoma and worked at the Tulsa World, Daily Oklahoman and Oklahoma City Times before moving to Topeka in January 1958. He served as president of the FWAA in 1983.
Hentzen liked to play golf and write about it. That’s where his life ended, appropriately, suffering a heart attack on a golf course, carrying his clubs, walking up the eighth hole.
“He was only six over through seven, which for Hentzen was a good day,” said Dean.