Pillars of the FWAA: Don Bryant (1929-2014), University of Nebraska SID

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 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 24th installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series. Don Bryant was the 1998 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

Don Bryant’s football and track career never progressed much past his days at Lincoln High School.

Bryant, known as “Fox,” joined the Marines right out of school in 1946. He enrolled at Nebraska in the fall of 1948 and went out for the freshman football team.

Don Bryant, 1998 winner of the Bert McGrane Award

Don Bryant, 1998 winner of the Bert McGrane Award

“I wasn’t worth a damn,” he said. “I couldn’t run for a bus.”

Bryant had weighed 156 pounds in high school and expanded to 190 by his first year at Nebraska. His days as a miler were behind him. But another door soon opened. Bryant shared a Spanish class with Norris Anderson, who was sports editor of the Lincoln Star.

“Fox, you aren’t worth (anything) in football and you’re too fat to run track,” Anderson told him one day. “Why not come to work for me?”

The Marines recalled Bryant in 1950 when the Korean Conflict began heating up. “I was told I was going to Tokyo,” said Bryant. “They canceled that.” He ended up in Cherry Point, North Carolina, working for the base newspaper.

Bryant returned to Nebraska and the Lincoln Star after the Korean War. He completed work for his degree in 1952. He went to work as assistant city editor for 18 months, then became sports editor of the Star in 1954.

Bob Devaney arrived to coach the Cornhuskers football team in 1962. When John Bentley, Nebraska’s SID, retired the following spring, Bryant interviewed for the job.

“I had interest in it,” he said. “I had covered the (Big Seven-Big Eight) conference for nine years and knew some of the coaches and the SIDs. I took a cut in salary, but I had an interest in the university. I knew what the media needed and wanted. I had a ton of sports writer friends around the country through football and track, so it was an easy transition.”

Nebraska won under Devaney and the coach made Bryant’s job easy.

“Devaney had great success and made me look good,” said Bryant. “The media loved him. During the middle of practice he’d wander over to the sidelines, talk to the media and tell a few stories.”

Top-ranked Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma met in 1971 for what accurately became known as the “Game of the Century.” In those days sports information directors used to travel to the game site several days ahead to “advance” the contest — getting publicity for their schools in the local newspapers and on television stations. The Oklahoma Sports Information Director then was a legendary character named John Keith.

“Johnny Keith and I didn’t get many hours of sleep, entertaining the media,” said Bryant. “I was exhausted before the game.”

The much-anticipated football game between the 1-2 teams in the country exceeded all the hype.

“It was the best football game I ever saw,” said Bryant. “That was a super Oklahoma team.”

Bryant left the press box to go down to the sideline with about five minutes remaining, just in time to see Oklahoma go ahead. “Don’t have a heart attack,” Bryant told himself. “If you lose, be a good sport about it.”

I-back Jeff Kinney led a long Nebraska drive that resulted in a 35-31 victory. Bryant had to round up Devaney and get him to the ABC microphones. When Devaney and Bryant finally made it to the locker room, the players threw both of them into the showers.

Tom Osborne succeeded Devaney as coach in 1973. The Huskers kept on winning.

“Tom was different from Bob,” said Bryant. “Bob was more of a party guy. Tom was more serious.”

Bryant’s duties at Nebraska eventually expanded to becoming director of the Bob Devaney Center and an adjunct professor in the college of journalism where he taught a course in sports media relations. He became a fixture at the NCAA Final Four, serving on Dave Cawood’s media staff for two decades. He also was on the United States Olympic Committee’s media staff for Winter Games at Lake Placid, Sarajevo and Calgary.

Bryant and his son even bought a weekly newspaper in Southeast Nebraska, the Hickman Voice, that covered 23 towns in five counties. Bryant wrote a column for the publication.

Everyone knew Bryant as “Fox,” a nickname he picked up in high school.

The track star was running the anchor leg for his school’s two-mile relay team in a meet at Council Bluffs, Iowa.

“One of the string girls walked me back to the line,” remembered Bryant. “We ended up sitting in the stands talking. One of my teammates found out her last name was Fox and started calling me Fox.”

Bryant never saw the girl again. But the name stayed with him forever.