Pillars of the FWAA: Bob Hammel (1936-), Bloomington Herald-Times

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. Bob Hammel  was the 1996 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

In 1967, Bob Hammel’s second year at the Bloomington Herald-Telephone and first season full-time on the beat, John Pont coached Indiana to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth. For a guy such as Hammel, who grew up in Indiana with its nasty winters, a week in Pasadena, Calif., in late December was more than welcome.

Bob Hammel, 1996 winner of the Bert McGrane Award

Bob Hammel, 1996 winner of the Bert McGrane Award

“This is kind of fun,” Hammel said to himself. “We ought to do this every few years.”

Nearly a half century later the Hoosiers still hadn’t made it back to Pasadena. But Hammel made it to plenty of other places in his 42 years as a sports writer. He retired from sports at the same paper with a different name, the Herald-Times,  in 1996, never wanting to work anywhere but Bloomington, where, for much of his career, he covered the exploits of  Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight.

“It was a great spot,” he said. “The paper was awfully good to me. If I wanted to go somewhere, I went. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.”

Hammel covered five Olympics and 23 Final Fours. His final assignment was writing about the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. But the most meaningful, undoubtedly, had to be the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, infamously remembered for the Black September terrorist group that murdered Israeli athletes and coaches.

“We were the smallest American paper by far at the Munich Olympics,” he said.

Hammel graduated from Huntington High School, near Fort Wayne, at 16 and completed his first year at Indiana by 17.

“I was a journalism major but didn’t take any journalism courses my first year,” he said. He knew he wanted to be in the newspaper business. “I don’t think there was anything else I could do,” he said with a laugh.

Hammel had worked in the circulation department at the Huntington Herald-Press his senior year of high school and took a summer job in the sports department after his first year of college.

“I was filling in while they were looking for a sports editor,” he said. The paper never found one. “The presumption was I would go back to school,” he said. “My summer job lasted nine years.”

Hammel fell under the watchful eye of an editor named Howard Houghton.

“I was the greenest guy who ever entered the field,” said Hammel. “I had a very good editor who became my journalism school.”

He moved up to the News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, where he worked on the news desk for a year. “It was good training, but I didn’t like it,” he said. “I didn’t do any writing.”

There were other stops at the Peru Tribune and the Kokomo Morning Times before moving up to the Indianapolis News in February 1965Hammel found himself the 10th man on an outstanding 10-man staff. Being No. 1 in nearby Bloomington sounded more attractive to him.

In Bloomington, he soon ended up covering Knight, who became Indiana’s coach in 1971 and would win national titles in 1976, 1981 and 1987. Knight had a genuine respect for the knowledgeable Hammel, unlike Knight’s non-relationships with many other writers.

Said Knight:  “People (other members of the press) take a lot of shots at Hammel because they are envious. He works hard, and they don’t want to work as hard. And he’s honest. When Hammel talks, I listen, whether I agree with him or not. I have a tremendous amount of respect for his opinion.”

After retiring from the sports department in 1996, Hammel wrote op-ed pieces for the Herald-Times for another 10 years. “It introduced me to a lot of new people,” he said.

Hammel served as President of the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) in 1982-83 and as president of the FWAA in 1992. He also had a two-year stint as president of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters in 1989-90. After FWAA executive director Volney Meece died suddenly in June 1995, he took over as executive director of the organization for a year before passing the reins to Steve Richardson.

He worked with Birmingham’s Bill Lumpkin and Charlotte Touchdown Club representatives in helping to create the Bronko Nagurski Award, presented to the defensive player of the year in college football. Hammel also started the FWAA Best Writing Contest in his year as FWAA President.

“I’m a big admirer of Bronko Nagurski,” said Hammel. “Covering Big Ten football, I read a lot of the lore. He made All-American as a tackle and a fullback.”

Hammel has also been inducted into the USBWA Hall of Fame, received the Curt Gowdy Award from the National Basketball Hall of Fame, the Jake Wade Award from the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) and the Silver Medal Award from the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame for distinguished service.  He was named Indiana Sportswriter of the Year an unprecedented 17 times by the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.