By Bob Holt
Wally Hall is in his 40th consecutive year writing about sports as a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat and Democrat-Gazette.
“Whenever anything big happens in sports in Arkansas, everybody waits to see what Wally says. I can’t say that for any other state in the nation,” said Ron Higgins, who has covered the SEC for several newspapers and is now editor of Tiger Rag, a magazine and website that focuses on LSU sports. “In Arkansas, when you say, ‘Wally,’ people don’t ask, ‘Wally who?’ They know it’s Wally Hall.”
Hall, who was born in Searcy and grew up in Little Rock, has covered all sports since becoming a columnist in 1979, but college football has been a focal point.
A member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) for 33 years, including serving as president in 2003, Hall is being recognized by the organization with its highest honor.
Hall will receive the Bert McGrane Award at the FWAA Awards Breakfast on Jan. 13, 2020, in New Orleans before the College Football Playoff Championship Game is played in the Superdome.
“This is our lifetime achievement award,” said Steve Richardson, the FWAA Executive Director. “It’s the Football Writers’ Hall of Fame.”
The McGrane Award is presented in recognition of contributions to the FWAA and college football with the recipients being displayed in the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
McGrane was a sports writer and editor at the Des Moines Register for 45 years and served as the FWAA’s Executive Director from the early 1940s until 1973.
“Wally is an iconic figure in college football writers’ circles for his longevity and the fact he’s been so passionate about all college sports for so many years,” said Richardson, also a McGrane recipient. “Recognizing him with the McGrane Award is really a no-brainer. He has been very supportive of the FWAA. He’s fought for his newspaper and for writers everywhere as far as coverage and access.”
The McGrane Award has been presented annually since 1974 and is a Who’s Who of sports writers, with past winners including Paul Zimmerman, Furman Bisher, Blackie Sherrod, Edwin Pope, Tony Barnhart and Ivan Maisel.
“Looking at the list of past winners of this award puts me in awe,” Hall said. “I do share one thing in common with everyone who has won this award — a passion for college football.”
Hall is the third Arkansan to win the McGrane Award along with Orville Henry and Charlie Fiss.
Henry, who wrote for the Arkansas Gazette and later the Democrat and Democrat-Gazette and Donrey Media Group, won in 2002.
Fiss, a Springdale native and longtime vice president of communications for the Cotton Bowl, was the award’s recipient in 2017.
“Wally has done it all in his career as a reporter, columnist and editor,” Fiss said. “He has developed an extraordinary following in Arkansas by earning the trust and loyalty of his readers.
“People want to know what Wally is thinking when it comes to the world of sports, and particularly the news of the day about the Razorbacks. I’m one of those readers. His column is like a magnet for me because it’s the first thing I turn to when picking up the newspaper or going online.
“The impact he has made as a journalist and his contributions to the profession are immense The Bert McGrane Award is one of the highest honors a journalist could ever receive and it’s gratifying to see the FWAA recognize Wally in such a special and meaningful way.”
Herb Vincent, the SEC’s associate commissioner of communications, is a North Little Rock native and graduate of Little Rock Catholic High School.
“I grew up reading Wally,” Vincent said. “Even after I left Little Rock, my dad knew that I liked to read him so much that he’d clip out his columns and send them to me in the days before the Internet.
“Then even after the Internet, he kept mailing them to me. It became a tradition where I’d get a package in the mail every week with Wally’s columns.
“My dad would write comments with the columns — and sometimes he didn’t agree with Wally. But he always read Wally, just like I have and so many other people have all these years. Reading Wally always helped me keep up with what was going on back home.”
Along with being a columnist, Hall added the sports editor’s duties in 1981.
“Wally’s a throwback to the old days when the sports editor was the columnist as well as running the department,” Richardson said. “He’s maintained a unique standing in the industry.
“Think of all the coaches Wally has covered at Arkansas. In this day and age someone who has the history and knowledge of the Arkansas program and sports in his state in general like Wally does is very hard to find.
“He’s a wealth of knowledge and has strong opinions. I don’t think anyone has to wonder how Wally feels about a topic he’s writing about. You know how he feels after you read his column.”
Vincent said Hall’s reputation and influence have extended well beyond Arkansas.
“Wally is really a legend in the sports writing industry,” Vincent said. “People across the country know Wally. He’s obviously got a great perspective on the world of sports.
“Wally writes with passion and he writes with an educated point of view. He writes with humor.
“Wally’s always had a great perspective on Arkansas sports through the good and the bad, through the winning and losing. He’s consistently been a sportswriter’s sportswriter.
“Wally knows his audience. He knows who he’s writing for. He’s been around sports for so long now that he knows what people want to know and he addresses that.”
Hall often has had to file his column within minutes — sometimes seconds — of a game ending to make deadline.
“Wally has so much impact with what he writes — and he writes faster than any human being I’ve ever seen,” Higgins said. “He’s given so much not just to the business of journalism in general, but to the Football Writers Association in particular. He’s always been a great advocate for our organization.
“He’s always concerned about how press boxes are run and the media operations part of our business.”
Higgins, then with the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, was covering the Arkansas-Michigan game at the 1998 Citrus Bowl.
“Somebody announced they’d be closing the press box an hour after the game,” Higgins said. “Wally went ballistic, and they said we could stay as long as we needed.
“That’s Wally. He’s never afraid to stand up for what he believes, never afraid to take a stand.
“Wally embodies what a good columnist should be about — ‘I don’t care if you like me or not, but you can respect me.’ That’s probably the essence of Wally right there.”
Hall, who was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2017, has said he has no plans to retire.
“Through all the changes newspapers and journalism have gone through, Wally has stood the test of time,” Richardson said. “I think that’s one of his greatest attributes. He probably has a better feel for what’s going on in Arkansas than anyone else through all these years.”