DALLAS — Long-time Notre Dame Sports Information Director John Heisler, now holding a similar position at the University of Central Florida, has been named the recipient of the Football Writers Association of America’s Bert McGrane Award for 2021.
The McGrane Award is presented to an FWAA member in recognition of contributions to the FWAA and college football. McGrane was a sportswriter and editor at the Des Moines Register for 45 years and served as the FWAA’s Executive Director from the early 1940s until 1973. This is the FWAA’s highest honor and equivalent to an association’s Hall of Fame.
Heisler is the 48th recipient of the Bert McGrane Award, which started in 1974 and was first awarded to Charley Johnson of the Minneapolis Star.
“I can’t think of anything that’s been any more meaningful to me,” Heisler said. “I say that because it represents hundreds of relationships over a long period of time, and I hope it means we built some trust, could share some institutional knowledge when it was appropriate, and did at least a few things right in terms of working with the media. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Heisler, a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, is a native of South Bend and returned home shortly after his college days. He learned his trade first under SID Bill Callahan at Missouri and later under Roger Valdiserri at Notre Dame. Both the late Callahan and Valdiserri were long-time FWAA members, with Valdiserri still residing in South Bend.
Heisler started working at Notre Dame in 1978 in the SID office and was the award-winning SID from 1988-2003. Thereafter, Heisler rose further up the ladder in the athletic department as an assistant and associate athletic director and was involved in numerous jobs in communications/broadcasting at Notre Dame. He was also editor and frequent contributor to the highly respected “Strong of Heart,” Notre Dame’s annual holiday book of features on Irish athletics. A member of the CoSIDA Hall of Fame, Heisler has claimed numerous awards and written and edited several other books about Notre Dame sports and its coaches.
“John was a fixture at Notre Dame and helped make the Sports Information Office in South Bend one of the best in the country for a number of years, actually a few decades,” said FWAA Executive Director Steve Richardson. “John has been of great help with FWAA members in a number of ways and provided a path for others in the SID profession to follow. He still does in his relocation to Florida.”
Heisler will receive the Bert McGrane plaque at a later time. His name will be a part of the permanent McGrane presentation at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. Furthermore, a small plate with his name also will be placed on the master board of former McGrane recipients at the National Football Foundation (NFF) offices in Irving, Texas.
Getting to Know John Heisler
Question: Who were your mentors and what did they contribute to your career?
Heisler: “Growing up in South Bend, I covered some high school sports part-time and as a teenager got to know Joe Doyle, Bill Moor, Woody Miller and others on the South Bend Tribune staff. I decided to attend the University of Missouri because of its Journalism School, and that was the best decision I ever made. I arrived there at the perfect time and Mizzou SID Bill Callahan provided me with some fabulous opportunities that I probably did not deserve. At the time he did not have a full-time assistant, so from my freshman year on I had all sorts of chances to be involved. Bill knew everybody in the Big Eight, so through him I became good friends with many of his newspaper and SID cronies — Maury White, Bill Beck, Don Bryant and so many more. Those were the ‘70s, the days of Friday night press parties and Skywriters tours. Then Bill often would have a social gathering at his home after home football games (inviting all the media in town to cover the game) and that was another wonderful chance to meet people and learn the business.
“I was at Missouri at a time when there was an incredible collection of sports-writing talent in school at the same time as me — Steve Richardson, Joel Bierig, Jeff Rude, Lonnie Wheeler, Dave Stirt, Tim Sullivan, Cal Fussman, Tom Shatel, Dennis Dodd and Mickey Spagnola and many more. That very quickly helped me understand where the bar stood in terms of being able to write well because it was a competitive environment. I subscribed to six newspapers — two each in Columbia, St. Louis and Kansas City. That’s how you kept up day to day when web sites were still some time down the road. I also spent two years as the summer sports intern for the Kansas City Star — what better way to learn the newspaper business.
“When I went to Notre Dame in 1978, the football team was coming off a national championship season and Joe Montana was still the quarterback, so there was no shortage of interest. Working for Roger Valdiserri, I again had the chance to meet all sorts of people in the college athletic business and, thanks to our football schedule, we played everywhere in the country and worked with media all over. There was seldom a dull moment.”
Q: What are some of the stories you have done that have been the most rewarding to you? Be expansive. These could be the best two three or more over the years.
Heisler: “I got into all this because I loved to write. Unfortunately, the more time I spent in sports information, the fewer opportunities I had to write. But I carved out a few. The students at Notre Dame for years did a football review magazine, but they stopped for a few years in the ‘80s, so we picked it up and did it ourselves. It was great fun. Then beginning in 2010 we did an annual holiday book titled “Strong of Heart” — feature stories about people connected to Notre Dame athletics who had overcome some sort of obstacle. I wrote many of them myself and loved the ability to kind of go back where I started. There was nothing more satisfying that creating a profile of someone and feeling like you absolutely captured that person the way you wanted to portray them.”
Q: Best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
Heisler: “I remember someone leaving Notre Dame and moving out of state and being disappointed because all sorts of people they did business with no longer connected with them. It taught me that, maybe especially at a place like Notre Dame, lots of people want to be your friend because of the job you have. So, if you value those relationships, you need to nurture them beyond the working aspect of it — and make sure people understand you truly care about them beyond just helping them do their jobs.”
Q: What have you seen change most in the SID profession over the last 25-30 years?
Heisler: “The technology quite obviously is the difference between night and day. There’s a whole generation of media who don’t know what it meant to have both a morning and evening news cycle. The technology makes so many things easier, yet it also makes it simple to skip the personal connections. It may be simple to email or text, but I remind myself not to forget to pick up the cell phone and call people. I miss the time we all spent with each other beyond the games. The virus hasn’t exactly helped that.
“It’s different now because virtually every game is televised or streamed — and results and highlights are instantaneous. But even if we all know every statistic about any given athlete, there’s no substitute for the in-depth feature story that explains what that person is really all about. And when one of us in our business can help you with some background to make one of those stories into something special, that’s when it all pays off for everybody.”
Q: Best interview you ever had and why?
Heisler: “Quite some time before Lou Holtz’s third season at Notre Dame, I suggested to him that we consider a book on what it’s like day to day to be the football coach in South Bend. For all the things that had been written about the job and how difficult and pressure-packed it supposedly was, no one had explained exactly why that was. I had never done anything like that before, but Lou bought into the idea. It became a national championship season, and the book became a best-seller. And it was fascinating sitting down with him to talk at least twice a week that fall. It was football, motivation, how to deal with people and all sorts of other subjects. And it was magical to see how the light went on with Lou the minute I turned on the tape recorder.”
Q: What are your hobbies/passions?
Heisler: “I became a sports fan at an early age. As a teenager my combination birthday/Christmas present from my parents was a single Notre Dame football season ticket and another for the bleachers for Notre Dame basketball. I’d go by myself and loved every minute of it. I loved any sort of sports publication — media guide, game program, magazine, book, whatever — and I saved them all. As my wife would be quick to add, it got a little out of control. Throw in bobble-heads and autographed baseballs and all sorts of other sports memorabilia and our basement was a bit of a museum.”
Q: Do you have any sports mementos in your house? Such as an old typewriter, the press pass from the first game you attended, an old glove?
Heisler: “I saved tons of ticket stubs and press credentials over the years. My mother’s younger sister lived for many years in San Francisco, and when I was about 10 they went to Joe DiMaggio’s restaurant. On the back of the menu was a classic photo of DiMaggio and a perfect white area beneath for an autograph (and his calligraphy was perfect). I was never particularly a Yankee fan, but that was an item I’ve always treasured.”
Q: Interesting stories with writers?
Heisler: “Back in the ‘80s Mark Blaudschun worked for the Dallas Morning News. He wanted to write a big-picture story about how athletics at Notre Dame worked. He came to town and we set him up to speak with Gerry Faust, Digger Phelps, Gene Corrigan and Father Ned Joyce —maybe all in one day. My wife and I didn’t have kids yet and lived in a condo not far from campus and so we invited Mark over for dinner. Mark on occasion would mention all that and seemed to express some amazement over how it all happened — but I always thought, well, that’s why we’re there — to facilitate those things as best we could.”
“About that same time Pete Alfano worked for the New York Times. During Gerry Faust’s years we had our share of ups and downs. And it seemed like every year by late October we would have lost just enough games that Pete’s editors wanted him to come to town and write something about how football was going at Notre Dame. I used to laugh and remember the 1978 Alan Alda movie “Same Time, Next Year.” I kidded Pete that we should just make a permanent hotel reservation for him in South Bend for about two-thirds of the way through the season because he ended up coming our way about that time every year.
“In 1993, No. 1 Florida State came for a mid-November game in South Bend. It was the biggest late-season football game in Notre Dame history. It was the first time ESPN Game Day went on the road. It seemed like the entire college football world came to town. We quickly ran out of space in the press box, and we ended up putting maybe 40 media on chairs at the top of rows in the stands. We had a great advantage because our team had an open date the week before, so we had the chance to get organized. We set up a full-blown press area where we did interviews all week long, arranged a working press area and had lunch there every day. Then, on Thursday night before the game, Lou Holtz invited all the media to his house for barbeque and beers. It was an amazing week in many ways, but I always took pride in thinking we were able to handle most of the challenges that came our way that week. And then the game was a classic.”
Q: What has the FWAA meant to you over the years?
Heisler: “As a 20-something in the business (and even a bit earlier than that) I idolized so many of the writers who covered college football. And then it was even better when I had the chance to meet and work with so many over the years. I probably should write a book about all those memories over the last four decades.”