Pillars of the FWAA: Fred Russell (1906-2003), Nashville Banner

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 history of the organization, we will, over the next four months, publish each week a sketch on one 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 first installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series, on Fred Russell, the 1981 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

In 1940, Fred Russell’s influence and ability to judge talent was never more evident than when he suggested to Vanderbilt football coach Red Sanders that he should hire a young Bear Bryant.

Russell was then Sports Editor of the Nashville Banner, but had known Sanders from their college baseball playing days at Vanderbilt.  So he merely gave Sanders the heads up on this young assistant coach at Alabama. Sanders had wanted to hire a promising Mississippi State assistant named Murray Warmath. But Russell was pushing Bryant, whom he had first gotten to know as an Alabama player at the 1935 Rose Bowl (1934 season) and later as an assistant for Crimson Tide coach Frank Thomas.

Fred Russell, winner of the 1981 Bert McGrane Award.

Fred Russell, winner of the 1981 Bert McGrane Award.

Sanders stopped in Tuscaloosa, Ala. and interviewed Bryant on his way to Mississippi State. Sanders called Russell back in Nashville and told him, “I got my man” and passed the phone to his new assistant coach.

“Congratulations Murray,” Russell said in a welcoming tone. “You’re going to love Nashville.”

“Who the hell is Murray?” said the voice on the other end. “This is Paul Bryant.”

Sanders went on to coach UCLA to a national championship in 1954. Warmath eventually became the coach at Minnesota and led the Golden Gophers to back-to-back Rose Bowls. That young guy Bryant did pretty well for himself, too.

Russell was a man of influence. “He was a real mover and shaker,” said Doug Segrest, who worked for Russell at the Banner from 1984-91. “He was probably the second most powerful man in Vanderbilt athletics.”

Segrest recalled playing in Tennessee coach Johnny Majors’ annual Kickoff Classic golf tournament and being paired with Joe DiMaggio. Segrest said little to the baseball legend until the ninth hole when DiMaggio found out that Segrest worked at the Banner.

“If I worked with Freddie Russell I had to be a good guy (according to DiMaggio),” said Segrest. “I got a great interview with him. He took me back to his condo and talked for an hour and a half.”

Russell came from tiny Wartrace, Tenn., his family moving to Nashville when he was 6. He attended the Duncan School, Vanderbilt and Vanderbilt Law School — not your normal path to a sports writing career.

His took his first job after law school with the Real Estate Title Company. He lost his job when the company merged with another. He started with the Banner in June 1929. He was offered the choice of selling ads for $25 a week or being a reporter for $6 a week. He took the reporter’s job, covering the police beat. He became sports editor a year later.

“Ever since I began reading the sports pages at seven or eight, I had envied the sports writers as much as the athletes,” Russell once said. “I’d always imagined that sports writing must be the greatest life in the world.”

He named his column “Sidelines.”

Russell covered the first Masters in 1934, the World Series and other major sporting events. He also covered the Tennessee State women’s track team, including Wilma Rudolph, at the 1960 Summer

Olympics in Rome. When he was honored at a dinner in 1953, the guests included Bobby Jones, Red Grange and Jack Dempsey.

He was president of the FWAA in 1965.

“He had a distinctive style,” said Segrest. “He was an easy read and always told you something you didn’t know.”

In a business that breeds familiarity, where copy boys call managing editors by their first names, many people called him “Mr. Russell.”

“The only people who called him Freddie were his peers and family,” said Segrest.

Russell was a practical joker. He pulled one of his best ones on his chief desk guy at the Banner, Bill Roberts. Roberts was from Brooklyn and broken hearted when his Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. In the days of teletype machines at newspapers, a bell would ring to alert the newsroom that a major story was about to move.

One day the Associated Press reported that after one year in Los Angeles, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley was going to move the team back to Brooklyn. Roberts was ready to buy drinks for everyone in the newsroom, before being told that Russell had set up the whole thing and that the AP report was sent only to the Banner.

Russell wrote seven books in addition to the Pigskin Preview for the popular Saturday Evening Post from 1949-62.

He served as chairman of the Honors Court of the College Football Hall of Fame for 29 years from 1963-91 and Southern chairman of the Heisman Trophy selection committee for 46 years. He received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association in 1981. When Vanderbilt Stadium was rebuilt in 1982, the press box was named after him.

The Nashville Banner folded in 1998. Mr. Russell wrote a weekly column for The Tennessean until retiring in 1999.


Cancer survivor and 2011 FWAA Courage Award winner signs as free agent with Dolphins

By Chris Solari
Lansing State Journal

After beating cancer, Arthur Ray’s odds-defying journey back to football will finally take him to the NFL.

The former Michigan State offensive lineman agreed to terms with the Miami Dolphins and will join the team’s rookie mini-camp that begins Friday in South Florida, his agent Paul Sheehy said Tuesday.

Ray, a Chicago native who is 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, is expected to be either a guard or center at the pro level. He started 14 games over the past two seasons at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., after being granted two extra seasons of eligibility by the NCAA in January 2013. He last played for MSU in 2011.

ffaw_redesignIn Miami this week, Ray will rejoin former Spartan teammate Tony Lippett, a cornerback/wide receiver taken by the Dolphins in Saturday’s fifth round. Former MSU tight end Dion Sims and punter Brandon Fields also are on the Dolphins’ active roster.

The camp will be a foot-in-the-door tryout for Ray, who went undrafted in the NFL draft over the weekend.

“I’m on the phone with my main man Dion Sims all the time. … Dion Sims is truly one of my best friends from Michigan State,” Ray said last week before the NFL draft. “We always talk about me and the process. We were just joking the other day about me possibly coming down to the Dolphins. I was just laughing with him, telling him, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t mind backing up (starting center Mike) Pouncy’ and going down there and playing with Dion.”

It’s been a long and sometimes rocky path to the NFL for Ray, who turns 26 next month.

Ranked as one of the nation’s top offensive guards as part of Mark Dantonio’s first full MSU recruiting class in 2007, he was diagnosed with cancer in his right tibia in April of his senior year at Mount Carmel High in Chicago.

Ray underwent nine surgeries on his lower right leg and chemotherapy, battling bone infections and countless hours of rehabilitation on his leg while spending more than two years on crutches. He deferred his enrollment and didn’t begin classes at MSU until 2008. Dantonio and his staff honored their scholarship commitment.

In the spring of 2011, Ray was finally cleared to practice. During the Spartans’ opening game that August against Youngstown State, a tearful Ray received the starting assignment at left guard. He went on to play against Florida Atlantic and Indiana and received his only varsity letter at MSU, receiving the team’s “Biggie” Munn Most Inspirational Player Award at the team banquet.

Conquering cancer also earned Ray the Discover Orange Bowl/Football Writers Association of America’s Courage Award and was the Most Courageous Performance by the Big Ten in 2011.

Dantonio left Ray off MSU’s 2012 roster. Ray received a medical disqualification and finished his degree in communications that December before transferring to Division II Fort Lewis College, where he was a two-time captain and tore his meniscus in his right knee during the 2013 season. He returned to the field last fall and was a second-team All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference selection at left tackle.

FWAA announces ‘Super 11’ sports information departments in 2014 season

ffaw_redesignDALLAS — The Football Writers Association of America has selected its sixth “Super 11” group of sports information departments deemed the best in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision for the 2014 season.

The winners: Auburn (SEC), Bowling Green (Mid-American Conference), Colorado (Pac-12), East Carolina (American Athletic Conference), Iowa State (Big 12), Nebraska (Big Ten), Pittsburgh (ACC), Rice (Conference USA) Rutgers (Big Ten), UNLV (Mountain West) and USC (Pac-12).

USC is a five-time winner of the award and Auburn, Bowling Green, Colorado, East Carolina, Nebraska, Pittsburgh and Rutgers are multiple winners. The committee honored Rutgers because of the exceptional work of former football Sports Information Director Jason Baum, who consistently provided exemplary service when he worked with the school’s athletic department.

New winners of the award are Iowa State, Rice and UNLV. Over the six-year period, the FWAA has honored 45 different schools.


FBS Pre-Season Media Days

Here are the dates and locations of pre-season football media days upcoming this summer:

Atlantic Coast Conference: July 19-21, Pinehurst Resort, North Carolina

American Athletic Conference:   August 2-4,  Hyatt Regency, Newport, Rhode Island

Big Ten Conference:  July 30-31, Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, Chicago 

Big 12 Conference: July 20-21, The Omni, Dallas

Conference USA: July 21-22, Boca Resort, Boca Raton, Fla.

Mid-American Conference:  July 28-29, Ford Field, Detroit

Mountain West Conference:  July 28-29, The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas

Pac 12:  July 30-31, Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Calif.

Southeastern: July 13-16, Wynfrey Hotel, Hoover, Alabama

Sun Belt: July 19-20 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

Bud Withers retires from Seattle Times 1

Bud Withers

Bud Withers

FWAA member Bud Withers announced his retirement on Friday April 10 with the following e-mail blast to friends and colleagues:

Hey folks: Just a note to say that this is my last day of work at the Seattle Times. I’m retiring after 45 years in this biz, and it’s mostly been a blast. I’m able to go out on my own terms, which in this industry these days, is a distinct blessing. 

I don’t plan to disappear, but my e-mail address is changing to casabudman@gmail.com. My cell remains 206-794-4027. I’ve enjoyed working with and around you, and if you’re in this neck of the woods, don’t hesitate to look me up. I know where the good bars are . . .


Bud Withers

Click here to read some of Bud’s recent stories for the Seattle Times.


President’s column: Vote for the FWAA 75th Anniversary All-America Team


By Lee Barfknecht
FWAA President

OMAHA — “Happy Anniversary!’’

It’s time for all members of the Football Writers Association of America to celebrate because this year marks our 75th season of existence.

We are taking advantage of this special year to highlight our organization and the sport we follow with some newsworthy events.

The biggest?

FWAA 2015 President Lee Barfknecht.

FWAA 2015 President Lee Barfknecht.

All members will get to vote on a 75-year anniversary All-America team. With our organization’s start in 1944, this coincides with what is defined as “the modern era of college football,’’ which is from the latter stages of World War II to the present.

Three 25-man units will be chosen (first, second and third teams). To be eligible, honorees must have been a first-team FWAA All-American.

The all-time list — compiled by Ted Gangi and Josh Yonis, and with thanks to our nation’s sports information directors and the College Football Hall of Fame — is on our website in easy-to-read form and with strong detail.

Once the membership-vote deadline has been reached, a panel of past presidents, current board members and winners of our Bert McGrane Award will be asked to tabulate votes, review the results and arrange the teams.

This is going to be a sparkling argument-starter and conversation piece.

Writers and broadcasters can use it for multiple story ideas. Meanwhile, school, bowl and network TV folks can turn it into promotional pieces for their entities.

Those of us who love football and history are drooling over how this will turn out. Competition will ensue at the highest level.

Please keep an eye out for notice coming soon on when and how to vote. We hope to reveal the three teams in early summer — a great time for stories considering the year-round thirst in this country for football news.

In and around the announcement of those teams, we plan a series of stories on pillars of the FWAA — people who have had great impact on the sport in terms of how it was played, how it was coached, how it was covered and how it has been promoted.

Another way we will note our anniversary year is with a new logo.

It’s a simple and clean addition of a “75th Anniversary’’ banner to our current logo, in pigskin colors and no-nonsense lettering. It should appear on our website soon, and perhaps on some clothing.

Something else to keep watch for is a new member portal.

The FWAA and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association are partnering to create a one-stop payment site for both organizations that syncs up with the school year, plus some other features to make things more user-friendly.

Again, keep the 75th-anniversary All-America team voting in mind. It should be an energizing exercise to take part in.

Max Maisel memorial service 2

On behalf of Meg and our daughters, I want to thank everyone in the FWAA community who has reached out to us over the last three weeks since our son Max went missing. We presume he drowned on Feb. 22. The care and concern of so many writers and SIDs across the country has helped us cope with the unfathomable.

We are having a memorial service and a celebration of Max’s life on Friday, March 27 at Congregation Bnai Israel in Bridgeport, CT. If anyone is interested in attending, please contact me at Ivan.Maisel@gmail.com.


Ivan Maisel