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The Martin Chronicles: Remembering The Skywriters

By Buddy Martin
SouthernPigskin.com
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SEC Media Days has come a long, long way from 1966, when 22 writers were dive-bombing campuses in a decrepit DC3 prop plane on what was known then as the SEC Skywriters Tour.

Life under the Big Top returns next week when The Greatest College Football Show on Earth resumes in Hoover, Ala., sounding the horn that the official Southeastern Conference countdown is underway.

This will be my fifth trip to Hoover. I still get buzzed.

Coaches like Nick Saban or Steve Spurrier enter through the front door of the Wynfrey Hotel like they were country music stars before starting the four-day non-stop glut of interviews. Behold Radio Row, where the talking heads spin it back home with hype, hope and hurrah. The time for talking football is upon us again. The blogging and tweeting never stops

My, my how times have changed since that first SEC Skywriters Tour in 1966.

“The number of credentials is close to 1,100 at this point,” said SEC Associate Commissioner Herb Vincent. “A lot of that has to do with network TV coverage of the event, which of course did not exist during the Skywriters days.  Also, of course, the Internet has had a dramatic impact due to the number of bloggers and the instantaneous expectation to send out coaches’ comments in real time.  The comments of coaches are reported and analyzed before they even finish speaking.” 

SEC Media Days has come a long, long way from 1966, when 22 writers were dive-bombing campuses in a decrepit DC3 prop plane on what was known then as the SEC Skywriters Tour. Now, the Mountains Come To Muhammad. There will be almost 50 times that many members of the media at the Wynfrey this year.

I was a boy sports writer as part of that very first Skywriters corps which nearly crashed after an aborted landing at the Auburn airport and may have been shot down in Oxford, Miss. had the folks at Ole Miss known what was coming.

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Forty-eight years ago, black players could not play in the SEC and the league wasn’t so dominant. The crowds didn’t swell to more than 100,000. And the TV revenue was chump change.

The pioneers of what is now SEC Media Days pretty much have become dinosaurs, although a second generation soon came behind us and lasted for 17 years. The Skywriters Air Force was grounded and Birmingham became base camp. There were 400 people at the first SEC Media Days On The Ground. It is expected that next week’s SEC shindig will be about three times that size.

#DownHere, every good story gets embellished a little. Southern legend can be tricky. In fact, one of them holds that everybody had an uncle or aunt or grandparent or neighbor who would have been millionaires if they hadn’t turned down a chance to buy Coca-Cola stock. Coke stock has nothing on the SEC, however, which has become dead-solid-perfect blue chip.

(OK, so there was that little hiccup by Auburn last year against Florida State that ended SEC dominance after seven years.)

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Most of the tales about the SEC Skywriters Tour I’ve read sound legit.

However, revisionist history sometimes convolutes authenticity.

Just to clarify for all you youngsters, in 1966 players did not wear leather helmets and not every team ran the single wing or full-house backfield. They didn’t use the dropkick. Zero-zero or 7-0 games were not all that uncommon, but they were not the main staple of SEC football as some would have you believe. So let me separate a little fact from fiction.

It’s true that we typed our stories on portable typewriters and sent them to the newspaper offices via Western Union. At least it wasn’t the Pony Express! 

The memories have been dimmed a little over the years. It’s tough to re-create in great detail when there is hardly anybody else around to verify stories. After a day of researching through Google, emailing others who may or may not have been aboard and calling, I have become convinced that different versions of times, dates and events have crept into the narrative.

Poring over the black and white photo of these men posing in front of the archaic airplane, I could name all but four of them (I had to look them up). Trouble is, all of them are dead or retired or have been deposed to parts unknown.

I can recall the grueling schedule that sometimes took us to three schools in a day for press conferences, lunches and sometimes practice. I don’t know which was more demanding: Loading and unloading luggage or keeping up with the pace of writing stories.

As for the mode of transportation, I’m pretty sure it rivaled the one that the Wright Brothers flew at Kittyhawk, N.C., in age. Put it like this: When they picked us up in Gainesville, John Logue of Southern Living magazine reached for his seat belt and it came out by the roots.

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My roommate for that first SEC Skywriters Tour was Neil Amdur of the Miami Herald, who would later become sports editor of the New York Times, and who would play a part in the huge controversy that loomed ahead.

Amdur’s memory is still sharp and what he remembered about the Skywriters was the real-time experience and the hard work that came with it.

“Unlike today's staged event in Birmingham, this was a ‘real tour,’" Amdur said of the inaugural Skywriters, “with an airplane going to each venue, on a tightly organized schedule that barely left you enough time to interview coaches. And then you had to write at designated times. In some cases, we were making three campuses in one day.”

He still has one of the old itineraries handed out by Tour Director Elmore “Scoop” Hudgins: “On Friday, Sept. 1, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.: we went from a Georgia practice with Vince Dooley at 8 a.m. to a Knoxville luncheon conference with Doug Dickey and then on to Lexington, Ky. for a dinner/press conference with Charlie Bradshaw.”

Amdur wrote a gutsy story about how segregated America, time and circumstance had brought about the decline of championship football for Ole Miss and Johnny Vaught, who was at the end of a string of six SEC titles from 1947 to 1963. The words “age, apathy and apartheid” appeared in Neil’s lead. The next year when we arrived at Oxford, he was told by the public relations director “you’re not welcome here.”

Amdur stayed, and wrote and flew out. Ole Miss hasn’t won an SEC title since, and until Eli Manning threw for 29 touchdown passes in 2003, the Rebels had won more than nine games only once – in 1971.

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In 1966, what we were about to witness was the prelude to a season that now seems so obsolete – a time before the SEC had earned enough respect to win a popular vote in the polls.

Alabama was still the scourge of the league, with Bear Bryant unleashing an 11-0 undefeated season on the SEC as co-champion with Georgia. The Crimson Tide trounced Nebraska 34-7 in the 1967 Sugar Bowl but didn’t win the national championship because teams weren’t re-ranked after the bowls back then.

Because Michigan State and Notre Dame tied 10-10 but didn’t play in a post-season game, they were both ranked ahead of the Tide. However, they did earn the respect of Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who when asked if they were greatest team in the country after winning the first Super Bowl replied: “I don’t know yet – we haven’t played Alabama.”

I just remember visiting Tuscaloosa with the Skywriters and being so impressed with how Bryant directed his practice with clockwork precision atop his famous tower. He had the gaze of an eagle.

Florida was re-emerging under Ray Graves with a nine-win season and a Heisman Trophy winner named Steve Spurrier, who would kick a field goal to beat Auburn, 30-27, on national TV. Remember, there was only one college football game on TV every Saturday. But the league would belong to Bear that year, along with Vince Dooley of Georgia, which shared in the title. There was no playoff.

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This probably matters to no one else, but after hours of scouring the Internet, I did finally run down the names of the original 22, but it wasn’t easy to find. So in honor of the trailblazers and in the spirit of helping future pathfinders, here are their names:

John Logue, Southern Living; Neil Amdur, Miami Herald; Buddy Martin, Today; Jack Hairston, Jacksonville Journal; Tom McEwen, Tampa Tribune; Bill Bondurant, Fort Lauderdale News; Tom Kelly, St. Petersburg Times; Bob Bassine, Orlando Sentinel; Bill Clark, Atlanta Constitution; George Smith, Anniston Star; Jimmy Smothers, Gadsen Times; Bill Lumpkin, Birmingham Post-Herald; Benny Marshall, Birmingham News;  Raymond Johnson, Nashville Tennessean; Larry Boeck, Louisville Courier-Journal; Lee Baker, Jackson Daily News; Wayne Thompson, Jackson Clarion-Ledger; Edgar Allen, Nashville Banner; Ed Harris, Knoxville News-Sentinel; Austin White, Chattanooga News-Free Press, Ron  Speer, Associated Press; David Moffitt, United Press International.

Over the years, many of the colorful stories have been retold, none more popular than the near-crash landing at Auburn. It’s 100 percent true. We had to abort the landing and the pilots, challenged by an apparently overloaded plane – hey, sports writers eat and drink a lot – and as they gunned the engines it became apparent that we were playing chicken with a row of trees. The fact that our charter pilots were usually the last to leave the hotel bar every night didn’t exactly bode well for our chances.

George Smith remembers it well. He says the near-miss was even closer than we realized: “In landing at Auburn I'm looking out the window and the tip of the plane actually brushes the very top of a pine. Then we pull up and go around. Again I asked: ‘Cow on the runway?’  Honest . . . you don't make up stuff like that.”

George bears witness to the pilots' overindulgence in adult beverages:

“A few of us are having a late night drink at a Holiday Inn where we're staying. The two pilots are wrapped around some hard drinking at the bar. It is 2 a.m.; at 6:30 we take off. Those cats still had to be drunk.”

I remember seeing Raymond Johnson clutching a pillow like it was a lifeboat vest. Instinctively, we all began hunching forward as if to help the plane’s momentum. We couldn’t have cleared it by more than 25 feet. That night, the cocktails tasted especially good.

When we returned the following year to land at Auburn, the late Jack Hairston serenaded us on his harmonica with that famous Titanic swan song, “Nearer My God To Thee.” If we weren’t already bonded, that seemed to do it.

This boy sports writer was proud to be part of that press box fraternity.

Buddy Martin - Buddy Martin is a veteran, Florida-born-and-raised journalist who has won more than 165 awards during his distinguished journalism career. He authored “Urban’s Way,” the official biography of Florida coach Urban Meyer and Buddy’s fourth book on Gator football. He also co-authored the autobiographies of two Hall of Fame athletes: Terry Bradshaw, “Looking Deep,” and Dan Issel, “Parting Shots.” Martin is a product of the UF Journalism School and the former sports editor of Florida Today, The St. Petersburg Times, New York Daily News and Denver Post. He won an Emmy as an associate producer for “The NFL Today Show” on CBS. Buddy is also a long-time radio talk show host and commentator in Colorado and in Florida. He is also co-creator of “The Sports Journalism Summit” at The Poynter Media Institute in St. Petersburg. You can e-mail him at buddyshow@aol.com.