l Sports l

Put me in for just one more play, coach


You're a coach, and the director of athletics walks into your office midway through the season and fires you. You're given the option of walking away — taking your proverbial marbles and going home — or you can coach the rest of the season.

Today the season ended for this newspaper.

I walked into the office in the wee hours of this Friday morning and helped put together the final sports section in Birmingham Post-Herald history. The plug was pulled on us Thursday morning, which I'm sure you've all heard by now.

I guess we could've stayed home. I mean, what's the point of helping write your own obituary?

The point is we have pride. We were fired, but we still had a game left. And even though the game was over, we were determined to play hard until the final whistle.

I guess in a way one deals with the sudden loss of a job much like one deals with death. There's anger, denial, acceptance, blah, blah, blah.

Am I angry? Not really. There are people on the Gulf Coast with a lot more serious problems than I have.

Am I in denial? Nah. When a man in a suit tells you the place you work is closing down — and you need to have everything cleared out by Friday afternoon — that's pretty undeniable.

And I accept the fact that I'll no longer be commiserating with you through this newspaper. But I enjoyed it while it lasted, and for me it lasted just under two years.

This industry is nomadic by nature, so two years at one place is a fairly decent run. It's just not quite as fulfilling when you don't leave on your own accord.

But I think all of us knew this day was coming. Our joint operating agreement with the Birmingham News was supposed to run until 2015, but when The News began constructing a building across the street from our current location — and the Post-Herald was told it would not be housed in that building — it wasn't hard to put two and two together.

The rumors had been floating around for quite a while:

"The Post-Herald will fold in 2006."

"The Post-Herald will fold when the new building is built."

"The Post-Herald will fold when Vanderbilt improves to 3-0 on the season."

Maybe it was the last one that got us.

Anyway, this job has allowed me to make new friends — both at the paper and in the community.

It allowed me to come home, for however brief a time.

And it allowed me to write the Easy Writer column, an exercise in frivolity that some of you loved and some of you hated. Regardless of how you felt, I appreciated the e-mails and calls.

But it all comes to a halt today, and throughout this paper and in this section you'll read tributes, memories and more than a few farewells.

But we also have stories on Alabama, Auburn, UAB, Samford, high school sports and more. We have those stories because whether we're in business one more day or 50 more years, we still have a job to do.

For those of you reading this, I'll miss you.

And to my staff — Ben Cook, Stephen Sisk, Ray Melick, Jimmy DeButts, Cary Estes, Greg Wallace, Paul Beaudry and Jason Coskrey, I thank each one of you from the bottom of my heart. You're all professionals, you've been a joy to work with and I'll miss each and every one of you.

And thanks for coming through one last time with sports stories aimed at informing and entertaining our audience. Knowing this was the last call had to make it difficult to write anything.

But you did it because you have pride.

You did it because even though it was our last game, you decided to play until the final whistle sounded.

And that's all a coach can ask.

The Post-Herald thrived thanks to visionaries

Commentary By BILL LUMPKIN

The funeral is always sad. The death of a newspaper much sadder. A vital community voice has been silenced. Instead of two opinions, now only one. What a loss.

There's no celebration of a life hereafter. This death is final. It's a time to cry, and I am. The Birmingham Post-Herald/Birmingham Post lived a bountiful and productive existence, it being a strong leader under Editors Jimmy Mills and Duard LeGrand during many trying times, especially during the civil rights movement.

Death wasn't unexpected. It has been coming since the Birmingham News, as agent and landlord, forced a cycle switch, the P-H having to go from a.m. to p.m.

I had the privilege of working there through the good and the bad. I was sports editor when circulation hit 100,000, and I knew how it was done. I was there when the old Post struggled in the 1940s, and later when it was rejuvenated by a merger with the Age-Herald.

I may be the only living former employee who worked at the newspaper's last three locations, on 19th street, around the corner from the Municipal Auditorium, then on Third Avenue, a block up from old Sears, and finally as a tenant in the News Building at Fourth and 22nd.

My acquaintance has been almost lifelong. My mother was a switchboard operator at the Post when she dressed up me and my brother, Bob, for a trip to meet her co-workers. I was five, and had my picture taken by a Post photographer.

In the summer of 1944, school was out. My mother was working in the business office. Later, she would retire as business manager. I was 16. She informed me that I wasn't going to laze around all summer. I had to work. The Post had a job open. It needed an office boy.

I'll never forget. The day was hot. The editorial department was on the second floor.

When asked what I wanted, I said a job. Someone, I think it was a reporter, shouted, "Grab him. Don't let him get away."

I was hired on the spot, and, for me, a wonderful new world opened, something not even in dreams. By reading exchange newspapers, I became familiar with master pensmen who would become my heroes, sports writers such as Joe Williams, Dan Parker, Jimmy Cannon, Damon Runyon, Westbrook Pegler, Grantland Rice, Stanley Woodward, Red Smith, Jim Kilgallen, Jimmy Powers.

Naylor Stone was the sports editor and he took me under his wing. Before he died in 1959, he recommended me to be his successor, which, I'm sure, surprised a lot of readers. I was fourth in the line of command. At the time, my beat was county football.

Stone was my mentor and hero. The Post and Post-Herald were family. We competed. What do I remember most?

I'm proud that P-H sports launched and led the campaign that started state high school football playoffs.

In 1961, the Birmingham Barons folded because the black athlete had arrived. A Birmingham ordinance banned the races from playing together. I wrote a column, which was picked up by Newsday, on the hypocrisy involved, of how Birmingham families enjoying watching blacks and whites play together on TV and fathers wishing their sons would play in the major leagues, where the races mixed.

It was a controversial stand at the time, and I thought the editor should read it first. Mr. Mills did, looked up, and said, "Well." I answered, "Any problems." "No," he said. "Not if you don't."

Again, later, when race car drivers struck and refused to race in the first race at then Alabama International Motorspeedway in Talladega, I took the side of the drivers. They shouldn't race. The track was dangerous.

LeGrand was the editor. A few weeks later, he asked if Bill France, president of NASCAR, had called. I said no. He said France was upset about the column and wanted me fired.

What did LeGrand tell him?

"I told him he had to talk to you," he said, "that you were the sports editor. I wasn't."

How's that for support?

As this last edition goes to press, I say good-bye with a tear to an old and family friend.

You'll be missed forever. And here a final toast to those good times. And they were many.

Readers and peers made it worthwhile

Commentary By RAY MELICK

Thank you.

Thank you for allowing me, for the past twenty-something years, be a part of your sports day. Thank you for taking the time to read what I had to say, for taking the time to let me know when you agreed with me, and for trying to set me straight when you disagreed with me.

Thank you for teaching me about passion when it comes to college sports, especially college football. Thank you for giving me second and third and fourth chances when I made mistakes. Thank you for considering that maybe, occasionally, I might have known a little more about a particular subject than you did. Thank you for occasionally being willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.

As you probably know by now, this is my final column for the Birmingham Post-Herald. To some of you, that may draw a response of "It's about time!"

To others, hopefully, you'll share a little of the sadness that I feel for the relationship that will end with the final word in the final sports section in the final Post-Herald.

Because it has been a relationship. Every time I sat down in front of a keyboard to write, it was with you, the reader, in mind. I tried to convey what it was like to be at the game, to talk to the coaches and players, to understand what happened that might have led to the wins and losses, to give you some analysis or insight that my privilege of being in the press box and the locker room and the offices of the coaches and athletic directors afforded me.

I know we didn't always agree. There have been some challenging times. As much fun as we had celebrating championships and triumphs, we also had to write about losses and disappointments.

I have always taken great pride in the Post-Herald. With no apology to the rest of the newsroom, I always felt the sports section led the way at this newspaper. Through the leadership of great sports editors like Tom Lindley, Don Kausler, Chet Fussman, Tim Stephens and Scott Adamson, we were on the cutting edge of putting together original daily sections, of award-winning special sections, of game analysis and features and using words and pictures in what we used to refer to as "B-8s," referring to the Monday full back-page coverage we gave to the weekend's top sporting event that coaches, players and even you, the readers, looked forward to.

We have always been a writer's newspaper, and sports was no different, featuring the work of terrific sportswriters (in my tenure) such as Bill Lumpkin, the late Mack Shoemaker, Paul Finebaum, Rubin Grant, Cary Estes, and so many others, including the current staff that it has been my privilege to call my friends.

More than anything, I took great pride when people would find out I worked for the Post-Herald and say, "I love your sports section."

Trust me when I say I loved it, too.

It has never been dull. I've always believed the beauty of sports is that you can go to game after game and never be sure of how the story is going to end. That's why we keep going, week after week, season after season, year after year, to see what's going to happen next.

That's why I say "thank you." I love sports, and I know you do, too. Regardless of anything else that happened in this relationship, we always had that in common.

No matter what happens next, we always will.

My time here was as quick as a hiccup

Commentary By PAUL BEAUDRY

So I'm talking with Fairfield football coach Jim Vakakis this week and he's describing tonight's game with McAdory and the Yellow Jackets' team speed.

"They're not just quick," said Vakakis in his deep drawl, "They're sudden. They're quick like a hiccup."

I was planning on using that line in today's high school picks simply because it's a great line. It also applies to how we found out about the end of the Post-Herald. Quick, like a hiccup.

I won't offer my perspective because I haven't been here that long. I know what the paper meant to this community, simply because after 75 years it had to mean something. That's mean something in a good way, not mean something like a temporary tax hike or a domed stadium that few people want and less people want to pay for.

I have been part of this community for one year, two weeks and two days. I moved here not for another job, but a new chapter of my life with the love of my life.

And while Lisa is my passion, my true love is writing about your children.

I see them for a small part of their lives — on the court or on the diamond or field. I don't get to see them each day, only glimpses.

But those glimpses have provided insight to what they can be, what they can do and how they act.

One of the first students I talked to for our weekly honor roll last fall was Altamont cross country runner Elisabeth Molen. And when I was done chatting, I turned to the fiancι and told her about the call.

"Was I like that?" I asked. "Was I that smart in high school?"

"Probably not," she quipped.

But it's students like Molen, DeWanna Bonner, Jarod Bryant, and Steve Freeman and others who have made me feel very lucky — not because of covering their talent on the field, but because people have raised some quality children.

It reminds me why I got into this business — to write something new, something fresh, something different.

Here's a clue: If parents were half as understanding as their children, this place would be twice as better off. If parents didn't coddle their kids, allowing them to drink on road trips or give them a wink when they deface cars or blow off responsibility, the kids would be better off.

They want guidance, they want structure; in a larger sense, that's why they play sports, that's why sports helps them succeed. They learn from the bigger picture; that's why those who came back to play football at Fultondale will be much better off than the ones who quit last year. There's a sign in the home team locker room at Michigan Stadium:

"Those Who Stay Will Be Champions." It might not show on the scoreboard or timing machine, but its true.

Those who try their best won't fail.

The kids who try their hardest know it, the ones who have everything handed to them won't. Sports should not be the most important thing in their life and it sure shouldn't be the most important thing in yours. Living vicariously through your children's accomplishment is no way for parents to live.

It's the last sermon you'll read from me, for a while anyway. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to meet your kids, to understand what makes them tick, to write about the successful ones.

I've enjoyed writing about the good kids, the bad decisions by adults, tilting at windmills in an effort to ferret out greed and egotism for their own sake.

When I started, I told you that I would make you laugh and I would make you mad, but agree or disagree I would always make you think.

I thank you for letting me be a part of your routine for the last year. Everyone knew this day would come. We just didn't think it come this quick.

Just like a hiccup.

I walk away from the Alabama beat with a smile

Commentary By GREG WALLACE

What do you say at the end?

When they're locking the doors behind you and you don't know where your byline will end up next?

It's a numb feeling.

For me, for all of the talented sportswriters here at the Birmingham Post-Herald. Today is our final edition, ending a long tradition of excellent journalism by solid reporters who, at times, battled through the same financial odds that eventually resulted in this paper's closing.

It all happened so suddenly. One minute, just after 8 a.m. Thursday, we were printing out the final page of Thursday afternoon's sports section.

The next, two corporate executives from Scripps Howard were standing in the middle of the newsroom, telling us it was all over — today.

And I wasn't thinking about my paycheck, or clearing out my desk, or turning in my company badge.

All that could run through my head was, "Well, guess I'm not making that Alabama-Ole Miss trip."

For going on five years now, I've been the Post-Herald's Alabama beat writer. I've seen everything from Mike DuBose to Mike Shula.

I've seen Mark Gottfried's Tide basketball program rise to prominence.

I've seen Sarah Patterson's gymnastics program win a national title in Coleman Coliseum and miss another by a few balance-beam stumbles in Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum.

I've seen Jim Wells' Tide baseball team blow out a few SEC opponents, win a couple SEC titles at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium and lose a few NCAA Regionals, the last at a waterlogged Turchin Stadium in New Orleans.

Now, I'm not an Alabama fan. No half-decent or unbiased reporter worth his free press-box meal would be. But in five years, I've come to respect the machine that is Crimson Tide athletics.

You might not like how it runs sometimes, or some of the decisions it makes — I know I've disagreed with some — but there are some genuinely good people in the UA athletic department that have made covering Alabama athletics much easier over the past five years.

Some of the best memories of my professional life have come from UA athletics. I'll never forget the two months covering the Tide men's basketball team's run from dead-in-the-water to its first ever Elite Eight NCAA Tournament appearance in 2004.

The morning of a crucial road showdown at No. 5 Mississippi State, I wrote Alabama's NCAA chances were "as thin as Lara Flynn Boyle."

They won that game, and every other one that mattered along the way. Antoine Pettway — one of the most likable athletes you'll ever meet, the kind of person you root for — hit big shot after big shot, lifting the Tide past Southern Illinois, Stanford and Syracuse before falling to UConn a step from the Final Four.

Ironically, that run from Starkville to Seattle to Phoenix was probably my best Alabama beat moment.

It wasn't perfect — emerging from Seattle's KeyArena after that first-round victory over Southern Illinois to find my car towed was a definite lowlight — but for the most part, it was one of the most fun two months of my writing life.

Covering the Tide football team, normally one of the nation's most plum jobs, hasn't proved quite as fruitful. A friend told me recently that this might have been the worst five-year stretch since the days of "Ears" Whitworth, and I tend to agree with him.

My first Alabama football game was Mike DuBose's last, a sleet-soaked 9-0 Iron Bowl loss to Auburn. My job that day involved trailing him from opening warmups to the slam of his car door outside Bryant-Denny Stadium, getting pelted with rain and sleet all the way. I'm from Iowa, and I don't think I've ever been so cold in my life.

It didn't get much better from there — an Independence Bowl trip with snake-oil salesman Dennis Franchione, followed by a 10-3 season and Fran high-tailing it to Texas A&M before the NCAA probation got really bad.

Fran ruined my work vacation to Hawaii to cover the 2003 Tide-Hawaii matchup; the Post-Herald had booked my wife and I on a trip package which gave us three extra days in the islands on the back end of the trip.

That Monday, I was doing my last assignment — a profile of UAB-turned Hawaii athletic director Herman Frazier — when my cell phone rang. It was Buck, our assistant sports editor, and he had bad news: Texas A&M had fired R.C. Slocum.

Bye bye, sands of Waikiki and waves of the North Shore.

Hello, chasing (unsuccessfully) the Alabama team bus through Honolulu rush hour traffic and chasing everyone I could get on the phone.

Four days, a whirlwind overnight flight to Birmingham and a few hours of sleep later, Fran was gone.

Then came Mike Price, his unfortunate night in Pensacola, and the hiring of Mike Shula.

Shula's tenure hasn't been easy; his biggest win came just last week, over a mediocre South Carolina team that just happened to be coached by Steve Spurrier.

It was my last game story, at least for now.

You won't read about his eventual success — or failure — in these pages, and that saddens me. I've had opportunities to work at other papers covering other programs over the years, but I was looking forward to seeing just how Shula would bring the Tide back to prominence, or the stories I'd write if he didn't.

That's a writer's job. The impartial among us cover our beat, good or bad. And for the most part, good or bad, my office was in the basement of Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, alongside the other fine writers who cover Alabama on a day-to-day basis.

It's a competitive, but friendly place, with mindless chatter, a 25-cent Coke machine and wireless Internet. It's great, and I'll miss it, now that I won't be there as much, if at all.

That's a sad thing; for me, that office, like the Alabama beat, is full of great memories. A few angry ones, to be sure, regarding people who have passed through or stories I missed, but mostly good.

I leave the beat — for now — with a smile on my face, knowing I did the best I could to bring the Post-Herald's dwindling circulation the most honest, exciting, scintillating Crimson Tide coverage I could.

My byline will pop up somewhere else, covering some other school or team, perhaps. Who knows when or where? Certainly not me.

For now, my memories will have to sustain me.

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