40 years later, reminiscing about my gratifying days as a Texas A&M student journalist — and the great team of sports writers we had at ‘The Batt’

It seems unimaginable, but in less than four months, it’ll be 40 years since I graduated from Texas A&M University with a journalism degree. I had spent two years writing sports stories for our student newspaper, The Battalion, including a year as sports editor, and still cherish that time as among my most memorable — and important — life experiences.

I started as a writer who churned out cliche-filled copy, but with the constructive critiques of professors like the late Skip Leabo and through reading and learning from sports writers including my upperclass friend and colleague Richard Oliver and pros like Al Carter, Kevin Sherrington and Ivy McLemore in the Houston papers, my stories became much less stilted and more like sports writing should be. I found my personal style and was fortunate to earn a few awards along the way.

During those two years, I had the privilege of working with some other great young journalists on our sports staff — folks like Ritchie Priddy, John Wagner, John Lopez, Denise Sechelski, Gaye Denley, Joe Tindel and Bill Robinson, who sadly died in a car accident the summer after I graduated, before his senior year.

All of us built friendships, learned our craft from A&M journalism faculty and honed it in the field while covering games, interviewing coaches and athletes, and teaming up to write countless stories. And all these years later, I’m still friends with all of them.

We worked our butts off at The Batt but also had fun, as my sports staff buddies John Wagner (left) and John Lopez demonstrated in these photos I shot in the spring of 1983, my graduating semester, while taking Photojournalism 315.

I watched each of my Batt sports colleagues thrive and grow while we worked not only to cover Texas A&M and the Southwest Conference, but to produce sports pages for a newspaper that hit campus at noon each weekday. That meant one of us had to drag himself or herself into the newsroom around 5 a.m. to pull, edit and write headlines and photo captions for wire copy to go along with the staff stories we’d already written and edited.

John Lopez, who graduated a year after me in ’84, went on to become an acclaimed sports columnist at the Houston Chronicle, has been a long-running sports talk show host, and is an author and podcaster. On top of that, he’s been a Heisman Trophy voter since 1985 and a Baseball Hall of Fame voter since 1999.

John Wagner, also an ’84 grad, did some newspaper work after college but has spent the bulk of his career in corporate communications and public relations. Since 2004, he’s owned his own comms business, producing content of all types for hospitals, energy/oilfield companies, banking firms and more. A couple of months ago, my colleagues and I at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas brought John on as a long-distance freelancer to help produce our news releases.

When Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant died 40 years ago this month, I spent several hours calling some of his former players and coaches to talk about their memories of him. Bryant had been Texas A&M’s head coach from 1954 to 1957, coaching Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow in his last year before spending the final 25 seasons of his career at Alabama, his alma mater, and leading the Crimson Tide to six national titles.

And Denise, whom I hired during her freshman year in late 1981 along with the two Johns to join our Batt sports staff when I became sports editor, spent the spring of ’82 doing top-rate work covering tennis and baseball and having an absolute blast. When I was tabbed to be sports editor, I’d asked some of the faculty for names of students who showed promise as reporters/writers, and Denise was among those mentioned. Same with John and John, although I’m sure those guys would’ve applied for the staff at some point anyway. Denise ended up transferring to the University of Texas after that semester and earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Engish lit, has been a college professor and is now a writer/editor in educational publishing.

I was excited to take on the sports editor’s job but would’ve preferred to ease into it with a little less hullabaloo (see what I did there, Ags?). No such luck — the biggest news of my Batt tenure broke in January ’82 as A&M officials, including the board of regents, surreptitiously embarked on a search for a new athletic director who would also be the school’s head football coach. All the while, they repeatedly insisted the AD job was the only one they were looking to fill, since it was the only position open. Did they really think anyone was buying that hogwash?

During the secretive search process that culminated with Tom Wilson’s firing and Jackie Sherrill’s hiring, I wrote this column for The Batt.

Coach Tom Wilson had just guided the Aggies to a 7-5 record and a dominant 33-16 win over Jimmy Johnson’s Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Independence Bowl, but Wilson’s 21-19 mark in three-plus seasons didn’t suit A&M officials and alumni. So they kept him in the dark while courting Michigan’s Bo Schembechler, who ended up turning down A&M’s big-money offer Jan. 15 after returning home from a trip to Texas.

A&M officials and regents led by chairman (and later Dallas Cowboys owner) H.R. “Bum” Bright zeroed in on their other candidate, Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill, whose Panthers had finished 11-1 three straight years — and the way he later described it, he made the offer, not the Aggies.

On Jan. 19, 1982, my dear friend Denise Richter — who sadly passed away last February — and I wrote a front-page story for The Batt announcing Sherrill’s hiring as coach and AD, as he became college football’s first coach with a total contract topping $1 million. Considering current A&M coach Jimbo Fisher’s laughably colossal contract, it’s crazy to fathom where we were 41 years ago on the landscape for coaches’ contracts.

This front-page story appeared in The Batt the day after Sherrill was hired as head football coach and athletic director.

I can still vividly remember, and have a cassette recording of, the first lengthy one-on-one interview I did with Sherrill in his office in A&M’s Rudder Tower before workouts started that spring. I always thought he was rather intimidating, and I recall being somewhat nervous for that meeting. Sherrill could be brash, terse and abrasive — a term even he used to describe himself, according to one of my early stories about him. But he was generally cooperative with us student journalists and I appreciated that.

My senior year started that fall, so I only covered that first season for the Aggies under Sherrill. It went backward quickly when they opened with a 38-16 home loss to Boston College and its sophomore quarterback, Heisman winner-to-be Doug Flutie. On its way to a 5-6 record (3-5 SWC), A&M suffered lopsided losses to No. 4 SMU, No. 10 Arkansas and No. 14 Texas. But by 1985, Sherrill had the Aggies rolling to conference titles and bowl wins — until recruiting sanctions in 1988 temporarily stalled their momentum.

Sherrill held his first official news conference at A&M on Jan. 20, 1982. I remember being there and the overflow crowd of sports writers packed into that room.

A few months ago, I went in the attic and brought down several scrapbooks full of stories I wrote for The Batt. I also found hundreds of stories, many still unclipped in full sports sections, from the nearly four years I spent as a sports writer in my first job after graduating — at The Odessa American in West Texas. I’ll save some of those for another post.

Flipping through my old Batt clips — all of which are yellowed and many of which have come unglued (the rubber cement can hold for only so many decades) — I’m reminded what gratifying and meaningful days those were for a young student journalist.

When I started the gig, I couldn’t help feeling awed and a bit anxious — about sitting in press boxes with big-time sports writers and about interviewing athletes and coaches, many widely known. Much like a ballplayer making his first major-league start, the jitters wore off and I felt at ease among those other journalists and talking to all the sources necessary to write “gamers,” player profiles, other features and sports news stories. 

As objective journalists covering games involving our own school, my Batt colleagues and I had to quell any urges to show excitement when the Aggies made a good play or won. And of course, we couldn’t sing the “Aggie War Hymn” or the school song, “The Spirit of Aggieland.” 

Before his first season with the Aggies began, I wrote a two-part profile about Sherrill, interviewing family (including his mother), acquaintances and colleagues from his past — including Bear Bryant, whom I interviewed by phone.

As I glanced at headlines and read through some of my stories, I remembered writing quite a few of them, but the memory of most, and the specifics of what I wrote, had faded long ago. One thing I remember well, though, is the names of the many great sports figures I had the chance to cover, interview and, in some cases, get to know in my two years at The Batt. Here are a few:

Sherrill and A&M basketball coach Shelby Metcalf; A&M quarterback (and later NFL player and head coach) Gary Kubiak; SWC football coaches Grant Teaff (Baylor), Bill Yeoman (Houston), Lou Holtz (Arkansas), Fred Akers (Texas) and Jerry Moore (Texas Tech); Southwest Texas State (and later TCU) coach Jim Wacker; SMU (and later NFL) running backs Eric Dickerson and Craig James; Flutie, whom I did a phone interview with for a feature before A&M opened the ’82 season against Boston College; SWC basketball coaches Abe Lemons (Texas), Eddie Sutton (Arkansas), Guy Lewis (Houston), Gerald Myers (Texas Tech) and Dave Bliss (SMU); and SWC basketball stars Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Larry Micheaux (Houston and later NBA) and Bubba Jennings (Texas Tech).

When I later ran into Sherrill, Teaff and Wacker at events while working in Odessa, they remembered me and greeted me graciously.

In the spring of ’83 as my days in Aggieland were winding down and I was covering the spring football game, I tried to sneak in an interview with New Orleans Saints (and beloved former Houston Oilers) coach Bum Phillips. Unfortunately, lots of other folks wanted to sneak in a greeting, so my interview didn’t amount to much.

With the exception of a few high school games I covered in the late ’80s at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (when I had Friday nights off from my copy editing job), and the “College Football Notebooks” I wrote there during one season (or was it two?), my sports writing days lasted from spring ’81 at The Batt through April ’87 when I left Odessa for Fort Worth. They were full of long hours and stressful, brain-draining work (both hallmarks of journalism) and the constant deadline pressure sports writers face every day — one of the reasons I moved into editing, although I later missed writing and have always regretted giving up full-time reporting so early in my career.

But covering sports for my college newspaper, interviewing too many athletes and coaches to count, being part of an awesome team effort at The Battalion — and getting paid to do it (although how much has slipped from my mind’s grasp) — will always rank No. 1 when I think of my four years at Texas A&M.

I’ve been on some great teams, in sports and professionally, but none better than that one. Thanks, you guys. I’ll never forget the great times and great sports journalism we were a part of together.

Every Friday during football season, the Batt sports staff, A&M director of business services and longtime cartoonist Don Powell (“dp”), and a guest picked 10 college and pro football games. On this Friday, Nov. 13, 1981, our guest was Dr. Frank Vandiver, Texas A&M’s president.
In November 1982, Battalion photographer David Fisher and I traveled with the Aggie men’s basketball team to Anchorage for the Great Alaska Shootout over Thanksgiving weekend. We were shocked but thrilled that the university paid our way. The Aggies lost two of their three games in the tournament — won by Louisville, which ended up losing to Houston in the Final Four the following spring — but we had a ball (pun intended).

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