A Long Time Ago In A Sports Department Far Away . . .
By: Tim Timmons
If newsrooms are the brains and guts of a newspaper, then sports departments are surely the heart and soul. Over the decades, some of the best writing has graced sports columns – just one newspaper vagabond’s opinion. From Grantland Rice and Red Smith back in the day to Jim Murray, Bob Ryan, Frank DeFord and countless others, some of the best prose ever were printed on the pages in the sports section.
Recently, longtime Lafayette Journal & Courier sports editor and current columnist for your favorite Montgomery County daily Ken Thompson highlighted some of the sports writers from that particular paper. Anyone who has followed Purdue for long probably has read some of the scribes Thompson mentioned.
The J&C used to be one of Indiana’s outstanding newspapers. If the current owners don’t completely destroy it, it could rise to greatness once again. Whether it does or not though, if a history were to be written, Thompson’s name would stand tall.
One thing Thompson didn’t do – couldn’t really – was write about his place there. It took a little prodding, but he graciously agreed to answer a few questions. I hope you enjoy reading about him as much as I did.
Q. When did you know you wanted to do this for a living?
I figured out by age 13 that I was not an athlete and certainly not good enough to play football, basketball or baseball for Lafayette Jeff but sports was my passion. While I wasn’t a varsity athlete in high school, I will always thank Jeff High School for the opportunities it provided me with the student newspaper and student-run radio station WJEF (91.9 on your FM dial, as the promo used to say). On The Booster, I teamed up with Jeff Bonty, who went on to a long professional newspaper career at Kankakee, Ill. At WJEF, I performed all sorts of duties (newscaster, disc jockey, statistician for football and basketball games and an occasional shot at analysis on basketball games). Our instructor, Mr. William Fraser (Fraser as in eraser, he would remind people), taught me a lot about being a professional.
Just after graduating from Jeff, I inquired with publisher Martha DePoy at the Lafayette Leader to see if she was interested in having someone cover Jeff football, basketball and baseball while I was going to Purdue. I had an “in” with Mrs. DePoy because my mother had done some advertising work for her and was one of the people who came up with the “Home Buyers Guide,” a publication that provided pictures and descriptions of houses available in the Lafayette area.
I was with the Leader for about a year or so when I decided to see if a niche publication, Sport Spirit, needed anyone to cover high school sports. That is where I met photographer Frank Oliver, beginning a professional relationship that lasted decades through the J&C. Frank played a key role in allowing me to meet my wife, agreeing to take pictures of me in a flattering setting at Happy Hollow Park in West Lafayette. Those pictures ended up on a dating website and prompted my future wife to contact me.
When the Spirit went under financially just before my junior year at Purdue, I not only returned to the Lafayette Leader but I also decided to attend a callout for writers from The Exponent. In two short years, I rose to sports editor at The Exponent and forged relationships that endure to this day. I was fortunate enough to attend the Big Ten Championship football game last season with several of my Exponent friends.
I briefly returned to the Leader before joining the Journal and Courier in August 1984 just as the newspaper was converting to morning publication.
Q. You competed against the J&C at the Lafayette Leader. What was that like?
I was perhaps naive in the sense that I never thought of the J&C as competition. The Leader was a weekly newspaper with a niche audience. I wasn’t going to be breaking any news. What I did was just be present at Jeff games and a few practices when my classwork allowed. I thank coaches Dave Knott, Don Lostutter and Mark Strader for treating me just as well as they did a J&C reporter.
Q. Did you read the J&C growing up?
Not really. My dad, and grandpa Thompson, subscribed to the Indianapolis Star. I would read the J&C at the Jeff library every day but my early sportswriting influences were from the Star: Bob Collins, John Bansch and Bill Benner. I also was a fan of Tom Keating.
I became immersed in the sportswriting history of the J&C during my days at Purdue. I was fortunate enough to interview Marion Crawley not long before he died. I went to athletic director Joe Heath, my Economics teacher at Jeff, to ask about any records in the school’s possession. To my surprise, there was very little. So, I took it upon myself to research Lafayette Jeff basketball history. I started with the Crawley era (1942-1967) and spent countless hours reading microfilm at the main Purdue library and the Tippecanoe County library during the summer. Next thing I know, I’ve got a record of every Jeff basketball game from 1911 to 1982. At the same time, I compiled the scoring totals – and in a couple of cases – rebounding totals for that period. I gave Mr. Heath one copy and kept one for myself. With the assistance of John Harrell’s website, I’ve kept up with the season records ever since.
That research allowed me to become very familiar with Gordon Graham and his writing style. Very pro-Purdue and Lafayette Jeff (his alma maters) but also demonstrating a broad knowledge of sports.
Q. Who were your favorite writers?
My dad was a West Lafayette High School graduate and he always talked about the two greatest athletes to come out of there in his lifetime: Bob Friend and Bob Kriebel. My dad lived close by the Kriebel home and he always held a high opinion of Bob. As it turns out, Bob Kriebel was one of my journalism instructors at Purdue and he prepared me for what was necessary to get my foot in the door at the J&C.
Another of life’s coincidences: my dad and Jeff Washburn’s father, Sonny, were employed by Fairfield Manufacturing in Lafayette. I always enjoyed “Wash’s” writing, especially when he would become “The Swami” and make his weekly predictions on high school football and basketball games.
Q. When you went to work there, what was it like being with Washburn and others?
As shy as I am in my personal life, I felt like I belonged with Wash, Tom Kubat and Bob Scott. I had to swallow some pride and accept the lowest entry job into the sports department: a part-time agate clerk and occasional high school writer. I was determined to show them I belonged. I kept my mouth shut, put my head down and did everything asked of me, eventually becoming the sports editor. There were so many people who helped me along the way: Paula Waltz (the first female sportswriter in J&C history), Chuck Wineland (who created the girls high school sports beat at the J&C), news editor Frank Koontz, plus Wash, Tom Kubat and Bob Scott.
I also met Jim Stafford, who like me was a part-time agate clerk. Over the next 30-plus years, the two of us did everything we could to maintain the standards of the Journal and Courier when our corporate bosses could care less about communities like Lafayette.
During our heyday as a sports staff, I never thought any newspaper in Indiana (including the Star) had the depth of talent and the drive to cover Greater Lafayette more thoroughly. We had two young men who went on to successful careers at the Cincinnati Enquirier (Mark Curnutte and Michael Perry), a desk chief who went on to become an executive at the CBS station in Chicago and creator of “the weather word” for the Chicago Sun-Times (John Dodge). In time, we added Mike Carmin to cover Purdue women’s basketball with the same emphasis we put on men’s basketball. This is on top of having Washburn and Kubat forging a strong reputation with our readers.
Q. Who were your favorites to read?
I was an avid reader of The Sporting News and Sport Magazine in my teenage years. I absorbed every MLB team report. Dick Young’s column was a must-read every week. I also enjoyed Dick Schapp’s work, especially with the books he co-wrote with Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer Jerry Kramer. And like just about everybody else who had cable TV, the Sportswriters on TV show was a must watch with Bill Gleason, Bill Jauss, Rick Telander and Ben Bentley.
Q. As the sports editor, you sent a lot of people on Purdue assignments. Is there one specific event you sent someone and now regret not at least going along for a sidebar or something?
My only regret was not taking the opportunity to go to Assembly Hall in Bloomington in 2018. I’ve been to the Indiana campus for football but never basketball. Since Gannett was putting so much emphasis on digital and getting stories up as fast as possible, I came to the conclusion that it would be best for our readers if I stayed back in Lafayette and readied the game story for immediate publication.
Fortunately, I was able to make every home football game including the Ohio State game in 2018. I was supposed to get to the OSU locker room and get a sidebar but even 30 minutes after the game, the crowd was just too heavy to get even close to the locker room.
Q. Did you have relationships (more than the basics we have from talking in press conferences) with any Purdue coaches that bring back good memories? Bad?
I’ll start with Leon Burtnett. In 1983, I was sports editor of The Exponent but he treated me with the same respect and courtesy he gave Jeff Washburn and other reporters covering Purdue. I was sorry things didn’t work out in the long run. That brings us to Fred Akers, who worried about the wrong things. The only time I ever spoke to him was when he requested I not be so negative toward his team. Look at his record at Purdue and other than the 1988 win at Ohio State there wasn’t much to be positive about. It was a meeting Akers set up with our sports editor at the time, and I almost felt like I was being set up as the bad guy when I wasn’t even the beat writer.
Gene Keady and Matt Painter have been great to work with on a professional level. Keady will answer just about any question except when I inquired about the terms of his new contract. I cannot remember why I had to talk with him that day instead of Jeff Washburn. If Keady liked you, you were “pardner!” to him. Painter has always made a point to stop and say hello when I’ve been at scrimmages or weekly media gatherings. I am still trying to grasp that his favorite music is rap. I chuckle when I think about attending a scrimmage in Mackey Arena and Fall Out Boy’s “Uma Thurman” is coming out of the speakers.
Q. Sports departments were called the “toy department” for a long time. Agree or disagree with the assessment?
Emphatically, no! This was a real pet peeve among many of my co-workers. Jim Stafford used to say half-jokingly that if the newsroom got pizza on election night, where’s our pizza for every Friday and Saturday night in the fall? Purdue sports, high school sports, numerous phone calls taking box scores and giving out scores, staff spread out covering five or six games. I retain the belief that you could put Tom Kubat, Jeff Washburn or any of our other full-time writers on newsside and the quality would not drop off. In many cases, I cannot say the same for news reporters trying their hand at sports.
Q. What is the biggest memory that sticks out from your time at the J&C?
It’s difficult to pick one. I still remember my first night, assigned to cover a McCutcheon football game in September 1984. Nothing memorable about the game but it felt good to have Jeff Washburn saying “welcome aboard.” Being elevated from part-time to full-time when John Millman came on as sports editor in 1987 is another. Another is the night I witnessed a living eulogy for Washburn during a Lafayette Jeff football game in 2017. The game was terrible; the Bronchos won 70-0 over Muncie Central. But seeing so many people come up to “Wash” in the Jeff press box and tell him how much he meant to them and thanking him for his years of writing positively about the youth of Lafayette was touching.
One other I’d like to mention: the last football game of the 2009 high school season. I was covering Clinton Prairie at Central Catholic. The Knights were one year away from going on a run of four consecutive Class A state championships. It was 54-0 at halftime but the rules at the time required both coaches to agree to a running clock in the second half. The Clinton Prairie coach declined to agree to the running clock. This put Central Catholic in a no-win situation because it did not have a large roster at the time and IHSAA rules only allowed five quarters a week for junior varsity and freshman players. It ended up 96-0 but a sign of things to come was a freshman running back named Danny Anthrop sprinting away from tacklers for a 34-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. He became one of the greatest high school football players in Tippecanoe County history and would become a starting wide receiver at Purdue.
Q. Is there anything that this did not touch on that you want to make sure is included?
Even though my tenure at the Journal and Courier ended for reasons out of my control (the decline of print journalism and the budget cuts that followed), I spent 35 years doing the job I always wanted. A lot of people can’t say that. ‘
Something new happened every day inside that small newsroom in downtown Lafayette (and later on the east side of Lafayette). So many people who I was fortunate enough to work alongside.
I’ve been fortunate to continue my love of sportswriting through The Paper and The Times. I am grateful to your readers for their support.
-Two cents, which is about how much Timmons said his columns are worth, appears periodically on Wednesdays in The Paper. Timmons is the publisher of The Paper and can be contacted at [email protected].