Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On the Retirement of Furman Bisher--A Role Model for All of Us; Comment Follow-Ups

Seven months ago I had the pleasure of sitting next to Furman Bisher at the ACC Tournament. It was Friday afternoon and North Carolina was engaged in a terrific game with Virginia Tech--which was fighting for its NCAA Tournament life. As the game swung back and forth so did Furman--a proud graduate of UNC. He held his head in his hands when the Tar Heels made a mistake, railed against officiating calls that he disagreed with and shook a fist when Carolina pulled the game out in the final seconds.

Then he got up, walked into the bowels of the Georgia Dome to talk to people about the game and then came back and wrote a live column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This was not long after his 90th birthday.

No one working at the ACC Tournament saw this as unusual in any way. A big time event was in Atlanta and Furman Bisher was there writing about it. That's the way it has--seemingly--always been and the fact that Furman had turned 90 and was still writing shocked no one. For one thing, Furman looked about 65. For another he still had more energy than most of us who are 30, 40 or 50 years younger than he is. Perhaps most important, he still WROTE better than most of us who are 30, 40 or 50 years younger than he is.

This past Sunday, Furman Bisher wrote his last regularly scheduled column for the Journal-Constitution. I find that shocking. One of the great things about being a writer is that as long as you have your health and your mind is intact, you can keep doing what you do for as long as you want. Furman is a force of nature, in better physical shape than most of the guys he hangs out with in press rooms. His mind? Are you kidding me? He can still craft a column that makes the rest of us say, "Why can't I do that?"

But somewhere along the line he decided that 70 years in the newspaper business was enough for one lifetime. He told his bosses he thought it was time for him to move on. His readers lose out more than anyone. The notion that he won't be showing up in press rooms on a regular basis anymore (I'm sure he'll still be at The Masters) is a loss for all of those who have been fortunate enough to know him.

I first met him when I was in college. Georgia Tech came to Duke for a football game and I sat right in front of Furman in the press box. I knew exactly who he was because I'd read his Sporting News columns as a kid. Duke was actually reasonably good in those days and won the game going away. At one point about midway through the fourth quarter a Duke kid made a tackle and as he came to the sideline someone grabbed him and screamed in his face and high-fived him as if he had just saved the game.

"My God," Furman said. "Look at that assistant coach. The guy's crazy."

"That's not an assistant coach," I said. "That's the team chaplain."

I wasn't kidding. Bob Young, the football team chaplain was, shall we say, intense.

"The chaplain?" Furman said. "By God no one wonder Duke is winning. They probably have God out there running windsprints after practice."

Furman was one of those iconic columnists who always had time to talk to kids coming up in the business. He defined what a southern gentleman was supposed to be and he always made what he did look easy. But there was no doubt he worked at his job. A lot of golf writers don't like to venture outside the press building at The Masters, in part because you can see things better watching on TV there, in part because the key players are always brought right to you.

I always prided myself on getting out and watching golf and working the locker room because that was how you got to know players and they got to know you. I found out early on that players notice the writers who do that. When I was researching "A Good Walk Spoiled," I showed up early one morning to walk with a group that included Jay Haas, Curtis Strange and Billy Andrade--a Wake Forest threesome if you will. I was standing on the first tee up against the ropes when Haas walked onto the tee and came straight over to me.

His normally friendly smile was nowhere in sight. "Hey," he said, pointing a finger at me. "YOU aren't supposed to be standing here."

I was stunned. I was less than an arm's length from the rope as the rules prescribed and what the heck was up with Haas? "Jay, I don't know what you mean," I stammered. "I'm an arm's length from the ropes. I don't think I'm in anyone's way..."

"No," Haas said. "You're supposed to be inside the press room right now eating free food like everyone else."

Behind me I could see Stange and Andrade cracking up.

At The Masters, or the U.S. Open or any tournament where I'd encounter Furman it seemed as if whenever I went out to walk he was the first person I'd encounter. Late in the day, he'd be standing under the tree outside the clubhouse talking to people. The next day, when you read his column, the subject was rarely the first guy brought to the interview room (like many columnists) or Tiger regardless of how he played. It was something a bit off the beaten path with some clear reporting involved. Every time I want to get a little bit lazy and hang around the press room I remind myself that Furman's probably out there walking so I can damn well drag myself out there too

A friend of mine sent me a note yesterday with a story about Furman's retirement. The subject line was, "another nail in sports journalism's coffin." Actually, I disagree with that assessment. For one thing I'm pretty convinced we'll still be reading Furman in various places for a good long time to come. For another, I think he's been a role model to so many of us for so many years that there are still quite a few guys at least TRYING to do the kind of work Furman did. We may not be Furman but if we try to be Furman we'll all be a little bit better.

That day at the ACC Tournament, as the game wound down, I could see that Furman was really sweating it out. At one point when he shook a fist after a Carolina basket I jokingly said to him, "Come on Furman, no cheering in the press box or on press row."

He laughed and said. "John, you get to be 90, you're allowed to cheer all you want."

I couldn't agree more. I'm not 90 but I'm going to stand up and cheer for Furman Bisher right now.


Some comments/ responses to recent posts...

Someone asked about the "technology creep," that we see on-screen these days during games, specifically referring to the TBS pitch-trax that is on the right side of the screen so often during at-bats. Personally, I think the whole thing has gotten out of control. This all started back in the 90s when Fox first got football and started putting the score and the time at the top of the screen. Then ESPN began showing updates twice an hour with scores at the bottom of the screen. That was all fine.

Now it's completely out of control. ESPN has non-stop crawls now which are distracting and, most of the time, just an excuse to put some advertiser's name on screen or to let people know about ESPN programming or to brag that the network has (allegedly) broken a story. "Brett Favre's agent tells ESPN that Favre is still right-handed." Everyone now puts logos all over the screen which is distracting too. The pitch trax is okay if used on occasion but its constant presence is simply annoying. What's more, it is far from infallible--sort of like the umpires...

Someone else asked if I had a comment on Duke winning a road football game in the ACC for the first time in six years. Sure. Good for Duke. It only took two bad hirings by a bad athletic director and two incompetent presidents to getting around to hiring a real college football coach in David Cutcliffe. Maybe they can reach the ultimate dream of every college football team and play someday on the blue field in Boise. Meanwhile, N.C. State Coach Tom O'Brien has to be feeling a little bit like Jim Zorn this week. Wonder if he wishes he had never left Boston College...

A reader--who I'm guessing is either related or very close to an official of some kind--was very upset with my Washington Post column yesterday saying officials should be more accountable. She wondered if I could possibly know how hard it is to be an official. Actually, I think I do. As I've mentioned on the blog, I like most officials. I've traveled with them, written about them and always gone out of my way to try--when allowed--to tell their side when something controversial takes place. I think if you ask most officials who know me they would tell you that. My point was this: in ANY job, regardless of how hard you work, you should be accountable for mistakes. No one drafts officials or umpires, they choose their path--just as we all do. Sometimes the best answer is, "yes, I made a mistake. I will try to do better next time."

Tomorrow--I promise--I will try to do better.


thedean said...

I know there is the rule, "no cheering in the pressbox or on press row" but can you give us any insights into times when that rule was broken? I love the behind the scences stuff and no one "lifts the curtian" better then you. This is my first read each day.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
FOTB Staff - said...

Hey readers - we have removed a comment because of its inflammatory nature and language that we try to keep off this site. We have absolutely no objection (and welcome) to people writing comments in disagreement with the views of John, or comments by your fellow readers, as that is what this forum is intended for. What we do not tolerate are certain manners in which its done.

Since this is the first comment we've had to delete, we're sure you understand it's not something we look to do.

Anonymous said...

I am all for accountability from officials. Especially when you are a professional referee, you have a responsibility to explain yourself when you can have such an impact on the game.

I am an official at the high school and youth level. Not necessarily comparable to these college and pro refs, but in principal we experience similar situations. There has become a culture in this country where officials are generally seen as being less than human. It is generally accepted that there is nothing wrong with berating officials, questioning their sanity and common sense, not to mention questioning their integrity and honesty. I'm a big soccer fan, and in some ways its worse in Europe. There, many fans are absolutely certain that certain refs are out to get their teams all the time, and are incapable of being impartial in many situations. I can't tell you how often I get accused by visiting coaches of favoring the home team, when I am an independent contractor who doesn't know a single person associated with the home team and could care less about the outcome. We have created a culture where an official, even at a youth level, forfeits their right to expect to be treated like a decent human being if they make a mistake.

I wonder if this culture has caused officials to feel they need to go into "the bunker". I wonder if they feel that if they publicly acknowledge their mistake, then the feel that will give the world carte blanche to assume that every call they have ever made is wrong.

I am Twins fan. I was livid for 2 days after that blown call by Cuzzi. It infuriated me. I believe he (and all officials) should be required to stand up and talk about the call and take responsibility. But I also think we as a society need to take responsibility for the mindset that has been created regarding officials. When an umpire has a great game behind the plate, nobody has any interest in interviewing him or talking to him. We only care when he screws up.

And why do we hold officials to such a higher standard than players? Joe Nathan blew the save in that game 2 innings before the blown call, but Twins fans will forgive him and give him a standing ovation on opening day next year. Matt Holiday was given a standing ovation at the beginning of game 3 in St. Louis. We forgive our players for making mistakes and for not being perfect. But if an official blows 1 call out of 100, we have no room for understanding or forgiveness. And we (as a society) are unwilling to give them credit for the 99 they got right, because they were supposed to.

In England, they are suffering a crisis in youth soccer because they have a massive referee shortage. People do it for a season or two, and hate it because of the abuse. As much as the referee's seeming lack of accountability infuriates me, I also feel we all need to look at referees in a new way.

Anonymous said...

Ed O. - great points. Do you think that humanizing refs by allowing people to see how and why they make calls, defending what they do, etc, through media interviews would cut down on some of vitriol aimed at them?

The way it seems now is that officials are de-humanized by having them 'hidden' in some manner.

thedean said...

Sounds like John's ex-wife decided to commment on the blog!

dcsooner said...

Furman Bisher, Grantland Rice and Herbert Warren Wind are some of the better names you'll ever come across, regardless if they were 4th level heads at the 4 letter.

JDM said...

LOL at the Dean. It's sad about John but it's interesting, as I said before, how his divorce went sort of unnoticed by his readership and all of a sudden he's talking about being engaged.

Congrats to John for impending nuptials!