This is a sad day for me. Yesterday, I resigned after 14 years as color commentator on The Navy radio network. I did it with a lot of regret and with no malice towards anyone at Navy. The people I have worked with there have been terrific to me from the first game I worked until the last.
But I felt I had no choice.
For years now—at least 10, maybe more—I have wanted to do a documentary on the Army-Navy game. Of all the non-fiction books I have written I always believed that two would make great theatrical movies: “A Civil War,” and “Caddy For Life.”
“Caddy,” came very close. It was optioned by Matt Damon’s production company; a very good screenwriter named David Himmelstein was hired and he wrote a terrific script which ABC Entertainment was ready to buy and put into production. Then, in one of the all-time ironic twists, ABC backed out at the last second because it had been counting on getting some funding from ESPN Original Entertainment—since the movie would have been re-aired about 1,000 times on ESPN after debuting on ABC—but ESPN’s movie budget was slashed that year by Disney.
Why? Because the movies they’d been making were so awful. The first movie they made? You got it, ‘A Season on the Brink,’ which may still be listed in Guinness under ‘worst movies ever made.’
‘Caddy For Life,’ did become a documentary, a very good one I think, that aired on Golf Channel last year. I still believe it would make a great theatrical movie—Rob Lowe as Bruce; Gary Sinise as Watson—but chances are it won’t happen.
‘Civil War,’ was a different deal. From the beginning, smart people told me the logistics and the cost would make it very difficult to get done. I was baffled. If people bought into ‘Rudy,’—which was far more fiction than fact—why wouldn’t they buy into a story like this one about real football players who went on, in many cases, to fight in real wars.
“To get it sold to Hollywood, you need a real star,” Ron Shelton told me years ago. “If Leonardo DiCaprio can pull off playing a football player, you’ve got a shot. Otherwise, it isn’t going to get bought by any studio.”
I’d gotten to know Shelton when he was on the golf tour doing research for ‘Tin Cup.’ I respect his work greatly and his knowledge of Hollywood equally. Bill Goldman—who wrote, among other things, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’; ‘All The President’s Men,’; and ‘The Princess Bride,’;--said essentially the same thing to me. “Hell, get DiCaprio to play the water boy and they’ll make the movie,” he said. “But this would be an ensemble cast and you’d need a lot of unknown young actors. That’s a problem.”
Okay, if Ron Shelton and Bill Goldman tell me something is a no-go then the chances are it’s a no-go. To quote Lefty Driesell, I may be dumb but I ain’t stupid.
So, I turned my thoughts to doing a documentary. On this I got a lot more encouragement. I was told again and again that the idea of using my relationships with the two schools to get the kind of access I had while doing, ‘A Civil War,’ would make a terrific documentary. I agreed. It doesn’t matter what year you are talking about—1995 or 2011—there are always great stories among the mids and the cadets. Plus, they are the kind of kids who can tell those stories on and off-camera in rich detail. That was why ‘A Civil War,’ worked as well as it did.
The problem, of course, was finding someone who would put up the money to do it. I had more meetings with more different people and producers than I can begin to count. I thought I was close enough a couple of years ago that I had meetings with both coaches to ensure that I would get the access I was promising people I could get. Both said the same thing: come on ahead.
At one point I sent an e-mail to Sean McManus, the president of CBS Sports, someone I’ve known since college. I worked for Sean and CBS for a couple of years doing essays on three topics: college basketball, golf and Army-Navy. The best ones, without doubt, were the ones I did on Army-Navy. I really enjoyed doing those essays and they were well-received. Then Sean hired a new executive producer and he sent an edict to me through the guy who had been producing my pieces: no more essays: we only want regular features.
That was the end for me with CBS. As I said to Sean, they had plenty of people who could do regular features. The point of hiring me—or so I’d thought—was that I brought something unique to the table. Sean agreed. But he wasn’t going to tell a brand new important hire what to do and not do with someone who wasn’t even on staff. We parted amicably.
Which is why I wrote to him with my idea about Army-Navy. My thought was simple: Since CBS televised the game, the documentary could promote the game and/or vice-versa. I suggested the documentary could run on Showtime, which was always looking for original programming. Sean wrote back a very nice note saying it sounded like a good idea but that Showtime really didn’t do sports—except for some boxing.
I kept looking. I tried HBO—thinking it would be a great 24/7. They liked the idea too but didn’t have money in the budget for 2011 to take on another big project. Maybe next year they said.
Well, it won’t be next year.
Last week I learned that CBS is going to produce a two-hour documentary on the Army-Navy game that will air on Showtime soon after this year’s game is played. They will air a 30-minute special a week before the game on CBS. Gee, that’s a great idea isn’t it? Use the documentary to promote the game and the game to promote the documentary.
There’s no sense going into any more detail but a guy at CBS named Pete Radovich apparently pitched the idea to McManus who gave him the green light. Then he went to Army and Navy (CBS College televises all their home games in addition to Army-Navy on the network, so CBS is important to both schools) and pitched it. My name did apparently come up once as in, “you know John has been trying to do this for years,” and Radovich (surprise) pretty much ignored it.
I have no doubt CBS will do just fine with this. They’ll have the access and they’ll spend the money. They won’t have my anecdotal memory or know some of the stories about past players that I know and I’m SURE they won’t try to claim any of the stories I’ve written or told in the past as their own.
I’m not angry with the people at Army or Navy. This was a business decision. Could they have pushed CBS a little harder to involve me, pointing out that it would benefit the project? Yes. Would that have done any good? I doubt it.
The reason I’m stepping down then isn’t because I’m throwing a hissy fit at being left out. But, as I said in my note to the Navy people, Army-Navy and doing Navy football has never been a job to me, it has been a passion. Doing this documentary would have been a labor of both love and passion and, yes, I believe I would have done it better than anyone else.
So, to be at the games this fall and see CBS there with their cameras following players around; knowing they’re in the locker room with their cameras; encountering people from CBS all the time, is something I simply can’t face. It’s a little bit like dating a girl for 10 years, getting dumped and then being invited to her wedding. I just don’t want to watch it.
I know I’ll miss doing the games a lot. I know my partners Bob Socci and Omar Nelson will do just fine without me and I’ll miss the broadcasts more than the broadcasts will miss me. The carnival moves on—I get that. But I also know myself well enough to know out-of-sight, out-of-mind will be better for me than in-sight and in-mind. The only consolation for me is that I don’t have to go an Army-Navy game in that god-awful stadium owned by that god-awful NFL owner.
Chet Gladchuk, the Navy athletic director and Eric Ruden, who runs the radio network, have been both gracious and understanding and have left the door open should I feel differently at some point.
I don’t think I will. But I’m grateful to them for saying that and for the last 14 years. I truly did love being a very small part of a place I respect so much.