Starting in December and going through the end of the 2011 year, we will feature some of the biggest stories and features from the past in our SEC "Calendar" series. This series is a way to remind our fans of everything that has happened in the conference in the past 365 days.
HOOVER, Ala. – The brown vinyl briefcase has been with me longer than my wife.
It has made 20 moves, starting with my childhood home at 1606 College Dr. in Baton Rouge.
Somehow, someway, even with all the things you accumulate in life that are sold at garage sales or donated to charity, the briefcase has always survived.
At this very moment, it is resting comfortably in an upstairs closet in my house in Memphis, next to a basketball and a couple of extra golf drivers.
There’s nothing remarkable about the briefcase other than unwavering sentimental attachment. It was given to me as a gift in the fall of 1969 when I was 13 years old by the late Elmore “Scoop” Hudgins, the Southeastern Conference’s longtime legendary media relations director.
Scoop knew that my father Ace, LSU’s sports information director, had just died unexpectedly at age 45. Also, Scoop knew how much I loved my dad and how I loved to write sports.
So Scoop, to brighten my spirits, gave me a briefcase with the following embossed inscription: Ron Higgins, LSU Sports Information, 1969 SEC Skywriters Tour.
It wasn’t until I was actually a student assistant working in the LSU sports information office in 1978-79 under the late Paul Manasseh that I discovered the who, what, when, where and why of the SEC Skywriters tour.
In short, it was this:
Every August for 19 years from 1965 to 1983, before you had the three-ring circus of about 900 credentialed media that descended here at the Wynfrey Hotel starting Wednesday for the SEC’s annual football preseason media days, 45 or so hard-working and partying journalists with hearts of gold and livers of bronze, were stuffed in a DC-3 propeller plane for a day-to-day tour of the then-10 league schools.
“You will never have anything again like the Skywriters,” says Steve Townsend, an assistant under Hudgins who eventually succeeded him as the SEC’s media director before working his current job as a special assistant to Alabama athletic director Mal Moore. “These were a bunch of professionals who had a good ’ol time doing their jobs, but they also formed professional and personal relationships with the coaches of all 10 schools, because they got to spend a day at each campus.
“By being allowed to go to practice, by having a lot of time to interview the coach and players in a relaxed atmosphere, the writers and TV reporters on the Skywriters really got a good feel for what was going on at each school. Writers got to load up on stories that would carry them for weeks all through August into the season.”
The affable Hudgins created the Skywriters in 1965 because the Southwest Conference had a similar tour. Once the SEC Skywriters got rolling – it cost each writer just $300 for airfare covering the entire trip – the Skywriters’ legendary reputation spread throughout the league.
“A lot of those guys were legends of sports journalism, writers you read growing up,” says Georgia’s Claude Felton, who began his career as the school’s media relations director in 1979. “It was like, `These are some of the greatest sportswriters in the country and they are all going to be on our campus today.’ ”
Coaches who didn’t mind having a post-preseason practice libation or three looked forward to the Skywriters visits. Alabama coach Bear Bryant would sit on the back porch of his house, entertaining writers and answering questions. Ole Miss coach Johnny Vaught did the same at a local Oxford hotel. Florida coach Charlie Pell invited the Skywriters to a pool party at his house.
“The beauty of the tour was each school rolled out the red carpet of access,” recalls Mike McKenzie, former executive sports editor of The Advocate in Baton Rouge. “You could go get a story, you could get isolated one-on-one on a field with a story subject, not parade him in an interview room in a cattle call like they di now. That was back in the day when coaches trusted writers.”
Retired Birmingham newspaper writer Bill Lumpkin said coaches went out of their way to accommodate the Skywriters.
“One year at Ole Miss, I go into (Coach Billy) Kinard’s office and I tell him I need to talk to all the Alabama players on his roster,” Lumpkin says. “He takes me into a team meeting and says, `All my players from Alabama raise your hand.’
“They raise their hand. Kinard says, “Introduce yourselves to Mr. Lumpkin and talk to him.’ He turns to me and says, `Is that all you need? See you later.’ ”
Every SEC school usually hosted a dinner party with free food and drink that lasted well in the wee hours of morning, with endless card games and other escapades that somehow didn’t end up on the police blotter or lead to the hospital emergency room.
“One night at Auburn, a writer has a little too good of a time and he passes out right after a dinner,” retired Nashville Tennessean writer Jimmy Davy says. “We take him from his seat and stretch him out on another table while somebody goes to get the doctor.
“The doctor doesn’t show up in a timely fashion, and this writer is still unconscious. Somebody says, `We need to get some ice or a cold towel to put on his face.’
“We couldn’t find a towel, but on this banquet table was this huge bowl of sliced cucumbers that had been on ice. So we decide as a group that we’re going to take all these ice-cold cucumber slices and put them on this guy’s face.
“So when the doctor finally shows up and takes a look at this guy with all those cucumbers on his face, he says, `Which one of you guys is the witch doctor?’ ”
Among those who didn’t mind having a good time was the plane’s Southern Airways pilot, who was nicknamed “Crash” by late Gainesville (Fla.) Sun sports editor Jack Hairston.
“The night before the start of the tour in Birmingham, most of us were playing cards and drinking into 2 or 3 in the morning,” McKenzie says. “And there’s this guy with us all night, just laughing and having a great time. We didn’t know who he was, and nobody asked him.
“We board the plane the next morning and that guy is already there. He’s the PILOT!”
Davy says Crash’s record as the Skywriters’ pilot was flawless, even though Crash was sometimes as under the weather as the writers after an all-nighter.
“Crash often left his cabin door open, so we could see right into the cockpit,” Davy says. “One morning, we’re all getting on the plane in Oxford and we look up in the cockpit. There’s Crash laid back in his seat wearing an oxygen mask.”
For any rookie media member making his first trip with the Skywriters, it was an eye-opening experience, especially when Hairston took over the plane’s in-cabin announcements starting on day one.
“Every year just before we took off on the first flight of the tour,” Townsend says, “Jack would grab the microphone and start reading a list he researched of plane crashes from the previous year.”
Rookies were made to carry the luggage of the veteran writers, and those who didn’t comply felt the faith.
“I was a good rookie, but David Lamm from Jacksonville was an uncooperative, obstinate rookie,” says Phillip Marshall, who went on his first Skywriters tour in 1977 as a reporter for the Decatur (Ala.) Daily. “He refused to load the luggage of the veterans. So one time the plane just happened to take off with his luggage. It was left sitting on the runway.”
Marshall says halfway through his first Skywriters tour, after several days of writing, partying and plane trips, that he thought he was “going to die.”
“You’re getting on this old airplane that sat outside all day and its air conditioner doesn’t start until you get in the air,” Marshall says. “A lot of guys got on that plane every day not feeling well from the previous night.”
Hudgins, all of 5-5, did his best to keep the writers in line. He once tried to institute roll calls and assign seats on buses to assure no media members got left behind at campuses heading to airports, but that fell on deaf ears.
“Like someone once said of Scoop, if he was in charge of the Mafia, they would have called it disorganized crime,” Townsend says. “There was no strict schedule under Scoop.”
Finally after the Skywriters’ 1983 tour, the decision was made to end it when the league couldn’t get enough media members to fill a plane for a 1984 tour, which happened to be scheduled the same time as the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
A year later, the SEC started its current preseason media days (copying an idea of the Big Ten Conference), staging the first one in downtown Birmingham at the Holiday Inn Medical Center.
“The last couple of years of the Skywriters, it had become a tour with mostly TV media involved,” Townsend remembers. “The coaches and athletic directors of all the league schools thought we weren’t getting as much public relations as we once had when it was predominately a writer’s tour. And it had become a budget problem for newspapers to send writers on the trip.”
A handful of the Skywriters are deceased, many are retired and a few are still working like Marshall, who spent 38 years in the newspaper business before moving to the internet three years ago as the lead writer and columnist for the Auburn Undercover website.
Every year that Marshall returns to SEC media days, he’s astounded by the growing number of media, and that he sits in a ballroom with more than 300 print and internet journalists, most of whom are blogging and tweeting to get information to the masses instantly before later writing a story.
“From the SEC’s standpoint, now having these media days is a lot better,” Marshall says. “But the Skywriters tour was a lot of fun.”
So much fun that Townsend has a novel idea.
“Maybe we can have a Skywriters Senior Tour,” he says with a laugh.
Count me in, Steve. After all these years, I’d finally get to use my brown briefcase.