Wednesday, November 14, 2001

My Friend the Newspaper Critic

A guy I know e-mailed me the other day to say a couple of things about newspapers. Specifically, sports pages. Even more specifically, collegiate football stories.

The man is a longtime reader of sports pages and knows a lot about newspapers in general. He has spent much of his working life around collegiate athletics, including some big-time football programs.

From now on in this essay, he will be known as My Friend the Newspaper Critic.

A few days after the original e-mail, he and I got on the subject of Megan Manfull, who is in her first year as a full-time football reporter for the Des Moines Register. Manfull, 23, and a recent graduate of the University of Iowa, has written some very good stories while covering the Hawkeyes this fall.

She is not the first woman to cover a major-college football game for the paper, but she’s the first woman to cover an entire season of football games involving one of the state’s big-time universities.

Earlier this fall, Manfull got the attention of Chuck Offenburger, the Register’s former “Iowa Boy’’ columnist who now lives in Storm Lake and writes columns on his website.

Offenburger asked me what I thought of Manfull, and I made an off-the-cuff comment that the Register’s editors had better enjoy her strong work while they could because I doubted she would stay there long.

Far too often in recent years, the Register has served merely as a training ground for talented young people, who have left after a short time to take better jobs with higher pay at other papers.

Take John Shipley, for example. Shipley began covering football games at the paper following my retirement, and described it as his “dream gig.’’ But he recently told me the dream gig didn’t pay him enough so that he could buy a home for his family.

So Shipley stayed at the Register for only one football season. He accepted a copy editing job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press that paid him much more money. He was so eager to get to his new job that he didn’t bother remaining at the Register long enough to cover Iowa State’s bowl game last December in Phoenix.

Late last month, Offenburger wrote a glowing column about Manfull, who replaced Shipley on the sportswriting staff.

It turns out I was right that she evidently isn’t long for the Register. Manfull told Offenburger she’s planning a Jan. 26 marriage to Jesus Ortiz, a 30-year-old sportswriter for the Houston Chronicle. Ortiz covers the Houston Astros.

Unless the Register suddenly needs an Astros beat writer, some of Manfull’s co-workers are guessing she’ll be moving south sometime in the spring.

But back to her football writing this fall.

Something in particular bothered My Friend the Newspaper Critic about a story Manfull authored last month about Hawkeye punter David Bradley.

In the story, Manfull told about how Bradley’s father and mother had died within 16 months when he was in high school.

The fact that the story took up considerable space in a fairly skimpy sports section didn’t make My Friend the Newspaper Critic very happy.

“The overly-long description of the kicker’s family tragedies should be on the women’s page,’’ he wrote. “No hearts and flowers please. It tells me nothing about the Hawks.’’

My response? The story was certainly a strong one and belonged in the newspaper. Yes, it was probably in the wrong place. I think it deserved to be on the front page of the general news section. Then Manfull, or another reporter, could have written a more football-like story for the sports pages to satisfy readers who don’t want “hearts and flowers’’ mixed with their X’s and O’s.

Another thing My Friend the Newspaper Critic doesn’t like about college football stories is that Manfull and other reporters don’t include their own perspective in the articles they write.

“They run a bunch of facts about the game and string some quotes from the coaches and players together, and that’s it,’’ he said. “I want to know what the reporter thought of the game.’’

Now, there’s something with which I totally agree. Editors – at least editors who don’t think editorial comment or analysis belong in news stories -- won’t like it, but these days I don’t have to care what editors think.

It’s no secret that, in my many years of covering football and basketball games involving Iowa, Iowa State, Drake and other teams, I often attempted to inject my own perspective into stories.

I recall how frequently people, the day after a game, would ask, “Well, what did you really think of the game?’’ Or they’d ask, “What’s really wrong with that team you’re covering?’’

Somehow, I didn’t think I was doing my job properly if I had to answer such questions. Consequently, I tried whenever possible to answer the questions in game stories that I thought people might ask me the next day.

I think readers want to know what reporters think of teams and games -- especially now, with so many games shown on TV and with the presence of the Internet. Long gone are the days when people relied on newspapers to get the bare facts on a game.

If newspaper readers attended the game, they want to know if the writers’ analysis and opinions agree with theirs. And, if they don’t agree with the writers, count on it that they’ll let ‘em know.

On a related subject, I always wanted to write a story in which I said, “After the game, the coaches said nothing out of the ordinary, so none of their comments will be included in this story.’’

And I came close to that, as you will discover later in this essay.

I have always felt that far too many sportswriters overdo coaches’ quotes in game stories and columns. The reason the quotes are used so often is because they’re easy to get.

The coach has a post-game press conference. The writer puts a tape recorder in front of him. The reporter writes exactly what the coach says.

That leads me to a story I wrote for the Oct. 22, 1978 Sunday Register about a Nebraska-Colorado game. You know the game had to be played 23 years ago because there would be no Register reporter in Boulder, Colo., for a Nebraska-Colorado game these days.

The paper doesn’t cover those types of games anymore. It costs money to travel to Boulder, Colo., of course. On most weekends, the paper has decided that it even costs too much money to travel to Lincoln, Neb., for a Cornhusker game. And that, folks, is really sad. After all, gas prices are pretty cheap now.

Anyway, I made up my mind fairly early in that 1978 game, which Nebraska won, 52-14, to write a different type of story.
It started:

BOULDER, COLO. – Perhaps you recall an essay on the Sports Opinion page of The Sunday Register a while back. In it, a guy suggested that sportswriters should maybe treat football games the same way Joan Bunke of our newspaper writes about movies and Josef Mossman tells about restaurants.

In other words, write a review of the drama – if, indeed, there is any drama – on the artificial turf stage.

Well, no better time to start than now. After all, there certainly was no big news, and no drama, generated Saturday on Colorado’s Folsom Field.

Grantland Rice might have walked out after three quarters. As it was, Colorado Coach Bill Mallory probably felt like doing the same thing.

Bunke was the paper’s longtime movie and book critic. Mossman was the best restaurant reviewer the paper ever had. Grantland Rice was….well, you know who he was.

Sports Opinion page? Sadly, the Register doesn’t have that anymore, either. And the guy who suggested that maybe reporters should review certain football games? That was me.

When I got back into the office the Monday after the Nebraska-Colorado game, David Witke -- then the Register’s wonderful managing editor -- came up to me with a comment.

Mike Gartner, then the Register’s not-so-wonderful editor, had asked Witke what he thought of my story on the game.

“I liked it,’’ Witke said.

“I didn’t,’’ Gartner said.

I told Witke I was glad he liked the story. As for Gartner – who didn’t personally say anything to me about the story -- I took the stance that any veteran writer who was confident of his abilities would take. Frankly, I didn’t much care what Gartner thought, but I appreciated Witke letting me know anyway. Reading the story again, I’m glad I wrote it that way, and I’d write it the same way today.

I later mentioned the story to George Shirk, a free spirit who spent a while as the sports columnist for the old Des Moines Tribune and sat across from me in the office. I told him that Witke and I liked it and that Gartner didn’t.

“Great story,’’ Shirk said after reading it. “You kept writing like that, didn’t you?’’

“Damn right I did,’’ I said.

Here’s that 23-year-old story, complete with the front-page headline as it appeared:

[Des Moines Sunday Register, Oct. 22, 1978]

Huskers buffalo Colorado

Sunday Register Staff Writer

BOULDER, Colo. – Perhaps you recall an essay on the Sports Opinion page of The Sunday Register a while back. In it, a guy suggested that sportswriters should maybe treat football games the same way Joan Bunke of our newspaper writes about movies and Josef Mossman tells about restaurants.

In other words, write a review of the drama, if, indeed, there is any drama – on the artificial turf stage.

Well, no better time to star than now. After all, there certainly was no big news, and no drama, generated Saturday on Colorado’s Folsom Field.

Grantland Rice might have walked out after three quarters. As it was, Colorado Coach Bill Mallory probably felt like doing the same thing.

Nebraska walloped Mallory’s Buffaloes, 52-14, before 53,262 spectators.

Except for Howard Ballage’s snazzy 100-yard kickoff return in the first quarter, it was a bad show by the home team. No wonder so many folks in these parts have started following the team up the road – the Denver Broncos – instead of the Buffs.

The fans from the Rockies would much prefer to get caught up in the Orange Crush rather than being swallowed up by the Red Sea. Drowning is no fun.

A Nebraska victory over Colorado, of course, is no big deal. It happens all the time. This was the Cornhuskers’ 11th straight in the series and 16th in the past 17 games.

If there was some way Colorado could drop the Huskers from the schedule, they would. The trouble is, Big Eight Conference rules call for a game each season.

Nebraska started the day with a 5-1 record and the nation’s No. 5 ranking. On the basis of this game – to say nothing of its 36-26, 56-10, 69-17, 23-0 and 46-14 victories in the five preceding weeks – Coach Tom Osborne’s team deserves to be ranked higher.

Even though I. M. Hipp couldn’t hang onto the ball, Nebraska amassed 642 yards in total offense (472 rushing) and turned the game into a shambles after a 14-14 first half.

It got so dark in the fourth quarter that some of Colorado’s faithful were perhaps hoping the game would be called. No such luck. Unless they made an early exit – which many did – they had to put up with the happenings until the bitter end.

Colorado also came into the game with a 5-1 record. But that was misleading.
The Buffs played a marshmallow early-season schedule – going against such round-heeled foes as Oregon, Miami (Fla.), San Jose State and Northwestern.

The opening five games were at home. The first time Colorado went on the road, it lost. It happened at, of all places, Oklahoma State.

That gives you some idea of Colorado’s strength. Saturday’s mauling gives you more of an idea.

There will be no space wasted here on what the coaches said afterward. Osborne speaks softly. Mallory hardly speaks. Osborne did say Mallory is “a good coach’’ – which probably means he was trying to save Bill’s job.

The best two plays of the day, as far as Colorado was concerned, were turned in by Ballage and Ralphie – the buffalo that serves as the team’s mascot. Ralphie runs onto the field before each half. It’s too bad Mallory can’t get him eligible.

There was enough room in Colorado’s defensive line for Ralphie and a couple of stablemates to get through when Nebraska was piling it on in the last half. With 11:55 remaining in the game, the Huskers were in total command at 45-14. For good measure, they added one more touchdown, raising their season scoring average to a whopping 41.

Shortly after it was over, fans deposited a considerable amount of confetti and debris on the field. It is assumed there were Buffalo fans who were celebrating the fact that their team won’t have to play Nebraska again until next Oct. 27.
It seemed difficult to believe that Colorado once led, 14-3, in a game that sent Nebraska’s Big Eight record to 3-0.

Ballage wiped out Nebraska’s 3-0 lead with his brilliant kickoff return, that actually was 104 yards.

However, he gets credit for only 100. And he’ll take it. He deserved it for the way he streaked up the middle of the field and outran Nebraska’s pursuers.

Colorado’s reserves were so wildly enchanted with the dash that they stayed on the field too long to congratulate Ballage and drew a 15-yard penalty for delay of game, which was tacked onto the ensuing kickoff.

It wasn’t long before the Buffs had another touchdown, thanks to the first of Hipp’s two fumbles. Tim Roberts grabbed the ball in mid-air and raced 45 yards to the Husker three.

James Mayberry went the final yard for the touchdown that, together Pete Dadiotis’ conversion, made it 14-3 with 2:25 left in the period.

The rest of it belonged to Nebraska. Billy Todd, who had kicked 27-yard field goal earlier, booted a 24-yarder barely inside the second quarter, and Nebraska tied it on Rick Berns’ five-yard touchdown and Tom Sorley’s two-point pass to Junior Miller with 6:57 to go before intermission.

The Colorado radio broadcasters kept barking about the “lack of imagination’’ in the Buffs’ offense after that. It reminded you of the way people have been criticizing Iowa and Iowa State. The conclusion is that, when your team is losing, the easiest way to criticize is to say the offense lacks imagination.

Colorado’s defense didn’t have much imagination, either. Berns ripped it for 132 yards in 17 carries and Hipp totaled 93 in 18. In all, five Huskers had 47 yards or more in this picnic.

Sorley, who completed 11 of 17 passes for 198 yards, hit Miller on a 42-yarder for a touchdown. Berns ran 19, Tim Wurth 42, Hipp one and Craig Johnson 33 for other scores.

The game films were to be shown on television here at midnight Saturday. There wasn’t a Buffalo fan around who was looking forward to that. Nobody likes to assault and battery on TV.

[THE AUTHOR – Ron Maly wrote and edited at the Des Moines Register for 39 years and 9 months. That was long enough to learn that there are two dozen or more ways to write a football story, despite what any editor thinks. If you remember watching Ralphie’s act in that 1978 game at Colorado, or if you have anything else on your mind, e-mail Maly at]

Vol. 1, No. 6
Nov. 14, 2001