KEVIN SHERRINGTON’S first three months at the world’s greatest sports section, Sports Day, had been peaceful, considering his boss was universally regarded as an asshole. That’s why Sherrington had hesitated before moving to The Dallas Morning News from the Houston Post in 1986-the intimidating reputation of executive sports editor Dave Smith. The Bear, whose management style, it has been said, is based on the persuasive power of intimidation. The King, who wouldn’t let anyone threaten his place in the sports-section history books. The Taskmaster of 15-hour days and no days off. The Jerk.
So far, until this cold day in January, Sherrington had handled the Dallas paper’s heavier workload while covering Southwest Conference basketball-until he was told about the story that just moved on the wire, set to appear in the next day’s edition of the Dallas Times Herald, detailing NCAA penalties against Baylor University. .Sherrington, covering the same beat for the Herald’s, bitter rival, had no such story. And he worked for Dave Smith. He fa said the buzzards’ caw.
“Not only did I not have it,” Sherrington says now, ’ I had no idea how to get it.” Smith, a devout Catholic, ordered a Waco road-trip as penance. Sherrington drove to Baylor and stumbled around, cold and miserable. He couldn’t find anyone with information to share. He wandered the streets of downtown Waco well after midnight, searching for night owls privy to Baylor’s board room info.
The next day, back in the Dallas news room, there was not a pink slip waiting for him, only adirect charge from the top. “Dave came by my desk,” Sherrington recalls, ’”and I already had heard he was mad. At that time [University of Houston college prospect] Tito Horford was going to transfer, but no one knew where. Dave walked up to me, asked about Horford, then said, ’You get that story.’ ” Sherrington pauses for effect. “Understand, I’d never had an editor order me to get a scoop.?
Sherrington got the scoop. “That,” he says, “was my first experience with the Sports Day ethic.”
The Spoils Day ethic, the source of all glory bestowed on Dave Smith and his section, is this: Go wherever the story is, never get beaten on a story, and alway; consider yourself underworked, no matter how many months it’s been since you’ve seen your kids.
The glory is real and deserved. Sports Day sets the national standard for excellence-and excess-among media pros. It practically owns the Associated Press Sports Editors’ awards, having been named one of the 10 best sections in the country for the past 10 years. Smith has the budget to send just about anyone anywhere for any story he or she wants to write. The section is Huge, sometimes rivaling the number of pages of the front section and the Metro section of the Morning News combined. Scores of people were sent to Barcelona for the Olympics. The joke among rival reporters and editors at the Super Bowl was, “On what beach will the Morning News’ troop landing occur?” (They sent more than 30 people to cover the game, and put out a Super Bowl section every day for nine days.) Photos taken in Barcelona just won two News photographers Pulitzer Prizes. The marketing department spends as much money trumpeting Sports Day in those hokey ads (Basic Gear for…sports nuts!) as it does advertising the classifieds. Greg Aiello, director of communications for the National Football League and formerly the Dallas Cowboys PR man, says simply, “I don’t think there is a better sports section in the country.”
To achieve that excellence with a staff that is, while large (about 60), smaller than that for the sports sections of the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times takes a lot-lots of money, lots of space, lots of work, lots of talent. And it’s hard to imagine a more discriminating sports audience than Dallas, where sports is regarded as another religion. In the same way that Washington Post readers require incomparable White House reporting, the hordes of insatiable Cowboys and Rangers and Mav-no, North Stars fans must be fed daily with more columns, more scores, more game stories, more statistics on more events than any other city demands. Dave Smith realizes this, and has built a product that gives readers more food for thought than even the most rabid sports fan could digest. Sports Day is the Luby’s of sports sections.
It’s tempting to laugh at the excess of sports coverage in Dallas, but its consumer appeal can’t be easily dismissed. One of the main reasons the Times Herald is no longer around is that its sports section was outgunned by Sports Day. “Some papers and editors refuse to believe sports makes a difference,” says Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Dwyre. “It makes them feel less sophisticated. But it’s very crucial. It makes a difference.
“As does Dave Smith,” Dwyre adds. “He’s the only sports editor I know who makes a difference in [a newspaper’s] circulation.”
Beyond the winning strategies and editorial philosophies there is a human side to Smith’s section. But there is also a human cost of working with Smith in the section some staffers call “the meat grinder.” And while outsiders debate whether or not Sports Day will remain on top once Smith, 54, makes his inevitable departure, some insiders wonder if the exodus of strong-willed editorial talent over the past decade will eventually catch up with Smith. They wonder if the section won’t first collapse from within.
I WAS THERE THE NIGHT NOLAN Ryan threw his sixth no-hitter. And when West Germany won the last World Cup and when George Steinbrenner was banned from the Yankees and when the Detroit Pistons won an NBA championship. Not there, where it happened, but there where it counts. Where it’s finalized, made official. Sitting at an ancient computer terminal in a near-empty news room at the Morning News. It’s there, with editors screaming expletives into your ear about some photo caption you wrote five days ago, that sporting history is, if not made, recorded.
In 1990,1 was the editorial intern on the sports “rim,” the area where the editors sit from early afternoon until 1 a.m. or so, sorting through wire stories, calling writers, proofreading stories, writing headlines. I had all the responsibilities of the other editors with one exception-if someone called in sick, as someone did almost every day, I was expected to cover. Forget days off. Part of the ethic. Something you learned fast or you were gone.
Some people don’t get the ethic, and don’t understand the section-just as some people don’t understand the appeal of sports in general. It’s important to put Sports Day into context, because even many other writers and editors at the Morning News have no clue about what goes on in “the toy department.”
The section makes unique demands on its staffers. It’s not uncommon to be revising baseball stories up to the 1 a.m. deadline (the paper hits the streets around 4 a.m.); and while other sections may have one or two stories holding late, they certainly don’t take in three-fourths of their editorial copy after 9 p.m., as Sports Day often does. Each editor must not only proofread and edit the game stories being filed by staff writers, but also sift through designated wire services all night long, judging whether or not, say, a trade between the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles merits a separate story, or should be shortened and relegated to the briefs section.
Other departments think they have a lot to do in a short period, but the sports staff, quite frankly, laughs at them. One sports writer tells a story about seeing rock star Don Henley shopping at Home Depot, then calling the Overnight section to see if they wanted to mention he was in town. The writer was told it was too late to get the item in. It was, he recalls, about 9 p.m. (Election night is another source for guffaws. The Metro and national staffs order pizza in, stay up late getting final results and congratulate each other on their tireless efforts. “Hell,” says a sports staffer, “we put out the equivalent of an election issue every night.”)
However, that same grinding schedule that makes editors proud often frustrates writers who have to churn out game stories and sidebars and features and human-interest notes to fill the huge news space. A West Coast editor laughs when remembering the “pained look” on the face of the Morning News’ Olympics writer in Los Angeles as a Sports Day editor was yelling at him to “track down the results of that javelin thrower from Waco, damnit!” Griping about the workload is largely pro forma, though, because the writers know it’s the constant demand that produces a highly respected showcase for their talent. All writers talked to for this story take a fierce pride in Sports Day, many saying that they would not get the chance to shine so at any other paper-or in any other section of the News.
And all agree the key reason for the section’s success is Dave Smith’s ability to get the necessary editorial resources from management-space to write and managerial support to pay for what is necessary.
As important, to the writer and the reader, is that Sports Day writers and editors have the license (well, at least a restricted permit) to have some fun-a rare privilege at the paper dubbed the Morning Snooze. They can be creative, take chances, show some wit and initiative, As interesting as city columnist Steve Blow can be, his columns are not as consistently compelling as Randy Galloway’s; and as good as feature writers like Bill Minutaglio are, the two sports feature writers, Barry Horn and Kevin Sherrington, put the Today section and Dallas Life Magazine feature writers to shame.
“The commitment from that paper to that section is to do everything in a first-class way,” says Rocky Mountain News baseball writer Tracy Ringolsby, who wrote about baseball in Sports Day from 1986 to 1992. A recent example: The section had a staff writer at each of the 63 games played around the country during the three-week NCAA championship tournament. “That’s why they’re the best,” Ringolsby says. “They have the strongest commitment to have the best section in the country, They have a national reputation of covering whatever is going on, no matter what.
“And Dave Smith would not have it any other way. He expects a first-class production…No. he demands it. Which means. yes, he’s overbearing. But if you’re in this business, you realize you can make a lot more money somewhere else, so you should be doing sports because it consumes you. It should be consuming. And Dave Smith is consumed by it.”
AS RANDY GALLOWAY REMEMBERS it, he was covering the Texas Rangers, circa 1981, a night game at Arlington Stadium (probably a loss), when his press box phone rang. It was Peter Gammons, the renowned former Boston Globe baseball writer. Gammons, now ESPN’s baseball guru, was cackling.
“This is Gammons.”
“1 wanna tell you who your new boss is.”
Silence. “You’re lying.”
Galloway, a thick-skinned veteran newspaperman, had reason for pause. Dave Smith had a rep in the sports journalism business-an impressive and imposing rep. Not the kind of national notability one would expect to see affixed to someone born in tiny Crestline, Ohio. Yes, Smith played football and baseball and was always competitive. But his first journalism foray, covering a high-school basketball game for a local weekly newspaper, didn’t signal sportswriting fame. “Larry Siegfried [later a Boston Celtic] played for a nearby town,” Smith recalls, “and when he played against us, he scored 53 points. Instead of that, [ led my story with the attendance numbers.”
After a stint in the service, Smith went back into sports news, mostly as an editor. In 1963 he went to the Miami News, where he was named sports editor in ’64. He then ran sports sections at both The Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel. In 1970, he took over as die sports editor of the Boston Globe. It was there that the prototype of the Great Smith Section was developed.
The Globe of the 1970s and early ’80s was widely considered to have the best sports section in the nation. (Even Time magazine said so in 1977.) It was during the 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds that Smith’s style of saturation coverage emerged, pelting the reader from every possible angle, writing every possible side-interest feature, noting every statistic- blowing the whole thing, much to Sox fans’ delight, completely out of proportion.
It’s a style Smith carried like a badge. He was proud. Too proud. “My wife said my ego was so out of control, 1 was impossible,” Smith says. Then the failing Washington Star called, They wanted him to turn their section around, and they said they would give him the resources to do it. “I thought. ’Sure, I’ll save the newspaper.’ “
It wasn’t long after coming to Washington in ’78 that Smith-despite revitalizing the sports section-realized the paper was beyond redemption. He was performing mouth-to-mouth on a stabbing victim. His ego had prodded him into leaving the Globe for a doomed venture.
In July 1979, some months after Smith arrived at the Washington Star, The Dallas Morning News received the results of a Dallas-Fort Worth newspaper market study showing that if it wanted to win the newspaper war against the Times Herald, it needed to put its eggs into two baskets: business and sports. The ideal paper for Dallas, it seemed, was a marriage of The Wall Street Journal and the Sporting News. Fifty-five percent of men and women readers in Dallas considered themselves serious sports fans, compared with only 46 percent nationwide. More than two-thirds of readers read the sports pages-a figure significantly higher than in other major markets. Dallas is a “sports-happy market,” said the report.
News lords took this to heart, Smith was wooed from the soon-to-be-defunct Washington Star to oversee, once again, the creation of a great-and great big- sports section. In May 1981, the East Coast savior with the badass reputation arrived. “I have a guardian angel,” Smith says, “and I was given a second chance.”
The first thing he noticed was the lack of balance in the paper. The section had a noted columnist. Skip Bayless, but was inconsistent both in its level of talent and in what was actually covered. And, save Bayless, it was dull
’The first thing I said.” Smith says, “was that we have to have a sports section for all people.” This is a central theme not just of Sports Day, but of the entire paper. It is extremely consumer-oriented-to a fault, if that’s possible. But Smith is correct: The engines of success began to roar when Sports Day began to recognize the needs of not just Cowboys and Rangers fans, but also of fishermen, high-school spoils fans, bowlers and so on. And there had to be space, which management gave him, to include all this. “I mean, when 1 got here, the North Texas PGA [Professional Golf Association] was buying ads to run scores of its tournaments. So we started including thai agate,” Smith says.
Agate. Lines and lines of box scores, statistics and final results that are packed into Sports Day, Agate is as much a part of Dave Smith as Hillary is of Bill. Some people may not like it that much, it may get in the way of other things and cause a lot of squinting, but it produces results. “He revolutionized agate,” says Brian McIntyre, head of PR for the National Basketball Association. “Even before USA Today, which many people credit with popularizing agate. Dave’s was the first paper I know of that was running the full-version box scores from every NBA game, every day.”
Smith’s first big move at the News tested the franchise’s backing of him. He allowed the paper’s top gun, Skip Bayless, to defect to the Times Herald in 1982. “I told my wife that night that it might be a short stay here,” Smith says. “Nothing against Skip, who is very talented, but his concern was with Skip, not the section. 1 have to have people committed to the entire product. I will take someone slightly less talented who is a belter fit into our system, who can work well with everyone.”
Smith then promoted two writers. Randy Galloway and David Casstevens, to be full-time columnists: a few years later, he convinced the venerable Blackie Sherrod to jump the Herald’s ship. That lineup provided a perfect variety of opinion and writing styles. With the columnists serving as the core. Smith could build the rest of die sports staff around them.
Smith immediately began importing tougher beat writers as well. One of the first, and most high-profile, was Gary Myers, brought from New York in 1981 to cover the Cowboys. Myers brought a tough répertoriai style not much seen in these parts before. “He drove us nuts,” says Greg Aiello, who was then the Cowboys’ PR man. “He did stories about internal strife, contract problems. Stuff that hadn’t been done much before. [He also printed the results of his infamous players’ poll, in which teammates split between Danny-White and Gary Hogeboom as their choice for starting quarterback.] There were some ill feelings about Myers for a while. But, eventually, both sides adjusted.”
Smith also maintained his reputation for hiring young, hungry, B-level writers instead of complacent, A-level big shots. Tim Kurkjian, now the national baseball writer for Sports Illustrated, worked for Sports Day from 1982 to 1986. “Dave hired me when I was about 11.” Kurkjian says. “I was in way over my head; but he knew I wanted it, and he gave me a chance.” Using younger writers like the baby-faced Kurkjian presented unique problems, however, During Kurkjian’s first week, a tip came in that SMU coach Ron Meyer had interviewed for the head coaching position with the New England Patriots. Somehow, even though he still got lost trying to drive to his own home. Kurkjian found Meyer’s house. He knocked on the door.
“Yes?” Meyer asked.
“Hi. I’m Tim. with The Dallas Morning News.”
Meyer looked al him curiously. “Are you collecting?”
Vince Doria, who succeeded Smith at the Boston Globe, was executive editor of The National, a defunct sports daily, and is now at ESPN, says, “The section is quality, and the quality will always be there because-unlike the Boston Globe-it doesn’t rise and fall with the quality of its writers. It’s too structured. With Dave, it’s the product more than the people.”
If there is a fatal Haw in the construction of the perfect section, it is this-the human factor. Sports Day may often be referred to as a “machine,” but a machine with a boss as temperamental and tempestuous as Smith doesn’t always run as smoothly as everyone would like. Despite universal praise for his management abilities, many admit that the possibility of a systemwide breakdown is always present. As one staffer says, “Working for Dave, you know there’s always the chance you’ll go right off die edge.”
A WRITER IS SITTING IN THE NEWS room, talking low into the phone- mostly off the record-trying to explain Dave Smith’s nature. He pauses as a loud voice echoes through the room.
“Where’s Rude!?” Staff writer Jeff Rude has been paged by One Angry Boss. “Oh. boy,” says the staffer, familiar with the routine. “Jeffs gonna get his ass eaten out about something. It’s always something.”
Smith is not one to hold back criticism. It’s something everyone who works for him understands coming in. Even if prospective employees aren’t told that Smith can be overbearing, over-the-top, extremely demanding, “the Dave Smith factor is always considered in hiring.” says a staff member. “You always ask die question, ’Can they handle Dave?” And a lot of people who you think can take him, they end up going off the deep end.”
In Smith’s defense, some staff members say that only slackers can’t handle The Boss. “I’ve never seen anybody who works hard have a problem with Dave Smith.” Randy Galloway says.
“One of my main jobs is to get the best out of everyone and to get the most out of everyone.” Smith says. “Perhaps sometimes I do push people too hard. But I’m the first to admit that, and I make amends it’ needed…care about the people. But I believe you work hard.’”
There is talk that Smith’s overbearing nature can cause stress among some writers. As one editor said, screaming to a seasoned beat water to track down this rumor or it’ll be voir butt is not the way to get the most out of professionals. Many writers, however, contend that Smith is always receptive to criticism, no matter how vitriolic, and th|at he seldom holds grudges against outspoken writers. “I welcome anyone to come in and yell and scream,” Smith says. “But I’m emotional. I tend to explode-well, at least gel angry about it. But once it’s done, I forget about it and go on to the next thing.”
Or the next person, if the tension mounts to the point where a staffer leaves. In newspapers, there is always a high turnover, and the lure of more money or prestige at coastal newspaper naturally draws many stars out of Texas. The turnover has been fairly constant at Sports Day since Smith arrived, and often those who leave try to come back. The question is. can the section forever replace top-level writers and editors?
One former writer, who left to take a more secure offer but who was happy in Dallas, say^, “The feeling there is that it’s the big machine. They can replace the parts. They’re not that interested in making a pitch to keep people.” Some other writers and editors scoff at this, but none dispute that there were at least two losses that illustrated the problems with assuming that anyone can be replaced: columnist David Casstevens and Smith’s former right-hand man. Chris Worthington.
Casstevens was a perfect complement to the brash, rude, outspoken Galloway and the literate, historical musings of Blackie Sherrod. Casstevens’ specialty was the human side of sports. He did not write many game stories, or gripe about the Rangers’ pitiful walk-to-strikeout ratio. He would, as one disapproving editor spouted to me whan I worked there, “Go to the World Series and write a column about the damned peanut vendor.” Casstevens was for those who did not take the game too seriously, dut who appreciated wit, whimsy and good writing. Every column was a surprise.
For example, here’s an excerpt from his column filed June 4, 1990, from Addison’s Pontiac Grand Prix. It’s about Brech Kauffman a small-time competitor from Illinois writ) was ignored by big-time racers and farts. He had little money, his wife of 28 yea’s was his crew chief and he made major body repairs with duct tape. He raced or love, not money. Kauffman saw his lifelong dream end on lap number 23 when Paul Gentilozzi-a big-time racer-mangled Kauffman’s car from behind. Casstevens wrote: Kaujfman knelt beside his car. It was a mess… “I don’t know how I can afford to fix it. ” They were going to race in Detroit. And Cleveland. And Des Moines. Not now. “Right now, ” the little guy said, his voice so despairing his wife looked away, “I’d say we won’t be back. “
This year? “Never. No more. ”
In 1990, Casstevens received an offer from the Arizona Republic in Phoenix to be its lead columnist. They wanted him bad. The money was better, but he didn’t really want to go. When he mentioned the offer to Dave Smith, die reaction took him aback. “They [the Republic] were much more enthusiastic about wanting me than management was in keeping me,” Casstevens says. “The long-range picture was much clearer [in Phoenix].” Casstevens left in August 1990.
Smith, like any good manager, tried to turn this into an opportunity. His next decision, however-according to two staff members with knowledge of the decision and its aftermath-led to more problems. Three rotating columnists were named to replace Casstevens: sports staffers Cathy Harasta and Kevin Sherrington and, from the business section, economics reporter Kevin Blackistone.
Although a tight squeeze, on paper it looked doable, and the “mix” seemed perfect. Harasta, a female, and Blackistone. who is African-American, would add new perspectives. (Blackistone had the added attraction of knowing about business in an area increasingly dominated by talk of contract figures and antitrust litigation.) And Sherrington is an excellent writer who can be clever without sounding coy-quite a trick in sports writing.
It wasn’t long, sources say, before Smith realized he’d made a mistake. There were too many columnists. And, whether Smith noticed it or not, most of the columns from the three were not very compelling. Some were well written, some tackled interesting topics, but on the whole lew were memorable. You can get by with mediocre columnists in other sections (and the News does), but it’s death when trying to appease sports fans.
The easiest solution to the space crunch and the tepid columns seemed to be dropping one and letting the other two write more, giving them time and space to grow into their craft. (A dubious prescription; learning how to write interesting opinions is as tough as learning how to be funny.) There were long, tortured meetings about whom to drop. Besides merit, race and gender had to be considered. The News takes great pride in its record of promoting women and minorities and is very sensitive about maintaining the perception of a “progressive” corporation. So although Sherrington was considered by some to be that diamond in the rough-“the best game columnist of the three.” says an editor-he was caught between a “P” and a hard “C.” There was just no way. at The Dallas Morning News, that a woman or a black man was going to be dropped for a white male. (If one had to be dropped, based strictly on ability, it should have been Harasta. She’s a very good writer, but her columns continue to read like abbreviated feature stories, lacking the illumination Casstevens could bring.)
Sherrington saved them the trouble of making a decision. He saw the writing on the wall and asked to do features full time again. The company line, and Sherrington’s, is that he was more comfortable doing that. But no matter what came of the debacle-even after Smith added the good humor and wisdom of Frank Luksa from the Times Herald-the variety has suffered because the section is missing something special, something that can’t be easily replaced. “Dave has said more than once, ’You know, we need a column about this like Casstevens would write,”’ says one editor. “We would just roll our eyes and think, ’Then why did you let him go?’”
A more unfriendly parting came with Chris Worthington. Worthington was Sports Day’s number two editor from 1985 until he moved to the slate desk three years ago. It’s a given that working closely with Smith will be a stressful job. “It’s tougher than coal mining to be one of Dave’s top assistants,” says a sports staffer. Worthington, like every editor or writer contacted who had worked for Smith but who now works for another section at the Morning News, declined comment. But of the more than 20 people who did talk for this story, almost all of them mentioned the loss of Worthington as important. “Chris is a quality journalist and an outstanding editor,” Smith says, “but we had major philosophical differences as to what a sports section should be.”
This was the company line, and according to others, those differences are at least part of the reason Worthington is no longer there. But there was more, others say. In management style, Worthington didn’t believe in Smith’s berate-’em-so-they-know-you-mean-business style. Staffers respected Worthington for his newspaper sense, and he thought that respect would translate into a desire to work hard for him and the section. Worthington became the buffer between Smith and the rest of the department, because Smith, as one person put it, “likes the drill sergeant thing.”
Another difference lay in the kind of coverage Smith and Worthington enjoyed. Both saw the need for all types of coverage, but Smith will admit he likes positive, feel-good stories. He’s a tremendous booster. A homer. (When suggesting people to call for this story. Smith mentioned Minnesota/Dallas Stars owner Norman Green because: “He can tell you how instrumental the Morning News was in getting the team here.”) What juiced Worthington were the more hard-hitting, investigative or critical stories: the SMU football investigation, stories about clubhouse turmoil. This, plus basic personality differences, combined to drive a wedge slowly between the two. According to one editor, Smith then tried to have Worthington fired. Management, not wanting to lose a quality editor, created a position on the state desk in order to keep him.
The philosophical turmoil over “positive” versus “negative” coverage that was perhaps a problem between Smith and Worthington remains. Two particular types of stories the News does stir up controversy among readers: Kevin Blackistone writing about racial inequalities in sports, and investigative reporter Doug Bedell writing about university violations. For Smith, an editor who returns each and every phone call he gets from complaining readers, ticking off the public isn’t easy to digest.
To his credit, Smith hired Blackistone and Bedell with the full understanding that some of what they write would upset a portion of their readers. Both have succeeded at this. “Some of the mail we’ve gotten in reaction to my articles has been strong, at times furious,” Blackistone says. “It’s even surprised me, and I didn’t think that was possible.” Blackistone says he has never been censored, and he praises Smith for sticking with him. But he acknowledges that Smith has called him in a few times for “guidance.” You’ve hit this too hard. Smith would say, why don’t you lighten up for a while?
’To a certain extent,” Blackistone says, “I agree that I have to develop a certain breadth and range of writing so people can’t always point at me as one type of columnist.” Blackistone also knows, however, that if Blackie Sherrod were to write three consecutive columns on a subject dear to his heart-or even take potshots at Bill Clinton, as he’s prone to do-it’s not likely he’d be so counseled, It’s the burden of being a columnist who also doesn’t mind carrying the torch for black issues. “Yeah, in the back of my mind,” Blackistone says, “I know that other columnists don’t have to deal with it…And when I feel strongly that something needs to be communicated, I’D do it.”
Bedell declined comment for this article, but others say that while Smith and the News enjoy the cachet his hard-hitting investigations bring, there is sometimes a schizophrenic reaction when university boosters start screaming and writing and canceling subscriptions. They say that Bedell received an inordinate amount of flak from management for his recent series about a Texas A&M booster who paid A&M football players for work not performed. The initial story, co-written by Pulitzer Prize-winning newswriter Craig Flournoy, appeared on page 1A. The most recent update, with exclusive information, appeared on page 6 of the sports section.
This tension is inherent when a section-as well as the entire institution- sees its role as giving people what they want to read. But even Smith, who is almost obsessed with pleasing the consumer, sees the value of hard-nosed reporting that can break and bury reputations. “We are committed to doing those kinds of stories,” Smith says, “or we wouldn’t have created a full-time investigative reporting position. This has to be done. We’re the watchdog.
“But, yes we have to be careful. Especially in this day and age, when everyone is lawsuit happy. And periodically, it’s tempting to ask, ’Is it worth it?’ “
THERE IS NO DENYING THAT SPORTS Day is one of the great sports sections in American newspaper history. Its influence throughout sports journalism is tremendous. It’s quite possible that observers who say the foundation of the section is showing fault lines because of Smith’s tremors are wildly overstating the effect of internal squabbles on the section’s quality. Then again, at one time it was inconceivable that the mighty Cowboys would miss the playoffs, much less win only one game in a season.
Smith says that for his part, he’s tried to address the stress. “I hope I’ve mellowed. There was a time when I was too overbearing, too demanding of people-and of myself. I demanded quality beyond a reasonable level. 1 micromanaged too much. But I think I’m delegating more now, trying to back away from overmanaging. But it’s a tough transition, because you feel sometimes like you’re not doing your job if you don’t check every piece of agate.” He is spending more time schmoozing, he says, with well-known sports figures to foster good will and make connections.
Will his reduced role mean less money and fewer people for the section? Check next season. That’s when Sports Day should have, if approved, a new Stars beat writer, brought in from the outside. Already there is talk that management will balk at hiring a trained hockey writer, forcing Smith to pull someone from the ranks. Smith is also hopeful about hiring a specialist to write about sports business since Blackistone is now a full-time columnist. These are among the changes that will demonstrate a continuing commitment to Sports Day.
But then the question was never, Will the product change? The real questions are whether Smith gets the most out of his talented staff, and whether they excel because of him or in spite of him. The answer isn’t clear, but it seems that a hint or two can be found in an anecdote told by Sports Day staffers to all new employees when they describe Dave Smith.
It was Texas-OU weekend a few years back, and Smith decided to be a good guy and help out the editors. He designed the photo-essay layout on the back page of the section. Checked the photos, sized them, plotted where to place them. That done, he went home, proud that he had rubbed elbows with the grunts.
Since Smith rarely was involved in actu ally constructing pages, it wasn’t surpris ing to find that he’d forgotten to include space for photo captions. And it wasn’t unusual that, between fits of laughter, the other editors corrected the page so no one would notice. The problem is that they were too scared to tell him he’d made a mistake until the paper was already out. That’s understandable in a way, because it’s always tricky to know when to tell the emperor he has no clothes.