Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sports Information

My intention when I began to write Chapter 27 of "The Leather Man" was to broaden the average reader's grasp of sports information directors and what they do. That is to say, what I imagine they do; I never worked in the field of sports coverage as anything but a reporter, but I had a chance to observe some of the best SIDs in action.

The first who impressed me was Larry Kimball, who retired  in 1997 after 31 years as the head man for Syracuse Univerity's press-box operations _ a string that included attending 383 consecutive Orange football games and 42 Intercollegiate Rowing Association regattas. Tom Duddleston Jr. of the University of Arizona nearly matched Kimball's longevity before retiring in 2013. Duddleston was known for his dry wit, including hilarious public-address announcements at Wildcats home games that a ball carrier had committed "self-tackleization" by tripping over his own feet. On the professional level, Budd Thalman sticks out for his professionalism _ during his 13 years with the Buffalo Bills, the team made the playoffs just three times, but the NFL asked Thalman to assist with media relations at seven Super Bowls.

In my opinion, sports could not have grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry without SIDs, who went by that title in the 1960s but today are more likely to be known as media relations directors. In the upper level of college sports, most of them have titles that include the words "vice president" _ apt when you consider that they direct a roomful of assistants and run press boxes filled with hundreds of media types. Whatever the position is called, the work is the same: Facilitate coverage of the events lined up by the institutions or professional franchises which field the teams that attract the fans.

Implicit in that sentence is the need to deal with some unpalatable situations, starting with the outcome of almost any game _ there can only be one winner in most sports, and nobody likes losing. Then there's the matter of player behavior; it's axiomatic that being strong and aggressive doesn't always lead athletes to act like adults.

But SIDs have to be unflappable, and most are. The acid test is when the situation involves a funeral.

Doug Tammaro grew in my estimation when I saw how he handled Arizona State's tribute to Pat Tillman after Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in April 2004. Tammaro, ASU's athletic media relations director, joined the Athletic Department as an assistant SID in 1993, a year before Tillman arrived on the Tempe campus. Tillman developed from the last Sun Devils football player to receive a scholarship that year to the Pac-10's Defensive Player of the Year by the time he was a senior, then went on to star for the Arizona Cardinals. He became a national icon in May 2002, when he turned his back on a $1.2 million annual salary to enlist in the Army Rangers, and I believe his death by friendly fire marked an early turning point that swung public opinion against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Although you could tell Tammaro's personal feelings were involved, he handled the news conference with aplomb and tact. It was a nice touch that former Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis was invited. McGinnis' comments about Tillman as a man's man were poignant and powerful.

In my novel, the Canyon State SID is Marc Carter. He is working on the football flip charts for the Wranglers' season opener when Canyon City police chief Sam Moody walks in with a request for complimentary tickets _ one of the most frequent incidental requests that sports information offices receive.

In a short conversation, Moody explains that he's tracked down the family of Royce Evans of Portland, Ore., and that they'd like to see Quintus LeClaire play his first game. It turns out Evans was a friend of LeClaire who was killed during LeClaire's last firefight in Vietnam, and Moody believes meeting his friend's family could help the troubled tailback cope with his combat experiences.

After handling that request, Carter returns to preparations for the game, interrupting his routine to wonder if LeClaire will play up to his potential. If he does, Carter still sees a tough road ahead to get national attention for any player at a small Western college. He wraps up the subject by noting that it's all speculation until the kickoff:
The thing is, he needs to do something spectacular first. You can't sell brass as gold bullion, no matter how you hype it.

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