It was Sunday morning, fall of 1983, and I stood watching Fred Akers pour himself a cup of coffee.
“Want a cup?” the Texas coach asked.
“No thanks, coach, I’m good.”
Cup in hand, Akers and I walked into his office. He sat on the corner of his desk drinking coffee, and I sat in a chair and proceeded to ask him questions about the previous day’s game, and about the upcoming week. As a sportswriter for the Daily Texan, I had a weekly 15-minute appointment with the Texas head coach every Sunday morning during football season.
I walked into his office – he had no one with him – and he said, “Good morning.” No one was near him to say, “A couple of more questions…” He was, after all, a grown man. If he had to go somewhere, he would simply say, “Got all you need?” and that would be my signal to go.
This was a long, long time ago.
I first fell in love with journalism as a boy in the back seat of a car driven each Friday night of football season by a sportswriter named Art Lawler of the Abilene Reporter-News, as I listened to he and my dad talk football driving up and down the highways of District 5-4A, nicknamed “The Little Southwest Conference” in the early 1970s. Dad would help Art keep stats, and I would tag along.
Some of my friends went off to college without a major; not me. Journalism was the choice made only a few days after the onset of puberty, and I never wavered. Lawler’s “work” consisted of covering sporting events and writing columns in a style that could accurately be described as “smart ass.” Clearly I would be well-suited to follow his footsteps.
I kept pointing to that goal at UT, and got a gig at the Texan, which led to my regularly-scheduled Sunday appointment with Akers.
Those days are, unfortunately, long gone. Gone also are “morning” and “afternoon” newspapers. Gone are the days when you’d get a failing grade in journalism class for including the word “I” in a news story; now, if you holler loud enough and have enough “strong takes” you might land a really good gig. Gone are the days of verifying your sources; after all, it’s so much easier to just say “anonymous sources” and move on to your next Tweet.
Yes, I’m aware that I am a dinosaur. But ESPN’s layoff of 100 or so employees this week – several of whom were actually real, live journalists – is a blunt reminder of just how stark the differences are from now to the days when the UT head football coach would give a 20-year-old sportswriter 15 minutes of his time, and pour him a cup of coffee in a styrofoam cup if he wanted, each and every week during football season.
Ed Werder, one of the 100 who bit the dust courtesy of ESPN, told Peter King, “I was told after the season that layoffs were coming, and quality of work would not be a consideration. I responded, ‘Quality of work should be the only consideration.'”
Pretty frightening quotes to hear, but it’s nothing that should come as a surprise. That ESPN axed someone like Werder, while continuing to employ right-out-of-school-with-zero-experience folks to “report” across various platforms, should not shock anyone. Reasonable, thoughtful and rational reporting is now the exception; shouting and preaching – but only for a maximum of 140 characters – is now the norm.
Recently I overheard an Austin radio talk show speculating about a particular athlete who had missed a game. One of the on-air “personalities” said he had heard that the player had been suspended for marijuana use. The name of the player was used casually along with the accusation, with no thought of caution or verification. This is the state of “journalism” now.
Ironically, the same company that continues to be full of “personalities” who yell and scream about the need for coaches to be fired now has sliced 100 folks from their payroll, leaving in place far too many clueless screamers.
The quality of work, in case you are unaware, is no longer a consideration.