Not Just Semi-Opinionated
Dan Jenkins is very likely the only person who started off writing for the afternoon newspapers in the forties and ended up as a maestro of Twitter. But although the Fort Worth legend’s longevity is mind-blowing—next month he’ll cover his sixty-fourth consecutive Masters Tournament—even more impressive is the effect his funny, bracing writing style has had on American sportswriting (newbies looking to sample Jenkins’s prose should start with his pro-football novel, Semi-Tough). This month he’ll publish His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir, which takes stock of his epic life, which he sat down to discuss in January at Colonial Country Club, in Fort Worth.
JAKE SILVERSTEIN: The college game has been under a lot of scrutiny of late—people talking about paying players and the playoff coming and injuries. Does it strike you as a different game than it once was?
DAN JENKINS: It is and it isn’t. I hate to sound like a coach, but it’s still blockin’ and tacklin’. I do hate all the stuff that goes with it now. I mean, I got the best of it: the Darrell Royals, the Bear Bryants, the John McKays. They were fun. You could drink with ’em. My favorite was obviously Darrell Royal. I covered all his great teams. He was smart and funny, and it was just so natural. Now everyone’s so guarded. There’s so much electricity out there, they’re afraid of it.
JS: When did that shift begin?
DJ: It started with television. And then it just grew from there, while my back was turned. The athletic directors became CEOs instead of travel agents. Title IX came along and changed a lot of things for the better, but nevertheless, it meant that money became more important. If we gotta send the girl’s archery team to Hawaii, where we gonna get that f—in’ money?
JS: The amounts of money people were dealing in back then were so much smaller.
DJ: Television has made it less cheap. There’s so much money involved in the BCS, and now the playoff. I mean, can you imagine that because Baylor went to a bowl game, TCU will get a piece of the pie? It’s crazy. And there’s not one university in America that doesn’t care about money first. It should be TCU: Texas Corporate University. That part I hate. The NCAA, they don’t give a shit about anything but money. Don’t get me started.
JS: Oh, I’m here to get you started.
DJ: At the same time, now all I can do is sit back and laugh at it, because it’s out of my hands. Nothing’s gonna stop it.
JS: So you think money is the root of all evil?
DJ: Not that we don’t like it.
JS: True. Which sports have been least ruined by corporate greed?
DJ: There isn’t one. I mean, everybody in the Olympics is paid. Lindsay Vonn is going to make a million dollars whether she skis or not. [Maria] Sharapova is the highest-paid tennis player and hasn’t won near the majors that Venus [Williams] has.
JS: So what about college football players? Should they get paid?
DJ: Sure, they ought to be paid. They oughta stop kidding around and pay them.
JS: Were you a Johnny Manziel fan?
DJ: I loved him. I wish I could have covered him.
JS: I would’ve loved to read the Dan Jenkins lede on the Alabama-A&M game two years ago.
DJ: I would’ve liked to have been there. The SEC is where it’s really crazy, because they have nothing else in life. Just think about it, what in the name of God would Alabama be without the University of Alabama? What would Oklahoma be without the University of Oklahoma? Nothing. That’s why those people are so rabid.
JS: How do you come down on the recent Mack Brown saga?
DJ: I know Mack, and he’s a nice guy. I never thought he was a great coach. He’d have been gone sooner if it hadn’t been for Vince Young. Vince gave him a lot of years. It’s like our guy here [TCU head coach Gary Patterson] said, everyone thinks Texas is the greatest job in the world, but it’s not. The greatest job in the world is OU, because you’re isolated. You got no media to deal with. Down there in Austin, you got five million bosses. And the Joe Jamails and Red McCombses and Tex Moncriefs—the big-money guys—they’ll give you a while, but if you don’t give them what they want, you’re gone. Stoops? He hasn’t won a national championship since 2000—fourteen years ago. And he’s still there. See, he wins just enough. You know, 9-3, that sort of thing. 9-3 is always what coulda happened.
JS: Let me ask you a bit about golf. You knew Ben Hogan well. What made him a great golfer?
DJ: Hard work. He was a poor ol’ runt that came from nowhere and just wanted to make a better life for himself. Golf was the only sport he could play. It took him a long time. Hell, it took him five years to get on the tour. Borrowin’ money, scrappin’ around, but he worked at it. He was so envious of the naturals that didn’t even have to practice—Byron Nelson, Sam Snead. He was so envious of them that he was just gonna outwork ’em. And he did. He just worked his ass off. He had a competitive streak in him. All the great players have a little mean in ’em. A little arrogance and a little mean. It’s like one of my favorite sayings: “It’s not enough to win, you have to let the loser know he lost.” I love that. I apply it to journalism. I spent almost 25 years at Sports Illustrated. When I got there, after 15 years on newspapers, it was flooded with Ivy Leaguers who couldn’t find the f—ing elevator. They’d do two stories a year and spend the rest of the time going to lunch and transcribing their tapes. Meanwhile, I was writing thirty stories a year.
They were great guys. Two of my best friends were Yales and Harvards. But I couldn’t count on them to get anything done. They were just great conversationalists, great wits. And they were well read and all that stuff, but they couldn’t write a f—ing sentence on deadline.
JS: You write in the book that you loved deadlines.
DJ: I did. It’s my nature. Newspapers did it for me. You know, “have typewriter, will travel.”
JS: You write that deadline was your time on stage.
DJ: That’s right. I’ve seen it, absorbed it, and now it’s time for me to do it. And do it as quick as I can to get to the bar before it closed.
JS: That whole romantic newspaperman’s world is vanishing now.
DJ: There’s no there there—there’s no bar to go to, you can’t smoke, there are only two or three people in the press box that aren’t morons. I mean, there are some good people, if you could round them up from around the country.
JS: A lot of the sportswriters you mention in the book are writing online. Do you see a parallel between that balls-out irreverence that you guys had under Blackie [Sherrod] at the [Fort Worth] Press and sites like Deadspin?
DJ: God, they’re even more irreverent now. They really are. They passed me by. My heroes were John Lardner and Red Smith. They didn’t draw blood. I tried to draw a little blood, and now these guys today want to draw a lot of blood. Maybe it’s because they don’t make enough money.
JS: Seems like you’ve taken to Twitter.
DJ: I love Twitter. Digest made me do it, because they were trying to join the modern world. Well, the best thing about doing Twitter is that when I go to the majors now, I don’t have to write a piece until later. When the last putt falls, I’m done. Plus, you can say things you can never get in a story.
JS: You’ve said some pretty rough things about Tiger on Twitter. You think we pamper athletes today?
DJ: Sure we do. They’re spoiled. They’re rich. It’s hard to keep that competitive drive when you’re making $5 million a year for doing nothing. You used to have to win. It’s too bad. I think greed is the greatest detriment, not that we all don’t want to be comfortable, but some of the money people make for doing nothing is absurd. Not just rock stars and rappers. The only thing that I’m happy about is the coaching salaries. Those coaches that make all that money, I like that. You know why? Because it makes all those f—ing liberals in the faculty lounge crazy; it pisses them off.
JS: You say in the book that “political correctness is a plot to destroy America.” That’s not a very PC thing to say.
DJ: Good! I take a backseat to no one in my hatred of it. I don’t get it. I don’t know how anybody let it out of the box. If they can’t take a joke, f— ’em. It was the Modern Language Society that did it, and everybody bit on it. The academics loved it because it gave them something to do. The sad thing is that the newspapers fell into it. That was the bad part. I blame teachers. The whole thing about you gotta be liberal or you can’t advance in the profession if you’re not liberal. That may be true, but it’s time it stopped being true. Hell, we had liberal teachers when I was in college. We laughed at ’em. We had one conservative and everybody wanted to take his course because he was funny. It was like taking a course with Hitler. But we didn’t take him seriously either. But now everything’s from one side.
JS: With all the concern over head injuries, people are starting to suggest that football itself is politically incorrect. Do you think the handwringing about concussions is overblown?
DJ: Yes. It’s a tough game, and they know what they’re getting into. But I do worry about what’s going to result from that. My greatest fear, and I won’t live to see it happen, is for the United States men to win the World Cup [in] soccer. It would start something.
JS: I think it’s already started.
DJ: A little bit. I go back to something someone else said: “I can’t get interested in a sport where nobody falls on a loose ball.”
JS: You write that pro football today is what college football once was.
DJ: Just in terms of coverage. People your age think there’s always been pro football around Texas, but there wasn’t. The Cowboys came in 1960. If you wanted to see baseball, you went to St. Louis. We had high school football, which was enormous. College football was king. Golf was semi-king. Track and field was a major sport—now you can’t find a result from one of the relays in the paper. Pro football did it. Pro football ate newspapers alive. So did baseball. And the NBA, which I hate.
DJ: Every game’s the same. Every player’s talented. All they do is kick it in and dunk it or kick it out and hit a three. That’s it. I like college basketball and women’s basketball. They’re still coachable. They play below the rim. But they’ll find a way to ruin that too. They’ll go out and get some tall girls from Australia or something. It’s not just the NBA. There’s a certain sameness to pro football too. They’re about to chase me back to being a baseball fan.
JS: Where does that sameness come from?
DJ: It’s a follow-the-leader thing. Everybody’s running the zone read. Vince Young did it—he won a national championship for Texas by learning to look and see if the tight end was open and if he wasn’t he ran with the ball. That was their offense. Made Mack a genius.
JS: Next month you’ll cover your sixty-fourth consecutive Masters. I don’t think anyone will ever cover any event as long as you’ve covered this one.
DJ: It was an accident. I just started going and kept going.
JS: And a couple of years ago you tweeted, “Sometimes I remember the fifties better than the nineties.”
Fort Worth Press sportswriters (clockwise from top left) Jere Todd, Blackie Sherrod, Jenkins, Bud Shrake, and Andy Anderson.
DJ: Well, it’s true. They were easier to know—Hogan and Nicklaus in particular. I never really knew Tiger. He won’t let anybody know him. I think the reason is that he doesn’t have anything to say. All he knows is how to hit a golf ball. All the other guys—Hogan read books, he was in the oil business, he was a huge football fan. We talked about football more than we talked about golf.