My Retirement Column (Finally)

I retired from the Auburn faculty a year ago. I anticipated writing a farewell column with all of the insufferable self-importance of 44 years of work, 29 of them on a college faculty.

But nothing emerged worth writing, so I wrote nothing–though I took the last look out the empty office window pic.

Now, however, I’m ready–thanks to Paul Finebaum.

Paul and I graduated from SEC schools and began our journalism career in 1978. For the last almost 20 years, after I returned to Auburn, we became friends. Not “stop by and see you” type friends, but also not Trump-level “I don’t know who that is” dismissal.

On Thursday night, I listened to Bryan Curtis’s interview with Paul on his podcast, “The Press Box.” It’s definitely worth the listen; Paul speaks candidly of his long career.

He provides particular detail to that whirlwind of late 2012-early 2013, where Paul broke through from regional sports talk radio to ESPN/SEC Network media personality and best-selling author. As he describes the events, you can tell that he still hasn’t caught his breath, even as he proved equal to the moment.

The catalyst was a December 2012 feature in the New Yorker, by Reeves Wiedeman. I read through the longform article looking for my quote(s). Then I remembered that even though I was interviewed for almost an hour, I was not quoted. Reeves told me that my quotes had ended up on the cutting room floor, but so had Terry Saban’s, so I was in elite company.

(My memory conflated the New Yorker article with Jack Dickey’s January 2012 feature on Paul in Deadspin. I had a single quote in that article, poorly phrased, that I’ve regretted since.)

Remembering that New Yorker article, 10 years later, caused me to lapse into a futile “what if?” mode. What if I had been quoted in the article? Would I have become more recognized as a sports media history expert? Would my academic career have been different–maybe not on the same trajectory as Paul, but with a little higher profile?

I’ll stop there, as I did Thursday night. That reflection is as regrettable as the Deadspin quote. I share it only for its relevance to this column, not for my own embarrassment.

I stopped there because, well, here comes the retirement jabbering: Of course, my career–both professional and academic–was blessed beyond what anyone could deserve. To finish it with 18 years at Auburn, retiring with two books (one written and one edited), at the rank of full professor, with the memories and experiences I’ve had all 44 years, is plenty.

But I’m not done with Paul. As I said, Paul has been a friend, and was always a wonderful help to me and my students. He would always respond to interview requests–so reliable that I would warn students, “Be ready, because he will do the interview.”

Perhaps the high point we shared was in September 2019, when Paul had lunch with my Sports Reporting class. SEC Nation was in town for the Mississippi State game. Here is a Twitter video from the event. On Friday, a busy broadcast day, Paul was extremely generous with his time. It was such a great experience for him and for our students, and his interview afterward reflected just how much it meant to him.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun at one of these SEC trips than today, because the students were so curious, so interested and such great listeners,” he told Brandon Etheredge, a videographer from the College of Liberal Arts who created that excellent Twitter video. “They really wanted to learn, and that just totally blew me away and inspired me to want to continue to do things like this.”

I didn’t tell Paul this, but after that, I began toying with the idea of bringing him in for a spring semester as a visiting professional. I mentioned it in to our school director as something I wanted to work on. Yes, I recognize that it would have drawn criticism, but I think that where Paul was in his career and life would have made it an ideal opportunity, and I would have gladly defended it.

Unfortunately, soon after, Paul had the follow-up interview with Harvey Updyke that he references in the podcast. Everything went five times sideways where Auburn was concerned, and I had to shelve the idea temporarily. Then came COVID, and everything got shelved. (COVID also took so much out of me that by Spring of 2021, I was not interested in extending my academic career.)

Recalling Paul’s words in 2019, I can see that to many folks, Paul included, teaching college students is an enviable career on many levels. I would add that teaching sports journalism at an SEC school is even better.

And so I came away from the podcast with some unexpected reflections that ended up in a good place. First, the retirement stuff:

Do I miss being on the Auburn faculty? On the one hand, it’s a little sad to be on campus (I still teach adjunct) and know that I am not as involved as I used to be, with the fellow faculty and students I enjoyed so much. On the other hand, there was a lot about the job–some meetings, memos, e-mails, administrative stuff–that I don’t miss.

So I’m OK with stepping aside, especially in an ever-evolving profession like journalism. I started in a print world with hard copy, cold type, and sized photos. I retire from a print-digital world with social media, constant deadlines, and multiple outlets. Others who grew up in today’s world are better equipped to teach it.

On the other hand, Paul talked in the podcast about his distaste with the thought of retirement (and yo did he have some opinions about golf!). But he handled that 2012-13 ride quite well, and it’s great to see him do so well with the amazing opportunities presented. Why retire now?

Could my career have turned out differently? Could a single interview left in a major magazine feature have made my life better? Perhaps. But when we focus on what we lack, we forget those things we have that are literally desirable to others.

I can’t change the past; I can only reflect on how the past has changed me, for the better. And I’m good with moving on, having experienced the better.

There Will Never Be Another Lewis Grizzard

Lewis Grizzard, 1947-1994

The title of this post is 25% tribute, 75% media reality in 2022.

The older folks reading this are more likely to recognize the name of Lewis Grizzard, a popular Atlanta columnist until his death in 1994 at the age of 47. He combined clever wit with a mischievous irreverence and a writing style that definitely would have bought him trouble had he continued to write to this day.

If you are not familiar with his work, the AJC has a page of his best columns offered to the public. They deserve a read.

As I reflect on Grizzard, however, my concern goes beyond the journalistic void left by his death. I seriously wonder if today’s media table has room for the tasty fare Grizzard used to offer.

Way back in the sports media Stone Age, sports media consumption was defined by scarcity. You might watch the game that night, and if it ended in time you could catch the highlights on the evening news sports segment. Then you would go to bed, and the next morning read about it in the newspaper.

Even as a general interest columnist, Grizzard would frequently provide comment on the big games, and they provided morning-after reflection that a night’s sleep seemed to kindle. Wherever you congregated–work, school or Waffle House–you would discuss the game, and Grizzard’s thoughts frequently were cited.

That doesn’t happen today. We are bombarded with major sporting event information and data from every possible angle, so that reflection, if it comes at all comes, is pushed back to much later, when the moments subside, and is the stuff of retrospectives that lack the shared experience.

There are great columnists out there, but so often their stuff appears two or three hours after the final whistle. It’s amazing that they are able to put out quality stuff so quickly, but often that means a post-midnight publication. If we read it–after frantically scrolling Twitter while seeing the highlights on SportsCenter or checking out a couple of live podcasts–exhaustion plays a factor. And if we don’t read it until the next morning, it can still move us, but the timing is as fragmented as our attention.

What started my thinking on this was a tweet or reply from a Twitter friend, and it’s appropriate to the topic that I can’t remember which one it was. (Lewis would smile sympathetically at that.) But the friend wondered what Grizzard would write about his beloved Georgia’s national championship victory last Monday.

Twenty-seven years is a long time. As Grizzard passed, the World Wide Web was starting its journey toward critical mass without him. Grizzard would have knocked out an amazing column about a long-awaited natty by his Bulldogs.

But would it have been received the same? Maybe, but even then it would be the exception that proves the rule. More likely, most Georgia fans would have seen and heard and felt so much by then that Grizzard would have been just another demand on their attention.

I reference frequently the advantages of being old, from a media audience perspective. Just recently, with Sidney Poitier’s passing, I could recall watching “To Sir, With Love” in a movie theatre. For me, it also involves being moved by “Rocky” before the franchise became a monument to Stallone’s ego, watching the Watergate hearings, and making sure I was near a TV Saturday nights at 10:30 Central to watch this new show on NBC.

Those days are gone. Life, with its various events, comes at us fast now. I’m glad that, years ago, it was slow enough that Lewis Grizzard could be along for the mornings after.

Comer Needs to Be a Goner on Campuses

(UPDATED June 17, 2020, to include information on Comer’s role in Eufaula racist violence and giving the specific quote about the 1908 miners strike.)

Auburn and Tuscaloosa might not agree on much beyond the state’s pitiful support of higher education, but here is something behind which both campuses can unite:

The name “Braxton Bragg Comer” needs to be removed from buildings on both campuses.

At Auburn, Comer Hall houses the College of Agriculture, which is so central to our land-grant mission.  It is situated atop a hill across from the library deck. A parking lot marks the hillside where cows used to graze.

At Alabama, B.B. Comer Hall houses several programs related to global studies — both international students and study abroad programs (not to be confused with H.M. Comer Hall, named for Braxton’s son, Hugh, which houses the College of Engineering).

Braxton Bragg Comer was governor of Alabama from 1907 to 1911 and was appointed to the U.S. Senate briefly in 1920.

Some state leaders tried to resist the racial hate of the period and build a better state.  Comer was a racist who exploited free black labor in the post-slavery era and improved the educational choices for white residents only.

He made a bad situation worse to the degradation of a race, a state and his reputation.

He started early, soon after he married and moved to Barbour County to oversee Spring Hill, the family plantation. In 1874, according to this excellent article by Safiya Charles, a white mob attacked a group of African Americans who were trying to vote. Ultimately, six of the voters were killed, some were arrested, and the rest fled.

Hilliard Miles, an African American man, named Comer as one of the attackers. Miles, however, was the one arrested and charged with perjury.

Comer’s family also benefited from the horrific “leased convict” system, where counties would lease mainly African-American convicts to mines and mills as slave labor, with the county benefiting financially from the arrangement.

Comer’s brother, J.W., operated the Eureka mines in Shelby County, where the convicts were not only overworked but also tortured, often by J.W. Comer himself, as Douglas Blackmon noted in his book, Slavery by Another Name.

States across the South were doing away with the system, but it perpetuated in Alabama, clearly under the protection of Comer’s governorship, until David Bibb Graves did away with it, almost immediately after being elected governor in 1927.

Some call Comer a “progressive” for increasing funding to education during his term as governor, but that does not give the whole story.

Comer did increase funding for both urban and rural schools — for white students.  Schools educating African-American students remained under-funded; some estimated the ratio as high as 7-to-1. Separate but hardly equal.

This is not surprising, because Comer was not merely a man trying to make the best within a racist system.  He promoted and enhanced that system with his policies and philosophies, as noted above.

Comer was perhaps at his race-baiting worst during a 1908 strike by the racially integrated United Mine Workers against Alabama coal operators.  The mine operators worked with state officials and (sadly) newspapers to convince white citizens that a successful strike would cause an uprising by African-American miners.

Comer told the union president, “You know what it means to have eight or nine thousand <n-words> idle in the State of Alabama, and I’m not going to stand for it.” (The quote is from Steven Diner’s book, A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era, p. 136.)

At this point, let me say: I do not advocate the wholesale cancellation of all white males of the era.  A few years ago, I wrote a column about William Broun, Auburn president from 1882-1902.

Broun married into a slaveholding family, but the record shows a more respectful relationship; the slaves remained with the family as paid workers after they were freed.

Comer, on the other hand, showed an embracing and promotion of a racist pathology that continues to shame the state. He embraced the racial hatred that marked the Jim Crow era and used it to his financial and political benefit.

To continue to honor his legacy at two of the state’s most well-known institutions of higher learning brings particular shame to them as well.

If the performing arts center had not been named for Dr. Jay Gogue, I would have suggested that he be honored by the renaming of Comer Hall.

What Alabama does on their campus is their concern. But certainly, Auburn University can find a more appropriate person to honor than Braxton Bragg Comer.