Remembering Jack Simms

img_0061In the summer of 2003, I was on a weekend visit to Auburn, preparing to move down and join the faculty.

Trapped in Comer Hall parking lot by a thunderstorm, I called Jack Simms.  As we talked, I told him, “Jack, my goal in coming to Auburn is to be to my students what you were to us.”

That would be a huge challenge, because of what Jack meant to Auburn journalism and its students over his 18 years as department head and the years that followed.

For those of us privileged to be his students, he was the ideal professor, mentor and friend, and he made sure that the faculty members he brought on used the same approach.

Jack’s first year was my freshman year, so I benefited from his classroom instruction and his mentorship as I worked on The Auburn Plainsman.  But it meant even more, these past 13 years, to be his friend.

As we Auburn journalism majors graduated, and so many of us went on to distinguished careers and syndicated columns and front pages and Pulitzer Prizes, Jack was our most treasured cheerleader.

Yet he never talked about himself much.  We had heard about Iwo Jima, but it wasn’t until he showed me an unpublished manuscript within the past few months that I realized what he had experienced.  The manuscript refers to a point during the battle where Jack and a fellow Marine had gotten separated from their company, the result of poor communication.  Amidst the smoke, grenades, mortars and rifles, they still managed to rejoin their company, and he survived.

In class, he never mentioned how, as an AP reporter in Tampa, he talked himself aboard a rescue ship that was heading toward the site of a private yacht fire in which young people from several prominent New York families died.  Or how he also got aboard the ship that had picked up the survivors and interviewed them.  Or how he tossed his film from the ship to a co-worker standing on the dock after the rescue ship returned, dodging quarantine rules.  This was heroic journalistic stuff.

Having returned to Auburn, I got to spend time with Jack, whether at our Friday morning breakfast group or at various journalism gatherings.  If we had driven together to Birmingham or Atlanta for an alumni meeting, it meant sitting patiently (often with his wife, Jo), waiting while he talked individually to each student.  They meant that much to each other.

His decline was noticeable and worrisome over the past few months, but it had its moments.

The first was his 90th birthday party, moved up to October to take advantage of the bye week.  (That’s where the picture above was taken.)  So many showed up, and Jack’s family did a great job of roasting him but also telling stories like the one above. And again he took the time to greet each guest and friend who approached.

The second was just three days ago, when Jack was brought to the field for the military appreciation halftime show.  He had told me earlier in the week that he didn’t know if he could make it, but he did, and accepted the crowd’s grateful cheers. And he still looked so darn rugged.

Those two, combined, would turn out to be our last chance to say goodbye to Jack.  We suspected as much, but it still made us glad and grateful that we were able to.

And now the torch has completely passed to those of us who learned from Jack.  Each of us fulfills his legacy in our own way — myself as director of the journalism program.

Intimidating?  A little, but not too much.  By his teaching, and by the example of his life, Jack prepared us well.


This Blog Thing Here

OK, this looks better.  I’ve been planning to move my blog from Tumblr to WordPress for a while, and I have set up this blog, thanks to help from Rachel Pipan.  I’m easily impressed — most Auburn students know WordPress more than I do — but Rachel is wicked smart and talented.

(I’m also in the process of migrating my old stuff here. It’s a tedious process, but check back from time to time to check out the goods.)

To christen this new venture, I thought I would set down some thoughts on why I blog, why I tweet and from time to time, why I embarrass myself on sports talk radio.  I bring more to this process than a craving for attention — though I admit that, like every journalist, I love it when my stuff is read. Commented on. RT’ed. Linked to. You get the idea.

But how does it relate to my work as an associate professor of journalism for Auburn?  As we learn to always say in class with a smile, good question!  And this time I have an answer for it.

It is crucial that those of us involved in profession-related academic programs (education, business, pharmacy, yadda yadda yadda) engage with our profession.  The ivory tower is real to some folks both on and off campus, but we’re not compelled to keep office hours there.

I have found that Twitter in particular gives me an opportunity to engage — not only with professionals who are kind to respond, but also with sports media audience members, including my students.  Sports media as a research stream draws a little more interest than 18th Century Latvian poets.  I’d like to think that I have something to offer both in terms of insight and observation, from both my professional (15 years) and academic (21 years) experiences.

So what does this contribute to my academic career?  Directly, I would estimate somewhere around, ah, maybe, nothing.  None of it goes on my annual report or my CV. Which is fine.  Indirectly, of course, it adds a lot — to the classroom, to my research and to me personally.  Trying to word that last component sounded too California, so you’ll have to get it from that.

That said, let me quickly add that I have nothing wrong with the official stuff — the research that got me tenure and promotion (i.e., job security) in the first place.  At the risk of being celebrated as Captain Cool or Mr. Fun, I will confess that I enjoy my research into the history of sports media.

My blogging has slowed because I am currently gutting out a biography on Ford Frick, baseball commissioner from 1951-1965.  But when it comes to reading the old Sporting News editions online, I’m a geek and I can deal with it.

But I don’t want it to stop there.  When it does, academics are just talking and writing to each other at conferences and in journals, and rewarding themselves for it.  I enjoy the conferences and the journals, but there has to be more to the life of the mind.

If this is your first time at one of my blogs, you might notice that much of my stuff is based on academic research — my own and others.  The Bill Tilden piece for OutSports started as a journal article.  The ViceSports essay on racism in sports broadcasting summarizes the readings for a class lecture on the topic.  The BINGing and CORFing piece applied others’ research on social identity theory to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry in a football game weekend lecture — the Immaculate Reception of 2013, to be precise.

As I relate particularly the work of colleagues, it’s well-received, because it’s like an untapped treasure; many sports fans are not aware of the great media research that has been going on.

I always argue that the most important product of a college/university is not students — it’s knowledge.  We exist as a place where new ideas are tested that will benefit society.  In the social sciences, our mission is to help society understand the processes that affect everyone.

So to me, when I share it through my blogs, it’s an easy sell. There is some good product out there.

Yes, we then impart this knowledge to students, and I will also admit to loving the classroom too.  Teaching is like journalism to me — lecture prep is info gathering, lecturing is article presentation, and grading is editing.  I mean, what’s not to love?

My personal perspective in the classroom and on social media is old school in origin — having transitioned from typewriter to VDT to command-based PC to Mac to networks to Internet to social media.  I struggle to keep up with the tools, as demonstrated by the foray into Tumblr that Rachel had to rescue me from, but the principles still work.

So basically, I love everything about being a college professor (except the endless meetings, of course), and I love reading and writing, particularly as both relate to sports and the pros who write what I read.

I hope that shows through here, and that you enjoy what you read here. If it doesn’t, and you don’t, I can’t blame Rachel.

Real Professors of Auburn University

First published by The War Eagle Reader. You can link to that here.

The origins of those national headlines about A.J. McCarron and Katherine Webb’s wedding being a reality show?  My 2 p.m. Reporting class, I suspect.

First, some background.

This semester, Laurie Webb, Katherine’s sister, has been in the above class.  To avoid sounding like Brent Musberger, I will limit my comments to saying she is competent, talented, and diligent.  The equal of most of our PR and journalism students.  (I mean, she and they all got past our Journalism 1100 class, right?)

The first time she talked with me after class was about a student friend of hers, a fellow yoga instructor, who had apparently committed suicide.  We talked about knowing when a friend was struggling, what can be done to help — I had more than one such conversation that week.  The student’s death was a jolt.

Side note: It was either during that, or a conversation soon after, that we were talking football, and Laurie said, “It’s crazy. My sister dates a guy from the University of Alabama, and … ”  I basically replied, We know, Laurie; we know.

Right after spring break, I got an e-mail from Laurie in which she told me that she would be missing class that Friday, because A.J. had invited the family down to Gulf Shores.  He would be asking Katherine to marry him, and he wanted both families.

I suppose I could have broken the story and tweeted the news, but I held off for a couple of reasons.  One is that Laurie asked me to keep it a secret, because it was going to be a surprise.  Second is that I use my Twitter for sports media discussion and updates on journalism (and other topics) at Auburn.  A breathless note of rumored nuptials between A.J. and K-Webb — not me.

The Monday after the engagement news broke, I will confess a moment of weakness.  I asked Laurie to talk a little about the engagement.  After all, it was Reporting class, and she had witnessed a news event.  While talking about it, she mentioned that the engagement had been filmed as part of a planned reality show.

That bit of info elicited a collective groan from the class, to be honest.  But it also got the attention of the Auburn Plainsman staff members in the class.

After class, I thanked Laurie for being a good sport about it.  She accepted my appreciation with typically casual grace, adding that it had definitely been a crazy year for the family. Understatement No. 2.

The next Tuesday, I had walked over to the Plainsman office to eat lunch, as I do from time to time.  The staff members there told me they had interviewed Laurie and her family about the reality show.

They posted the story on their Web site the next day, and, of course, the fan was hit and 100 percent of a certain nether region broke loose.

The situation left me with a sinking feeling.  Had I let a student down?  Did my prodding cause her to let slip information that she would later regret?  Even if she did so willingly, the reflection of a gracious attitude, I would not blame her before I blamed myself.

It’s one of the complicating factors of being a journalism professor — when the conversations with students trickle over into the pond of interesting news.  Yes, I know news when I hear it.  But as a professor, often I have to keep that news to myself.

Not just student news.  I served as a faculty member on Auburn’s Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics (yes, CIA) for three years.  During that time, I heard things that were interesting — though never earth-shattering and certainly never scandalous.

We got Auburn’s APR numbers and drug testing statistics a few weeks ahead of the general public.  And we were briefed on ESPN the Magazine’s story highlighting Dakota Mosley’s allegations that Auburn did not respond adequately to his drug problem.

In all cases, I kept quiet about what I heard, as requested (though I did talk a lot about how impressed I was with Cassie Arner, who served as Auburn’s contact with Shaun Assael of ESPN).

In this situation, Laurie caught grief for her part in the story, as did The Plainsman, because the producers were not ready to release the news. So as I walked into Reporting the next day, I wondered if it would be awkward.

But it wasn’t. Laurie attended, and in talking about it afterward, she seemed quite relaxed, despite the drama.  I agreed with her.  To me, this wasn’t Survivor; we know the ending. No reason to keep everything a secret.

At the same time, I felt compelled to apologize to Laurie for putting her in the middle of the story.  She shrugged it off, and seemed sincere.  But the situation still bothers me.

Is my line drawn in the right place? Does it still give too much ground to the journalism side of me?  Is it better to keep the line there and deal with the occasional doubts, instead of instinctively hiding what should be reported?

It’s yet another teaching moment — the kind that the news media provide on a daily basis — and I have talked to my students about it.  Sometimes, however, the most important, and sometimes uncomfortable lessons, are for me.