Several weeks ago, on presumably a slow news day, veteran Auburn sports writer Phillip Marshall wrote a sterling article on the old Southeastern Conference Sky-Writers, once a marauding band of noble Southern journalists. Just about this time every year we would gather in Birmingham to eat, drink, and make merry before hopping aboard an ancient Martin 404 airplane to tour the then-10 member SEC football camps.
In Phillip’s story, which was carefully crafted to hide the names of the miscreants and also respect the dead, my dear friend Phillip actually identified me as the one who once stood up at the University of Kentucky just before head coach Fran Curci would speak and, with the NCAA investigators then hot on his trail, Phillip revealed I was the one who had been chosen to read Fran his “Miranda Rights” just before his after-dinner remarks.
While neither Coach Curci nor the UK board of trustees thought it to be nearly as funny as we did, our merry band of what was presumed to be the top sports writers from across the South thought it was a marvelous prank. What was wonderful is that similar scenes would unfold every year at almost every stop. One year at Ole Miss two of our group got in a fistfight during the prayer and, after one night of hard partying in Nashville, I drove a colleague to a Lover’s Lane of a place in the west part of the city where he had lost – and eventually found – his dental bridge.
Phillip Marshall – just to get even – had such a splendid time in Starkville one evening that he lost his shoes. I know because I had the bus driver stop so he could go in a shoe store and yell at the proprietor in a way that we who were waiting will never forget, “I don’t care what kind, just as long as they fit!”
You need to understand this was in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Everything was different back then. Coaches trusted writers to the extent they would tell you anything. Once Bill Lumpkin out of Birmingham told the Ole Miss coach he wanted to talk to the kids on the team who were from Alabama and Coach Kinard whistled up his squad, had the Alabama natives raise their hands and then ordered, “Ya’ll go with Mr. Lumpkin and tell him anything he needs to know.”
Just before Alabama would release its devastating wishbone offense in 1971, we all knew about it but, leery that Southern Cal would find out in news clippings before the opener, nobody dared write it. One Alabama writer taunted Bear Bryant with it, telling Coach he knew enough to write it.
The Old Man squinted hard before he said slowly, “Ed, I ain’t gonna’ tell you what to write or what not to write, but the way I got it figured you are either for us or against us. You gotta’ decision to make.” (No, nobody wrote a word and Alabama caught Southern Cal on the unawares, winning 17-10 at Legion Field and going undefeated in the regular season.)
Every morning we would fly out about 8 a.m., have a lunch press conference and then write all afternoon. Then you’d act like fraternity boys until the wee morning hours. One year there was an affable stranger at the card table and he played and imbibed until almost dawn. Three hours later the “stranger” turned out to be our pilot, the esteemed Crash Wilson, and I’ve still got a photo of him gasping for his morning oxygen in the cockpit on another day before we took off.
The airplane was complete chaos and had only the FAA known about our hijinks those of us still alive would still be in jail. The flight attendant was simply a cocktail waitress and the late Jack Hairston was constantly on the cabin microphone, passing out carefully collected newspaper clippings of airplane crashes, telling the newcomers that the old plane was actually made of parts salvaged from wrecks, and all sorts of tales.
One year we flew into Oxford, notorious for its short runway, and as we clipped the tree tops on our approach, Jack started babbling about the fact no plane as large had ever landed in Oxford but to applaud Crash for being the first to try. We overshot the runway and the front wheel gear burrowed in the mud at the far end. We all slid down the emergency chute and chanted, “I’ve seen London, I’ve seen France, I just saw (name deleted) underpants,” this when our comely stewardess finally found her skirt over her head after the slide.
Well, they got a big tractor to pull the airship from the mud and, while they insisted they truck our luggage to the next stop in order for the plane to lighten enough weight, Ol’ Crash barely clipped the pines again as we were on our way. (Note: Five of my colleagues rode the truck with the baggage, which immediately caused their Sky-Writer status to be suspended for a full year.)
Every night the head coach of each school and all the assistant coaches would sit up late in our Hospitality Suite and the stories told were wonderful. Billy Brewer, the Ole Miss coach, would bring his wife Kay, who was a delightful card player and story teller in her own right, and there were always many avenues to pursue at every stop.
One night several colleagues were at a bar at closing time so they went to another establishment and had barely settled in when somebody yelled, “Raid!” Suddenly our representatives were dutifully studying used farm equipment across the street at 3 a.m. when the police cars arrived. I mean, there were so many close calls.
One Saturday night in Lexington we decided a toga party would be just the thing. So we robbed the Hyatt of all its ivy to make headbands, wrapped up in sheets and all these local girls joined us. How were we to know the Kentucky State Black Firefighters Association was meeting there that same night? It took about 10 precious minutes to convince them we weren’t the Klan.
Sadly, the Sky-Writers stopped in ’83, the league opting for a huge Media Days circus instead, but to those of us who earned our wings every August more than 30 years ago, the legendary days of mischief and mayhem will never be forgotten.
Several years ago there was a funeral for one of these men of yore and, in the obituary, it read he was once voted “Sky-Writer of the Year.” None of us had the heart to tell his widow or his children that the dubious honor came after he was bailed out of jail twice during that particular tour.
To think, about 35 years ago I would be driving to Birmingham on a day like this, so excited I’d be laughing and whooping by the time I got to Trenton. Never let it be forgot that once there was a Camelot.