Some great sportswriting: Jim Murray

Every once in a while I’ll pull a book off the shelf that I haven’t looked at in a while. Today it was an autobiography by Pulitzer Prize winning sports columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times.

Just thought I’d share a quick excerpt of it here. I don’t know if the book is still in print. I rather doubt it, but it is available through the magic of Amazon. The title: “JIM MURRAY: The Autobiography of the Pulitzer Prize Winning Sports Columnist.”

Anyway, some excerpts, the lines denote where I have skipped ahead:

Football is a coach’s medium. That’s the trouble with it.

Just as movies are a director’s medium. And fascism is a dictator’s medium.

I sometimes think the last stand of dictatorship in this world is the college football coach. His word is law, his rule is absolute, his power is unlimited. His legacy is academic chaos.

He has somehow convinced society, or that part of it which lives in his vicinity, that the highest function of a great university is to win the Rose Bowl. Or the the AP Poll. Or, as Woody Hayes once said when asked what his foreign policy would be, “Beat Michigan!”


The obsession of football coaching is not hard to comprehend. It’s Everyman’s dream: the desire to, the opportunity to play God.

Then it became economically rewarding. The football team became a source of pride to the academic community, then a source of profit. They began to build edifices for the games people played — the Yale Bowl, massive stadiums rose out of the cornfields of the Midwest.

Football became big business. Coaches were no longer genuine faculty members, except in name. They began to separate themselves from the body of the university. Their charter was to win. It began to be an economic necessity to them, too. They didn’t have tenure. Their “tenure” was a 7-1 season — or, better yet, 8-0.


In Alabama, the “legendary” Bear Bryant was the first to separate the football team from the rest of the student body. He had a separate dormitory, separate dining facilities, almost a separate university. They were the at the University of Alabama, but not of it. They were mercenaries, Hessians. I liked Bear Bryant. He was basically an engaging man who knew exactly what he was doing and I don’t think he was entirely proud of it. He drank heavily. He spoke in a deep rumble in the twang of his native Arkansas in a pitch that sounded like an underground explosion in a coal mine. I once heard him enunciate his philosophy of coaching: “If you got any milk-drinking, tie-wearing, book-reading, churchgoing young men who are students, you send them to Stanford. But if you got any whiskey-drinking, skirt-chasing, hell-raising young men who are athletes, you send ’em to ol’ Bear and we’ll kick some ass!”

I want to include one more excerpt. He devotes an entire chapter to Muhammad Ali, every word of which is worth reading. Murray had one of the best lines on Ali that I believe anyone ever wrote. He said, “I’d like to borrow his body for just 48 hours. There are three guys I’d like to beat up and four women I’d like to make love to.”

Here’s the story:

The press always had the same fascination for Ali as Ali had for the press. Unlike a lot of athletes who only tolerated them, Ali really liked the company of sportswriters. I recall once, as he was coming into Los Angeles for a Ken Norton fight, he took the press conference podium to denounce an unnamed sportswriter who had written the offending words “muzzle the Muslim.” His remarks were clearly directed at me. I was indignant because I was sure I had never written those words. I stormed up to his room in the (Marriott) hotel. Ali was lying naked under a blanket, a crooked grin playing around his mouth. He had summoned all his entourage around the bed. I angrily bet him one hundred dollars that I had not written the offending words.

Alas! I had. I believe I was quoting somebody else but there they were. Ali slowly pulled the clip (it was several years old) out from under the blanket and threw it down to me. I was dumbfounded. (Before storming his room, I had called the paper’s library and had them read the past dozen or so Ali columns I had written. I had not gone back far enough.)

I was embarrassed. Ali was delighted. I sent him the one hundred dollars. A few days later, I got the check back in the mail (I still have it) along with the following handwritten letter:

Dear Jim,

Your letter was very good. I have nothing to say bad about anything you write, because burning words rise from a flaming heart. For life is a fair trade wherein all adjusts itself in time, for all you take from it, you must pay the price sooner or later. For some things you may pay in advance, for some you should pay on delivery, and for some later on when the bill is presented. So, Jim, we should never feel guilty for speaking our true feelings, because a guilty conscience robs the will of its power.

I was really surprised to get such a letter from you. You have a good heart. Most people of white in your possission [sic] would not admit what you call a fault of your own. Because most people give way to their faults by being passive towards them. Jim, a writer must think twice before he writes, because a biting tongue goes deeper than the point of a bayonet and cutting words pierce keener than a sword. Jim, the way to overcome error is, first to admit my fault, such as you did to me, next to refrain from repeating it.

So, that’s all I have to say for you now, but we must always remember that forgiveness belongs to God. But it becomes the privilege of mortal man only when asked by another.

Thank you,
Oct. 5-19-73
Peace always


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