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    printer version

    Not the way he’d write it

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    [Times photo: John Pendygraft]
    Sports columnist Tom McEwen with 30 years of press passes. The Super Bowl will be his final game for the Tampa Tribune.

    Tom McEwen, who helped put Tampa on the sports map, is retiring -- grudgingly.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2001


    TAMPA -- He never pictured it ending this way.

    The 77-year-old sports writer pads in flip-flops through his Davis Islands home, pointing to wall after wall of a career's proximity to greatness. Framed photos of himself with Johnny Unitas. Bear Bryant. Jesse Owens.

    Generations of ballplayers and kingmakers mingled at his wet bar. Look, there's a memory: a black-and-white photo of himself with the tiny Tampa Tribune sports staff in the early 1960s, at the start of his 30-year reign as sports editor. Before big-league ball came to town.

    He steps onto the back porch with its sweeping view of Hillsborough Bay. Beyond the water, a city gleams with the sports temples he helped raise: the Ice Palace. Legends Field. Raymond James Stadium. There's even a street named after him. The Super Bowl, once ridiculed as an absurd dream, is coming for a third time.

    It was supposed to be a sweet twilight vista for the man from the Wauchula sticks.

    So why is Tom McEwen bitter?

    It was on this porch, two years ago, that Tribune sports editor Paul C. Smith broached a painful topic: McEwen's exit from the newspaper he had dominated as editor and columnist for decades.

    Smith knew the stakes for McEwen, who had continued his popular column after giving up the sports editor's title in 1991. Smith had heard McEwen joke that he planned to quit writing when he dropped dead on his keyboard at a Bucs game.

    "It's a dope. It's an addiction," McEwen said of his work. And more: Representing the Tribune had been his undisputed role for so long, he was the paper for thousands of readers.

    In that job, McEwen did far more than cover local institutions; he helped build them. And in the process, cozying up to the monied and well-placed with a down-home courtliness and a brand of good ol' boy wit, became an institution himself.

    McEwen threw his weight behind a host of highly publicized causes, from landing an NFL franchise to moving the Yankees' spring training facility to Tampa. Many credit him with bringing the Buccaneers, the National Hockey League and pro soccer.

    "Very few things in sports that have happened here would have happened if not for Tom's influence somehow," said Leonard Levy, who headed the task force that pushed for a local NFL team.

    It's tough to find anyone who disagrees with that assessment. Hotly disputed, however, is whether such a legacy is an honorable one for a journalist.

    By the time Smith visited him, McEwen's reputation was causing the newspaper keen embarrassment. The boosterism and insider maneuvering that used to earn McEwen praise now drew sneers in the newspaper industry.

    Let's come up with a plan for how you want to go out, Smith recalls telling McEwen.

    Despite McEwen's puzzlement, Smith said, he agreed to scale back his columns, with the last to coincide with the 2001 Super Bowl. Smith had a spectacular party in mind for the occasion, a cast of hundreds gathered to pay homage.

    McEwen refused it.

    In a recent interview with the St. Petersburg Times, McEwen said he believed he would be able to keep his column, despite the discussion with Smith, but he suspects two incidents sealed his forced departure.

    The first was a joke he told about the abundance of Latin names among high school coaches at an awards banquet last year. He was the emcee, a familiar and celebrated role locally.

    The second, which received greater notice within the industry, was a December 1999 story in Editor & Publisher magazine. As writer Allan Wolper pointed out, McEwen used his column to help sell taxpayers on a $35-million spring training facility for New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, a friend who helped McEwen start his travel agency and who McEwen often had defended in print.

    And while McEwen extolled the Tampa Bay Lightning in his column, his travel agency, run by his wife, Linda, with himself as CEO, earned thousands of dollars for handling the team's travel arrangements.

    McEwen makes no apologies for the way he did business.

    For years, he says, his modus operandi suited his newspaper just fine. "My publishers liked it because I was their contact with the world," McEwen said. "Also, I got the news."

    His philosophy: Why should his advocacy of causes he believed in end with his column? "Do you see anybody objecting to making money off the Super Bowl once it's already here? God forbid, you go try to help make it happen," McEwen said.

    "Most of what he dreamed of as a sports writer has come true in this town," said Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who in 1999 had a half-mile stretch of road near Raymond James Stadium named for McEwen.

    When Tampa was trying to attract interest in an NFL franchise during Greco's first term as mayor from 1967 to 1974, "He and I met with probably every major sports figure that came to town. He'd call me and say, "So-and-so's in town.' "

    McEwen's nearness to power became the source of his considerable power. He encouraged his reporters to learn golf. "There's no other way you can spend four hours with somebody, ask any question you want to -- big shots -- as in golf," McEwen said.

    "I think McEwen brought a comfort level to the people he covered that perhaps some of our current people don't bring," said George Solomon, assistant managing editor for sports at the Washington Post, who once worked for McEwen as a freelance writer.

    How comfortable? Henry Saavedra, executive director of the Tampa Sports Authority, acknowledged -- laughingly -- that McEwen sometimes put words in his mouth. "Those quotes were better than what I could have given him," Saavedra said.

    Told of Saavedra's remark, McEwen chuckled, too. He knows people say that about him. "No one's ever complained," he said.

    While his column occasionally showed him as a tough commentator, McEwen's personal manner evinced uncommon gentleness. John Sugg, editor of the Weekly Planet, an alternative newspaper, has pilloried McEwen in print but said McEwen never showed a mean streak toward him. "It's interesting how gracious the guy always is," Sugg said.

    Sugg might be McEwen's most persistent local critic, but he is not the first. McEwen's various conflicts of interest have been public for decades; even a fawning 1981 profile in Tampa Magazine noted his questionable business ties to Steinbrenner.

    "People fear McEwen," said Sugg, a former Tribune employee. "I think the perception is McEwen can turn the Trib on you if he wants to."

    Part of McEwen's life story is that of a man snared in the tides of shifting newsroom values. Keith Woods, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times, said that as newspapers started taking a hard look at ethics policies 20 or 30 years ago, it became obvious sports departments operated by looser rules than the rest of the newsroom.

    "They were about fun and games, and the men who worked in those departments were about fun and games," Woods said.

    Today, sports writers generally understand a new code: Don't get too close to the people you cover. When business deals stink, readers must trust reporters to tell the truth.

    "The newspaper, the town and the profession all outgrew him," Woods said of McEwen.

    The Tribune's dilemma: How to thank someone for his considerable contributions and simultaneously convey the message that his work no longer qualifies as respectable journalism. "I don't know how we say, "You've been doing it wrong, but thanks,"' Woods said.

    McEwen insists his travel agency is no longer doing business with the Lightning.

    Tribune executive editor Gil Thelen said the flap last year involving the agency had nothing to do with McEwen's leaving, that the newspaper is simply sticking to the agreement McEwen struck with Smith.

    Smith, who runs the newspaper's Pasco office, sees a tragic tinge to the McEwen story.

    "I'm pretty sure Tom's the last of a dying breed," Smith said, speaking of sports reporters who made the news as much as covered it. "Can you imagine doing something for 40 years and being the king? But how do you go out?"

    Smith added, "It's everything he does. It's his whole life."

    Super Bowl XXXV will be the last game McEwen covers for the Tribune, which he will follow with a farewell column. At times, he speaks with bitterness and bewilderment of the way the Tribune has handled his departure. "It certainly did affirm the fact that anything can happen to anybody," he said.

    At other moments, he is gracious and resigned, saying he will keep busy on his Web site and other projects. "Hell, I'm old enough to quit anyway," said McEwen, who has had three strokes. "I'd rather go out another way, of course, but this is fine."

    For most of his life, McEwen felt like a lucky guy. A native of the tiny Hardee County town of Wauchula, he considers it fortunate the Army pulled him up from the Reserves during World War II and sent him to the Philippines. It broadened him.

    Before arriving at the Tribune, he worked as sports editor of the Fort Myers News-Press and at the defunct Tampa Times and as a sports writer for the St. Petersburg Times.

    Few would make the case for McEwen as an elegant prose stylist, not even McEwen, liberal as he is in his vision of what constitutes a complete sentence. Many columns famously began like this:

    "Over your small glass of chilled grapefruit juice, two eggs fried straight up and broken over a pile of garlic grits, a filet of our own bay water's speckled trout rolled in light flour with creole seasoning, then sauteed in butter and olive oil, sliced tomatoes with mayonnaise dashes, coffee and walkaway bite of mouth-cleansing watermelon, these thoughts . . ."

    For years he pounded out six columns a week, and those who knew him saw more than a run-of-the-mill workaholic. They saw a man in bliss. His work won him a large, loyal readership, and the Florida Sportswriter of the Year award 19 times. His favorite prize, the one he never thought his detractors would let him have, is the 1993 Associated Press Sports Editors' Red Smith Award for lifetime achievement, sometimes called sports writing's Pulitzer.

    Contemplating his long career, he used to think, "Hey, I won. I'm one of the rare birds in the newspaper business who's going out happy."

    Some of his signature touches left the paper long before his column will. One of his regular columns involved pitting his football predictions against female readers, a game facetiously intended "to reaffirm Male superiority in at least one remaining critical field."

    He usually won, then gloated. The column ran until the mid-1990s. McEwen acknowledges that today's readers likely wouldn't swallow it.

    "Probably not," McEwen said. "I guess the time came and went."

    - Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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