After 27 years at the St. Petersburg Times, Hubert Mizell is calling it quits. He will be missed, but his words will live on.
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 20, 2001
Just south of the Sunshine Skyway bridge, the real mouth of Tampa Bay is on a roll. Dick Vitale -- human megaphone, legendary basketball man and the area sports scene's go-to guy -- has a few thoughts to offer about the end of an era.
The retirement today of Times sports columnist Hubert Mizell.
"I think the man possesses so much integrity and he's been so fantastic for this area," says Vitale from his Bradenton home.
"His passion and love for sports and Tampa Bay really is so unique, and I know he's going to be missed. He was always honest. He was always fair. He wasn't afraid to share an opinion.
"Hubert Mizell, to put it in Vital-ese, was AWESOME, BABY! WITH A CAPITAL A."
For 27 years, Mizell chronicled the vastly changing landscape of Tampa Bay area sports, cajoled local leaders to think major league, served as tour guide for Times readers at many of the biggest athletic events around the world, and made an endless parade of top-name performers come to life each morning in Section C. Throughout his career, he was a familiar, respected -- and kingsize -- presence to five decades' worth of athletes, execs and colleagues alike.
Now, at 62, the Big Guy is moving on. Monday night in St. Petersburg, he'll be guest of honor at a Times-sponsored celebrity retirement roast hosted by NBC commentator Bob Costas -- with skewering courtesy of head coaches Tony Dungy of the Bucs, Bobby Bowden of Florida State and Steve Spurrier of Florida, and fellow scribes Dave Kindred of the Sporting News and retired Tampa Tribune columnist Tom McEwen.
Early Tuesday, instead of heading into the office to craft one more column or plan his next road trip, Mizell will head north. Just outside of Charlottesville, Va., at the Wintergreen Resort, he and his wife of 36 years, Marcy, will build a new home and start the next stage of their life.
Lots of golf and relaxation in the valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains -- but still lots of words to share with readers back home by the Gulf of Mexico. Mizell will continue to write a column for the Times sports section, appearing every Sunday.
"It's tough to fully comprehend, although I've known about it for more than a year," he says. "As I would go to events and tell myself, "This may be the last time you're ever at this event,' I was okay with that. I think the fact that I'm going to be writing a column for a while helps a lot, because I still have some kind of voice if I've got something on my mind.
"But I'm ready to enjoy another phase of life. I've done my laps."
Actually, he has run a sports columnist's marathon -- covering 42 college bowl games, 33 Masters golf tournaments, 10 Olympics, eight Wimbledons and all those Sunday afternoons in the press box of the Tampa Bay Bucs, where his wisecracks from the front row were often more entertaining than the events on the field below.
"You could always count on Hubert to know what the day's column was and how to get it," says the Sporting News' Kindred, who met Mizell, then a young Associated Press reporter, 30 years ago at Augusta, Ga. They would work side-by-side through the years at almost every major sporting event.
"Many's the time in a World Series locker room, the madhouses they came to be, I'd just attach myself to Hubert's broad back and follow his blocking until we arrived in Reggie Jackson's face," adds the former Washington Post and Atlanta Constitution columnist.
"The power of Hubert's writing and thinking is that he'd write the day's column not to fit a "Mizell' formula but to capture the moment's mood. He could write funny, he could write angry. What he couldn't do was write boring."
Mizell's impact was felt from the moment he filed his first effort for the Times in December 1973, hired by then-sports editor Buddy Martin to help build the section. Longtime Times staffer Roger Fischer, a junior copy editor at the time, grabbed the new sports columnist's piece -- a Colts-Dolphins game story -- off the telecopier machine.
"I looked it over, pencil in hand, ready to rip," recalls Fischer. "I went over it once, then again, then again, looking for something, just a comma, to fix. Finally I said, "I can't edit anything on it -- there's nothing to do.' Everything was lively and polished. That just didn't happen with us back then. Right there, we knew we had taken things to the next level."
He was born Hubert Coleman Mizell -- middle name for the doctor who delivered him -- into a family that always struggled just to get by. In the 24 years he lived with his parents, they never owned a home, never owned a car
"We lived in 27 different buildings and 11 towns," Mizell recalls.
His father, Leon Mozart Mizell, left school in fifth grade and went to work in a sawmill. His right hand was nearly severed with a crosscut saw, causing permanent disability. Still, Leon Mizell had a 50-year career driving 18-wheelers. He often worked six nights a week, 12-14 hours a day and rarely made more than $100 a week.
His mother, Annie Mae Williams Mizell, attended school through ninth grade. She became the family manager. She secretly opened credit card accounts with Sears and JCPenney -- her husband would never have allowed it -- in order to buy clothes for young Mizell and his younger sister Linda.
Mizell's first job was in sports -- working as a 14-year-old usher at a minor-league park in Jacksonville, earning two bucks a game. He watched a 19-year-old second base sensation named Hank Aaron -- baseball's future home run king -- lead the Sally League in every category but homers.
His second job was in journalism -- as a newspaper carrier for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. In between other odd jobs, he also got hired at the Times-Union's sports department to answer phones and keep stats -- for $1 an hour.
That job became the foundation of his career. He started writing small headlines, one-paragraph fillers, learning the ropes from veterans on the staff. By 18, he was a sports copy editor, earning an invaluable sports writing education by reading syndicated columns each night by the masters -- Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Jim Murray.
Mizell attended the University of Florida for a time, still working part time in sports, but got into academic trouble. He took a semester off and never returned to school, instead getting hired full time at the Orlando Sentinel.
He was soon lured back to the Times-Union to be high school sports editor from 1960 to '64. Then came a career detour -- a three-year stint as public relations director for the Gator Bowl, where he met Marcy Prevatt and married in 1965. He tried to get hired as P.R. man for the NFL's two new teams, the Dolphins and Falcons, but his inquiries went unanswered.
So, instead of becoming a P.R. maven, Mizell returned in 1967 to the Times-Union, now as assistant sports editor. Two years later, he made a key move, becoming Florida Sports Editor for AP. It was here that he hit his stride, covering almost everything -- new Dolphins head coach Don Shula, Jackie Gleason, Muhammad Ali, hurricanes, murders, hijackings, President Nixon's summer White House in Key Biscayne, the 1972 Republican Convention.
That same summer, he was transferred to AP's New York bureau and sent to Munich to cover the 1972 Summer Olympics. It was his first major sports assignment, and one forever etched in his mind -- 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Games by terrorists. Mizell covered the tragedy, then returned to Manhattan. But the prospect of longterm New York life prompted him to take a job as features editor at Golf Digest in Norwalk, Conn.
Six months into the run, he got the call from the St. Petersburg Times. And for the past quarter-century-plus -- aside from a six-month stint as feature and TV writer for the Atlanta Constitution in 1986 -- Mizell has been bringing home drama, insights and analysis for bay area sports fans.
On the eve of his retirement, he reflected on some of his biggest moments in the business. What follows, to coin a Mizell phrase from various columns of the '70s and '80s, are some of those many mini-thoughts.
MUNICH OLYMPICS: "Before the tragedy, there were so many incredible stories. There was the infamous basketball game where the Soviets got three chances to finally beat the U.S. I was writing the lead on that, and after I dictated my lead I said, "Wait a minute, you better hold that.' It was the Olympics where gymnastics made its first big hit with Olga Korbut, where Mark Spitz won seven gold medals and set seven world records.
"I covered swimming for the first nine days, and I was supposed to get the next day off, and that's when the terrorism hit. It was such a terrible thing, and at the same time, it was a huge experience for me as a journalist. One interesting little note: AP and ABC-TV agreed that we should have a liaison from each operation, just to compare what we each had. The ABC liaison was a young guy named Peter Jennings, who was then the Middle East correspondent for ABC News. He and I would talk on the phone and touch base.
"I'll never forget how we could look out the window with binoculars and see the hooded gunman. On the morning after the shootout, I was sent to the Munich airport to cover the departure of the Israeli caskets. It was like a punch in the stomach."
U.S. HOCKEY: At the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., Mizell was rink side as the U.S. hockey team scored its miracle victory over the heavily favored Soviet Union, setting up its improbable gold medal win over Sweden. He rates the game No. 1 of all events he has ever covered.
"The Americans had been playing better than expected, but still the Soviets appeared unbeatable. We knew the U.S. kids were playing tough, and maybe if they could hang in there and lose 4-2, it'd be a great story. Right before the game, the media was in the arena, which had maybe 3,000-4,000 seats. The media actually had a section in the stands where we sat. We're all schooled to be neutral observers. But David Israel, who was then a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and later a Hollywood writer and producer, stood up in his seat, put his back to the rink, faced us all in press row and said, "Gentlemen, there will be cheering in the press box.' And there was. It was just amazing. And you just shivered with emotion, knowing that you had witnessed something that's the most colossal upset, I think, in the history of sports."
THE EARTHQUAKE WORLD SERIES: In 1989, Mizell and baseball writer Marc Topkin were in Candlestick Park to cover the showdown between bay area rivals, the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. Mizell was in a work room on the stadium's second level, when the place began to shake and mayhem set in.
"You're looking around, and your eyes are getting bigger, and the California natives in the room say, "That's a quake, hit the floor!' So everybody hit the floor, and the lights went out. Even though it was daylight outside, we couldn't see anything. After the shimmying stopped, I started crawling toward the door. We finally got outside, and you could hear the crowd just kind of cheer with relief that they were still okay. But then I could see thick black smoke in the distance, and I heard that the Bay Bridge had fallen through.
"Well, nightfall came, and I finished up writing my column on the hood of an ABC-TV truck. They had some battery-powered lights, and I finished that up and went into the director's truck. And with the help of a fellow from ABC, I was able to hook up to that and send my column.
"I finally found my rental car, and set out to get back to my hotel in Berkeley. It was eerie. I was able to get onto another bridge, the San Mateo, and there were maybe three cars on it. Then, I got onto the Nimitz Freeway heading north and I was the only one on it -- I expected Rod Serling to step out of the bushes at any time. It's like, am I the last one standing in the world? Now, it's pitch dark. The lights are all down.
"Then I see a burst of light and think, "Oh good, something is going on down there.' I turn and am two blocks from a fallen freeway -- three levels collapsed like an accordion. A civil defense worker directs me to a different road, and says, "You can go under the freeway, but be careful, there may be bodies in the road.' I got through, but then stopped and talked to a lot of people who were looking for loved ones. Finally, I made it to the hotel, and filed a follow-up the next day. It was the most frightening thing I've been through."
THE BABY BUCS: "When I came here, we knew that the NFL was going to put a franchise here, so I went through that whole formation period. One interesting thing: When the Bucs hired the first coach, we got word that it was going to be John McKay of USC and it was going to be announced the next day. So, without asking anybody, I caught a plane to Los Angeles, got there by 1 or 2 in the morning and checked into a hotel. The next day, I was the absolute only media person from Tampa Bay who was at the announcement. A day later, I had a two-hour sitdown with McKay -- again one of those rare mega-exclusives.
"Of course, the Bucs went through that 0-26 start. Steve Spurrier is the quarterback, McKay is becoming famous for his colorful comments. And then there was that wonderful day in New Orleans when the Bucs won their first game, and it was like D-Day for the whole franchise. The really big thing was them winning 10 games in 1979 with Doug Williams and getting to the NFC Championship Game in Tampa. Until the Tony Dungy era, that was the most memorable year the Bucs ever had."
THE FINAL FOUR: "Basketball in my part of the South is not huge, but I was captivated by it. I paid my way to the first two Final Fours I covered, both in Cincinnati in 1962 and '63. It's been great to see the Final Four evolve into what I think is the best sports event in America. I would never have dreamed we could have it in St. Petersburg, and it was a great feeling when they did in 1999."
MUHAMMAD ALI: "I've become an anti-boxing person. But I used to cover it quite a bit, and I had a wonderful experience in the '70s in Miami, when Ali was coming back from his time off from his military quandary. He was preparing to fight Jerry Quarry in Atlanta for his comeback. And I really treasure those days that I was out at the Fifth Street Gym on Miami Beach. I look back and say, "Boy, I was really lucky.' I got to sit there one-on-one and talk with him. He was tremendously smart and creative. To me, Muhammad is easily the biggest athletic name in history. He came to be so much more than an athlete, too. He became, in his own way, a statesman."
HOWARD COSELL: "When I was working for AP in New York, I would go over to ABC and chew the fat. Howard loved to play gin and I got to know him pretty well. And it was a lot of fun talking to Howard because he was a brilliant man. And the thing that bothered me was that Howard would say, "Now, I really like you kid, you're a real professional. But you're in a business that stinks.' And I would say, "Howard, you can't tell me I'm okay but say that my whole profession stinks.' But again, it's a thing to be treasured, having been around Cosell. He never forgot me, and he always treated me extremely well."
THE OLD GUARD: "I think I've kind of bridged some of the generations of sports columnists, and some of the people I've worked with I'd consider the all-time greats. A lot of them are gone now, but it was truly a pleasure to know them. I mean, Jim Murray was a really good friend. Red Smith -- we traveled together quite a bit, and I thought the world of him. Shirley Povich, he was wonderful and I got to know him well. And of course, people like Furman Bisher in Atlanta and Edwin Pope in Miami, who have been in the business since I was in junior high. They're still friends today. I'm retiring and they're still working -- it's amazing."
BOBBY KNIGHT: "With all of Knight's controversy, it sometimes has made it a rough ride for me, because a lot of people would say, "You know, if you write something positive about that guy, how much credibility can you have?' Well, I tried to measure the whole person, and I have ripped Bobby Knight for throwing chairs and manhandling athletes. I also look at Knight's plusses, as far as graduating players, as far as recruiting without cheating. You're either for him or against him. I find him as entertaining, engaging and interesting a person as I've ever met."
ATHLETIC GRACE: "I see athletes in the best of times and the worst. It's easy to be a good guy if you've just won a tremendous event, but what happens a couple of years later when you might blow it? How do you react to getting older? Do you handle that gracefully or become a sourpuss? That's why I like a lot of the golfers, especially Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, for the way they've handled that."
MICHAEL JORDAN: "When I examine my past to try to locate the greatest individual athletic performers, I have to begin with Michael Jordan, and Ali and Tiger Woods as strong seconds, and so many more who are tied for third. I covered Jordan the night he led North Carolina to a national championship in New Orleans, and was privileged to be at two NBA finals. I have one recollection of Jordan at the old Chicago Stadium, where he had most of his glory. It was 45 minutes before the game, and you come up from the dressing room area and walk a half flight of stairs. I'd never been there before, and suddenly you open this little door and you burst into the court. So I open this door, take three steps out and there's this incredible cheer. Little did I know that Michael Jordan was standing right behind me. I guess it was him they were noticing."
KENTUCKY DERBY: I was fortunate to be there for two of the Triple Crown winners, including the most recent, Affirmed, in 1978, which included an extraordinary rivalry with Alydar. They finished one-two in all the Triple Crown races. The Derby is a unique scene, one of the greatest in sports."
GUIDING PHILOSOPHY: "I've tried to constantly remind myself that I should be using my vehicle, the column, to bring to the readers what they can't see and can't hear. I think some people -- and I'm sure I've been guilty of it -- get into this mode of writing for people in the business. You want to impress your buddies. But I don't think you want to lose sight of the fact that you're the go-between for the people who read you and the people you're writing about. So that's why I consider this such a great privilege."
BIGGEST HERO: "With all the celebrities I have dealt with, 45 years' worth of athletes, coaches, managers and executives and a remarkable list of great events that I've been paid to attend, my biggest hero is my wife Marcy, who lived with all the highs and lows with the heart, spirit, patience and attitude of a champion."
HELP ALONG THE WAY: "You know, as I've gone through life, there've been some jobs I really wanted. But for one reason or another, it didn't happen for me in the way I thought I wanted at the time. But in every single instance, it's all worked out for the best. And if I'd gotten what I thought I wanted, it might not have worked out at all. So I have a spiritual belief that you can work as hard as you can work, and do everything you can do to make a decision -- and somewhere along the way, I really believe you're getting some extra help."
- Dave Scheiber joined the Times in 1978 as a cub sports reporter, who, in his first Sunday at the office, accidentally hung up on Mizell from a Bucs game on deadline. Scheiber was a colleague of Mizell in sports until 1986, and now is a general assignment writer in the newsfeatures department.
"It's difficult in many ways, leaving a profession I love after 40-plus years, leaving a town that has been generous to my family after 27 years and my wife ending a rewarding real estate career. Leaving our only child (Kevin, 29) here. But the powerful lures for Marci and me were to make clean breaks from professions from which separation can be testy. Having our lives in fairly good order, we want to experience a new part of the country, new terrain, new climate, new freedoms and even new challenges, while we're still young enough to fully enjoy." -- Hubert Mizell
Mizell's columns will continue to appear on Sundays inside the Sports section starting on June 3, but if you would like to say goodbye, you can write him at: Hubert Mizell, P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.
Or send him email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.