Down For The Count?
Popular sports columnist, Billy Reed, calls a time out, exits Herald-Leader
By Jeff Zurcher
June 28, 2001
Billy Reed told me this the other day:
“Once, when I was working for Sports Illustrated, I was in the first-class cabin of a 747, flying from San Francisco to New York. My cabin mates included Debbie Reynolds and Dustin Hoffman.
“I tried to be cool. I didn’t bother them until we arrived. Then, I couldn’t help myself. I went up to Hoffman, who had just made Midnight Cowboy, and said, ‘Mr. Hoffman, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your work.’ He smiled and said thanks.”
The day Reed told me that was Friday, June 8, 2001; he told a bunch of other people too. He told us in his final column for the Lexington Herald-Leader.
That was the thing with Reed and his writing— he made you feel like it was just you and him sitting on a front porch somewhere.
He wrote to you, not necessarily for you. He didn’t try trickery. Didn’t try cutesy. Didn’t try over-the-top. He just tried to be honest, direct, thought-provoking. People could understand where he was coming from. And we loved him for it.
And we’ll miss him for it, too.
Yeah, I’m a fan. And I’m not cool as Reed tried to be with Dustin Hoffman back in the late 60s.
Nah, I told him straight out of the box that I “really enjoyed reading his stuff.”
“Well, thanks, Jeff,” he said. “And I enjoyed watching you play football.”
“Thanks. That seems like a long time ago now.”
We both chuckled. I was assuaged.
And that’s how our conversation started.
The official reason behind our discussion was my attempt to discover the hows, whys, and what nows surrounding Reed’s parting with the Herald-Leader.
Unofficially, though, the interview was just a good excuse I could use to get a guy-whose-career-I-would-like-to-have to take time out to impart some knowledge.
But after a few minutes, I figured that Billy Reed would have taken time to chat with me even if we hadn’t had his departure from the Herald-Leader as an excuse.
“When I took an early retirement from Sports Illustrated back in 1998, I really wanted to have more of an expanded role with the Herald-Leader and I just never really felt like they knew what to do with me,” Reed says of the daily paper.
What they said about him (in the May 15, 2001 edition) was that he “resigned his position.”
Reed has a different recollection of his departure.
“Last August I got a phone call just after [covering] the PGA Championship — and I thought I’d been doing some pretty good stuff, so my first reaction was that they [the Herald-Leader] were going to give me a raise but instead they told me I was going to get a pay cut. That kind of festered with me ever since then and yet, I went on. I felt like I was doing some pretty good stuff — I had been getting a lot of emails — like on January 9th of this year I wrote a column saying that Rick Pitino was going to be the next U of L basketball coach— it was like Secretariat at the Belmont I was so far ahead of the pack on that one. And I thought my Derby coverage was really good. But during this whole time there was a kind of deafening silence there was no positive reinforcement whatsoever, and that sort of bothered me. Then after the Derby I didn’t hear anything.
“You know, my contract didn’t really expire until November, so I finally said, ‘Look, you gotta do better by me, or let’s just begin talking about ending the relationship, which is just not working for me.'”
Reed reports that he said the above on a call to Mike Johnson, the paper’s deputy managing editor.
“And [Johnson] said, ‘Well, let me talk to a few people and get back to you.'”
Three hours later, Reed reports that he was informed — electronically — that the paper was exercising the clause in his contract giving him his 30 days notice that he would be evicted from his column. They then published word of his resignation in the May 8 edition. He says that they put a proposal in front of him suggesting that he write a goodbye that would appear in the Sunday edition.
“That [writing a puffy piece for a Sunday run] would have put more of a happy face on it — which was not the way I felt about it. So I just tried to do the last column in a way that I didn’t trash anybody.”
Even though he acknowledges, “I’m disappointed, hurt, felt like it was a mistake.
“I don’t feel like I’m resting on my laurels, but I’ve got so much background, experience, knowledge.”
But today’s big newspapers have parent companies, profit margins, pressure. And Reed clearly feels he happened to be on the wrong side of the coin.
Through one of his vineyard of grapevines, Reed heard that the decision to terminate him was said to be part of a national downsizing that had been ordered by Knight-Ridder, owner of the Herald-Leader and a host of other newspapers (including San Jose Mercury News).
Contacted for comment, Herald-Leader publisher Tim Kelly responds, “Billy was a freelancer on a 30-day contract. He called one of the editors here when he heard of anticipated reductions in staffing at Knight Ridder papers and said why don’t we just end it. The editors agreed. I appreciate the good work Billy did for the Herald-Leader and am sorry that the relationship had to end.”
Reed says he began drawing a paycheck from the paper 42 years ago, at age 16. He stayed on there in high school and through his Transylvania days. After college, he headed west, to the Courier-Journal. He left that paper for Sports Illustrated and New York City in 1968. He came back to Louisville in ’72, became the local paper’s general columnist in ’74 and became the sports editor/columnist in ’77. Disenchanted with how the Gannett Company was running the Courier, he swung back to the Herald in 1987. And from 1988-98, Reed pulled double duty at the H-L and SI.
You gotta be good at what you do to make SI. And then leave. And then be allowed to come back a second time. While simultaneously pulling another gig. (And, consequently, another computer. In the first few years working for both, Reed had to lug two laptops, because they weren’t compatible — imagine that.)
But Reed didn’t think much of it. He was too busy thinking about home.
“This is gonna sound strange but you know, SI is a national publication and has a readership of 24 million or something. To me, that was more of a job I mean, I did it as well as I possibly could. Somebody told me one time that I had done more than 800 stories for them, and I’d done 12 cover stories for them you know, I worked hard. But still, my first love has always been to have an audience in Kentucky.”
And so he has, for more than 25 years. Reed has done well here because of his passion for and knowledge of place.
Which must make the death of his column even more frustrating for him — as it does for his readers.
“I’ve spent all but four or five years in Kentucky. I’ve traveled all over the country and several foreign countries, and to me, it’s still the most beautiful place in the world. And there are things here I’ve always enjoyed: college sports, the horse racing industry. And I like, really, the lifestyle.
“What drives me? Well, I think — and I’ll be honest with you here — that ego certainly plays a role… people reading your stuff and having your picture in the paper, and people recognizing you as somewhat of a celebrity. But I just really enjoy… I enjoy writing. Taking a set of facts and circumstances and writing something about them that people want to read is engaging. It’s challenging. It has never gotten old.
“And I really enjoy the people in sports. I just want to have fun. The games. The competition. I’ve been really lucky over the years to build friendships with a lot of players over the years, a lot of coaches.”
And with a lot of readers.
Reed has received more than 120 fan emails since his last hurrah at the Herald. He speculates that the paper received some too, but he had not seen any in print (as of June 23).
“But I’m not sour,” Reed offers.
But he’s surely got to feel a little short-changed. Literally. Because he went to cover the Preakness on his own dime.
“And the Herald-Leader still used my stuff. I guess that was my lovely parting gift from them.”
But — growl — since we can no longer find his stuff in the Herald-Leader, where now shall we look?
“I’ve just kind of been sitting back, exploring my options, there are things out there several offers on the table (involving various online and print opportunities).
“And I’d always thought I’d like to retire at 62 anyway.”
We both chuckled. And I was again assuaged.
This time, though, it was not my nerves, but my frustration.
Word Association with Billy Reed
I did a word association with Billy, asking him to choose the first two or three words that came to mind about the following Kentucky sports figures past and present. He apologized for frequently going over the word limit, but I forgave him, knowing that columnists tend to do this. That he had the most to say about a horse is not surprising, given that he’s so passionate for the track.
C.M. Newton – Total class.
Larry Ivy – Tough spot.
Tubby Smith – Guy that has shown enormous poise in a very difficult situation.
Saul Smith – An admirable young man.
Hal Mumme – One of the biggest mysteries ever.
Guy Morriss – Good sound football man.
Tim Couch – All-time Kentucky icon.
Cawood Ledford – Epitome of what every Kentuckian aspires to be.
Ralph Hacker – Guy that has probably done a better job than what he has got credit for.
Pat Day – Completely sincere, honest human being and a great athlete.
Secretariat – I disagree with people: I don’t think he was the best horse ever. (His choice is Citation.) I think he was the first equine star of the TV age and captured the public’s imagination unlike any horse ever has.
Adolph Rupp – Great coach who’s gotten a bum rap as a racist.
Bear Bryant – Still the model that any football coach is compared to.
Denny Crum – Good person, good coach, but unfortunately let his program get away from him at the end of his career.
Rick Pitino – One of the two or three best college basketball coaches that I’ve ever seen.
Billy on Billy
On His Style
“I’m not a craftsman; I’ve never thought of myself as a wordsmith. I think I’m a good reporter, I think that I write well, I think I know how to tell a story, and I think I know how to make a point.
“I got a call last summer from Hal Mumme. He was upset about some columns I had written criticizing him for not letting Derek Smith play basketball. I told him that I’m not the only one saying it and he said, ‘But when you say it, it means more than when other people say it.’
And I take that as a compliment.
On Him Being Considered Controversial
“Well, yeah, I guess I am. I mean, I’ve never been afraid to take a stand. One thing you never want to be is wishy-washy. And I’m not saying that I have a strong opinion everyday, but when I do, I express it is strongly as I can.
On Why He Was/Is Successful
“You’ve got to have a tremendous amount of drive. You’ve got have a good imagination, good ideas. And you somehow have to believe that what you do is going to be good enough to make people want to read it.
“Not perfect, but you know, just good. I’ve always thought the most important thing about newspaper columnists is consistency. Not to write very many great columns but more importantly, not to write any bad ones.
“Red Smith always used to say that when you write a bad column, at least you know, though, that you have a chance to make up for it.
“You just have to love to do it. It’s a passion, and obsession. It’s cost many of us marriages. It’s made us feel guilty about cheating our children – there’re been many times you should have been there and you probably weren’t there.