Unexpected but fun ride comes to an end

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It doesn't seem quite like yesterday, but it sure doesn't seem like more than 39 years ago when the phone rang in my tiny office at Point Park College, where I was supplementing my teaching salary as the school's part-time sports information director.

It was Roy McHugh, the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Press, and, at that time and until his retirement, the pre-eminent print journalist in the region. He was offering a job. I was stunned. I wasn't aware he knew who I was.

He had read my stuff in a publication called "Pittsburgh Weekly Sports" and told me he liked the fact I was able to get angry about topics of sport. I began at the Press on June 30, 1969 covering high school sports.

It basically ends today with this column.

I had been considering retirement and when the Post-Gazette offered a generous buyout, my mind, after some debate, was made up.

What a wonderful career it has been. I've been on the front line of sports history, Pittsburgh and otherwise.

I was there when Franco Harris scooped up a football and ran into history with the Immaculate Reception. That came about three months after I wrote about Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit. A few weeks later, I covered the demise of a burgeoning Pirates dynasty -- sounds kind of funny, doesn't it? -- on a Bob Moose wild pitch.

I was there when a skinny freshman named Michael Jordan lofted a sweet jumper that won an NCAA title for North Carolina; when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series; when Dan Marino threw the most famous pass in Pitt football history to John Brown in the 1982 Sugar Bowl; when Carl Lewis won four gold medals in the 1984 Olympics; when Jim Leyland and the Pirates made baseball so much fun in this town in the early 1990s; when the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup; and, after missing the first four on other assignments, when the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl.

I sat across a table from Muhammad Ali in an interview in a downtown Pittsburgh law office. I had dinner with Clemente -- he paid. I once exited a one-on-one interview with Chuck Noll in the Steelers' office in the old Roosevelt Hotel by opening a door and walking into a closet.

The best game I ever saw, beyond doubt, didn't involve a Pittsburgh team. It was Villanova-Georgetown for the 1985 NCAA basketball championship. It had everything: The perfect stage, the height of drama, near-flawless execution and an underdog winner. I was transfixed.

I've been to about 20 World Series, 10 Super Bowls and Final Fours. I've covered three Stanley Cup finals, U.S. Opens, tennis and golf, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Indianapolis 500, the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Gator Bowl, Tangerine Bowl and the Maulers.

Better than all those experiences were the good times I've had covering those events with my colleagues at the Press and Post-Gazette.

I've been fortunate enough to have some great bosses, men who understood the job was important but that there also were other things to life: McHugh, Fred Landucci and Ernie DeFilippi at The Press and Fritz Huysman and Jerry Micco at the Post-Gazette.

I must give special mention to three people:

McHugh: He had confidence in a guy who didn't have enough confidence in himself to so much as submit an application to even the smallest newspaper. He personally edited almost all my copy for the first couple of years on the job. He allowed me to write a notes column barely more than a year on the job, an almost unheard of happening.

Charley Feeney: I had majored in education at Pitt and had no formal journalism training. Feeney gave me Reporting 101 when I took over the Pirates beat for the Press in 1972. Feeney, who worked for the Post-Gazette, owned the beat, and I didn't even make an imprint on it for several years. While he regularly clobbered me on covering the news, at the same time he was gently mentoring me -- something he absolutely did not have to do. But he did it, and not just for me but for many, which is why he is so revered by those of us who worked with him.

Beano Cook: Beano has been taking young writers under his wing for decades. I was fortunate to meet him when I was a college student, and he helped shape my attitude about sports. He let me know there were no sacred cows and that the mightiest were ordinary people. I learned skepticism from Beano. It has served me well.

In newspaper work, there's nothing quite like covering a beat.

Those Pirates of the early and mid-1970s -- Clemente, Stargell, Oliver, Blass, Giusti, Sanguillen, Ellis, Kison -- were my "Boys of Summer." What a blast it was. Covering Pitt football and basketball for five years was just as much fun: good times, good people, great teams.

When Joe Brown stepped down as the general manager of the Pirates in 1976, he emphasized he had resigned, not retired. I feel the same way. I've tired of the daily grind of covering sports, but I'm still in love with journalism and covering the news. From time to time, you might see my name here and there, but this is pretty much it for me as a newspaper guy.

My final thanks goes to the readers, who put up with my stuff for all these years. With some of you, through e-mail, I've built up a relationship. Others, who stopped to say hello and offer a kind word, it meant so much.

Thanks to all. I've been one lucky guy.

Bob Smizik can be reached at rssppg@yahoo.com .


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