Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Town and Gown Memories

With the recent passing of the legendary Olympic documentary filmmaker Bud Greenspan, and following my recent post about how USC really is a great university (even if I am still a UCLA sports fan), I started remembering some of the people I had the chance to meet and things I got to do during the two years I attended USC earning my master’s degree.

Bud Greenspan
Greenspan was among those people. He was a guest speaker on campus one night, and I was invited by a faculty member to join the two of them for dinner. Though I’d seen many of his documentaries growing up, I’m sure I didn’t realize at the time just what an important and influential person I was chatting with. Maybe that’s because it was somewhat common to cross paths with people who had some degree of celebrity status during the time I was at USC. In fact, the list is somewhat remarkable. Not that I’m impressed by that kind of thing, but it is a testimony to the environment that encompasses the university and the accomplished people who are around there. And it’s just another reason why I think it would be a great fit for Sam. The opportunities are seemingly endless, and the contacts are golden.

It’s hard to convey what an extraordinary and invaluable experience this was without sounding like a pompous namedropper. That’s not my intent. It’s simply a reflection back on the things I was fortunate to encounter over a two-year period nearly 30 years ago.

Truth be told, I never expected to find myself at USC, since I was a lifelong UCLA sports fan. The university had a very strong school of journalism and public relations program. The opportunity to attend USC was simply too powerful to ignore.

I still remember visiting campus for the first time in 1981 and meeting with one of the public relations faculty. I didn’t know it at the time, but Kenneth Owler Smith was somewhat of a legend in the field of public relations. As I was doing my best to impress, he was doing a bit of recruiting on his own. He spoke glowingly about some of his former students, including Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann, who was also one of his protégés. By that time, Swann was in his last year with the Pittsburgh Steelers before working for ABC. When Doc died in 1988, Swann was among the speakers at his funeral.

Although I always assumed I’d head into my professional career after graduating from Cal Poly Pomona in 1982, the idea of continuing my education was suddenly very intriguing. And when Doc called to tell me that I was not only accepted to the graduate program, but that I’d been offered a teaching assistant position that would virtually pay for all of my education, the path for my next two years was crystal clear.

Still many months before enrolling in my first class, I got a jump on my USC experience and began working as a student assistant in the sports information office. That’s when I had first encounter with someone influential on campus. Football coach John Robinson happened to be standing at the adjacent urinal in a Heritage Hall restroom. I introduced myself, but we didn’t shake hands (not quite the right place for that), although he did make a politically incorrect joke about our common last name.
Heritage Hall

My good friend from Cal Poly, Nick Salata, was also accepted to the graduate program, and we rented an apartment together in L.A. We both took internships in the USC sports information office, which was a “who’s who” of recognizable personalities, from Los Angeles sports media to current and former athletes. I’d certainly been around public figures in the past, but not with this frequency. Broadcaster Tom Kelly came by the office regularly, as did well-known LA newspaper reporters like Allan Malamud, Mal Florence, Scott Ostler and John Hall, and TV personalities like Jim Hill, Stu Nahan and Roy Firestone. It was just a bit overwhelming to me, but, as I discovered, pretty commonplace around there. Before long, the players started funneling in regularly during the summer with the start of fall practice, and by that time, I was becoming somewhat familiar with the campus.

One of my assignments was to write a feature story for every “Game Day” home game program. Rather than single out individual players, we focused on all of the players at a certain position. I wrote one feature about the offensive line, which included four players who would eventually play in the NFL: Don Mosebar (Raiders), Bruce Mathews (Oilers-Titans), Kelly Thomas (Buccaneers, Rams) and Tony Slaton (Rams). They weren’t the only eventual NFL players who I interviewed from the team in fall 1982. That group included Joey Browner (Vikings, Buccaneers), Keith Browner (Buccaneers, 49ers, Raiders, Chargers), Duane Bickett (Colts, Seahawks, Panthers), George Achica (Colts), Fred Cornwell (Cowboys), Riki Ellison (49ers, Raiders), Jeff Simmons (Rams), August Curley (Lions), Byron Darby (Eagles, Colts, Lions), Lou Brock Jr. (Lions, Seahawks), Michael Harper (Jets), Darrel Hopper (Chargers), John Kamana (Rams, Falcons), Zeph Lee (Broncos, Raiders), Ken Ruettgers (Packers), Scott Tinsley (Eagles), Troy West (Eagles), Jack Del Rio (Saints, Chiefs, Cowboys, Vikings and current Jaguars coach) and Sean Salisbury (Seahawks, Colts, Vikings, Chargers).

As far as I was concerned, they were just a bunch of big guys who were all relatively unknown. In hindsight, they turned out to be good enough to play professionally. Somewhat surprisingly (at least in retrospect), that team finished only 8-3 and tied for third in the Pac-10.

On game days, we worked in the press box at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, making sure statistics and game notes were distributed to the media. My job after the game was to get post-game quotes from the visiting coach. The first home game was against Indiana, whose head coach at the time was Lee Corso. He wasn’t really a “big deal” at the time, but today he’s a mainstay on ESPN’s College Game Day.

Later in the season, I had the chance to work the UCLA-USC game for ABC over at the Rose Bowl. I jumped at the opportunity, but my duties put me in the TV truck outside the stadium tracking the down and distance for the graphics operator. Beth took her brother Dave with our 50-yard-line tickets, while I was trapped in the TV truck. Definitely not the way I wanted to watch that game (but Beth and Dave enjoyed themselves, cheering for UCLA while surrounded by Trojan fans). So when the offer came up a week later to work for CBS during the Notre Dame-USC game at the Coliseum, I was assured this job would be much better. That week, I was assigned to assist sideline reporter Pat O’Brien and help set up arrange interviews. When I arranged for him to speak to Trojan legend Anthony Davis, O’Brien gave me a leaping high-five. That experience was worth the disappointment of the previous week.

There was a day after the football season had ended when a group of guys came into the sports information office looking for tickets to the USC-UCLA basketball game that night over at Pauley Pavilion. There was no mistaking the identities of this trio – O.J. Simpson, Al Cowlings and Marcus Allen. After the game that night, Nick and I were at a club in Westwood Village when Allen came into the place with women on both arms and others clawing their way to be near him. At the time, it was just a good story to tell people, but it’s a little creepy today, knowing what was going to happen with O.J. and Cowlings a decade later.

Nick and I had all of the same classes together, including a television broadcasting class. One assignment was to go to the Los Angeles Rams’ practice and interview players and then edit a “remote” piece for a news program. It was a big deal for me to interview guys like Jack Youngblood and Carl Ekern, since the Rams had been my favorite team since I was about 8. I also got to go to KNBC and sit in on an editing session with reporter John Marshall, and stuck around to watch the nightly news from inside the studio. That’s the first time I ever saw the “magic” of the green screen for weather reports. It was an entire world that was new to me at the time, but eventually became commonplace in my professional career. I have my education and experiences at USC to thank for that.

As much as I enjoyed graduate school, Nick and I didn’t always make it to class. There was one Monday night when we were headed to our 6 p.m. class, but instead decided to walk across the street to the Coliseum to watch the Los Angeles Raiders play the Miami Dolphins. It was nice having those kinds of convenient distractions.

My most memorable class was during my second year, when my professor Felix Gutierrez arranged for me and another student, Marty Zogg, to do a major research project for the Dodgers. Marty and I put together a team that surveyed fans about the scorecard-program. We tabulated the results using computer punch cards, and presented a full report to the Dogers. Back then, that actually was sophisticated technology. Ironically, years later I ended up working for the Dodgers writing stories and editing the program.

Most of my classes were great. I had instructors who worked for the LA Times, KNBC and were leaders in public relations. I had another who produced the slide-show effect opening to “The Rockford Files,” and our classes were at his studio at the old Helms Bakery building.

Nick and I were also both teaching assistants for the undergraduate sports information major, which they called “SPIN.” It was a hybrid program that combined courses from the school of journalism (before it was known as the Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication) and physical education, with some courses rooted in sports public relations. Doc Smith was one of the chairs of the program, and he became my mentor and good friend.

The other program chair was Ruth Sparhawk, who was friends with Greenspan and the professor who invited me to that memorable dinner. Funny thing, but Doc Smith and Dr. Sparhawk were always butting heads, and I felt like I was in the middle of their disputes, yet they were both very passionate about the progam.

While our graduate classes were interesting, the SPIN courses were just as good, because of the types of people who spoke at the classes, including Jerry West, Dick Enberg, Gil Stratton, Irv Kaze and many more that I’m not remembering right now. Even the faculty had certain panache, like Ted Brock from NFL Properties; Bob Steiner from California Sports (Jerry Buss’ company that owns the Lakers); Larry Knuth, who was a track coach at USC; and Dan Avey, the former Kings broadcaster and radio personality who recently died. I still remember listening to Avey on Kings broadcasts when I was young.

Avey helped Doc Smith launch SPIN-TV, which was a hands-on television venture run entirely by students. I coordinated the operation. Back then, cable television sports were still in their infancy, and a local TV channel called Prime Ticket was just getting started. The local teams had home games telecast over a pay service called “On-TV.” High school sports were never televised – until we started SPIN-TV. We purchased some video cameras and sound and editing equipment, and arranged with a small cable provider in Pasadena to allow us to videotape local football games and then show them several days later over the local access channel. SPIN students did everything. They were the announcers, sideline reporters, sound technicians, video editors, camera operators, graphics people, statisticians and anything else that needed to be done.

One time the SPIN class met off campus over at the Forum. Bob Steiner had Jerry Buss speak to the group of students (which, ironically, included Buss’ latest girlfriend at the time). We then had dinner in the Forum Club with Buss and his entourage before going to our seats about four rows from the floor for the Lakers’ season opener. After the game, Steiner walked me into the Lakers locker room and introduced me to Michael Cooper and others. I remember watching how Kareem avoided the media by darting into the shower. So Sven Nater was the guy getting the attention. It was a blowout, so he probably had a good game that night. For me, it was just another “pinch myself” moment.

SPIN students had the opportunity to do internships with virtually every sports-related organization in Southern California. That allowed me to meet people from those organizations, including the brand-new Los Angeles Express from the USFL. We placed several students in internships with the Express, and I was invited to work game days at the Coliseum. I ended up on the sidelines for the team’s first USFL game against Hershel Walker and Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals.

Besides assisting the faculty, we also advised undergraduates about the classes they needed. I was somewhat in awe when Steve Riley, a big offensive lineman from the Minnesota Vikings, returned to campus to be advised about the few classes he still needed to take to graduate. Oh, and there were a couple other students that I advised who would later go on to bigger notoriety: football player Sean Salisbury and basketball player Cheryl Miller.

Elsewhere on campus, I’d frequently run into Mark McGwire, who I knew from Claremont and whose dad was my dentist. And it wasn’t uncommon to see actress Ally Sheedy at the bookstore.

By the end of our first year, Nick had taken a full-time job in the sports information office, while I continued working toward my master’s degree. Olympic fever hit the campus hard. People like Greenspan were common visitors. Construction on the Olympic pool on campus was completed, and I worked some pre-Olympic swimming, diving and synchronized swimming events. Former USC swimmer and Olympic gold medalist John Naber spoke to one of my classes. Yes, Olympic fever was in full swing, and I had a bad case.

Doc Smith was a huge fan of the Olympics. He had been to several Games, including the Moscow Olympics in 1980 that the U.S. boycotted. He made it possible for me to work for Track and Field News during the U.S. Olympic Trials and the 1984 Olympics, and to have a pass into the USC Olympic Village. Back in 1983, Beth and I purchased tickets for many other sports, which allowed me to attend something almost every day of the 1984 Olympics. That still remains the most incredible 16 days I can remember.

The Olympics came just a couple of months after I graduated, and when they ended I turned the page on another chapter of my life. But those two years at USC were probably the most significant in shaping my direction in life.

Although Kenneth Owler Smith died in 1988, several years after I graduated, his legacy remains strong at USC. In fact, the university continues to present an annual speaker symposium in his name. I’m proud that “Doc” was able to make it to my wedding in 1985, because he’s the person who made so many things possible for me while I was there. He seemed to take a liking to me, and the feeling was mutual. He opened doors I never thought possible.


Anonymous said...

Really good memories...like spending ALL day preparing and feeding punch cards into the ginormous computer. And Dave and Susie sneaking into the locker room at Dodger Stadium when we surveyed fans... your jobs always provided great fun for all of us!

Anonymous said...

Great fun indeed! I did NOT, however, venture inside to catch a glimpse of Steve Sax showering in the locker room. I waited outside while Dave went in. What was I thinking?! I will never forget what a great time we had with those press passes once the "work" was done. Thanks for including me in that adventure and so many more over the years.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the credit, Sid, but you actually did all the work. I was grateful just to be involved, and am very happy to learn of your considerable success since.