March 19, 2012
By Wayne Hogan
For Sting Daily, November, 2010
Georgia Tech Associate Athletic Director Wayne Hogan wrote this story on Furman Bisher and Bisher’s relationship with Yellow Jacket athletics, back in November of 2010. The legendary sportswriter passed away Sunday. He will be missed.
The charter plane sat on the tarmac fully loaded with Georgia Tech football players, coaches and staff. In some ways, 50 years ago, things weren’t all that different from today for college football teams, including Tech. The scenario is the same.
The team plays a game on the road, players shower, pack up their gear, media interviews are concluded and the travel party heads directly to the nearest airport for the return flight home.
But this particular day, players sat quietly in their seats and coaches fidgeted. The equipment and personal luggage had been loaded, the engines warmed up and everyone was anxious to get back home to Atlanta. But there was one passenger absent. Left back at the stadium to finish a most important game day task, this passenger would catch a ride to the airport and meet the team for the flight home. Everyone waiting on the plane understood the importance of this final task and though the delay was perhaps annoying, no one would dare express that notion.
Ten, maybe 15 minutes ticked off and suddenly appearing at the airplane’s front door was a breathless man, loaded down with a heavy briefcase stuffed with paperwork and the tool of his trade – a typewriter. Furman Bisher had just finished filing his story on another Georgia Tech victory – a story that would be the lead in the Sunday morning Atlanta Journal and Constitution. In those days, Bisher – as did many sports editors / columnists around the south – comfortably traveled with the football team. It was comfortable in those days because these journalistic icons were almost considered a part of the organization.
Nothing illuminates this relationship more clearly than when Georgia Tech named Bisher an “Honorary Member of the 1951-52 Football Team.”
I had a similar experience during my tenure as sports information director at Florida State University. A Bisher protégé named Bill McGrotha had been the sports editor of the Tallahassee Democrat for more than 40 years. His relationship to the FSU football team and its coaches through the years was nothing short of complete emersion. McGrotha had free reign to roam the football offices, use personal phone numbers of all of the coaches and key players, he was the first to know when any type of breaking news occurred. On many occasions the head football coach would call the writer to alert him of impending news within the program. Surprisingly, in Tallahassee, this cozy relationship lasted all the way into the early 90’s.
Oh, how the media has changed!
Not only did McGrotha travel with the team, his seat on the airplane was directly next to the head coach. That’s right…head coaches including Bobby Bowden sat side by side with the local sports editor on every team trip for decades. There were several times that the team charter was delayed while McGrotha filed his column for the Sunday paper.
Ah, those were the days,” Bisher sighed during a sit-down at his Fayetteville, Ga., home recently. Retired now after nearly 60 years with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Bisher has fond memories of those glory days with the Georgia Tech program and legendary coach Bobby Dodd.
“When I first came to Atlanta in 1950 there were two sports stories in the city that meant something: Georgia Tech football and the Atlanta Crackers baseball team,” Bisher said. “My goodness, having a ticket in the west stands at Grant Field was like being at the Metropolitan Opera. It was a signal of great stature. It was Atlanta’s upper crust.”
It was a time when newspapers were enormously popular as well. People hung on every word printed in the local papers. It may be hard to believe, but there was a great respect and trust for journalists in the day. Sportswriters and columnists were celebrities. Coaches and athletes knew well the importance of the media in the culture. In most cases the relationship was more than cordial. The adversarial stuff of today didn’t come along until much later…about the time of Woodward and Bernstein in the 1970’s. Reporters in the Dodd years enjoyed chronicling the success of the teams they covered – almost openly rooting for their teams to win because it made for a grander story, bigger headlines and bigger readership.
It’s hard to imagine there being two more recognizable sports figures in Atlanta in the 1950s and 60s than Bobby Dodd and Furman Bisher. Although in very different professions, they were cast together through so many great Georgia Tech moments. Bisher describes the relationship as friendly, professional, sometimes social, almost always fun.
“Sometimes when Coach Dodd would have other coaches in town he would get a group of us to go out to dinner,” Bisher recalled. “He loved to go down to the Capital City Club. We spent many nights telling stories…listening to stories. When the coach of an opposing team was a good friend of Dodd and would come in with his team on Friday before a game, coach Dodd would put together a dinner.”
One of Bisher’s early memories of Dodd came in 1950, his first year covering the team. He traveled by train with the team over to Athens for the season ending game at Georgia. From the train station over to the stadium that day he found himself on an old school bus full of the team’s equipment. He was on the bus with Dodd, team captain Bob Bossons and an equipment manager.
“I remember thinking; this is a grand entrance to the big game. Bobby Dodd and his team captain arriving on the equipment bus,” Bisher said.
That particular game was a big one for Dodd and the Jackets. According to Bisher, the coach was on “the hot seat” during a lackluster season. Bisher remembered the Bulldogs, playing what he called “a bunch of roughnecks,” really putting a physical beating on the Jackets that day. “Three quarterbacks were knocked out of the game,” he said. But somehow, late in the game, Joe Brown engineered a Georgia Tech touchdown and won the game 7-0.
“That following week there was a big gathering down at the Capital City Club,” said Bisher. “A bunch of folks pitched in and they gave Coach Dodd a new car. To this day I think the plan was to give him that car as a going away gift. Tell him to hit the road. That all changed with the win at Georgia.”
That was the second of what would be eight victories in a row over the hated Dogs. During the offseason Dodd would bring in Frank Broyles as an assistant, and then Tonto Coleman and they joined up with Ray Graves to give Tech a dynamic coaching staff that would produce back to back undefeated seasons in 1951 and ’52.
Broyles, it seems, was the catalyst for a legendary encounter between Dodd and Bisher on — of all places – the tennis court.
“I had just returned from a trip out of town,” Bisher remembers. “Came straight from the airport and stopped in the football office. Frank Broyles is in there egging me on to play tennis against coach Dodd.
“Well, Bobby Dodd was a pretty good tennis player – outstanding in doubles because he could play the net, but his singles game was a littleweak. Broyles had been trying to get me to play him for a while.
“I had no shoes, no tennis clothes, no racquet because I just gotten back off the road. Frank had the equipment guy round up some stuff and sure enough we’re out there on the tennis court.” Bisher continued. “He had me down 3-1 right away. But then I started running him all over the court. He couldn’t cover side to side and I won the last five games. I beat him 6-3. I said to Broyles: There, are you happy now?”
Who knew Furman Bisher had a competitive side?
It was all in good fun. But when asked if there was ever a contentious exchange with coach or players, Bisher recalled a game vs. LSU in Baton Rouge during that 1950 season.
“The Tigers were favored by two or three touchdowns,” he said. “And I wrote in the paper the day of the game that there was no way Georgia Tech could win the game. Well, they went down there and beat LSU 13-0 in a big upset. When I got on the bus after the game, our big tackle Hal Miller broke the silence. He calls out, `Well Bisher, what have you got to say about that score?’ I had no comeback.”
Bisher says Coach Dodd had very few issues with him or the newspaper, but when he did he would simply register his complaint with the highest of all sources. The newspaper’s publisher George Biggers was a close personal friend of Dodd.
“When something in the paper bothered Coach Dodd, I would hear about it from George,” he said. “One time Edwin Pope – the best newspaper man on my staff, who would later become sports editor for the Miami Herald – wrote something that rankled Coach Dodd. George came down and told me to fire him. Just like that.
“I said, George, you’re asking me to fire the best guy I’ve got in the sports department. I can’t do that. Thank God we were able to work something out.”
Of all of Furman Bisher’s involvement with Georgia Tech, probably not many know that the renowned sports editor also did some play-byplay down on the Flats.
“I was the play-by-play announcer for the first Georgia Tech football game ever televised,” he said. “I did the Tech-Duke game in 1953. Billy Teas ran a punt back to win the game for Tech that day. Then I did the Tech-Georgia game the following weekend (Tech won that game 28-12).
“Obviously, since I’m still writing sports, play-by-play probably wasn’t my shtick.”
While giving up his play-by-play duties, Bisher still featured Georgia Tech prominently when he hosted a weekly TV show for WSB for many years. It was kind of a precursor to ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” as Bisher was joined on the show by other AJC staffers Pope, Ed Miles and Jim Minter, among others.
When Bisher, now 92, thinks back on those days covering the Jackets he has the fondest of memories. When recounting some of the stories he would refer to the Yellow Jackets as “we,” a telltale sign that this longtime newsman and consummate journalist still has a soft spot in his heart for Georgia Tech.
One lasting image for Bisher occurred at the Orange Bowl after the 1951 season. He was walking around the team hotel in Miami the night before the Jackets showdown with Baylor. He bumped into Coach Dodd walking through the property, oddly enough, with fishing tackle in hand.
“Come on, Furman,” Dodd said. “Let’s go do some fishin’!”
The coach and the sportswriter walked down to a dock that extended from the hotel property and for two hours chatted quietly as Dodd fished. They talked a little about football and a lot about life. The bond that would last a lifetime was beginning to form. That bond with a coach, with a school and with the Georgia Tech family would provide decades of memories. The printed words from the typewriter of Furman Bisher will live with Jacket fans forever.
The night after the fishing trip, Dodd’s Yellow Jackets finished off an undefeated season by beating Baylor 17-14 in the Orange Bowl. Fans in Atlanta rushed out to buy copies of the Atlanta newspaper the following day. They couldn’t get enough of Bisher’s account of the game. Nor his coverage of Tech games over the next six (count `em, six!) decades.
Furman Bisher is retired from the AJC but still does some freelance writing. He still enjoys covering Tech games from the familiar press box on the west side at Grant Field, in a stadium now named for his great friend Bobby Dodd. He’s seen a lot of changes around these parts. Pro sports, the Olympics, the Atlanta skyline all have transformed the landscape here on North Avenue. The newspaper world is now all about blogs and Twitter and 24-hour news cycles.
Relationships between the media and coaches today are often strained. The level of trust has waned and the ability of coaches and sports writers to socialize together is nearly nonexistent. It was absolutely a more innocent time back then. Without question it was more fun, more personally fulfilling with the stories and memories more vivid. It would certainly be difficult to capture that two hours between Dodd and Bisher on the dock in Miami in a text message, an e-mail or a Tweet.
Sometimes it just makes a man want to go fishin’!