By Jim Joanos
It has been eight years since Bill McGrotha died. For forty years many of us depended upon McGrotha to keep us informed on what was going on in the sports world in general and Florida State football in particular. Part of our pre-game preparations each week during FSU football seasons was to read what McGrotha had to say about the other team. He usually had a pretty good scouting report and he always had good anecdotes about what had happened in previous games between the schools. On Sunday following the game, I always looked forward to what he would have to say in the Democrat. If we won, reading McGrotha was wonderful. The victory was always described so vividly. But even when we had lost, McGrotha would give it a positive spin. After all, football is a wonderful game and should be enjoyed win or lose.
When I picked up the Democrat, following the 2001 Orange Bowl, I sure wish that I could have read Bill's view of the championship game the night before. I bet that it would have helped a great deal. He would not have sugar coated our loss. He would have been completely honest. But he would have described the game in a way so that those of us who support FSU could accept what had happened, consider it a good experience and go on about the cheerful and fun activities of a great sports program. He would have pointed out that we have come a long way to reach the top and also that there are more wonderful days ahead.
For forty years McGrotha was the undisputed lead writer of FSU sports. Although in his duties at The Tallahassee Democrat, he wrote on a numerous subjects, it is in his coverage of FSU sports that he is remembered mostly. From May of 1953 when he became sports editor of the Democrat until his death in January of 1993, he wrote thousands of columns and articles about FSU sports programs. If it involved FSU athletics, he wrote about it.
Not only did Bill write, he wrote very well. Even folks without a passion for sports enjoyed Bill's writings. He was a wonderful writer who wrote about sports. He did not overwrite or oversell. His style was simple, easy to read, and allowed the reader to reach conclusions without being hit over the head with exaggerated arguments. But he always made his point. Often, he wrote humorously.
His friends called him by his first name, "Bill". Most readers referred to him simply by his last name, "McGrotha". In later years he would sometimes refer to himself when making humorous quips as "Old Dad". Gator fans had other names for him. He was a friend of my father's and I met him when I was in college, so he was, "Mr. McGrotha" to me. He hired me once to cover a high school football game so I had a very brief professional relationship with him. I have always considered it an honor that he printed my story exactly as I had written it. To me, he was what I thought that a sportswriter ought to be. Sports were meant to be fun and he made it so.
He was much more than FSU's lead writer, he was spokesman, advocate, and friend of FSU. He was accurate and not the least bit mean spirited. He simply saw things from the perspective of those of us who love FSU athletics and he was not afraid to describe it the way he saw it.
McGrotha's first FSU football season coincided with head coach Tom Nugent's first at FSU. To be sure, there had been some good years before. Football was played at FSU at the beginning of the twentieth century from 1902 through 1904. FSU had won the State Championship in 1904, before the legislature decided that FSU's higher education pursuits would, at least for awhile, only involve the education of young women. Ed Williamson began the modern age football program in 1947, after the institution once again became coeducational. Under Coach Don Veller from 1948 through 1952, FSU had become a small college powerhouse which included domination of the Dixie Conference, had a win over Wofford in the school's first-ever, post-season game, the Cigar Bowl in Tampa following the 1949 season, and had an undefeated record of 8-0 in 1950. FSU had played some big school teams before, but the Nugent years are generally looked upon as the period in which FSU moved into big time football.
Nugent's "magic in believing" coaching philosophy was tailor-made for the new writer, Bill McGrotha. Between the two of them, the entire community became immediately convinced that FSU could have a football program that could compete with the best of them. It did not matter that the university had only been playing football for seven seasons or that it got most of its players after the other schools had completed their quotas nor that there were limited resources, very few male alumni, as well as a small community to draw from. Nugent coached, McGrotha wrote. Nugent was an innovator. He had invented the I formation and the typewriter huddle. An energetic Irishman from New England, he even had his new football team singing the school alma mater. Nugent provided a lot to write about and McGrotha jumped on it. McGrotha immediately became one of us. To my knowledge, he never wore an FSU cap or sweashirt or even a garnet golf shirt. He had not gone to school at FSU nor had he any prior connection with Tallahassee. But from the beginning, Bill was an FSU Seminole. He became as much a part of FSU as Westcott fountain.
Soon FSU was beating some programs that the big time college football world had heard of...teams like Louisville and NC State. By the time Nugent left after the 1958 season there were victories to show over Miami and SEC mainstay Tennessee and bowl appearances in the Sun and the Bluegrass Bowls. FSU was not on top of the hill yet but was doing pretty well.
Nugent was followed as head football coach for one year by Perry Moss and then by Bill Peterson for eleven seasons.
It was during Peterson's years that I believe McGrotha became more than a local figure. Peterson's coaching, malaprops and all, gave McGrotha plenty to write about. McGrotha wrote about the flashy passing game, the 3-3 tie at Florida in 1961, the three-tie season of 1962, the bald-headed Seven Magnificients, the 1964 victory over formerly unbeaten number five in the country Kentucky, the first ever win over Florida in 1964, Tensi to Biletnikoff, the thumping of Oklahoma in the Gator Bowl, the controversial Lane Fenner 'non-catch' in '66, Hammond to Sellers, the 40-20 beating of mighty Houston in Jacksonville, the emergence of the quarterback dubbed "Huff the Magic Dragon", and on and on. McGrotha's coverage of those events have made them live forever in the minds of FSU fans. Some things that McGrotha wrote during Peterson's time like the October 1969, humorous Democrat column entitled, "Origin of the Species", have been reprinted over and over. The column not only reflects McGrotha's wonderful humor but points out his willingness to be counted on the side of the FSU Seminoles. It is a very tongue in cheek history of the University of Florida football program. If you have not read it, find yourself a copy of the book that Gerald Ensley edited and the Democrat published in l993, entitled, "From the Sidelines, The Best of Bill McGrotha" and read it. The book also contains a number of other wonderful McGrotha columns.
Peterson was followed by Larry Jones who was FSU head football coach from 1971-73. Jones' three years provided a real roller coaster ride for FSU fans as well as McGrotha. Jones came in amid the profound belief that FSU football would attain even greater heights. His selection was extremely popular with the fans. He seemed to be perfect. McGrotha described him as a "gentle man" and credited then President Stanley Marshall as saying that he would be "the forerunner of a new breed of coaches". And it started out well. The team went 8-4 Jones' first year. The season concluded on a very high note as FSU was sensational although in defeat in the very first Fiesta Bowl in which Danny White and Arizona State defeated FSU and Gary Huff in a quarterback duel, 45-38.
The second Jones season started out well as FSU convincingly won its first four games and went into the Florida game at home in Campbell Stadium. Somewhere in that game Florida State's fortunes turned. The game was lost 13-42 and FSU limped through the rest of the season finishing 7-4 and being denied a bowl invitation. But the worst was yet to come. In the spring of 1973, The St. Petersburg Times, decided to write a series of articles denouncing college football in general but Florida State football most specifically. It was devastating. McGrotha wrote well and did his best to defend Jones and the FSU program. It was at this point that McGrotha proved to me that he was a real man of courage. It would have been much easier to give in and go with the flow. After all, it was 1973, and it was very fashionable to oppose establishment-oriented things like college football programs. McGrotha held his ground. FSU lost the immediate battle, many members of the team quit or transferred and the next year FSU went 0-11 and Jones was fired. McGrotha continued to point out the unfair way that FSU and Jones had been treated in the articles. Thanks primarily to McGrotha's enlightenment, to this day most of the fans who were here then continue to believe that despite the problems and the records, Larry Jones was and is one of the finest men ever to be involved in football anywhere and that the St. Petersburg Times, ordinarily known for quality work, was way off base in those 1973 articles. In the long run, because of McGrotha, FSU fans could continue to hold their heads high despite the diffuculties of the time.
Darrell Mudra followed Jones as FSU head football coach. McGrotha accepted the new coach and wrote positively of the program and the very bright coach who preferred to coach from the press box during games. Unfortunately, Mudra's 1-10 and 3-8 seasons did not show progress fast enough to satisfy the powers that be and Mudra was cut loose.
Bobby Bowden became FSU's head football coach in 1976 and as it could be said, "the rest is history". From the beginning, McGrotha was at his best in describing Bowden and the success that FSU was attaining under his leadership. McGrotha covered the Seminoles during the Bowden rise. The team improved immediately going 5-6 the first year. The second year FSU went 10-2 including the first win over Florida since 1967 and a victory over Texas Tech in the Tangerine Bowl. McGrotha's descriptions of Bowden helped make the coach the folk hero that he is today. You could not read a story written by McGrotha about Bowden without believing that the coach was one of your next door neighbors. Thanks to McGrotha, Bowden immediately became one of us. Following the great start under Bowden, the program made steady improvement. By McGrotha's death, the period now called the "Dynasty Years" had begun. The team had gone six years in a row finishing no worse than fourth nationally, joined the very prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference and had come close to competing for the national championship. It was sad that McGrotha could not be here to enjoy the National Championship that FSU won the year after his death, as that was a championship that he had very much helped to bring. But maybe it was not coincidence that we won after his death. I suspect that his spirit was in Miami as well as in New Orleans in January of 2000. Just maybe, he wrote something before those two games that persuaded his new head coach up there somewhere that the Seminoles should win some championships.
McGrotha was one of the major leaders that brought FSU to the pinnacle where it is today. He was happy when we were happy. He was sad when we were sad. He knew when we needed to be comforted. He knew when we needed to be criticized. He knew when we needed to be encouraged. He defended us when we were unjustly accused by the media. We read every word he wrote and gave it our full attention. He wrote from the perspective of one who deeply cared about those of whom he wrote.
Mr. McGrotha, we miss you.