Remembering Bill McGrotha
By Jim Joanos
It has been fourteen years since Bill McGrotha died. Recently, in the sports section of The Tallahassee Democrat there appeared some articles that McGrotha wrote a number of years ago. The articles caused me to think back about McGrotha, a former sports editor of the Democrat, and the contributions that he made to FSU football.
For forty years McGrotha was the undisputed lead writer of FSU sports. 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.
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 year at FSU. Nugent's 'magic in believing' coaching philosophy was tailor made for the new Democrat writer. Between Nugent and McGrotha, the entire community became immediately convinced that FSU could have a football program that could compete with the best of them. Nugent coached, McGrotha wrote. Nugent was an innovator. He had invented the I formation and the typewriter huddle. Nugent provided a lot to write about and McGrotha jumped on it.
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 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 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.
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. 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. McGrotha wrote about it all.
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. The next year FSU went 0-11 and Jones was fired.
Darrell Mudra followed Jones as head football coach and was at FSU for two seasons. 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.
Bobby Bowden became FSU's head football coach in 1976. From the beginning, McGrotha was at his best in describing Bowden and the success that FSU was attaining under his leadership. The team improved. In 1977, FSU went 10-2, including its 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. The program made steady improvement. By the time of 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 two national championships that FSU won after his death.
McGrotha was one of the major leaders that brought FSU to the heights that it enjoys 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. He wrote from the perspective of one who deeply cared about those of whom he wrote. It is good to remember him.