Dan Jenkins is gone, and everyone who loves college football, golf and the crisply struck one-liner will raise a glass. Preferably of J&B.
If you don’t know the work of Jenkins, who died Thursday night in his beloved Fort Worth, Texas, at age 89, you are in for a treat. He didn’t invent sportswriting, but with his combination of reporting and humor, perspective and confidence, he changed my business for the better. Much better.
In the pages of Sports Illustrated, Dan made human the legendary sports gods of his era. Figures such as Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Bear Bryant and Darrell Royal no longer loomed larger than life. And Dan did it with a sharp eye, a smartass grin and very fast typing. What he didn’t tell us in his reporting, he told us in barely disguised fiction in best-selling novels like “Semi-Tough.” My favorite had nothing to do with football. I bet I haven’t read “Baja Oklahoma” more than 10 times.
Sportswriters of my era have their go-to Jenkins lines, maybe like an earlier generation with Noel Coward, or the way that Stephen Colbert goes viral today. For personal reasons, mine remains the lead of his story about the 1984 U.S. Open at Winged Foot:
“Maybe Fuzzy Zoeller plays golf the way everybody should. Hit it, go find it, hit it again. Grin, have a smoke, take a sip, make a joke and every so often win a major championship.”
I spent that Open as Dan’s assistant, the fact-checker who helped him gather material for his story. I was 24 years old and barely could find the first tee without a map. I think the only actual assistance I provided Dan was driving him from Manhattan to Mamaroneck for the Monday playoff between Zoeller and Greg Norman.
Sports Illustrated issues closed on Monday, and 35 years ago, most copy had to be buttoned up by Sunday night. They held the magazine for the Open to conclude. Dan, having cut his teeth at the Fort Worth Press, always had been impervious to deadline pressure. At a magazine where writers were known for dripping out copy like an IV, Dan wrote as if he were late for a cocktail party.
In that lead, Dan captured Zoeller’s personality perfectly, in language that sounded like he leaned over the bar to say it. To witness that up close taught me more about journalism than every class I ever took.
In those days, Dan was known for not appearing on the golf course. He worked the locker room a little. Mostly he held court in the dining area of the club, swapping information and one-liners with agents, writers, golfers, you name it. Dan would walk out onto Augusta National on Sunday to watch the golfers play the short par-4 3rd, a nod to his reverence for the Masters, but otherwise he stayed indoors.
But Dan wanted to see a U.S. Open playoff. We walked out to the fifth green. As Norman prepared to putt, Zoeller, standing at the side of the green, glanced over and saw Dan standing there. Their eyes met, and Zoeller clutched his chest, feigning a heart attack. Make a joke, and every so often win a major.
Sports Illustrated fired Dan a few weeks later, more a clash of personality than anything. The magazine editor decided Dan had lost his fastball. Maybe so; he only had another 35 years of relevant journalism left in him.
I first met Dan in the fall of 1978 in the office of The Stanford Daily. I was a sophomore, sitting in front of a Royal typewriter. Dan walked in looking for his daughter, Sally, a freshman who intended to join our staff. I’m pretty sure Dan was holding a cigarette. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t speak in his presence. Think of LeBron James walking into your gym, Beyoncé showing up at your corner bar for karaoke.
On that day, I entered his orbit, and I never left. We bonded because any friend of Sally was a friend of his. You could say the same about any friend of college football. Dan stopped covering football nearly 50 years ago, but his love for the sport never wavered.
It began as a 6-year-old, when he attended the battle of two undefeateds, TCU and SMU, at the end of the 1935 season. So did Grantland Rice. The Rose Bowl would invite the winner, and Dan’s beloved hometown TCU lost a heartbreaker. A few years ago, I visited Dan at his Fort Worth home, and on one wall of his office, he had blown up a photo of Amon Carter Stadium that day, with arrows pointing at where he sat, and where Granny Rice sat. Birth of a Sportswriter.
His coverage of college football for Sports Illustrated in the 1960s opened an entire world to the magazine’s readers, and especially to its Ivy League-bred editors. Dan brought college football to the national mainstream and shone a light on all of the color and pageantry of Saturday’s America, a phrase he gleefully stole for a book title from TCU coach Abe Martin, a tobacco-chewin’ rascal from the very old school.
Dan had the idea to spend a weekend in Dallas with two couples as they attended three college football games. He had the idea to chronicle an entire recruiting season in the home of a blue-chip quarterback, Oklahoma-bound Jack Mildren. He had the idea and the gall to take on all of Notre Dame Nation when he mocked Ara Parseghian, coach of the No. 1 Irish, for settling for a 10-10 tie against No. 2 Michigan State in 1966. The story began, “Old Notre Dame will tie over all,” a brilliant takedown of the Irish fight song.
Dan may have stopped writing about college football, but he continued to love it as if it were his fourth child. He faithfully attended TCU football games, his parking space underneath Amon Carter Stadium directly next to the one reserved for the university chancellor. TCU named its press box for Dan in May 2017, and of all the many honors he received in his long and glorious career, that stayed.
A few months later, I went to Arlington to cover the Florida-Michigan game on opening weekend. The day before the game, I met Dan for lunch at Colonial Country Club, home of the longtime PGA Tour stop. Dan held court there. He was physically frail, but his mind remained keen. We talked college football for 90 minutes, and he made sure to show me the encased display of memorabilia from his career on the wall next to the pro shop.
I dropped him an email now and again, and he always answered within minutes. It’s hard to swallow that I can’t do that again. Instead, I’ll swallow a J&B in his honor, and curl up with “Baja Oklahoma” for the 11th read.