Commentary

Frogs, football define life its ownself for Jenkins

Originally Published: November 12, 2007
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- High in a corner of Dan Jenkins' office on the second floor of his Fort Worth home is a framed, oversized, black-and-white photograph of the biggest game in TCU football history.

Nearly every inch of the walls is covered with photos, plaques and other mementoes of six decades as a sportswriter and an entire life as a sports fan. There are photos of Jenkins with the superstars of an earlier time: Ben Hogan, Doak Walker, Bobby Layne. There are plaques awarded to Jenkins in appreciation of his talent by everyone from the Augusta National Golf Club to the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. The wall behind his desk is filled with books, most of them about sports and only a shelf or two written by him.

[+] EnlargeDan Jenkins
TCU athleticsThe walls of Dan Jenkins' office are adorned with a lifetime of sports memories.

His daughter Sally, the Washington Post sports columnist and the other best-selling author in the family, calls the office, "The walls that ate Fort Worth."

But the large photo of TCU's Amon Carter Stadium on Nov. 30, 1935, is Jenkins' Rosebud, the key that unlocks everything you need to know about the best sportswriter that ever fudged an expense account.

Not that Jenkins is some Charles Foster Kane, whose life is such a mystery that the newsreel boys must paw through his belongings in a search for clues. Jenkins has lived nearly 78 years telling anyone within the sound of his keyboard exactly what he thinks. That forthrightness, delivered in forms journalistic and fictional, has sold millions of books.

Probably moved a few magazine subscriptions, too.

But the photo explains who Jenkins is. It records the day when 40,000 fans crowded into and around a stadium that seated 22,500 to see 10-0 TCU take on 10-0 SMU.

There are three small pieces of paper adhering to the glass atop the photo. One, under one end of the press box, says, "Grantland Rice," showing where the legendary sportswriter sat and covered the game. At the other end of the press box, one says, "Bill Stern," showing where the renowned sportscaster sat and did the play-by-play that went out across the national airwaves.

The third piece of paper is stuck high in the corner of the stadium to the right of the press box as you look. That piece of paper says, "Dan Jenkins." Two days short of his sixth birthday, Jenkins watched the Horned Frogs lose, 20-14, on a late pass out of punt formation by the Mustangs. Thus began a love affair with college football in general, and TCU in particular, that endures to this day.

Oh, Jenkins may be best known for his golf coverage. As a TCU undergrad working for the Fort Worth Press, Jenkins shadowed local hero Ben Hogan in the early 1950s, when Hogan made news if he didn't win a major. In 1963, Jenkins moved from the Dallas Times Herald to Sports Illustrated just as Jack Nicklaus began to make the world his own pitch-and-putt. Jenkins has covered the Tiger Woods era from the monthly perch of Golf Digest.

Jenkins also has written novels about golf (next one, out in May 2008, is "The Franchise Babe"), pro football ("Semi-Tough") and life its ownself ("Life Its Ownself"). But before he wrote any of those novels, before he became an icon to two generations of sportswriters, Jenkins covered college football at The Fort Worth Press, the Dallas Times Herald and, in the 1960s and early 1970s, Sports Illustrated.

[+] EnlargeDan Jenkins
TCU athleticsDan Jenkins has kept an eye on TCU football for over 70 years.

It is college football that owns his heart.

He went to TCU for every home game "from '35 on. I had no choice to be a fan," Jenkins said. "Yeah, that was it, that and writing. There was something about it. The movies, I guess. I wanted to have a press card in my hat brim and wise off to everybody, like Clark Gable."

It's usually a golf hat atop his white hair now, with no press card and no brim, but Jenkins never stopped wising off. And he never stopped loving college football, even though he hasn't covered it in years.

"My key worry about guys who cover a sport, whether it was football or golf," Jenkins said, "is you not only cover it. You have to be a caretaker."

He serves as the unofficial historian for TCU athletics, and, since 2005, the official historian for the National Football Foundation and the College Football Hall of Fame.

College football and writing -- Jenkins is never happier than when reciting the champions of both. If that makes Jenkins a walking version of the "ESPN College Football Encyclopedia" (for which he wrote), he pleads guilty.

Jenkins can quote from an essay the humorist James Thurber, a Columbus, Ohio, native, who wrote about Ohio State's first star, Chic Harley. It is reprinted in the book, "Oh, How They Played the Game."

Jenkins pulls his copy off his office bookshelf, opens to the essay, hands it over and says, "Read that."

"If you never saw Chic Harley run with the football, words cannot describe. It wasn't like [Red] Grange or [Tom]Harmon or anybody else. It was kind of a cross between music and cannonfire and it brought your heart up under your ears."

Jenkins beams, about the way you figure Leonard Bernstein beamed when he listened to George Gershwin, one generation's genius appreciating another. After all, Jenkins composed some symphonies of his own.

There were his opening lyrics mocking Notre Dame after Ara Parseghian played for the 10-10 tie with Michigan State in 1966:

"Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame,
Equal the echoes, deadlock her name,
Draw a volley cheer on high,
Level the thunder from the sky.
What though the odds be even or small?
Old Notre Dame will tie over all,
While her loyal sons are marching
Onward to victory."

His assessment of the coach who came out on the wrong end of a heartbreaking loss:

"Missouri's Dan Devine looked like a man who just learned that his disease was incurable. He was leaning against a table in the silent gloom of his locker room, a towel around his neck, a paper cup of water in his hand, whip-dog tired, and his large brown eyes fixed vacantly on a lot of things that could have happened."

[+] EnlargeDarrell Royal
AP PhotoDan Jenkins brought the larger-than-life personalities of coaches like Texas' Darrell Royal to the nation's mailboxes.

And there was his take on the sport itself:

"Football to Joe Coffman, and thousands of other Texans, had always been as essential as air conditioning. It was what a Texan grew up with, fed on, worshipped, followed, played, and, very often, died with."

Jenkins, of course, is a Texan.

The samples above come from "Saturday's America," a compilation adapted from Jenkins' college football writings in Sports Illustrated in the 1960s. When legendary SI managing editor Andre Laguerre asked Jenkins why he wanted to cover college football for the magazine, Jenkins replied, "Because I know more about it than anybody around here."

As the late Dizzy Dean said, it ain't braggin' if you can do it.

Jenkins brought the larger-than-life personalities of the great coaches into the nation's mailboxes, all the while developing relationships with the men who keep each other company in the College Football Hall of Fame.

On Darrell Royal: "The smartest coach I knew. Not even close. [Barry] Switzer. Bear [Bryant]. [John] McKay. Those are the smartest guys I've known and hung out with. Those are my favorites. I never saw them make a mistake. They'd get beat by somebody, if somebody had a better team, but they didn't do something stupid."

Paul
Manny Millan/Icon SMIThe reporter-coach relationship was different when Jenkins covered Bear Bryant.

On Bryant: "My favorite Bear story was I sitting in his office one day in Tuscaloosa, and he said, 'You see that helmet over there? That's Lee Roy Jordan's helmet. He was the greatest hitter I ever had. You look at that helmet real close, you'll see the color of every team we played on there.'

"There was a little orange for Tennessee, a little maroon for Mississippi State.

"I said, 'Who's your artist, Bear? I know you all polish the helmets after every game. C'mon.'

"He said, 'Goddamn sportswriters. It works on recruits.'"

On USC's John McKay: "He was funny, friendly. He was not a big shot. He had a sense of humor. I was sitting in his office one day. I bet it was '67 after he won the national championship. He had these Rose Bowl tickets laminated and framed sitting on his desk. He had very few things in his office.

"I said, 'John, what do you get around here for winning a national championship?' Some places will lavish you with whatever you want.

"He said, 'I got a new set of tires. You know what? They expect it of you here.'"

It was an different time, before coaches became seven-figure CEOs, before writers treated them like politicians with something to hide. Most coaches today view writers with the same affection they have for jock itch. It makes Jenkins crazy.

"We are so easy to charm," Jenkins said. "Every time a Nick Saban or somebody tries to make an enemy of the press, I think, 'What an idiot you are.' We're such pushovers. All you got to do is be nice to us. Knute Rockne invented it. Get Granny [Rice] and the boys to hop on a train and come on out. Sit around and get drunk.

"Every good coach knows how to work the media. Come on. Good coaches used to do that. Bear used to do that …He'd have everybody over to his house, break out the whiskey. Darrell would do the same. Trust you. They knew who to trust. They'd earned your trust and then they'd tell you anything. You wouldn't write it. Those days are gone."

SI moved Jenkins off of college football in the early 1970s. He had written "Semi-Tough", a novel of NFL life that has never been described without the adjectives "bawdy" and "ribald," not to mention "rollicking." So SI put Jenkins on the NFL.

He may have stopped watching with his typewriter nearby, but he never stopped watching.

To this day.

[+] EnlargeDan Jenkins
TCU athleticsDan Jenkins is as at home in TCU's Amon Carter Stadium now as he was in 1935.

It is a cool October night, a beautiful Thursday night for football, as June Jenkins pulls into a parking space directly underneath Amon Carter Stadium. Dan is riding shotgun. In the second row are their friends Barry and Barbara Kerrane.

"Did you know June is a TCU Homecoming Queen?" Dan asked.

"Which is how he knows so much about football," Barry cracked.

"I did," Dan said. "I married a homecoming queen."

The Kerranes have driven over from Dallas, and someday Jenkins may forgive them for living there. Dan has a Fort Worth resident's disdain for the pomp and circumstance of the city 30 miles east. He refers to it in an e-mail as Big D It Thinks.

The Kerranes aren't in his house five minutes when Jenkins asked, "Is Dallas the only city where women buy jewelry to go Tom Thumb (the grocery)? And get their hair done?"

A placard marks the parking space as belonging to Dan and June Jenkins. Right next to the van there's a Mercedes in a spot for William E. Tucker, the former chancellor of the university. Dan and June may fund a journalism scholarship, and he may be on the short list of prominent alumni. But in campus politics, nothing defines a man like his football parking space.

The Jenkinses and the Kerranes take their seats, in Section E, Row 48, near midfield, or about 40 yards away from where Jenkins sat in this same stadium in 1935. Dan and June sit in a section populated by former Frog players of a certain age. There is a lot of purple attire. Here and there are a few 10-gallon hats. Jenkins sits back, his arms folded, a khaki hat with purple letters pulled down low across his brow.

Utah scores a touchdown on its first drive and holds TCU to a three-and-out. The Horned Frogs punt, and the Utes take over on their 34.

"We need a turnover," Dan said. "Or we need Nebraska to make an offer."

[+] EnlargeGary Patterson
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesTCU coach Gary Patterson has heard Dan Jenkins' praise and criticism.

The reference is to TCU coach Gary Patterson, and to the possibility that the Huskers will need a new head coach. It's nothing that Jenkins wouldn't say to Patterson's face, because there pretty much is nothing that Jenkins wouldn't say to Patterson's face. Their backyards back up to each other. Dan and June threw an engagement party for Patterson and his wife Kelsey.

"He's my biggest fan. He's also my biggest critic," Patterson said. "But that's good because he loves TCU. There might be somebody out there who knows a lot. I don't think there's anybody out there who knows as much about the history, not only about TCU but about the history of college football, as what Dan Jenkins does.

"And let me just say this," Patterson adds. "June is an angel."

Patterson won 10 and 11 games in his second and third seasons as the TCU head coach. In 2004, however, the Horned Frogs went 5-6. Jenkins invited Patterson to lunch at Colonial with June and another friend, Dick Lowe.

"For about an hour, I got an earful. By the time I got home, both June and Dick had called and apologized," Patterson said, laughing.

The first quarter does not go well. The Utes add a field goal for a 10-0 lead with :38 remaining, and on the next play from scrimmage, TCU quarterback Andy Dalton throws deep into triple coverage.

"Well," Jenkins said to Barry and Barbara, "sorry you came to this one."

"It's a lovely evening," Barry said.

[+] EnlargeDan Jenkins
TCU athleticsDan Jenkins is the official historian for the National Football Foundation and the College Football Hall of Fame.

The subject turned to coaches and the demands placed on them in today's win-or-else mentality.

"Abe Lemons had the best line about stress," Jenkins said, referring to the late Texas basketball coach. "Texas made it into the finals of the NIT. Someone asked him about the stress of playing in front of a New York crowd. Abe said, 'I used to worry about that a lot when I was in a foxhole on Iwo Jima.'"

It will be a long night. The Horned Frogs lose, 27-20. There would be no cross between music and cannonfire, and no one on the field made anyone's heart come up under their ears. But it is TCU, it is college football, and for one more night, a 72-year love affair has been extended.

When the National Football Foundation named Jenkins its official historian two years ago, he described in the press release why he fit the job.

"I married a homecoming queen, which means I know as much about college football as the next person, as long as the next person is not Darrell Royal or Bear Bryant," Jenkins said. "As the NFF Historian, I'll have a new platform to indulge my passion for the most emotional, colorful and hysterical game ever developed by mankind and Walter Camp."

Since the author is Dan Jenkins, it is redundant to say that no one ever said it better.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com