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Convention 2010
June 23-26
Marriott City Center,
Salt Lake City

For information:
Garry D. Howard:
E-mail | 414-224-2306

Jack Berninger:
E-mail | 804-741-1565

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Judging 2010
March 6-10
Radisson WorldGate,
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Mandatory dates:
Sunday: April 5
Weekday: Tue., Feb. 24

Paper lion: The News' sports editor changed game
Dave Smith is ending a career of demanding the best, and getting it

Dallas Morning News

Some people spend years diligently preparing for their life's work. There's lots of studying, internships and college degrees involved. Others fall into the first job that comes along and never come up for air.

Dave Smith took a slightly different route to sports journalism. He was ordered into it.

As a 19-year-old private in the Marine Corps, he was assigned duty in the public information office of a base in Cherry Point, N.C.

"Smith, you know anything about sports?" his commanding officer asked one day back in 1957.

"Yes sir," Smith replied.

"You know anything about newspapers?" the officer followed up.

"I read 'em, sir," the nervous private replied.

"Good, you're the new sports editor of the base newspaper," the officer ordered.

Andy Scott / DMN
In 2001, Dave Smith presented Mark Cuban with The Dallas Morning News Sports Personality of the Year Award.

And so it was at the Marine Corps Air Station's weekly Windsock that Dave Smith began honing the skills that would make him the most influential American sports editor of his generation.

Now more than 46 years later, after successful stops at newspapers in his native Ohio, South Florida, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Dallas, Smith, who often ran his sports departments with a drill sergeant's discipline, has decided it's time to be discharged from duty. Smith announced last week that he would retire as executive sports editor of The Dallas Morning News soon after he turns 65 in April.

Smith's byline never appeared on the front page of the sports section. He doesn't carry a columnist's high profile. He's not a talk-show regular and rarely has appeared on television.

But for readers of SportsDay and sports sections across the country who don't know sports editors from sports bars, this is the equivalent of Lombardi retiring from the Packers, Stengel exiting the dugout, Auerbach lighting his last cigar or Royal leaving the Longhorns.

"Dave Smith is the consummate journalist," said George Solomon, who ended his 28-year run as sports editor of The Washington Post last year. "He is hard-driving, smart, a good judge of talent and always knew what readers wanted.

"In an era when most editors were only concerned with getting the newspaper out, Dave's concern was giving readers a better product, helping them understand, helping them learn," Solomon said. "He was always successful in making sports more interesting and more accessible to readers.

"He was way ahead of his time."

Solomon has a unique perspective on Smith. He worked for Smith in Fort Lauderdale. He competed hard against his old boss when Smith ran the rival Washington Star's sports section before coming to Dallas in 1981. And for the last two decades, they have been close friends and allies in trying to better sports sections across the country.

But Solomon was only one sports editor of a major American newspaper who worked for Smith.

Editors whom Smith helped train – his assistants who spent long hours carrying out his vision, answering his late-night and early-morning phone calls, arguing for what they believed right, humbly explaining their mistakes with eyes glued to their shoes, sharing in his triumphs – have gone on to be sports editors at major dailies such as The Post , The Boston Globe, Newsday, The Orange County Register, The Detroit News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

"I've always been one of the least knowledgeable people I know when it comes to sports," Smith said over lunch Wednesday, the day he finally made the front page of SportsDay with his retirement announcement. "But I think that helped me because it always made me ask questions. I surrounded myself with good, hard-working people who were smarter than me who could answer my questions.

"They always made me look smarter than I am."

New wife, new career

The Marines gave Dave Smith something even more important than his introduction to journalism. Bill Walker, who worked with Smith in the public information office, had a sister who often came to visit.

Around the time of his discharge in 1960, Dave Smith married Walker's sister, Studie.

With his new wife, the ex-marine returned to his hometown of Mansfield, Ohio.

As luck would have it, the local News Journal newspaper was looking for someone to fill out its three-person sports department.

Never having worked at a daily newspaper and without a college degree, Smith had to work up the courage to apply for the job.

With Studie at his side, Smith made it as far as the newspaper's front door when he had a change of heart.

"I'm not going in there," Smith told his bride. "I don't know anything about working at a real newspaper."

"Oh yes you are," Studie said. "We have to eat."

For $65 a week, the sports editor took a gamble and hired the novice. Like most other small newspapers, the News Journal demanded much from its employees. Smith wrote some stories, edited others, selected still others from the wire services, shot photographs and designed pages.

Most weeks he worked 60 to 80 hours to get the job done properly. If life was passing him by, he didn't have time to notice.

In 1963, a job listing in a journalism trade publication caught Smith's eye. The Miami News was looking for a copy editor.

The opportunity to move to a bigger paper intrigued him.

He applied. He was rejected.

Two weeks later, however, the Miami News sports editor called and asked Smith if he might still be interested. He hired Smith over the phone.

Courtesy photo
Dave Smith during his days as an editor at the Boston Globe.

Dave and Studie, who was pregnant, withdrew their $250 savings from the bank, packed their two children and all their worldly possessions in their Volkswagen Beetle and headed off to Miami.

It wasn't until weeks after he landed in Florida that Smith worked up the nerve to ask the sports editor what happened to the original person he hired.

It seemed that the first choice, who was scheduled to come down from Pittsburgh, was scared off by something as trivial as a hurricane warning.

"You're not afraid of a little wind and rain?" the sports editor asked.

How could he be? Smith himself resembled another force of nature. He was a human tornado.

As he had in Ohio, Smith threw himself into his job. If he had to sacrifice time with his family, so be it. At the bigger paper, he found himself surrounded by young, aspiring writers and editors with college degrees. He had to show that he could be more valuable than them. He could always outwork them.

A year after he joined the Miami paper, Smith was named its sports editor. Three years later, he moved up the coast to Fort Lauderdale to run the sports departments of both the morning and afternoon newspapers.

In Fort Lauderdale, Smith solidified his growing reputation as an innovative editor and a taskmaster. Already, the scoreboard page filled with results and statistics in agate that he introduced in Miami was becoming a staple in newspapers across the country.

"Dave was demanding," Solomon recalled. "Maybe more demanding than most but no more demanding of anyone than he was of himself."

On to Boston

In 1970, The Boston Globe was searching for a sports editor to tame a talented sports staff and bring order to chaos.

"What we needed was to bring in a son of a bitch to get everything straight," Thomas Winship, the late Harvard-educated Globe editor, once said. "Dave Smith was the biggest son of a bitch I could find at the time."

Reminded of Winship's comment over lunch, Smith smiled, not objecting to the characterization.

"You have to use it," he said of the quote, switching for the moment from interviewee to sports editor. "I love it."

In his eight years at The Globe, Smith built the best, most-respected sports department in the country. He oversaw a staff that included Bob Ryan and Peter Gammons, now ESPN regulars. He hired CBS' Lesley Visser straight out of college and fought to gain her access when teams were slow to grant access to women. Will McDonough covered the NFL for Smith. Bud Collins was his tennis writer.

The Globe's reputation was cemented during the World Series in 1975 between the hometown Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds. It was then that "Dave Smith Big Event Coverage" was introduced. Smith plied readers with stories, statistics, graphics and photos about the hottest story in town. Winship gave him special sections to fill, and Smith made sure his staff filled them every day.

A year later, Smith's picture was in Time when the magazine recognized The Boston Globe's sports section as America's best.

Along the way, Winship suggested Smith apply to Harvard for a coveted Neiman Fellowship. The one-year fellowships are designed to allow "working journalists of accomplishment and promise" to study in an area of their choice.

It would be a boon for an editor looking to move up in a city where degrees on a person's resume count for something. Smith declined. He didn't want to bring attention to his lack of schooling.

When Winship died in 2002, his 3,200-word obituary in The Globe cited the three Pulitzer Prizes it won under his leadership in 1980 and then called the paper's sports section "perhaps Mr. Winship's sturdiest legacy."

While at The Globe, Smith took time to become a founding father of the Associated Press Sports Editors organization. In 1974, he joined with four other sports editors to create an organization to deal with, among other things, changes, advancements and ethics in sports journalism. It quickly evolved into an influential organization, forcing newspapers themselves to recognize their sports sections as more than "toy departments."

Smith was elected the APSE's first president.

What's next?

Dave Smith has always had a keen eye for detail complemented by a short attention span. He's always more excited by the next project than the current effort. By 1978, he was growing bored with Boston and The Globe, where he saw little room for advancement.

That year, Time Inc. decided to upgrade the sports section at its recently purchased newspaper, The Washington Star. The company targeted an immediate hire – the sports editor its own magazine had cited for putting out the best section in the business.

Once again, it was Studie Smith who had to push her husband through the door.

"Your writers are always writing about arrogant, egotistical athletes," she told him. "But with your success at The Globe, there is no athlete or coach with a bigger ego than you. Let's see you duplicate your success in Washington."

Courtesy Smith family
Dave Smith and his wife, Studie, have rubbed elbows with many luminaries, including Darrell and Edith Royal (right). Dave says spending more time with Studie is one thing he looks forward to in retirement.

And so Mr. Smith went to Washington. The task of competing with The Post was Herculean. Time Inc. supplied Smith with some tools to build a sports section, but it was never enough. The Washington Post was too formidable an adversary.

"Three months after I took the job, I knew I had made the biggest mistake of my life," Smith said.

In 1981, a friend called Smith to tell him that a newspaper in the Southwest was looking for a sports editor. The paper was locked in a circulation war and was ready to commit resources to building its sports section into one that would rival The Globe's.

Smith said the call "saved my life."

"I learned a lesson in Washington," he said. "I was only as good as the people and resources I had. I should have realized I didn't make The Globe sports section. It was the great talent we had."

Burl Osborne, the recently arrived executive editor of The Dallas Morning News, had made inquiries around the country, looking for the right person who could lead the paper's upgraded sports section.

"We understood that sports was going to be an important part of what The Morning News was to become," Osborne said.

Everywhere Osborne inquired about potential candidates, he heard the same name.

"It always came back to the name Dave Smith," Osborne said.

Osborne and Robert Decherd, Harvard Class of 1973, then an officer at The News and currently chairman of Belo, parent company of the paper, met with Smith and asked what it would take to build a nationally recognized sports section.

They liked Smith's answer well enough to offer him a job.

His marching orders?

"Be the best," Osborne recalled.

It didn't take Smith long. SportsDay was first recognized as one of the top 10 daily and Sunday sections of 1983 by the APSE.

It was the start of a streak that has lasted 20 consecutive years. No other sports section has been so honored. SportsDay has also been recognized 16 times for producing one of the nation's top 10 special sections.

Smith first showed his keen eye for Texas talent when columnist Skip Bayless left SportsDay in 1982 for what he deemed greener pastures at the rival Dallas Times Herald. Smith approached Rangers beat writer Randy Galloway and asked him to give up baseball for a column.

Galloway declined.

Not accustomed to having his requests denied, Smith ordered Galloway to take the column.

"I had reached a comfort level as a baseball writer," said Galloway, now a columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Dave wanted to push me out of my comfort level. I knew six months after starting the column that Dave was right."

Smith cared little for the comfort levels of individuals. His sports section was paramount. He put it before everything else in his life. He expected writers and editors to do the same.

Smith says his first decade at The News was his favorite time in journalism. That's when The News and Times Herald battled daily for scoops and circulation.

Smith waged his newspaper war with a red grease pencil. Smith meticulously marked up both papers every morning. It wasn't a good day when he found something in The Times Herald that wasn't in The News.

Huy Nguyen / DMN
Dave Smith, who turns 65 in April, is retiring after 46 years in newspapers.

The most frightening two words in the English language at SportsDay were "See Me" scribbled in red pencil next to a writer's byline. The words could make men and women quiver.

"I admit I was demanding beyond reality in those days," Smith said. "I probably pushed people so hard because I pushed myself so hard. The paper was my life. But I'd like to think some people would say my pushing helped them get better."

His saving grace is that he was as quick to forget as he was to anger.

He relishes telling stories of writers and editors who have left for what they believed were better jobs only to call asking if they might return. More often than not, Smith has welcomed them back.

Toward the end of The Morning News-Times Herald battle, in 1988, Smith's only son, Lee, who was contemplating devoting his life to the Catholic Church, committed suicide.

That forced Smith to reflect on a life he says he devoted to his work.

"I never saw my family," he said.

Smith mellowed considerably after his son's death. He took more time away from the office. He delegated more.

He started picking up other titles as well. He is a vice president at The News. He may be the only executive sports editor of a major newspaper whose name appears on the editorial page masthead. He is also sports director of Belo's Publishing and Interactive Division.

He is retiring, he says, to spend more time with Studie, their two daughters, their sons-in-law and their eight grandchildren.

"I want to know my grandchildren better," he said. "I want to spend more quality time with them than I did with my kids. I missed a lot."

Will he miss the grind of daily newspaper work?

"No, it's time to turn sports over to other people," he said. "The time has come now that I can no longer even find a trace of being a son-of-a-bitch."

• • •

You can reach Barry Horn via e-mail at bhorn@dallasnews.com

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News