By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (April 7, 2016) —Some of the best and brightest journalists make a living far from the major media markets. They shine where the lights aren’t quite as bright as on Broadway.
Ron Higgins fits the above descriptions.
His prosperous career hasn’t garnered the same attention as some of the most famous sports scribes based in New York or Boston or Chicago or Los Angeles, but Higgins has carved out an impressive niche, including coverage of more than 50 college bowl games, and a standard of excellence that has made him an enduring voice of sports history and contemporary sports in the South and across the United States. He is an SEC expert. He has amassed a collection of awards that rivals anyone’s in the business —150 national and regional journalism awards, including 70 first-place awards.
Higgins, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, graduated from Louisiana State University (LSU) in 1979. His career has taken him from the Baton Rouge Advocate to The Shreveport Times to the Mobile Press-Register to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, where he worked for 28 years before joining the The Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper, in September 2013.
“He’s a wonderful storyteller with tremendous insight and perspective,” Tim Brando told the New Orleans paper at the time.
In a recent email interview, Higgins offered insights on memorable moments in his career, his commitment to his craft, mentors, favorite assignments and much more.
How would you define your job as a sports columnist in 2016? And what are the biggest changes and challenges you’ve faced on the job in the past 15-20 years?
I don’t think I’ve changed my approach to writing columns, in the sense I never want to get stuck in a rut. I don’t want to be a columnist that continually criticizes, or a columnist that continually tries to use humor, or a columnist that continually looks for heart-tugging angles. I try hard to be like a baseball pitcher who mixes his pitches. I might write something one day that makes you angry, then something that makes you laugh the next day, then something that makes you cry and then something that makes you think. Ideally, that’s what I shoot for, but sometimes the news of the day might take me in a different direction.
The biggest change is because of social media breaking stories, I have to react a lot quicker as columnist. Sometimes, my reaction is not a full-blown 1,000-word column, but rather a 300 or 400-word min-column that I get online quicker.
Looking back on a piece you wrote for the SEC Digital Network a few years back (SEC 40/40: Chancellor Went from Cotton Picker to Hall of Famer), it’s clear that you have a deep knowledge of the history of the Southeastern Conference and a rapport with key figures in the league’s history. When you set out to capture what makes a fellow like Van Chancellor tick, decades after he first made a name for himself, is there a really different approach you to take to article and interview preparation than, say a column on LSU freshman Ben Simmons this college basketball season?
When you write something on somebody you’ve known for 20 or more years, you have all this perspective rolling around in your head. Because of that, it’s easier for me to frame the subject in his current state of mind. I know where he’s been, where he came from, what he’s done and what’s important to him. I don’t have to research him as heavily as a fresh subject like Ben Simmons.
What was the biggest reward – if that’s the right word – of having had the chance to be president of the Football Writers Association of America? What did you most enjoy about that experience? Under your leadership, what accomplishment(s) and goals were key objectives fulfilled in that time?
In my one-year term (2008), I wanted to bridge the ever-widening communication gap between paranoid head coaches and overeager media who want to Tweet about anything that moves. I wanted to understand what the media looks like from the coaching perspective and educate the coaches about what we do on a daily basis. I had a 45-minute meeting alone with all the SEC football coaches, and it was quite educational for both sides. They want to control the message that goes to the public and we believe we should be allowed more daily access to get to know the players and coaches better. Even though the coaches haven’t budged on access, I think it opened up more civil lines of communication.
Comparing and contrasting the different sporting traditions and success stories in Louisiana and Tennessee, especially LSU and the University of Tennessee, what are a few differences that stand out for you, someone who has observed and chronicled the history of sports in both states?
Both schools are rich in tradition, but it’s much harder to build winning programs (especially football) and maintain that winning in Tennessee. Tennessee high school football doesn’t close to producing the amount of high school recruits that Louisiana does. Almost annually, Louisiana has more players in the NFL per capita than any state in America.
In a Swampland Sports interview, I’ve read that Dan Jenkins, David Halberstam and Rick Reilly are writers that have inspired you. Who are some other journalists over the years whose talent, work ethic, sustained excellence, imagination, interviewing skills, empathy, dogged determination to get the scoop among other qualities have impressed you, inspired you and fired you up to do your job?
I enjoy free-lancer Dave Kindred, once a brilliant columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Chuck Culpepper, who writes for the Washington Post and (in recent years) traveled the world for sportsonearth.com, has a great knack for finding unique angles. Columnist David Jones of pennlive.com writes thoughtful stuff with beautiful texture almost daily. In his prime when he was a columnist in Dallas, Skip Bayless was as good as it gets. And the late Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote stuff so good it was just ridiculous, like his column on losing sight in one eye because he had cancer.
Away from sports, are there a handful of other writers whose articles, books, blog entries, whatever medium they write in or for, you regularly return to for enjoyment?
I’m pretty much a one-trick pony, though I do like author John Grisham.
With the massive TV deals in place and the national success of SEC football programs in recent years, do you view the conference as sort of a Triple-A for the NFL?
Even before the TV deals, the SEC attracted enough homegrown southern blue-chippers to stockpile its rosters with future NFL talent. But as the league signed TV deals with CBS and ESPN, eventually getting ESPN to create the SEC Network two years ago, SEC coaches now have the ability to recruit coast-to-coast easier. They don’t have to explain how great it is to play on a Saturday night in Tiger Stadium. Recruits can see it, all the way from Key West, Florida, to Anchorage, Alaska, to Honolulu.
Throughout the years, what are five assignments that you’ll always consider among the best of the best — the most memorable? Do you have an all-time favorite? If so, why?
I’ve covered three Summer Olympics (see below). The NBA playoffs is another, because of the game-to-game, possession-to-possession battle is extraordinary. College basketball’s Final Four, especially the Saturday semifinals, provides genuine electricity that you get at no other event. Most of the national championship football games I’ve covered have almost that same feel.
But my favorite assignment ever was covering a world heavyweight championship fight between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson in Memphis where I worked for the Commercial Appeal. I was assigned to Lewis and went to his training camp for a week in the Poconos. The night of the fight in Memphis was so emotionally charged.
Similarly, are there five games or events that you’d find impossible to leave off any list you’d make of your favorite live assignments?
Final Four, The Masters (which I’ve never covered), the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl and a world championship boxing bout in Las Vegas.
Has Peter Finney inspired you in a profound way since you returned to Louisiana in 2013 to become a Times-Picayune columnist, knowing all about his decades on the job there and his overall body of work as a New Orleans-based columnist?
He inspired me for years, because he was able to deliver columns that reflected the joy or disgust of the Saints or LSU sports fans in such a relevant manner without ever being seen as a homer. Pete was fair. Even when he was critical, he was very fair.
Do you have a favorite Peter Finney story that helps to capture the essence of his legendary career (it includes 15,000 articles), his personality and the way he did his job as a columnist?
I don’t have any particular Pete Finney story. He has always been a classy, funny man with a beautiful writing touch.
From readers, what are two or three of the best compliments you’ve received about your work over the years? How about from editors and journalism colleagues?
The best compliment I’ve gotten has happened several times when I’ve done an extensive profile piece on someone, and that subject says to me after reading it, “That’s the best story I’ve ever seen anyone write about me.” To know you nailed a story so perfect that even the subject holds it such high regard is very humbling. The best compliment you can get from an editor is, “You wrote it so well that I barely had to edit it.”
Can you think of a vivid example of when, in a column, article or series of reports, you took a stand, raising awareness about a problem or troubling issue and that led, eventually, to positive changes being made?
I did a series of stories back in the 1980s about the lack of African-American coaching hires in the SEC. Maybe it was coincidence, but shortly thereafter the league started hiring black men’s head basketball coaches. It eventually spread to other sports, but it has taken awhile.
Despite his success at the University of San Francisco and with the Boston Celtics after moving to California in his schoolboy days, do you sense that the older generation (and others from the state) beams with pride that Russell hails from Monroe, Louisiana?
I’m sad to say that very few Louisiana natives know that Bill Russell is from Monroe. Maybe the feeling would have different had he played high school and college basketball in Louisiana.
Reflecting on the more than 150 regional and national journalism awards that you’ve been honored with over the years, what does this remarkable recognition mean to you? Does it fire you up? Validate the work you’ve done?
I’m a very competitive person, so I like to win. I realize that judging contests is very subjective, because I annually am asked to judge. But I’m so competitive if I get a second place certificate, I’ll either place it in a file folder and stick it at the bottom of a drawer, or I’ll throw it away immediately. I don’t think awards validate my work. My work is validated by readers that expect a high level of consistency.
Tell me about a few of these awards…What made them special to you and the articles that cemented those awards? (For instance, there are those who will say that sports provides an ideal opportunity to examine society through the prism of something we can all relate to. And, in 2013, the Tennessee Sports Writers Association honored you for your feature on Penny Hardaway, former NBA and Memphis star, citing his growing community involvement. That said, because of Hardaway’s well-known status in the community, was this project an ideal way to look at how local icons can use their fame and fortune to make a difference and improve society?)
I cherish the nine Tennessee Sportswriter of the Year awards I won because each of those awards required an entry of three stories, a mixture of columns, features, news, event stories, investigative stories. To win that award, you had to have consistently extraordinary stories each year, and you had to carefully select the ones that best reflected your writing that particularly year.
One of my favorite awards was a first place in the national Associated Press Sports Editors contest for a column I wrote about a senior football player suffering a college-career ending injury. It happened in a game at the end of a first quarter. I actually left the stadium, went to the hospital and sat with his parents and the player in the emergency room to see their raw emotions, then got back to the game in the third quarter.
Another award-winning story I wrote involved a minor league manager getting thrown out of a game. I went down to his office and listened to the rest of the game with him on the radio. We talked about the team. I wrote what he said, interspersing it with play-by-play off-the-radio.
The Hardaway story was easy to write. We had forged a trusted relationship since his days at the University of Memphis. He wouldn’t open up to just anybody. It was a good story, because it showed the roots of compassion given him by his grandmother long before he became a multi-millionaire.
Which three Olympics did you report on? What do you recall most vividly about each of three experiences? And was there a once-in-a-lifetime story angle or sight you stumbled upon that truly made it (or on three occasions) a unique experience?
I covered Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta.
In Seoul, I covered baseball, and the USA vs. Cuba baseball matchups were always fascinating. That’s when the USA team was still college kids and the Cubans were professionals. The Cubans had a skinny chain-smoking manager who always took one last long puff before stamping out his cigarette in the dugout when he was about to walk to the mound to change pitchers.
In Barcelona, I remember waiting after a basketball game to interview Australian center Luc Longley. He had gone to random drug testing and was dehydrated, so he had to replenish his fluids to produce a urine sample. Finally, almost two hours after the game, he comes and out and explains what happened to him. Then he says to me, “Mate, you may have to clean up what I say. I drank two six-packs of beer to put fluids back in me and I’m drunk.”
In Atlanta, I was in the press work center next to Centennial Park when the bomb exploded. It looked like a war zone. I tried to talk to as many people as possible and got back into the press center before police shut every thing down.
Is there a distinct approach and sports writing style for a journalist from, say, Louisiana or Mississippi that is noticeably different than one from Boston or New York?
I think Southern journalists are a bit more gentle in criticism than East Coast journalists, but it’s also a reflection of the different cultures.
Similarly, Mel Allen, Red Barber and Ernie Harwell are among the Southern-raised baseball announcers who gain widespread fame and respect for their storytelling skills. Did men like these three, who told the stories of sports heroes for decades — have a big influence on how approached your written storytelling?
They probably did in some way. My approach to writing is like I’m sitting in bar and telling you the story. Very conversational. Always an opinion. Always humor. But always easy to follow.
What are the first five adjectives (or words) that come to mind to describe Pistol Pete Maravich as a basketball player?
Innovative, imaginative, self-made, showstopping, scoring machine.
If your father, Carl “Ace” Higgins, didn’t work as the sports information director at LSU, do you think your career path definitely would’ve been different?
That’s a good question. Probably so, because I’ve got his writing genes. By hanging around him, I was placed in situations not only to learn to love sports, but to learn how to write. By the time, I got to college I had so much experience writing for the Baton Rouge newspaper as a free-lancer that I decided to major in broadcast journalism.
What impression did former LSU hoop mentor Dale Brown make on you? Pistol Pete? Eddie Robinson? Ron Guidry?
On Dale: Every day is as sunny and optimistic as you want to make it.
On Pistol Pete: Great things happen when you accept God in your life.
On Eddie Robinson: Nobody is ever going to hand you anything. It must be earned.
On Ron Guidry: His fast is faster than your fast.
How did Chris Jackson’s freshman season at LSU in 1988-89 stack up with other great single-season performances in college basketball? Does it make your top 10 list?
It’s definitely in the top 10. If you watch old tape of Chris Jackson (who changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), it’s like watching Steph Curry 25 years old. Jackson had this stepback three-point jumper in which he dribbled the ball between his legs left hand to his right (shooting) hand while stepping back and shooting in almost the same motion. It was so quick and smooth that it was unblockable.
What do you like most about your job in 2016 with all of the challenges that are a part of the Internet/24-7 news cycle and social media age? And what do you like least about it?
I like the immediate feedback good and bad from the public about something I react and write about. What I like least is there’s too much shoddy incomplete reporting in the race to get the information online. There’s the attitude that if it’s not entirely accurate, you can correct and update as you get new information and nobody remembers that you didn’t have the story completely correct originally.
Recommended reading from last year:
Ron Higgins’ article archive: http://connect.nola.com/staff/Ronhigg/posts.html
Follow him on Twitter: @RonHigg