Note: This story originally ran in 2015.
George Solomon, who ran the Washington Post sports section from 1975 until 2003, coveted writers who were young, hungry, and single. They’d travel everywhere, and all of them will tell you that Solomon had a willful disregard for geography. He cajoled sportswriters who were already out on the road into covering something else that was interesting, but rarely logistically convenient. In a voice you can easily imagine, Michael Wilbon echoed many of his former Post colleagues when he half-joked that “George was a typical East Coaster who thought the New York-DC corridor was the center of the country and everything else on the map was an inch.”
“George was aggressively unable to conjure the actual map of the United States,” agrees New Yorker editor and two-year Post sports alumnus David Remnick. “You might be in Dallas for a football game and he would call and say something like, ‘While you’re out there’ — it was always ‘out there’ — ‘while you’re out there, why don’t you go to Vancouver and do the Caps-Canucks game.’ Never mind that Dallas-Vancouver was a billion miles difference and two connecting flights. You were, after all, ‘out there.’ And since we were, nearly all of us, young, unattached, and hungry, we did it. And it was a hell of a lot of fun.”
“I probably abused the airline system more than I should have,” says Solomon. He doesn’t sound that sorry. “But, you put someone out on the West Coast, and my geography knowledge probably wasn’t as good as it could be. If you’re in Seattle and that’s north of Los Angeles, why not go down there while you’re in the neighborhood?”
Though there were some exceptions with regard to age and marital status, Solomon’s young/hungry/single formula yielded a formidable daily sports section. Many prominent careers in media — sports or otherwise — were cultivated there with a group of writers whose collective diversity and multi-platform versatility far exceeded societal and industry norms of the era. Under Solomon, the hours and the pressure were profound, but if you could make it there, you’d make it anywhere.
Solomon arrived as a Redskins* reporter at the Post in 1972. He was hired away from the now-defunct Washington Daily News by Don Graham. The Washington Post had been in Graham’s family since its rescue by his maternal grandfather, Eugene Meyer, who, through a lawyer, paid $825,000 in a 1933 public auction. A few years earlier, following a voluntary stint in Vietnam, Graham had spent about 18 months as a Washington Metropolitan Police Department patrolman to better learn the city. Running the sports section was his last step before joining aggregate management in 1976. He ultimately succeeded his mother, Katharine Graham — who, along with regal executive editor Ben Bradlee, had presided over the paper’s legendary Nixon investigations — as publisher in 1979.
“Ben sent me to the sports section for a year with one mission,” says Graham. “To find a permanent successor. I picked George as my deputy to see how that would work out, and I quickly realized that he had more ideas for sports stories than the rest of the staff put together. We would sit down a couple times a week and you’d fill a page of a yellow pad. George not only had very good ideas for stories, but also knew who could particularly execute them. Ben loved sports. He’d always wanted someone like George to run his sports section, had never had it before him, and the two remained close until Ben’s death last year.”
Graham, Bradlee, Bradlee’s successor as executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., and managing editor Howard Simons — as well as many other higher-ups throughout the years — were all big sports fans. (Downie, for example, was once threatened with ejection from a Bullets game by
Hall of Fame ref Mendy Rudolph referee Richie Powers after yelling about calls.) This fervent interest amongst the paper’s revered leadership, who wanted to know as much about what was happening with their teams as anyone, ensured that Solomon’s pages would not be derided as the toy department as sports sections often were at outlets of comparable journalistic heft. Instead, Solomon had a mandate, and, at a time of soaring circulation and advertising revenue at the Post, a seemingly blank checkbook to empower reporters to envelop sports locally, nationally, and around the world.
Michael Wilbon was sent to Los Angeles with Dave Sheinin by Solomon in the wake of the 1992 riots. The pair found themselves in Jim Brown’s home, where the legendary running back was attempting to broker a truce between rival gangs. “I love games, but I didn’t give a shit about what games I was gonna miss if I was gonna go to Los Angeles and be in Jim Brown’s house when the Crips and Bloods were there laying down arms,” says Wilbon. “That’s the influence of not just George, but Don Graham, Ben Bradlee, Len Downie, Howard Simons, Milton Coleman, and Bob Kaiser. These were award-winning news people. We knew we were not the toy department.”
In June of 1986, Maryland senior Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose shortly after being drafted by the Boston Celtics. The fallout of investigative stories on academics — and many of the other unsavory things we’ve grown well-accustomed to behind the guise of amateur athletics — led to the departure of the popular and successful head basketball coach Lefty Driesell.
The onslaught only continued. “This was not a 3-4-5 week deal — we were consumed by the Bias story for at least a year, and even beyond that,” says Leonard Shapiro, who was at the Post sports section from 1969 through 2010. In a range of editorial titles from 1979 until 1991, when he returned to writing, Shapiro was Solomon’s deputy in the trenches, managing the daily churn.
While they caught a lot outside the lines, they’re aware that they didn’t get everything right. “I have one main regret,” Shapiro wrote in 2013, a few years after retiring. “[N]ot focusing more of my reporting and writing on the absolute brutality of the sport, particularly the painful post-football lives of so many players. Instead, like many other sports journalists, I spent much of my career writing positive pieces about the league and its players — puffy features and breathless accounts of thrilling victories and agonizing defeats. I certainly covered my share of serious NFL warts: mounting injuries; the use of steroids and amphetamines; team doctors prescribing far too many painkilling pills and injections; the derogatory Redskins name; and, for many years, the dearth of African American quarterbacks, head coaches and front-office personnel. But until the past decade or so, most of us glossed over the brutality of the sport. Shame on us.”
The section’s mission of transcending sports was also partly derived from the ageless Shirley Povich, who had joined the paper in 1922 after fortuitously serving as golf caddy for then-publisher Edward (Ned) McLean. (McLean’s profligacies, embroilment in Warren Harding’s Teapot Dome scandal, and eventual mental breakdown led to Eugene Meyer’s 1933 purchase of the distressed asset.) Povich had been at the Redskins game at Griffith Stadium on a Sunday in 1941 while a number of key government figures were paged on the loudspeaker. As Povich learned immediately in the press box — on orders from Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, the rest of the crowd would not find out until after the game — the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. In 1960, Povich was vocal in pushing Marshall and the Redskins to integrate.
“I have been blessed in my career to have typed alongside Shirley Povich and Red Smith, the greatest newspaper writers of them all,” wrote Tony Kornheiser in All Those Mornings, a collection of Povich’s columns. “I worked with Red at the New York Times, and with Shirley at the Post. They were sophisticated thinkers and graceful writers. They were gentlemen and scholars, witty and urbane, impeccably dressed and unfailingly polite. When they took you apart in print they did it so skillfully, you never felt the blade, you just watched your blood run down the page.”
Though he nominally retired in 1974, Povich — who is the namesake for the Washington Nationals press box, as well as the sports journalism program at the University of Maryland where George Solomon is now director — was a steady presence in the newsroom. Everybody who was there has stories about how he unpretentiously “oozed wisdom” and class as a mentor. At Solomon’s request, Povich continued to write columns literally until the day before he died in 1998, when he opined in the midst of the not-yet-retroactively-spoiled home run race that any comparisons of Mark McGwire to Babe Ruth were at best premature.
Thomas Boswell, who has been a mainstay in the Post sports section since 1969, is said by Don Graham to be “the Povich of our time.” Though he’s written about everything, his forte has been baseball, for which he’s been the paper’s prime authority since 1975.
“For me, Boswell’s sort of the memory and the conscience of the section, and also the adult in the room,” says Dan Steinberg, who started freelancing for the Post in 2001, caught on full-time in 2005 (shortly after Solomon left), and started the DC Sports Bog in 2006. “Maybe that sounds silly, but when he weighs in on a topic, it’s like the teacher telling you the correct answer. And when he makes a D.C. historical comparison, a little empty spot in your brain gets filled up with a treat you didn’t even know existed. Plus he comes by it all so honestly – he’s from here, he cares about the area and its teams, he stuck by the paper and the section through everything, and he works just as hard and acts just as humble as an entry-level reporter. It makes it impossible to imagine a Washington Post Sports section that doesn’t include Thomas Boswell.”
Along with Boswell and Leonard Shapiro, Mark Asher (who passed away at the age of 60 in 2006), Ken Denlinger (an investigative reporter and columnist), and William Gildea also overlapped with Solomon’s entire tenure, as did Angus Phillips, who covered the outdoors for the paper for 35 years.
[Update: Ken Denlinger passed away on October 3rd, at the age of 73. Len Shapiro wrote Denlinger’s obituary in the Washington Post, which included this illustrative passage about the reporter’s backbone in the face of power:
Thomas Boswell tweeted that Denlinger was the “nicest person ever to be an excellent sportswriter.” Longtime Dallas Morning News writer Rick Gosselin added that he was “One of the most accomplished, most respected & nicest sports writers … in an industry where competition rules.”]
Michael Wilbon, John Feinstein, Rachel Nichols, David Aldridge, J.A. Adande, and Mark Maske were all summer interns under Solomon. Whereas internships in journalism and elsewhere traditionally comprise mostly menial tasks like making copies or fetching coffee, this was not the case here. “[Writers] were thrown into the fray, and it was sink or swim,” says Leonard Shapiro. “Many of them not only swam, they swam like Michael Phelps. They produced.”
Now an NBA reporter for TNT, Aldridge recalls being on the job less than a week in 1987 when George Solomon casually dropped an Oh by the way you’re gonna go cover the Orioles tonight. At 22 years old, Aldridge wound up as the team’s de facto beat writer for the rest of their home games that season. “You had to do it,” he says. “They wanted to see if we could swim in the deep end.” Aldridge caught on full-time after the internship (prior to that, while still in school at American University, he’d covered high school sports as a stringer, which is what they called freelancers — he was introduced to that job by Steven Goff, who remains at the Post as a prolific soccer writer). When the opportunity came about, he had no choice but to turn down the NFL, who’d wanted him for a PR job in the NFL office. The league flak who offered it to him at the time? Roger Goodell.
Wilbon interned after his junior year at Northwestern. When he returned to school, Solomon made liberal use of him as a stringer. In addition to Chicago sports, Wilbon was dispatched all over the Midwest “neighborhood” to places like Bloomington, Indiana. This was all on top of his regular student workload, but what choice did he have?
In 1994, when she, like Wilbon 15 years prior, was still a student at Northwestern, Rachel Nichols (née Alexander) was tasked by Solomon with landing an Andre Agassi interview at the nearby Legg Mason Tennis Classic. Here’s where a game of telephone commences. After 20 years of various re-tellings, there’s an urban legend that Tony Kornheiser, independently of any knowledge of Nichols’ assignment, pitched an Agassi column, to which she has been said to have asserted, “No, I’ve got Agassi.” (This is how Solomon tells the story now.)
Though it’s more fun to imagine her sounding like the real estate agent who territorially told Marge Simpson to “stay off the West Side,” Nichols (now a reporter for Turner) assures me it wasn’t quite like that.
“Trust me, if Tony had wanted to do the story, he would have done the story,” she says. “I was not, at age 19, telling Tony Kornheiser what to do. But the background is that I had been out working at the tournament all week, and I had spent days trying to set up an Andre Agassi 1-on-1 interview. George told me that I better get it, and I did not want to disappoint him. Then the day it was finally going to happen, Tony also came out to the tournament to write a column. He asked me what I was going to write about, and I told him. I certainly never said that I was going to write about Andre Agassi *instead* of him! But I think Tony loved that I saw room for both of us to do it, instead of me just saying ‘whatever you tell me to do.’ And hey, he’s Mr. Tony. He can tell that story however he wants to.”
In any telling of the story, Kornheiser, who was the star of the section by this time, is said to have admired Nichols’ moxie. “She could mix it up with George and she could mix it up with Tony,” says Jeanne McManus, who for most of the 1990’s had the editorial role previously occupied by Len Shapiro. “There were certain personalities that could not just tolerate [the daily ribbing and abrasion in the newsroom], but thrived under it.”
John Feinstein (who declined to comment for this story) was an obsessive reporter, especially about college basketball, where he never got scooped on his beats. “Part of Feinstein’s outward persona was that he was cocky and obstreperous,” says one former Post sportswriter. “Nobody pretended that Feinstein was the most fantastic writer in the world in the literary sense. But, he was a really good reporter. Dogged. Relentless.”
In 1985, Feinstein took a leave of absence from the Post. He’d received a $17,500 book advance to write about Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers. Sales of Season on the Brink exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations in 1986, and ultimately eclipsed two million copies, becoming one of the bestselling sports books of all-time. Based on the sales, as well as the myriad other writing opportunities that opened up for him in books and with SI and The National, Feinstein (who returned to the Post as a contributor in 1992, and has been there since) became an enormous financial success — far beyond his contemporaries, and even leapfrogging those that were senior to him in the section’s hierarchy.
So many young writers worked under Solomon that it’s impossible to name them all. There was Gary Pomerantz, now a journalism professor at Stanford, as well as Ric Bucher, Jason La Canfora, and Richard Justice. In the mid-80’s, John Ed Bradley, a former all-SEC center at LSU who went on to write novels and contribute to Sports Illustrated, was also a staff writer in the section.
[Update: There’s even more. We missed these names the first time around: Len Hochberg, Johnette Howard, Amy Shipley, Jim Brady, Marc Stein (as an intern), longtime copy desk chief Tony Reid, ESPN senior writer Tom Friend, and Lissa Muscatine (a former senior adviser and speechwriter for Hillary Clinton’s state department).]
David Remnick, who’s been editor of the New Yorker since 1998, did two internships in the Post’s Style section, and was working the night police beat. “I was hanging on by fingernails,” he says, noting that they asked him if he knew anything about sports. “And obviously, I wasn’t that stupid, so I said of course I do.” There was an understanding between Solomon and Remnick that this was a temporary arrangement. “It was pretty clear to George and it was pretty clear to me that I was not going to be a long-term sportswriter,” Remnick says. “I wasn’t a snob about it. I didn’t dislike it. But, it wasn’t my heart’s desire. George basically made a deal with me. ‘Look. Just do two years. Do everything I tell you to do. Cover whatever.’”
And so for a couple years before writing for the Style section, The Washington Post Magazine, and ultimately getting dispatched to Moscow by the Post in late 1988, Remnick likened his role in the sports section to a “utility infielder” — he covered the USFL’s Washington Federals, the Bullets, and some boxing and football. “And I was happy as a clam,” he says. “I learned how to write fast and accurately, which is not easy. I felt like I was in this type of club of very funny and very talented — though sometimes combative — friends.”
Christine Brennan found her way to the Post in 1984 after spending several years at the Miami Herald. She was the Hurricanes beat writer for that year’s Orange Bowl between no. 1 Nebraska and the hometown no. 5 Miami. The Hurricanes pulled off the upset, and, through convoluted polling results that Brennan had forecasted, became national champions. Also covering the game that week was her former Northwestern classmate, Michael Wilbon. Unbeknownst to Brennan, she says that Wilbon had gathered her front page reporting clips, brought them back to Washington, and laid them out for Solomon. By the end of the year, Brennan was at the Post, and soon thereafter became the first woman on the Redskins beat.
Sally Jenkins joined the Post sports section as a 24-year-old in 1984 from the San Francisco Chronicle, where she was covering the Pac-10 on the nightshift desk. She started reporting on Navy and Virginia football and basketball, and was lucky enough to overlap with Napoleon McCallum and David Robinson at Navy, and quarterback Don Majkowski at Virginia. Prior to leaving for Sports Illustrated in 1990, she’d eventually worked her way up to the University of Maryland/general ACC beat.
In the hiring process, Solomon sat Jenkins down for an audition and asked her to write a column — something along the lines of whether there should be a college football playoff (remember that Miami had just won the national championship after entering their bowl game as the no. 5 ranked team) — on the spot. And he stood there, staring over her shoulder. “It was basically trial by fire,” she says. “He had to make sure that I could write something decent on deadline, and he made me do it right in front of him. I was so terrified that I almost just left.”
Jenkins, who has since returned to the Post, recalls a time that she and Wilbon went back through the archives and counted their bylines for the past year. Wilbon had slightly more. Jenkins says they were both up near 400, Wilbon remembers it closer to 350. Either way, it was a lot. “George worked us all to death,” says Jenkins. “We loved him, and he made it such an adventure that I know why we didn’t want to kill him, but we didn’t. Well, sometimes we did. But mainly we loved him.”
Jenkins — as well as many of the others I spoke to — talks about Solomon the way the old Packers do about Vince Lombardi, which is to say reverentially, but with the tacit awareness that they were pupils in some grand psychological experiment. “We got better because George demanded it,” says Jenkins. “He’d call you into his office and say, ‘You know you really haven’t delivered a big piece in awhile. You’re not doing a bad job, but you really haven’t hit one out of the park.’”
In the mid-80’s, you’d look around a newsroom that included young writers like Michael Wilbon, Christine Brennan, Sally Jenkins, David Remnick, Norman Chad, John Ed Bradley, Gary Pomerantz, and John Feinstein, not to mention established ones like Shirley Povich, Thomas Boswell, Tony Kornheiser, Dave Kindred, and Ken Denlinger. That type of critical meeting with Solomon would cause anxiety and dread — though the atmosphere was collegial and supportive, there was awareness especially among the younger ones of a tacit competition for status and real estate — and writers would run through a wall to rectify the reason for the meeting.
Solomon had some idiosyncrasies. He sometimes chewed on the back of his wrist. He would say “good … good” or “terrific” so often that John Feinstein, who did impressions of the editor in addition to coaches like Dean Smith and Lefty Driesell, walked around imitating it. And, while it did not happen often, Solomon fucking hated getting scooped. “He wanted every story every day,” says David Aldridge. “I covered the Bullets for five years, and in that time I think I got beat twice — and I remember that because at those times George literally wouldn’t speak to me because he was so angry. He expected you to break every story, and you basically did.”
Though there’s a premium on being first in publishing today, if you get scooped on something you were working on you can at least hope to advance the story soon thereafter. Newspapers didn’t have this luxury, and if your competitors beat you they had what amounted to a 24-hour head start.
“My competitor on the Maryland beat was the Baltimore Sun, and you didn’t want to get beat on a news story by them or USA Today,” says Sally Jenkins. “He’d be in a really foul mood for the whole day. We would fight with him but we were a little scared of him, because when he got pissed it was not fun. He was a yeller and a door slammer. You’re 24-25, trying to hold your own on the beat, and he made you feel it. He taught you competitiveness, responsibility, and maturity for your beat. It wasn’t just about being a pretty writer. You really didn’t want to get beat in that office. We were all very insecure working for him. You had to have a lot of confidence to stand up to it, but there was a lot of anxiety. I remember having a dream one night that he called me in and said, ‘You know, your work is just not up to par. We’re really sorry, we’re gonna have to let you go.’”
But, at their most vulnerable, Solomon would toss them a lifeline. “He was also the kind of boss who knew when you were sort of at a breaking point,” says Jenkins. “He’d take you out and buy you a hot lunch. Or, one day I remember him coming to my desk and being like ‘Take off, go look at the cherry blossoms, there’s nothing to do now why don’t you get out of here?’”
Though it’s undeniable based on the alumni (and we’re not yet done identifying them) that Solomon had an unbelievable ability in finding and developing talent, he did not have a perfect record. ESPN World Series of Poker broadcaster and syndicated columnist Norman Chad, who left the Post to write what became an acclaimed media column in Frank Deford’s ambitious-but-short-lived National Sports Daily, found himself stuck on the low end of the totem pole.
Chad joined the Post sports section as a part-timer on the copy desk in 1976 when he was a freshman at the University of Maryland. After graduation, he stayed part-time at the newspaper for a few years while pursuing a career as a stand-up comic. Married and having to pay the bills, Chad gave that up and joined Solomon’s staff full-time on the copy desk in 1984, working four days a week on copy-editing, layout, and make-up, which had low upside. Because he was the last line of defense against printed catastrophe (i.e. fact-checking or grammatical errors), and it was on deadline, there was a lot of pressure. The hours were late (and on weekends), and the pay was paltry.
Layout was what it sounds like — determining what stories go where — while make-up editors were down on the composing floor working with the printer operators (who apparently weren’t always the easiest people to deal with). For part of the time Chad was there, this was still the era of hot type, and last-minute changes required one to learn how to read backwards. To be sure, this work was all necessary, and someone had to do it, but it was far from the ideal vocation for an aspiring writer. “It was a very depressing atmosphere for me,” says Chad, who analogized the responsibility to being a referee where people only notice your work when you mess up. “It was just weighing on me and I told George that it wasn’t good for my home life, and that’s when he gave me a little speech about how We’re all part of a family. Everybody in the family does something different, and right now you’re the guy taking out the trash.”
This was meant to be funny — Solomon had an acute sense of humor and was described to me by some writers as akin to a TV sitcom Dad whose kids made fun of him, but was in on the joke — but suffice to say Norman Chad did not find it amusing back then. This was the work he was doing 80% of the time; one day a week, he wrote a column about sports television — targets included Dick Vitale and Jimmy the Greek — but felt like he was “in a harness.”
“The style that I wanted to write, George and his editors didn’t want to allow,” Chad says. “That was the style I adopted at The National. I didn’t want to do the traditional sports TV column where you preview a big event like the Daytona 500 or Wimbledon, and interview the broadcasters or producers, and then critique it afterwards. I found that model to be fairly stupid, and I thought it should be more of an entertainment column. It should have more humor, and you should write it as if you’re at home watching games on TV.”
“George didn’t really want that,” Chad continues. “I remember he used to call me in sometimes and he’d say, ‘Nobody cares about your family. Take this out.’ And I’d be like, ‘But that’s how I watch TV.’ They’d take out that stuff all the time, and when I left I got to write it the way I wanted.”
For his part, Solomon acknowledges that, amongst all his hits, this was a missed opportunity. “One reason he succeeded elsewhere but not at the Post was that I had him at such a young age that I probably didn’t appreciate him enough,” Solomon says. “I’d had him forever. He worked the desk for me, he did layout, he did everything. His Sports Waves column was great, and I under-appreciated him.”
Though many of the writers were developed in-house, Solomon also brought some over from other outlets. Tom Callahan, who wrote for Time and Newsweek, did a Sunday column for a time. Andrew Beyer, one of — if not the — foremost horse racing columnists of the last half-century (and the creator of the Beyer Speed Figure) worked with Solomon over at the Washington Daily News. He joined the Post in 1978 and has been there ever since. Don Graham attended Harvard at the same time as Beyer, and relayed to me how the writer skipped a final exam to see Kauai King race for the Triple Crown. “I knew nothing about the Canterbury Tales but I did know something about Amberoid in the Belmont Stakes,” Beyer wrote in his book, Picking Winners. “So I went to the track. Although I blew a $12,000 education, I did collect a $13 payoff on Amberoid, cutting my losses for the day to $11,987.”
Dave Kindred came aboard as a columnist from the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1977, and stayed until 1984, when he was lured away by the larger-than-life Van McKenzie at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This was a “go anywhere, write anything” arrangement — for double the pay — and Kindred’s wife was not fond of living in Washington D.C. Whereas many of the Post alumni who eventually made it big on television had outsized personalities even when they were very young, Kindred was more even-keeled temperamentally. “Kindred was more old-fashioned in an admirable way,” says David Remnick. “There was a certain modesty and sereneness to him.”
Kindred has also remained a pure writer. This past February, Ed Sherman profiled Kindred, who’s written over 150,000 words since 2010 about a girls high school basketball team in Central Illinois. “I like that the games are 1 hour, 15 minutes,” Kindred said in the piece. “There’s no Katy Perry at halftime, no commercials. That’s all I’ve wanted from every sporting event I’ve ever covered. The girls just give you the game.”
Kindred, who wrote the 2010 book Morning Miracle about the Post’s fight to adjust online (he left the sports section out of the book to avoid a conflict of interest), praises Solomon’s eye for talent, but notes that there were other factors at play. “The Washington Post was the destination at the time,” he says. “It required no great recruiting philosophy to get someone to come work there. The best people wanted to work at the best place — certainly in those Hollywood Glow years following ‘All the President’s Men.’ There was not a newspaper person in the country — man, woman, or child — who didn’t want to work at the Washington Post. George benefitted from that — he hired good people, and he made them better.”
Solomon’s biggest acquisition was Tony Kornheiser, who in 1979 left the New York Times, joining the Post as a takeout (features) reporter splitting time between the Sports and Style sections. This was a coup, and it was rare for Solomon to poach somebody from another blue-blooded paper. “George did not want to raid,” says Don Graham. “I think Kornheiser was one of the only people he ever hired from the Times — and that wasn’t really appreciated there. There weren’t a lot of Tony Kornheiser’s at the New York Times.”
Kornheiser (who declined to comment for this story) had previously been under consideration at the Post for a job that ultimately went to Barry Lorge, a great tennis writer who became sports editor of the San Diego Union Tribune, and sadly passed before his time following a battle with cancer. When Kornheiser did eventually move to the Post, he was a known commodity, and a star essentially from the get-go. His features, where subjects ranged anywhere from sports to Barry Manilow to an overindulgent financial scammer, were thoroughly researched. “He just wrote great, unflinching profiles,” says Jeanne McManus, who edited Kornheiser in Style, and, having hopped around several sections the paper, became Solomon’s deputy sports editor in 1991.
In 1984, when Dave Kindred left, Kornheiser and Thomas Boswell became columnists. Kornheiser initially didn’t want to do that, as he’d been happy writing features, but Ben Bradlee didn’t exactly give him a choice in the matter. As Kornheiser told it last October when Bradlee died, the estimable executive editor offered the job, Kornheiser politely declined, and the next day Bradlee returned and said, “So I’m thinking that sports column ought to start on Monday.”
Kornheiser, who would also begin writing columns in the style section in 1989, drove discussion as an opinionist. At some point, his columns began to take on a life of their own. This was exemplified in 1991, when he wrote a personality-driven series on conducting the Redskins bandwagon. Throughout Solomon’s tenure, Redskins coverage was — and to a large degree remains — the biggest focal point of the section. Michael Wilbon often joked that it was second to the White House in terms of importance for the paper. He probably wasn’t wrong. And so it was that the team’s good fortunes, and the overt silliness of these columns, resonated locally and culminated in Kornheiser, Jeanne McManus and Norman Chad (he and Kornheiser have been off speaking terms for years) driving an actual bandwagon to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis. “That’s maybe when he started to describe what he does as ‘Yodeling,'” says McManus.
“The Bandwagon was the most fun I ever had as a writer,” Kornheiser said in 2012. “[A]nd let me say, don’t think that I wasn’t egomaniacal about this, because I was. I saw this as something that would help me AND make people happy, and both things turned out to be true.”
Everybody who was at the Post in the 80’s or 90’s says that PTI is emblematic of the newsroom debates. The only change is the graphical bells and whistles (“and better clothes,” says David Remnick). Due to his fear of flying, Kornheiser was not on the same rigorous travel schedule as most of his colleagues, and the sportswriters who were in town — as well as Bradlee, Graham, Downie — would crowd around his office. “Tony and I screamed across the office at each other all the time,” says Michael Wilbon, noting that the debates included everybody who was around, not just the PTI duo. “It made it so I wanted to write in the office, because if I couldn’t defend my position skillfully and creatively to the people in the newsroom then it was weak and I couldn’t put it in the newspaper.”
“Before they were on television, I would get complaints from whichever section was next door,” says Solomon. “Can you get these guys to tone it down a little? The answer I always gave was, ‘No, this is who they are.’”
Kornheiser has, at one time or another, succeeded in radio, television, and several areas of writing, which requires a versatile array of talent. Dick Schaap, Brent Musburger, and Peter Gammons all excelled in broadcasting after they were print reporters, but Kornheiser is the standard-bearer for the now-omnipresent genre of sports pundit performance artistry. This is no slight accomplishment. Through various voice inflections, facial mannerisms, and the glimmer in his eyes, he conveys nuanced layers in his humor that makes familiar viewers feel smart to be in on the joke. Like many who thrive creatively, Kornheiser’s achievement and imbalance are inextricable. Few enjoy being criticized, but it’s been well documented that Kornheiser’s aversion to it is particularly severe.
“He’s a complicated guy,” says Dave Kindred. “There are elements of Howard Cosell and Woody Allen in Tony. Insecure. Defensive. Neurotic. Brilliant. He was a great talent. There wasn’t any doubt about that. He’s probably the most talented guy I’ve ever worked with. He used the Post, as all of us did in one way or another, to get what he really wanted, which was to be a TV personality. Being an insecure guy to begin with, Tony then went into the most insecure business — and later the most visible place in sports television, Monday Night Football, where you’re definitely going to get criticized. Everybody on TV is insecure, from Cosell to Bob Costas to Anderson Cooper. Anybody. They all feel like they’re on the edge of being fired. The business eats you up. I don’t think Tony would deny being insecure. He’s built his career on that. I think he’s past it now. I think he’s through the storm.”
If you envision Solomon as a hybrid coach and general manager, his roster started to mirror what happens in sports when a team with a lot of young stars gets really good. Outlets were coming at the writers at all angles. In the 80’s, Solomon lost Dave Kindred to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Norman Chad to The National, Sally Jenkins to Sports Illustrated, John Feinstein to books and SI, and David Remnick in-house at the Post. SI also came after Thomas Boswell and Michael Wilbon, while the venerable Frank Deford attempted to poach David Aldridge for The National.
Aldridge and Wilbon were both set to leave until they got phone calls from Ben Bradlee urging them to stay. Wilbon, who would have been covering the NFL nationally with Peter King, recalled being told, “Listen, if you just tell me you want to go to Sports Illustrated, get the hell out. But, if you want to cover whatever you want to cover, we’ll make you a columnist here. You’re gonna make a lot of money. You can love your life and you can be here, where I know you love it, and stay. We’ve got football and basketball you can cover right here … You don’t need to go anywhere.”
Says David Aldridge: “I was all set to take the job at The National and then Ben Bradlee called me. In those days they still had NBA league meetings, and a lot of trade talk would happen at them. I went out and it was at an incredible resort. It’s 7 am and I’m in my room sleeping and the phone rings and it’s Bradlee. It was a very short conversation. He basically says, ‘You’re out of your mind going to work for that paper. They’re gonna fold in a year. That’s the dumbest decision you’ll ever make.’ He scared me out of taking the job, so I wound up staying. I grew up in DC so I knew all about Ben Bradlee and he was like a God to me and when he says you’re insane to take that job you listen.”
While much continuity was preserved, this method of retention was not inexpensive. Neither was sending everybody everywhere, from traveling with the local teams to covering events of national prominence to tennis and golf majors domestically and abroad. Half the department would go to the Olympics, where Solomon saw dozens of newspapers from across the country as direct competition for stories. He wanted to beat them. “The numbers George would send to the Olympics were ridiculous and uncalled for,” says Don Graham. “He overspent his budget every year. But, he wasn’t the only one.”
Again, the Washington Post was awash with money for much of this era, and excelled wherever it focused. “I made the final decisions on salaries,” says Len Downie. “I had a strong interest in the sports section. We made sure that we were as competitive as we could possibly be on pay for the stars of the sports section. They were amongst the highest paid people in the entire newsroom, which included stars in political and investigative reporting and elsewhere.”
Beyond that, the Post was more accommodating than the industry norm about permitting outside opportunities. “We were very liberal in comparison to the New York Times, in addition to other big newspapers, that people in sports, if they could handle it — and many of them could — could be on television and write books while remaining in the sports section,” says Downie. “As a result, Michael and Tony, for instance, stayed way longer than they would have anyplace else.”
With a newspaper, it was way more challenging than in publishing today to determine what individual writers and even whole sections were worth from a pure P&L perspective. “The sports section always costs more money than it brings in, because most of the ads in a newspaper were in the ‘A’ section,” says Downie. “The ads never paid for the staff in Sports, Style, and Metro. We didn’t view cost effective measures of it [in a vacuum]. Instead, what we viewed was how important sports was to the overall readership and advertising of the Post. It’s a very important role in the city. We budgeted for it accordingly.”
Similarly to cable, which looks like the next bundled media industry to face dramatic disruption, devout readers of various sections would subsidize each others’ consumption. It was not rare for sportswriters of the this era to be among the highest paid staffers at newspapers. As a demographic, sports fans are ravenous for information and opinion. While legacy outlets still comprise a piece of the puzzle in most cities, a majority of Solomon’s time at the Post took place before we were inundated with everything, every waking second. In Washington D.C., sports resonated not just with politicos and white-collar businessmen, but also with a large slice of the local population who didn’t give a damn about any of the other stuff. To maximize appeal, Solomon realized he needed a diverse staff.
This is not to say that there were no African-American or female sportswriters at other papers (the New York Times, LA Times, and Dave Smith’s Dallas Morning News section, for example, were also racially progressive before many of their peers), but there was nowhere that included as many, combined, as the Post. “George saw diversity as necessary,” says Michael Wilbon. “He didn’t see it as important, he saw it as his own mandate. I certainly wasn’t the first black sportswriter at the Post — David Dupree was there before I was — and I would be uncomfortable when I went places and people saw me as a pioneer. In the early 1990s, there were still just 3-5 black sports columnists in the country. George would sometimes have multiple people at big events. He saw this as the only way the Washington Post should cover the news, and there were different voices that percolated in that newsroom. George got that in a way that very few others got.”
It wasn’t just about developing writers. Solomon had strong relationships with coaches John Chaney and John Thompson, former Redskins player and front office executive Bobby Mitchell, Calvin Hill, and Arthur Ashe, who sometimes wrote a guest column. “He would keep counsel with people who were giants and understood the notion of voices that were different, and coverage that had a different perspective,” says Wilbon. “Arthur Ashe and John Thompson — I don’t know of two more important thinkers you could have access to in the late 1970’s and through the 80’s. These people understood, and George understood, that Washington D.C. was different than New York and L.A., which had never been called Chocolate City. George knew that there was a marketplace for diverse voices.”
“George was a fixture at the National Association of Black Journalists conventions (our meeting at the NABJ convention in Atlanta in 1994 was the first step toward hiring me),” says J.A. Adande, who’s now at ESPN, and worked at the Post as an intern in 1991 and a staff writer from 1994-97. “I hope he’s as proud of his hiring record as we are grateful. David Nakamura – the Post’s current White House reporter who covered University of Maryland football and basketball when I was there – and I used to note the days that every byline on the front page of the sports section was either a woman or a person of color (or both, in the case of Athelia Knight) and we wondered if there was any other sports section that could make that claim. I doubt it.”
“I wish more sports editors were as committed to diversity as George was,” Adande continues. “I remember George Michael coming up to me in the press room at the 2001 NCAA Final Four, pointing out the overwhelming white maleness of the writers and wondering where all the black reporters were. (George Michael did for the local NBC affiliate what George Solomon did to the Post; Wilbon, David Aldridge and David DuPree got their TV starts thanks to him). You’ve seen the numbers. It’s still an issue, even in the Internet age. You could even say especially in the Internet age. But you can’t say George Solomon did not do his part to make it better.”
Nancy Scannell, who sadly passed away at the age of 41, joined the section when Don Graham was running it in 1973, and was the trailblazer for women there. She stayed in sports until 1980, and eventually became the newspaper’s Arlington bureau chief. In addition to the women we’ve already named — Rachel Nichols, Christine Brennan, Sally Jenkins, and Jeanne McManus — there was also the editor Sandy Rosenbush (née Bailey), who’s now at ESPN (“the best word editor I’ve ever worked with in my life,” says Len Shapiro), as well as the columnist Joan Ryan, whose husband Frank Ryan had been a quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.
Jane Leavy was at the Post from 1979 through 1988. She started in sports, covering tennis, baseball, and the Olympics, and then moved to Style where, amongst other things, she wrote a profile of Muggsy Bogues that was taller than the 5’3 guard. After leaving the paper, she wrote New York Times bestsellers on Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax. Tracee Hamilton, who was an editor and became a columnist, and Liz Clarke, a Redskins beat writer, remain at the Post to this day.
In the early 1980’s, the Post at-large was evidently diversifying. Peter Mehlman, who would later write for Howard Cosell’s SportsBeat program and eventually become the writer on Seinfeld credited with introducing and/or contextualizing phrases like Double Dipping, Yadda Yadda Yadda, and Shrinkage, figured he had a better shot at getting hired as a woman than a white male. “I actually wrote a job letter to Howard Simons, who was the managing editor at the time, as a woman by the name of Faith Michelle Kates,” says Mehlman.
“They enjoyed the letter so much that they offered me a copy aide position, with the worst hours imaginable, by mail — sight unseen,” he continues. “I was desperate to get in there, but I didn’t know what to do, so I wrote another letter, enclosing the first letter, and explaining why I wrote the first one as a woman.” Mehlman was called into the building, met a bunch of editors, and wound up as a copy aide and utility writer in sports for a couple years.
Though he certainly turned out just fine as a writer in the long run, Mehlman (who a few years ago made a series of sports sketches — a funny one featuring Kobe is above) expressed some regret about not applying himself more at the Post. He says he wasn’t really cut out to devote himself to a beat at the time, and though he did various offbeat stories he was happy about there, he wonders what might’ve been. “I recently saw Mike Sager, who’s still one of my closest friends,” he says. “We got to the Post as copy aides at the same time. We met covering a darts tournament for different sections. I just look at how driven he was there and the stories he did, and I think, ‘Maybe I should’ve done that.’ Then again, it was just a matter of it not being my personality type.”
Moving back to the subject of diversity, the ESPNW documentary Let Them Wear Towels explored what it was like for women reporters in the locker room in the 70’s and into the 80’s and 90’s. Players, coaches, and even leagues — MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was particularly outspoken — opposed and impeded the idea. Though it would be a stretch to say it was never an issue for women at the Post (Jane Leavy wrote that she once had a five-hour standoff before receiving “no comment” from Earl Campbell in Houston), by the mid-to-late-80’s it became clear at least locally that having a problem with a female Post sportswriter being in the locker room meant having one with the institution.
In 1985, Solomon chose Christine Brennan for the Redskins beat after she covered national NFL stories for a season. As already noted, there’s no overstating the importance of this role for the Post. Brennan had been permitted in locker rooms by Don Shula’s Dolphins, as well as the Gators and Hurricanes. Though Joe Gibbs and the organization were, to quote Solomon, “initially reluctant” to allow a female reporter in the locker room, Brennan didn’t have much anxiety. “I never spent any time worrying about this,” she says. “I knew it would be resolved. George was taking care of it, and that was good enough for me. I had complete trust in George, Ben Bradlee, and Katharine Graham. Those were the people who were behind me with this. I couldn’t have been more fortunate in my career and my life to have that support.”
Solomon spoke with Commissioner Pete Rozelle, Washington GM Bobby Beathard, and Joe Gibbs about the Post’s plans for Brennan and that was more or less that. That Spring, Rozelle revised NFL rules to stipulate that “locker rooms should be open,” and threatened fines for violators. Nonetheless, it would be presumptuous to draw a straight arrow from Solomon’s interactions to the league-wide edict. Brennan had been in locker rooms. Lesley Visser had already been covering the Patriots for the Boston Globe for years. Finally, the league was in the process of getting its clock cleaned by Al Davis in an anti-trust case and Rozelle presumably didn’t have much of an appetite for another inevitable losing fight:
Brennan says that despite the initial qualms, she was treated with respect and matter-of-factly by Joe Gibbs while covering the team, which she was around so much that she was almost “like furniture.” However, the three-year tenure was not without issues. In a 1988 magazine piece recounting her experience, Brennan noted that she was unknowingly an alibi for a player who was cheating on his wife, that players gossiped she was having an affair with a married local sportscaster, and was the recipient of a tirade from owner Jack Kent Cooke after inquiring about a trade rumor. After this, and having the audacity to report, contrary to PR releases, that an injured player was in the hospital, the team apparently prepared a 20-point memo about her “negative reporting.”
After Brennan, who is now a columnist for USA Today and a commentator for ABC, CNN, and PBS, left the beat, she became the first president of the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) from 1988-1990. Though she would still contribute to the Post, getting the organization off the ground diverted a lot of her time away from the paper. For Solomon, this meant losing a reporter who’d just come off his most important beat for what amounted to days or a week at a time. “I know he was pulling his hair out at times, but he understood how important this organization was,” says Brennan.
“George didn’t need a focus group [to tell him to diversify],” says David Aldridge. “He didn’t have anybody protesting outside of his office. There was no campaign. There was just one guy who felt this was the right thing to do, when almost nobody else in the country was doing it. He just knew that there was this incredible amount of talent that wasn’t getting the chance to show what it could do — one that wasn’t given the opportunity to learn, grow, and get better. That’s why I will always love him. He just thought that it was something that should be done. There was no fanfare. You wanted to run through a wall for a guy like that.”
[*Author’s note: Especially after reading Native American Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig’s thoughts, I believe the team should change the name, but am using the word in this story because it’s a historical record of an era where it would be inaccurate to retroactively apply a different title.]