MILLION DOLLAR FUMBLE: A retired professor, an unheralded sports scandal, and the process of writing the next “Hillenbrand”

The legend, Bear Bryant: I’m gonna bet he’s not saying “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

I write constantly, and it’s not always about music, despite what you might think by following me on Facebook or Twitter. I’ve always talked about wanting to write a great book, something that people would want to read that gives them more than they knew previously about the music they hear on a daily basis. Now, fully immersed in his recent retirement from Ball State, my magazine writing professor, Dr. David Sumner — who taught me the nitty-gritty details about how to get big interviews and turn them into something Seabiscuit-worthy — is doing just that, only in the sporting realm. And he’s blogging about the entire process along the way. From his site:

Wally Butts, the embittered ex-coach at the University of Georgia allegedly gave away detailed football strategy and plays in a telephone conversation with his friend Paul “Bear” Bryant, coach at the University of Alabama. The conversation was accidentally overheard by an Atlanta insurance salesman due to a technical glitch in the telephone system.  George Burnett, the insurance salesman, didn’t tell anyone for a few months.  Four months later, he told a business colleague, who informed the new head coach, who told the president of the University of Georgia. Then the FBI, the Georgia governor and attorney general launched an investigation. The story was leaked to the Saturday Evening Post, which published an article in March 1963 that brought libel lawsuits from Butts and Bryant, which riveted the world of college football and went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the last two years, I have gone through more than 1,500 pages of letters, memos, reports, and trial transcripts in the process of writing this book.  I retired in May 2015 as a professor of journalism at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where I taught for 25 years.  I first became interested in writing a book about this scandal and libel trial when I wrote The Magazine Century: American Magazines Since 1990.  I wrote a few pages about the five most significant libel or copyright lawsuits against magazines in the 20th century, and this was one of them.  However, I later discovered that the conventional wisdom about this case in most media history or law textbooks was not accurate.  There is a whole backstory to the case that has never been told.

Dr. David Sumner

I’m already sold! Million Dollar Fumble sounds like it has everything great books-turned-movies have to offer. Sports! Sex! Lawsuits! Courtroom drama! And I’ve always been a sucker for those stories where we think we know how it ends based on the conventional wisdom and occasional Google searches, but we’re proved flat-out wrong by someone who hit the ground and dug through thousands of pages of documents and conducted interview after interview with the participants, to dig out the real truth. And even the bare bones of the story do, as Sumner reminds us, draw comparisons to the Black Sox scandal that made Eight Men Out such a riveting film.

What stood out to me when I took his courses at Ball State, was the emphasis on how important it is, as a journalist in any capacity, to be willing to go out and talk to people. Not just get on the Internet, read some interviews and articles on a band, but to actually risk rejection by calling them up and asking them about their music. Now I have the skills, and the professional fortitude, to do this on a regular basis when ten years ago I was a wet-behind-the-ears student who dared to call, and be castigated by, a DNA expert for daring to ask questions he deemed uneducated. Still, I asked.

Now Sumner is out there doing the digging and the asking, unencumbered by the duties of a college professor. Here’s hoping his book proves to be as immediately engrossing as the description, and that I can be inspired to come up with my own great idea to turn from magazine article to book to movie and turn this freelancing gig into something that pays!

I’ll definitely be stopping back by his blog for more inside tips on the research-to-book process.


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