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Hubert Mizell remembers Tampa Tribune's Tom McEwen

For 27 years, we were competitors. Tom McEwen was the sports voice, indeed the town crier, for the Tampa Tribune. I wrote a sports column for the St. Petersburg Times. My newspaper was always larger, but my friend Tom tended to "diminish" when glancing west across Tampa Bay. To his eyes, nothing was bigger or brighter than what he called "My Tampa."

We butted heads on a multitude of issues, like "Who should be USF's first football coach?" and "Where should a stadium be built for a Tampa Bay major-league baseball team?" Beginning in 1976, we traveled the NFL shoulder to shoulder, delivering ink that was stained with pain and love and occasional sarcasm. Chronicling setbacks and searching for cures as the Buccaneers of coach John McKay wobbled through an 0-26 beginning.

When word came of McEwen's death early Sunday, I winced as though it was a beloved family member that I'd be seeing no more. Joking with no more. Trading chides with no more.

Competing with no more. As ravenous as Tom and I were to get major stories for our news­papers, and get them first, we were also each other's best counsel.

We discussed sources, and their credibility. When I first met Tom in the late '50s, I was a teenage part-timer at my hometown Jacksonville newspaper, the Florida Times-Union. He was becoming a force at the Tribune, a looming journalistic power long before there were Bucs, Lightning, Bulls or Rays.

McEwen was fond of saying, "Mizell and I are good at double-teaming guys for interviews. Hubert is so big, and I'm so little, he is our lead blocker in crowded, smelly locker rooms. Eventually, it's him to the left of the source, me on the right. We must've sandwiched McKay a hundred times. John's respect was hard-earned, but we had it. Together, Hubes and I grilled 'em good."

As his competitor, it could seem as though Tom was a member of every Tampa/Hills­borough political function as well as the Tampa Sports Authority. He appeared to walk arm in arm with every policymaker. When there were back-room, out-of-the-sunshine huddles, the paranoid side of me figured that McEwen was probably serving the coffee and sweet rolls.

McEwen operated, openly and proudly, with guidelines that my newspaper refused to endorse. He flew on aircraft owned by Florida Gator boosters to UF games at Auburn or Knoxville or Baton Rouge. "Have a good commercial flight home tomorrow," he would tell me upon hurrying out of some press box, minutes after a game. "By 8 tonight I will be at home on Davis Islands having dinner with wife Linda." I would growl and type on.

But here's the bottom line on McEwen the reporter — and this paragraph should be printed in flashing neon — he always wanted the biggest and best for Tampa/Hills­borough, whether it concerned pro sports or college happenings. I have known most of America's high-impact newspaper sports columnists of the past 50 years and none among the Smiths, Murrays, Bishers, Popes, Sherrods, Lupicas, Wilbons or Kindreds was more revered and beloved. McEwen was, without question, "Mr. Tampa."

My hiring by the Times was in December 1973. McEwen had been a newspaper pro in the area more than a quarter century, beginning with a few semesters at the Times. When I moved in, it was already clear that Tampa Bay would be awarded an NFL franchise. McEwen was a major factor in that accomplishment. Tom was a master of cocktail-party conversation and squeezing the right hands, at home or in Tallahassee, Washington or New York. In effect, an unelected politician with a notepad.

He buddied smoothly with NFL owners from the Rooneys to the Maras to the Rosenblooms. McEwen could've been elected Tampa mayor, but Tom saw his column as a higher calling.

When the Super Bowl first came to his city, in January 1984, McEwen said to me, with that impish grin, "Mizell, I did that." He had big help but to a considerable degree it was a Tom mission. When the NCAA basketball Final Four made a 1999 appearance at the dome in St. Petersburg, and knowing I had deep experiences with the event, Tom was kind enough to say, "This one belongs to you, Hubes."

In the good, old days of airline travel, before the clamps were triggered by Sept. 11, and before economic desperation among airlines, McEwen and I would often come home from Bucs or college football games on first-class night flights. Deal was, if your employer paid for a "day coach" ticket, it could then be swapped for an upgrade on a night flight. So we sat among the big dogs where drinks and food were free. Yes, youngsters, there were such days. Tom used to say, "Mizell and I had a pact. I let him have my food as well as his, but being a nondrinker, he pushed all the booze my way."

McEwen was a buddy of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, a Tampa resident. Both wanted a Tampa Bay franchise to be anchored in Hillsborough County. Neither ever accepted the decision to erect Tropicana Field and create the Rays. McEwen often referred to Pinellas County as "over there." And who knows for sure, if St. Petersburg really was the better choice; evidence is still being gathered.

Tom campaigned for bringing football to the University of South Florida. I came out against it. My argument was, there had been just one non-military school to make a Division I splash in half a century — Florida State, born in 1947. So how could it make financial sense for USF? I was wrong, McEwen was right, and Tampa Bay has a solid plus in the Bulls.

But, on the USF coach, I won out. McEwen, with strong lifetime ties to the University of Florida, pushed hard for an old Gator player — NFL assistant coach Jack Burns. I got word that a Pinellas native, Jim Leavitt, wanted badly to get the chance. I endorsed the co-defensive coordinator from Kansas State, a school that rose from oblivion to become a Big 12 power. Leavitt was hired, taking a pay cut from $90,000 to $75,000, and built a solid program for USF.

Our priorities could differ, me and McEwen. So too our methods. But, both at dawn and twilight, Tom and I were friends. Two old newspaper blokes who would both be elected to the Florida Sports Hall of Fame. Knowing the Times operating principles, and seeing them as ultrademanding, Tom would refer to my publication as "God's Newspaper."

McEwen was an accomplished after-dinner speaker and emcee. At a gathering of the Tampa Bay Sports Club, which put us both into its Hall of Fame, Tom said in the '80s, "Mizell is a fine writer, and his arrival at the Times 'made' me get better. Hubes and I do things a bit differently, but both our methods are effective. I hope our newspapers know they are damn lucky. We have been good for each other."

To that, I give a hearty nod and a robust thumbs-up. Sadly, I never told McEwen how much I appreciated those comments, especially before "his crowd" in a Tampa banquet hall.

I saw McEwen two times last football season — not knowing we would get together no more. Tom had lost an eye to illness. His face was distorted. A leg was amputated due to long-running medical ailments. Linda McEwen pushed him in a wheelchair, so Tom could sit on press row in Raymond James Stadium. We shared the Bucs-Atlanta game and also Florida's win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl.

Despite his condition, McEwen's mind was as sharp as long ago. We traded stories on the Bucs, the Gators, the Rays and all the press boxes we had occupied together since 1974, Tom's humor was forever. So too his passion, especially for Linda and Tampa and the life he had lived.

Replacement for McEwen? There'll be none.

My deepest, most sincere condolences to Linda and all associated with the McEwen family, which should include hundreds of thousands in "My Tampa" and millions across Florida and America.

It was a personal pleasure and professionally energizing and seldom dull to know and compete with Tom McEwen. Let us celebrate him. The enormous loss is the McEwen family's and Tampa's and Hillsborough's but also Tampa Bay's and Florida's and mine.

Hubert Mizell retired in 2001 and now lives in Gainesville.

Hubert Mizell remembers Tampa Tribune's Tom McEwen 06/05/11 [Last modified: Monday, June 6, 2011 12:45pm]

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