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Times' Hubert Mizell, chronicler of Tampa Bay's big-league rise, dies at 76

Hubert Mizell, left, presents Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Lee Roy Selmon with a portrait by Times artist Jack Barrett at the Pro Bowl game in Tampa in 1978.
Hubert Mizell, left, presents Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Lee Roy Selmon with a portrait by Times artist Jack Barrett at the Pro Bowl game in Tampa in 1978.
Published Mar. 4, 2016

Longtime St. Petersburg Times columnist Hubert Mizell, whose strong connection with readers and imposing physique helped him evolve as a giant in his craft during a golden era of sportswriting, died at 1:15 p.m. Thursday with his family by his side at his Gainesville home.

Mr. Mizell, 76 (May 2, 1939), had been ill with cancer of the blood, kidney problems, diabetes and congestive heart disease, his son, Kevin, said.

For 27 years, Mr. Mizell chronicled Tampa Bay sports as the area grew into the big leagues. At 6 feet 4, 300 pounds with a booming voice, he was among the most recognizable sportswriters in the nation whose quick wit and sharp one-liners entertained readers. But he also embraced his role to provide incisive commentary.

Mr. Mizell's columns ranged from profiles on colorful personalities such as Muhammad Ali, Red Grange and Bobby Knight, to insightful pieces on the exhaustive quest to attract major league sports to the bay area with the formation of the Bucs, Lightning and Rays.

"Hubert was one of the personalities who put the St. Petersburg Times on the map nationally," said Paul Tash, the Times chairman and CEO who was the newspaper's editor for the last decade of Mr. Mizell's career. "His standing in sports journalism circles was such that it made the Times better known and respected. He had a huge following among readers of the Times, and his knowledge and connections really did enrich our sports coverage."

Mr. Mizell witnessed an amazing collection of events from the world of sports during his career. By the time had left the Times, he had covered 42 college bowl games, 33 Masters golf tournaments, 10 Olympics and eight Wimbledon championships. In the early days of the Bucs franchise, his wisecracks from the front row of the press box were more entertaining than the activity on the field involving a team that started 0-26.

Mr. Mizell had a six-month stint as a feature and TV writer for the Atlanta Constitution in 1986 before returning to his old job at the Times.

He was at Candlestick Park in San Francisco when a 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck and interrupted the 1989 World Series between the Giants and Oakland Athletics. He witnessed the terror of the Munich Olympics in 1972 and the Miracle on Ice with the U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1980.

"The media actually had a section in the stands where we sat," Mr. Mizell wrote, specifically referencing when the Americans faced the heavily favored Soviet Union in the semifinals at Lake Placid, N.Y. "We're all schooled to be neutral observers. But David Israel, who was then a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and later a Hollywood writer and producer, stood up in his seat, put his back to the rink, faced us all in press row and said, 'Gentlemen, there will be cheering in the press box.' And there was. It was just amazing. And you just shivered with emotion, knowing that you had witnessed something that's the most colossal upset, I think, in the history of sports."

Mr. Mizell reached such national acclaim that his relationships with iconic figures in sports got him behind closed doors. He was among only a handful of writers invited to interview Knight after his final game as basketball coach at Indiana University.

"Hubert was one of the very, very best writers that I was acquainted with during the time that I coached," Knight, 75, said Thursday. "Part of the reason for that is he just really, really liked the game of basketball.

"As a writer, I thought it would be hard to find anybody who was more knowledgeable or more accurate in his reporting than Hubert was. You never had to be careful about talking to Hubert. … There was nobody better than he was. I'm sad about his passing."

As former Times staff writer Dave Scheiber wrote upon Mr. Mizell's retirement in 2001, he was born Hubert Coleman Mizell in Dublin, Ga., and into a family that always struggled just to get by. In the 24 years he lived with his parents, they never owned a home or a car. "We lived in 27 different buildings and 11 towns," Mr. Mizell recalled upon his retirement from the Times.

Mr. Mizell's first job was in sports — working as a 14-year-old usher at a minor-league park in Jacksonville, earning $2 a game. He watched a 19-year-old Hank Aaron play second base and lead the Sally League in every category but homers.

Mr. Mizell joined the journalism world as a newspaper carrier for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He later began answering phones and taking statistics in the sports department for $1 an hour.

Little did he know that job would be the foundation of his career.

Mr. Mizell attended the University of Florida but left to take a job at the Orlando Sentinel. He returned to the Times-Union to be high school sports editor from 1960-64. Then came a career detour — a three-year stint as public relations director for the Gator Bowl, where he met Marcy Prevatt and married in 1965. Another stint at the Times-Union followed, then a job with the Associated Press in New York and a brief stint at Golf Digest before he settled into his role at the Times in December 1973.

"He was very comfortable as a commentator, and he knew what a columnist's job was, and he also had a belief that it was his duty to provide insight," said Joe Childs, who led the Times sports section in the late 1980s and early 1990s before becoming a managing editor.

Former Times editor, chairman and CEO Andrew Barnes said Mr. Mizell had a sense of "humanity" in his writing.

"Hubert wrote about all sports, in particular about golf as a true lover of the sport," Barnes said. "He was a genuinely straight-up guy and liked the people he wrote about. His coverage had a humanity about it. He put in the effort, was at the events and told about them well."

Former Times columnist Gary Shelton sometimes accompanied Mr. Mizell to events, always returning with a story about his colleague who could be prone to hyperbole.

"We were in Barcelona for the Olympics the day the Giants announced they planned to move to St. Pete, and Hubert wrote it was the second-happiest day of his life," Shelton said. "We never could figure out whether that was second to his wedding day or the birth of his child."

Jack Sheppard, the former Times deputy managing editor for sports, said, "For several decades he stood face-to-face with the biggest sports stars on the planet and shared their stories with his friends and neighbors throughout Tampa Bay. He was honored by his peers as the best columnist in the nation at a time when newspaper journalism was in its heyday, which speaks volumes."

"He and I did a lot of interviews together, and he and I played a lot of golf together," former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, 86, said. "I really enjoyed Hubert. I thought he was one of the cleverest writers I'd been around. I just hate to hear that he passed away. He was one of my favorites."

He was so respected that NBC sportscaster Bob Costas served as master of ceremonies at Mr. Mizell's lavish retirement party in May 2001, which featured celebrity guests such as ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale.

"A great man," Vitale said Thursday. "You're talking about one of the all-time legends in journalism. Not just locally in St. Petersburg but across the nation."

Said Costas, "He might have been among the last of a breed in that there wasn't a thimble's worth of cynicism in him. Maybe a journalist's skepticism now and then, but he wrote more often about what he appreciated in sports and in people."

After retiring, Mr. Mizell eventually settled in Gainesville where he wrote a weekly column for the Gainesville Sun and appeared on a local television station with his "Mizell Minute." What he left behind at the Times was a bunch of inspired young colleagues, many of whom learned their craft sitting next to him in the office or press boxes.

"Hubert was larger than life," Scheiber said. "He was the heart and soul of the Times sports section. He was connected to the community, and the community was connected to him. I was a kid when I first started there, and I was in awe of Hubert. We all were."

Mr. Mizell's survivors include his wife, Marcy; son, Kevin; and a sister, Linda. The family had not finalized funeral arrangements.

Times staff writers Marc Topkin, Tom Jones and Joey Knight contributed to this report, which used information from Times files.