Fred Russell, one of the preeminent sportswriters of the 20th century, spent 69 years at the Nashville Banner, including 50 as the paper’s sports editor. Russell was known throughout the South as an authority on college football — his popular “Pigskin Preview” was a staple in The Saturday Evening Post from 1949-62 — but he covered all sports with a passion and thoroughness that were unmatched in the industry.
Freelance author Andrew Derr recently published the first complete biography on Russell’s career in the business — “Life of Dreams: The Good Times of Sportswriter Fred Russell.”
We sat down with Derr, who attended Vanderbilt on the Fred Russell-Grantland Rice Scholarship, in Nashville to discuss his project.
Athlon Sports: What was the inspiration to write this book?
Andrew Derr: I did an article on Mr. Russell for a Vanderbilt magazine back in the early 2000s and realized just how much of an impact he had had on so many people. There were so many writers who had either worked for him at the (Nashville) Banner or came to Vanderbilt for the (Russell-Rice) scholarship and one way or another were still active in sportswriting, whether regionally or nationally. That got me thinking that this guy really had a major impact and a sustainable legacy. And of course his impact with Vanderbilt and Nashville. He really represented Nashville well. For anybody who followed sports in the middle part of the 20th century, when you thought of Nashville, you thought of Fred Russell.
Mr. Russell was known for having great relationships with all of the subjects he covered. What do you think he would think of today’s media world, specifically the fact that it’s very, very difficult to get to know the people you are writing about?
I think he would still find a way to build the relationships, one player and one coach at a time. He would just do his thing and still use the approach that was successful back in the day. It’s certainly a different era of information gathering and accessibility with the online world, but he would still apply his basic tenets of fair reporting and informative analysis to be successful.
What was his favorite sporting even to cover?
The favorite singular events for him were The Masters and the Kentucky Derby. He loved the Derby. In his own biography, in the ‘50s, he called it the “most electric moment in sports.” He went to 40 or 50 in a row of both of those events. As far as team sports, he was a huge baseball fan. He covered spring training every year even though Nashville only had minor league teams. And then, of course, college football. That is the sport that largely put him on the national stage, when he had the opportunity to write for The Saturday Evening Post for about a dozen years.
You talked to a lot of people when you worked on the project. Who were some of the people you were surprised to get access to?
The two that stood out were George Steinbrenner and Bobby Knight. Both of those guys got back to me quickly once they found that I was doing a book on Mr. Russell, and they were excited to talk about him. He was a guy that they interacted with years ago, and they felt he did it the right way. They were very fond of him.
He was a proud Vanderbilt graduate and was probably known as a Vanderbilt homer. Was he well-liked by everyone back in the day, or did some fans of other schools not really care for him? Did you get a sense of that during your research?
Maybe it was because of the time that I was doing the biography (after his death), but everyone only had nice things to say. I talked to some people over at the University of Tennessee, and they had fond memories of Mr. Russell. They remember the battles the two schools had in the 1950s and 60s. I think the other thing to consider was that The Banner, his paper, had a heated rivalry with the other paper in town, The Tennessean. Those relationships were tense. He rubbed some people the wrong way, but there was always respect. He had so many contacts in the sports world, particularly at Vanderbilt. He had great relationships and inside access to the athletic department where the athletic department would make sure that The Banner and Fred Russell got the first word on any news, and that drove the people at The Tennessean nuts. So they did respect him, but he kept beating them on so many stories. Years later, they had great things to say about him, but if I had interviewed them back in the day, the responses might have been a bit different.