Remembering sportswriter Dan Jenkins

And Madison Magazine's SI moment

The Masters golf tournament begins Thursday, and it will be the first in nearly 70 years without Dan Jenkins, the celebrated sportswriter and author who died last month, at 90.

Jenkins, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, worked his first Masters in 1951. He covered the tournament for Texas newspapers and later Golf Digest magazine. But Jenkins’ most memorable writing about golf and college football — his other favorite sport — came during a glorious two-decade run from the early ‘60s to the early ‘80s at Sports Illustrated. Many of Jenkins’ obituaries referred to him as the quintessential Sports Illustrated writer.

The magazine in those years was spectacularly good. The quality of the writing, the space allotted to stories, the willingness to tackle issues of race and gender equity in sports — SI, as the magazine is known, was a beacon.

It wasn’t perfect. The swimsuit issue was birthed in 1964, fun for a time maybe, hopelessly offkey today.

There’s a terrific book that lays all this out: “The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine,” by Michael MacCambridge.

Dan Jenkins’ death on March 7 got me remembering the small role Madison Magazine played in helping get that Sports Illustrated book published, an unusual story I'll share.

Jenkins was first among equals in the talent-heavy lineup of SI writers that included Roy Blount Jr. and Frank Deford.

One of my favorites was Edwin “Bud” Shrake. Like Jenkins, Shrake was a native Texan, later an accomplished novelist, screenwriter and the last love of Texas Gov. Ann Richards’ life.

Shrake left SI after his novel, “Night Never Falls,” was published in 1987. I was associate editor of Madison Magazine at the time and took the opportunity to write a profile/review.

I interviewed Shrake by phone, which was a kick. He liked my piece and wrote to tell me so. We began to correspond. I remember him telling me about collaborating with his friend Willie Nelson on Nelson’s autobiography.

The publisher insisted on calling the book “Willie." Willie and Bud wanted to call it, “I Didn’t Come Here and I Ain’t Leavin’.”

By 1994, I was editor of Madison Magazine, and at some point Bud wrote to tell me I might be hearing from a young journalist named Michael MacCambridge, who was hoping — as I remember it — to turn a series of articles he’d done for the Austin newspaper on Sports Illustrated into a book.

I did hear from MacCambridge. My recollection is he thought a magazine piece might help him get an agent. He proposed a profile of Andrew Laguerre, the editor most responsible for SI’s success.

Laguerre was a colorful character who had been Charles de Gaulle’s press aide before joining Time Inc. and turning Sports Illustrated into a juggernaut. He retired (forced out by the suits) in 1974.

Laguerre had nothing remotely close to a Madison connection, but that’s one advantage of being editor.

“Let’s do it,” I told MacCambridge.

Could he send a photo of Laguerre? I remember MacCambridge hesitating. There was only one that was any good, he said. He hated to let it out of his hands, but he did.

We used that photo to lead off a story in the October 1994 issue of Madison Magazine titled, “The Greatest Magazine Editor Who Ever Lived.”

Michael did a splendid job on the profile. The layout included small photos of Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake.

MacCambridge got an agent and in 1997 “The Franchise” was published to laudatory reviews. It was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

I got to meet MacCambridge around then when he came to Madison to speak to Jim Baughman’s University of Wisconsin–Madison journalism class. We exchanged emails after Bud Shrake’s death in 2009 but I haven’t connected with him since Jenkins died last month.

As deaths do, hearing about Jenkins took me back to when I was in college and would walk up to the Madison Central Library and request whole years of Sports Illustrated magazine from the lower stacks. Those back issues were like journalism school.

Jenkins at his best combined deep knowledge and irreverence into a style all his own. “They tied won for the Gipper,” Jenkins wrote about Notre Dame playing not to lose in a big game against Michigan State in 1966. South Bend students promptly built a bonfire with 1,500 copies of Sports Illustrated.

It should be noted that as the years went on, Jenkins wasn’t always at his best, or so it says here. Especially in his novels, he couldn’t let go of ethnic humor, when it was long past being OK. His disgust with political correctness eventually led him to embrace Fox News. This turn was perhaps best described in an otherwise admiring review of Jenkins’ 2014 memoir, “His Ownself,” by the estimable Dwight Garner in the New York Times.

I prefer to remember Dan Jenkins at his insightful and humorous best. The Masters and much of sports won’t be the same without him.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.

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