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WILL MCDONOUGH | 1935-2003

He gave TV rules a rewrite

It was a quirk of fate that Will McDonough died while watching Thursday night's ''SportsCenter.''

That's because McDonough was a major inspiration for ESPN's John A. Walsh, who is credited with making "SportsCenter" a leader in daily television sports journalism.

"He was the first one to help me realize that print journalists could make the transition to electronic media," said Walsh, senior vice president and executive editor of ESPN.

Walsh was a consultant for CBS's "The NFL Today" pregame show in the mid-1980s when McDonough was hired.

"He was a friend and mentor," said Walsh. "He was an inspiration to me every time we got together."

McDonough wasn't the first print journalist to walk through the door of a television studio. Globe colleague Bud Collins beat him to it by a year or two, and continues to have a distinguished career as the preeminent tennis columnist/analyst of his time.

But when McDonough followed Collins's path, succeeding in spite of many doubters, the media world was changed forever. Before McDonough went to work for CBS, the line between print and electronic journalists was a wall. He knocked it down.

"I was the pioneer nationally, but Will was right behind," said Collins. "Tom Winship [then editor of the Globe] wasn't hot on the idea. TV and print had an adversarial relationship in those days."

Indeed, in the `70s, Globe baseball columnist Peter Gammons regularly referred to the electronic media as "barking dogs" in print. That was before his own professional odyssey took him from the Globe to Sports Illustrated, back to the Globe, and then to ESPN.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King, one of the many to follow that path paved by McDonough, said, "When I got hired to work on `Monday Night Football' in 1994, the first thing I did when I got home was to sit down, and handwrite a note to Will, telling him I never would have gotten that job if it weren't for him. I told him, `You're the Jackie Robinson of our profession, and I never can repay you.'

"It's a debt of gratitude I never could repay. There are so many people coming into the business now who had their ways paved by Will. When I was covering the Giants for Newsday in 1985-87, I can't tell you how many times he'd take me aside or call me and give me a tip. He knew so much more about my own team than I did it was humbling.

"And that's a scene that I've seen hundreds of times since -- Will at the winter meetings taking someone from the Mesa, Ariz., paper and asking if he could help them out and offering to introduce them to someone who could help them."

Little did the doubters know that McDonough hardly was a TV rookie when he reported for duty at CBS in 1986, working "The NFL Today" with Brent Musburger, Irv Cross, and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder.

In Boston, Channel 7's general manager Sy Yanoff had been an admirer of McDonough's reporting ability and had given him some broadcast work. McDonough had worked preseason Patriots games, some Patriots weekly fan shows, and four years of a sometimes goofy on-air sports chat with former Patriots GM Upton Bell.

"We did shows from bars, museums, most anyplace that would have us," McDonough told me in 2001. "I was fortunate that it taught me how to do live TV and to go on air in the midst of all kinds of distractions."

But the CBS offer was something else entirely.

Eric Mann, senior producer for "The NFL Today," remembered, "We had a couple of previous `information guys' behind the scenes before Willie. Ted Shaker, our executive producer at the time, decided to have an information guy on the air. We all agreed that Will was the No. 1 guy in the country. You had to read his column every Sunday."

At CBS, and later for another decade at NBC, McDonough was the quintessential sideline reporter.

He pioneered another practice. "I spoke to Rams coach John Robinson and defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur before a 4 p.m. Rams-Redskins game," McDonough said back in 2001, describing the event. "The result was the first `leaving the field at halftime interview' with Shurmur.

"I got a call from the NFL saying the Writers Association [of which he was a member] had protested because I had preferential access. My response was, `Fritz would talk to me. He wouldn't talk to them."'

"He was a great mentor," said Lesley Visser, formerly of the Globe and now of CBS. "When I was the first woman covering the NFL in the mid-'70s, it was Will who went to the Patriots and said, `This will work. She knows football. All you need to do is give her a chance.'

"And when I moved to TV, he told me, `Don't worry. All your skills will transfer. You know how to ask questions, report, and write."

And watching him in the office was a hoot, said Visser. "Who else could have [Oakland Raiders owner] Al Davis on one line and [commissioner] Pete Rozelle on the other when there were all these lawsuits between the Raiders and the league? And he had everyone's phone numbers -- even if they were on a Rolodex no one could read -- though we all tried once he left for the night."

Tom Hoffman, former public relations director for the Patriots, and later a family friend and business partner of McDonough, said, "People think when Will was doing his national radio show with Bill Parcells that he must be in some fancy studio. Actually, I'm standing by a small wrought-iron table with a tiled top. On top of it is the radio-box that gave him the radio-quality phone line. He'd sit in a folding chair, look over Hingham harbor, and talk to the country. That was Will all the way. Keep it as simple as possible."

"He really was `Mr. Big,"' said Channel 4 sports anchor Bob Lobel. "He cultivated his sources and kept building them. It was all built on trust and loyalty."

Special McDonough section online

The Globe and Boston.com have built a special online memorial section for Will McDonough at www.boston.com/sports/mcdonough. It contains stories and photos about his life and career, and tributes from friends and colleagues. There is a message board where readers can submit their thoughts and memories of Will, and a special Guest Book where condolences for the family can be posted.


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