Glenn Dickey has been writing on sports for over four decades. For 33 years he had a column with the San Francisco Chronicle. One known for bitting commentary. Like most people who don’t know Glenn, I assumed his personality was like his column before we met in 1994
Then, I was a blindly staunch defender of then-UC Berkeley Basketball Coach Todd Bozeman, and because he was Cal’s first black head coach, and used my column called “Zennie Abraham” in The Montclarion (in Oakland) to support him (I was an op-ed columnist from 1993 to 1996). While I later learned that Glenn has been an advocate of increasing the hiring of black coaches, he was openly critical of Bozeman, and in hindsight for the right reasons.
Still, it was my open criticism of him that actually caused us to meet, and I realized that Glenn was really a good basic person. Our friendship was established on that day we had lunch in San Francisco’s Union Square.
Since then we’ve had lunch often, and Glenn’s written a couple of articles on sports stadium financing ideas I created to help solve the massive problem that is the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. (Of course, the Oakland and Alameda County politicians on the Coliseum Authority Board don’t listen, which is why the facility is a ripe target for an Alameda County Grand Jury investigation.) But what completely shocked me was when the San Francisco Chronicle axed his column in September of 2004.
I have a basic rule that organizations should always maintain their “institutional memory:” the people who’ve been around long enough to understand how to put change in the perspective of history. That’s very valuable in sports, because with all of the new developments in leagues, labor and management relationships, and athletes and performance-enhancing drugs, a person who understands the importance or lack thereof, can show young people what happened in the past versus the present, and look toward the future. That person is Glenn Dickey.
Since then, Glenn’s rebounded nicely. He’s a frequent guest on local sports talk shows, and has a new website at www.glenndickey.com
I’ve always talked with Glenn about doing an interview; here it is.
Q. What spurred your interest in writing? Did you write about anything other than sports?
Glenn Dickey: I’ve always been a good writer; English was my easiest course because of that. I started writing sports on my high school paper (Sonora) as a senior and just kept going. On my first job, for the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, I wrote about 30 per cent on other stories, some mundane (school board), some exciting (I covered visits of Kennedy at the Cow Palace and Nixon in San Jose during the 1960 Presidential campaign. I also assigned myself to cover the Miss California pageant in Santa Cruz!
Q. When did you get your first writing “break.”
Glenn Dickey: I wrote on the 1961 All-Star game at Candlestick when I was at Watsonville, and that story was reprinted in “The Best Sports Stories” book compilation the next year. I was able to cite this as an example of my writing when I applied at The Chronicle, which I’m sure was a big help in my being hired.
Q. When did you start writing for the SF Chronicle?
Glenn Dickey: April 30, 1963.
Q. You’re best known for your relationship with Oakland Raiders Manager of The General Partner Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders. Though this is well-known in some circles, our demographic is between 17 years old and 40 years old, so some may not know. Share how your relationship with Mr. Davis started and how it has changed. Do you talk to him today?
Glenn Dickey: I first knew Al Davis when I was a beat writer on the Raiders, 1967-71. We had an excellent relationship at the time, and I learned a lot about football by just listening to him. In 1972, when I was writing a column, he and Wayne Valley split, with Valley suing over a new contract Davis and Ed McGah, who were two of the three general partners (Valley being the third), had drawn up giving Davis much more control. I criticized Davis, and that ended our relationship. We probably haven’t exchanged more than 50-60 words since. His decision, not mine.
Q. You went to Cal (University of California at Berkeley). When did you graduate, and what was your college life like then?
Glenn Dickey: I came to Cal as a junior in the fall of 1956 (my first two years were at UC Santa Barbara) and graduated in June, 1958. That was a time of conformity, so there wasn’t anything particularly distinctive about either general campus life or mine. Cal was almost entirely white at that time, very few faces of any color. The only black I knew was Earl Robinson, who is still a friend; he lives in Montclair.
Q. My guess is that Cal Football wasn’t winning then…or?
Glenn Dickey: Cal football was dismal, although the 1959 team (after my graduation) went to the Rose Bowl.
Q. How many columns and articles have you written?
Glenn Dickey: I’ve never tried to figure that out. I wrote five times a week for 25 years or so, then was cut back to four and finally to three before my column was dropped last September, after 33 years. I’ve probably written in excess of 300 magazine articles, as well as 17 books.
Q. Oakland Tribune columnist Peggy Stinnett once told me that a columnist “Can’t really write unless they’re angry about something.” Do you agree with that? What topic, event, person, or action has made you so angry that you just wrote from the hip?
Glenn Dickey: No. Sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I’m passionate about a subject, sometimes I’m just dissecting a subject critically without any particular emotion. Because I have an “edge” people often think that’s my personality, but you know me personally, so you know that’s not true.
Q. You’ve taken a position on this before, but why is it that in the 21st Century there’s still only a handful of African American football coaches and yet a knee-jerk cultural habit of looking for running backs who are black?
Glenn Dickey: Players are evaluated on performance, so there’s little bias involved. Coaches are evaluated more subjectively, because good coaches run the gamut from bully (Bill Parcells) to analytical (Bill Walsh). In that environment, general managers and owners are more likely to pick men they’re comfortable with. Since most GMs and owners are white, that means they’re more likely to pick a white coach.
Q. Let’s talk about sports executives. Which do you admire? Which do you loath? Why?
Glenn Dickey: Right now, my favorite is (Oakland A’s General Manager) Billy Beane because I think he’s intelligent, imaginative and willing to take a chance. I dislike Davis because everybody in the Raider organization takes his or her cue from him, and it’s nasty there.
Q. What about sports writers?
Glenn Dickey: I’m too close to this one. My favorites, Red Smith and Jim Murray, are dead.
Q. What about athletes?
Glenn Dickey: I no longer talk with athletes with any regularity, so it’s difficult to comment about any current ones. I found Steve Young a delight when he was playing because of his intelligence and character. When I was covering the Raiders, I developed friendships with Tom Keating and Ben Davidson that still exist.
Q. It seems that after decades of growth and the emergence of new leagues, Women’s Sports is on the decline. Do you agree? What’s your reason for your opinion?
Glenn Dickey: I don’t think women’s sports are declining. I see it as more of a plateau. I championed women’s and girl’s sports in the ’70s, when that was not a popular position, because I felt it was important for them to get the same benefits from athletic competition that I feel men and boys do. As a commercial venture, though, women’s sports suffer from the lack of a fan base. Even women who like sports don’t follow with the same passion (though there are exceptions) that men do. Men also usually make the decisions on buying tickets, and they’re more likely to buy tickets for men’s games.
Q. Turning toward the SF Chronicle, how has it changed over the years? Why did they stop running your column?
Glenn Dickey: In my time and earlier, The Chronicle always looked for bright, talented writers – Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, Stanton Delaplane and Charles McCabe, among others. It was always fun to read. That changed when Hearst bought the paper in 2000 and the editors from the old Examiner came over to run it. They’ve systematically purged most of the top Chronicle writers, including me. Glenn Schwarz told me several times that I got more e-mail than anybody, but they still dropped my column because, of course, I had not written for the old Examiner. They have managed to make the Chronicle as unreadable as the old Examiner, and they wonder why circulation is dropping like a rock.
Q. After almost 20 years of success, the 49ers have not made posted a winning record since 2002. What’s the problem?
Glenn Dickey: Mostly bad management. They haven’t drafted well or handled the salary cap well. John York had Bill Walsh in his facility but never listened to him. They still haven’t filled in the holes in the front office.
Q. Is new head coach Mike Nolan the solution?
Glenn Dickey: I like Nolan but he’s going to need a lot of help, and not just on the playing field. I’m not sure he’s going to get it.
Q. Since the departure of Head Coach John Gruden, the Raiders have had only one winning season. Apparently, Gruden was the answer; but what was the question? In other words, what was wrong and may still be a problem with the Raiders that Gruden seemed to be the answer to?
Glenn Dickey: More than anything, I think Gruden took responsibility for his mistakes and expected others to follow suit. He also got rid of the underachievers and developed a tough, winning attitude. Davis didn’t like the idea that Gruden was becoming the face of the Raiders, so he managed to get rid of him. But all those draft choices haven’t made winners of the Raiders.
Q. I get the impression that Al Davis picked Norv Turner as head coach because Turner is a disciple of the “Sid Gilman” school of the vertical passing game. But will he do well with the Raiders beyond that one aspect of football?
Glenn Dickey: I think Norv Turner is a solid coach but how the Raiders do depends more on the defense than his coaching.
Q. Is Mike Montgomery the answer for the Warriors’ woes?
Glenn Dickey: I questioned Montgomery’s hiring early, but he’s grown in the job. I thought he was a great college coach and I think now that he can win with the Warriors.
Q. The A’s seem to be able to win without a new stadium, but do you think Lew Wolff will move the team? I think they’re a good candidate for Portland; what do you think?
Glenn Dickey: I don’t agree. Lew Wolff bought the club with the idea of building a stadium in Oakland, and that’s still his plan. If he can’t do that, I think he’d sell the club, rather than move it.
Q. As columnists (I was one once) we all make mistakes we wish we could take back. What mistake did you make that you wish you could have reversed?
Glenn Dickey: The dumbest thing I ever wrote was when I advised Joe Montana on his family planning. I usually try to stay away from the personal in my writing, and that’s the best example why.
Q. For us younger Cal alumns, can you shed some light on the “Mike White Controversy” of the 70s?
Glenn Dickey: Mike White was a good coach (also a classmate and friend of mine) but he brought in some players that simply didn’t belong at Cal. The graduate rates for football players plummeted during his time, which is why he was fired.
Q. Will Cal Basketball return to the NCAA Tournament this year?
Glenn Dickey: The Bears have a shot, with Leon Powe returning.
Q. Who was Cal’s best AD? Who was Cals’ worst AD (Bob Bockrath)? What do you think of Cal’s current AD Sandy Barbour? I recently talked with one local AD over cocktails and this person told me it was “bad form” to hire Steve Gladstone as AD two years ago, because he was on the search committee – it was a “slap” in the face of the other candidates in this person’s view. Do you agree?
Glenn Dickey: I thought Dave Maggard was the best, especially since he didn’t get any help from the administration. The idea that it was “bad form” to hire Gladstone because he was on the search committee is the kind of thinking that has often held back Cal athletics. I talked at length to Wally Haas about this and he said those on the search committee felt that they could do better than with the candidates they had. I was skeptical at first but thought Gladstone did an excellent job of bringing in top people and making the department run well. I think Sandy Barbour is doing well, but I haven’t had the direct experience with her that I’ve had with her predecessors. Bob Bockrath was the worst. He has no competition.
Q. How will Ex- Notre Dame and Stanford Head Coach Tyrone Willingham do at Washington? I noticed that he’s already locked up the West’s top offensive tackle and running back prospects for 2006. Should he have stayed at Stanford, rather than go to coach at Notre Dame?
Glenn Dickey: Willingham will have plenty of resources at Washington, so he’ll probably succeed. I think he’s an average coach, neither the best nor the worst, and he should have stayed at Stanford, where they liked him and didn’t have high expectations. Of course, with (former Cal Head Coach Tom) Holmoe gone, he wouldn’t have had that automatic Big Game win. (In his tenure at Cal, Holmoe’s teams lost the “Big Game” to Stanford six straight years. Holmoe was replaced by Oregon Offensive Coordinator Jeff Tedford in 2003.)
Q. Who will win the Pac-10 in College Football? Why?
Glenn Dickey: USC, for the usual reasons.
Q. Can Walt Harris make the difference at Stanford? Why didn’t they hire (USC Offensive Coordinator) Norm Chow?
Glenn Dickey: I like Harris, and I think he’ll do well. The Stanford talent was better than the record last year. They lost some good players but they’ll certainly be better with Harris. I think they chose him instead of Chow because he had a good record as a head coach. Chow was a very good offensive coordinator but he’s an unknown quantity as a head coach.
Q. How’s the new website going?
Glenn Dickey: I’m having fun with the website because I have more freedom on length and content than I had the last couple of years with the Examinerized Chronicle. I’m also getting a very good response from my readers and averaging more than 10,000 hits a day during the week. Now, I have to figure out a way to make it pay!
From Sports Business Simulations, Zennie Abraham’s first startup.