The sports editor of my college newspaper used to say that Furman Bisher had the best job in sports. As sportswriter and then columnist for what’s now the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bisher’s local beat included ACC basketball, SEC football, the Masters, and NASCAR – in other words, the best the sports world has to offer, at least to unreconstructed Southerners. That’s not to mention Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the NBA.
Bisher died Sunday at the age of 93. He retired in 2009, after 59 years covering sports in Atlanta, though he’d planned to go to Augusta in a few weeks for the Masters.
He was a North Carolina native who first made his name in 1949, when he managed to get the first (and, it turned out, last) interview with ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson since the 1919 Black Sox scandal. He was an eyewitness to the birth of NASCAR, and respected it as a sport when most sportswriters thought it was just bootleggers turning left (most sportswriters still do, they just don’t admit it now). He helped bring the Braves to Atlanta, and co-wrote Hank Aaron’s first autobiography.
Half of those living just west of the Georgia line, though, did not care for Bisher, at least after he went after the Bear in a 1962 essay for the Saturday Evening Post, accusing Bryant of bringing a “new hell-for-leather, helmet-bursting, gang-tackling game” to the SEC. Bisher wrote, “College football appears to have gone absolutely silly on ‘hitting,’ even at the expense of clever execution. A new term, ‘hard-nosed,’ is about as common in the conversation of football savants as punting, passing, and praying.” He did not mean that, I should add, as a compliment.
Bisher was implicated in the later Saturday Evening Post story accusing Bryant and University of Georgia athletic director Wally Butts of conspiring to fix a game, implications that Bisher always denied. The subsequent libel lawsuits by Bryant and Butts helped lead to the Post‘s demise.
Lay aside the question of whether Bisher’s indictment of “brutal” football was prescient, given football’s current crisis over concussions; or disingenuous, given how brutal a game tackle football has always been; consider, instead, how much of the South’s late-20th century history is on the sidelines of Bisher’s Post column. When he wrote it, Georgia Tech was an SEC football powerhouse that had a fierce rivalry with Alabama, a reflection of the rivalry between Atlanta and Birmingham to be the “capital city of the South.” By the end of the decade, Tech had left the SEC, and Bryant had won two national championships (to go with the one he’d already claimed in 1961, and the three more he’d win before retiring) – but Atlanta had the Braves, and the boom, and its “city too busy to hate” image, while Birmingham had the bitter aftertaste of Bull Connor and “Bombingham.”
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine Alabama fans getting worked up over Georgia Tech like they do over LSU or Tennessee, much less Auburn. It’s even harder to imagine another city in the South rivaling Atlanta as a center of population or influence. The roads that led us here forked back in the 60s, though, and Bisher – even if he “only” wrote about sports – was one of those who chronicled the divergence.