By Emily Leiker
University of Missouri
Jan. 28, 2020
Without leaving his home state of Tennessee, Fred Russell became one of the 20th century’s most recognizable names in journalism, a feat that earned him national recognition during and after his career.
”[Russell] is one of those regional giants of the sports-writing trade — it’s a small and special group — who have transcended local limits and local interests and made a kind of national impact on sporting life,” New York Times columnist John Larnder wrote.
Russell was the inaugural recipient of the Grantland Rice Memorial Award in 1955, named after his friend and colleague. He received the award from the Sportsmanship Brotherhood for being an “outstanding example of sports reporting in the Rice tradition.”
As a kid, Russell memorized Rice’s “sports poems.” Rice became a mentor for Russell in his career, with the two travelling to cover events together.
Around the same time, Russell helped establish the Grantland Rice Scholarship at his alma mater. The now-$25,000 scholarship is given to an incoming Vanderbilt freshman interested in pursuing a career in sports journalism. Russell’s name was added to the scholarship in 1984, the same year he was honored as the fourth winner of APSE’s Red Smith Award for his contributions to sports journalism.
Russell’s career — which had already spanned five decades — still had 15 years to go.
Most of that career was spent at the Nashville Banner, which ceased publication in 1998. After graduating from Vanderbilt law school in 1927 and briefly pursuing a law career, Russell ended up at the Banner as its police beat reporter. It was only a few months later he became sports editor, accepting the position in June 1929. He also served as vice president and sports director.
With the Banner, Russell covered everything from the first Masters in 1934 to the Kentucky Derby. He witnessed Wilma Rudolph of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles track team win three gold medals while covering his first Olympics in Rome in 1960. He continued covering the international sporting event until 1976.
One of Russell’s first assignments was his alma mater’s football team through his column, “Sideline Sidelights.” In his career, Russell didn’t only write about Vanderbilt athletics, he influenced them. That was only fitting because he was a former Commodore baseball player.
“He was probably the second most powerful man in Vanderbilt athletics,” said Doug Segrest, who worked for Russell at the Banner in its final years, in an FWAA blog post.
About 10 years into his time with the Banner, Russell told his former teammate and then Vanderbilt head coach Red Sanders about a young assistant coach at Alabama, Bear Bryant. Russell had first met Bryant while covering the 1935 Rose Bowl when Bryant played at Alabama.
Though Bryant hadn’t even been on Sanders’ list of potential hirees, the future powerhouse Alabama head coach was hired as an assistant at Vanderbilt for the 1940 season.
In 1982, the press box at a newly renovated Vanderbilt Stadium was dedicated as the Fred Russell Press Box. The baseball stadium’s press box is also named for Russell.
College football brought Russell onto the national stage of sportswriting. Besides writing for the Banner, Russell contributed to the Saturday Evening Post as a senior football writer from 1949-62, penning the “Pigskin Preview.”
Russell also spent 29 years as the Honor’s Court chairman of the College Football Hall of Fame. He served 46 years as a member of the Heisman Trophy Committee, including 30 as the Southern chairman. During that time, he was also the president of the Football Writers of America.
When the Banner ceased publication in 1998, Russell was 92, but he wasn’t ready to be done writing. Instead, he went to The Tennessean where he spent a year writing a weekly column before retiring. His career spanned 70 years.
Throughout those years, Russell befriended a number of sports icons. At a banquet celebrating Russell’s 25th year at the Banner in 1953, golfer Bobby Jones, football icon Red Grange and boxer Jack Dempsey were all in attendance.
Russell also wrote several books, including the semi-autobiographical Bury Me in an Old Press Box, which details some of the many pranks Russell pulled on his colleagues.
“He was the boss, and he was a highly respected individual, but Fred Russell was also a very funny guy,” former Princeton head coach Bob Casicola said. “On his feet, he could entertain a room very easily.”
Three of Russell’s books were, in fact, humor books: I’ll Go Quietly, I’ll Try Anything Twice and Funny Thing About Sports.
Russell’s final byline was a column written for the book Nashville: An American Self Portrait in 2001, officially spanning his career to nine decades.
He was a funny man, a working man and an every-man’s man. In Andrew Derr’s biography of Russell, Life of Dreams: The Good Times of Sportswriter Fred Russell, ESPN college football commentator Lee Corso recalls his interactions with the writer. Even as an assistant coach, Corso said Russell always treated him with “respect and dignity.”
Russell was also a family man, marrying Katherine Early in 1932, with whom he had four daughters. One of his books is dedicated to them.
He died in 2003 at 96.
Posthumously, Russell was inducted into the Tennessee Sportswriter Hall of Fame and the Vanderbilt Athletics Hall of Fame. The National Football Foundations’ Distinguished American Award was also renamed in his honor.
Of his career, Russell once said the following: “Ever since I began reading sports pages when I was seven or eight, I had envied sports writers almost as much as athletes who were boyhood heroes to me. I’d always imagined sports writing must me the greatest life in the world. Of course, now I am confirmed in the belief.”