By Matt Traub
Sports Travel Magazine
Oct. 10, 2019
There was a time, and it wasn’t so long ago, that the local sports columnist was everything for a community. He was the first person you read the morning after a big event, the one whose call for a hiring or firing made or destroyed a coach or player, and the one who commanded respect in just about every room he walked into.
Tom McEwen was all that and more for the Tampa Bay market. Without Tom McEwen, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would not exist. Without Tom McEwen, Steve Spurrier may not have been a football coach. Without Tom McEwen, the New York Yankees would not have a spring training complex in Tampa.
And for a columnist whose career started in the days of composing rooms and hot type, McEwen worked until shortly before his death on June 5, 2011, writing columns for the online version of the Tampa Tribune.
McEwen spent most of his life in Florida. He was born on March 16, 1923 in Tampa and grew up in Wauchula, a small town of a few thousand located less than 90 minutes from Tampa. It was a small town, but his family churned out some big names; his older brother, James “Red” McEwen, was a football star at Florida and later a well-known attorney who got into politics and civic leadership throughout Tampa before his death in 1976. His cousin, Doyle Carlton, had a stint as Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner.
Tom McEwen was the salutatorian of Wauchula High School and then enrolled at the University of Florida, beginning a relationship and loyalty to the school that would extend the rest of his life. He was the Alpha Tau Omega president and executive editor of the student newspaper, The Alligator. He also was a student manager of the cafeteria, and graduated in 1944 with a degree in journalism.
McEwen was not in Gainesville to receive his diploma in person, though; like so many men of his age, he was off to combat in World War II. He was in the United States Army for two years, rising to the rank of captain and serving in the Pacific as a platoon leader. He later served as a prison officer of a POW camp in the Philippines that had 2,000 Japanese prisoners.Among his corporals, he oversaw Joe Garagiola from St. Louis, who later went on to fame in Major League Baseball and television broadcasting but never failed to salute McEwen whenever they saw each other the rest of their lives. McEwen even remained in the Army reserves after the war was concluded, and retired in 1976 from the Florida National Guard as a lieutenant colonel, receiving the Florida Order of Merit.
But when the war was over, his professional journalism life began. McEwen was a general assignment reporter and sports editor at the Fort Myers News-Press for two years — insert joke about a sports person being able to handle news coverage flawlessly here — but then took a break from newspapers, moving back to the Philippines and working in Manila for six years as a criminal investigator for the U.S. government.
The next time he left the Far East, it was for good, and it was for Florida again, this time for the rest of his life. McEwen covered sports, again for the News-Press and then later for the St. Petersburg Times starting in 1954. McEwen became sports editor of the Tampa Tribune, taking over a three-person staff in 1958, then moved to the Tampa Tribune in 1962, beginning a 30-year run that marked him as one of the giants in the sports journalism industry.
It was during that period when, if you were a major metro sports columnist, you traveled the globe to cover events. McEwen was no different; his column carried datelines from almost every Super Bowl, plus the World Series, Final Fours, college football bowl games, the Masters, Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, and international events such as Wimbledon, the World Cup and the Olympics.
And when you travel the world to cover sports, you make connections. McEwen was a connector, one of the most influential columnists in the South. He became terrific friends with George Steinbrenner, and convinced him to move the Yankees spring training to Tampa. He helped make the case for NFL teams in Atlanta and New Orleans, betting that success in those markets would lead to an expansion franchise in Tampa Bay — which came true in the mid 1970s.
Just about every major team in the Tampa area has McEwen’s influence on it; the Tampa Bay Lightning and Tampa Bay Rays in professional sports, and the University of South Florida in the American Athletic Conference. He often wrote about his favorite Florida Gators, and was a prime supporter of Steve Spurrier’s Heisman Trophy win 1966. Remaining a Spurrier fan, McEwen convinced Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett to hire Spurrier as head coach of his USFL team, setting in motion the career of the Ol’ Ball Coach.
McEwen wrote six columns a week, in addition to the Sunday staple ‘Hey Tom!’ with questions from readers. McEwen won the Florida Sportswriter of the Year award 19 times, and in 2000 was the recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award at the Canton NFL Hall of Fame ceremonies. In 1993, the Associated Press Sports Editors presented McEwen with the Red Smith Award; he had retired as sports editor the year before, having seen a seven-person sports department grow to 61 staffers at one point.
But retiring as sports editor did not mean his storytelling went away. McEwen still wrote even after retiring as sports editor until one final print column in February 2001, when he was honored at Raymond James Stadium for his career. He continued to write both for the Tribune’s website and his own website, tallying an estimated 10,000 columns and articles during his time in Tampa.
Today, the street in front of Raymond James Stadium, home of the Buccaneers team he helped bring to town, is named Tom McEwen Boulevard. It stands as a reminder for every fan of the man who was Tampa’s biggest local booster in its quest for an NFL team, and who chronicled every step from its winless season to its Super Bowl title. You see, there seldom was anything in Tampa sports that Tom McEwen wasn’t there for.