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Tom McEwen, former Tribune sports editor and columnist, dies at 88

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 03:48 PM

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TAMPA -

Tom McEwen, the former Tampa Tribune sports editor and columnist, mixed comfortably with the rich and powerful, but never forgot that he once was a barefoot boy from Wauchula who delivered newspapers on horseback. He cultivated personal relationships with the most famous coaches and athletes, but prided himself on maintaining the common touch.

Even as his health problems mounted and he wrote less frequently, McEwen maintained a love affair with the Tampa Bay area sports scene.

"Tom was simply one of a kind,’’ said former Buccaneers defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, the franchise’s lone representative in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

McEwen had a leg amputated, lost sight in one eye and battled skin cancer in recent years. Once a world traveler, he died Sunday morning at his favorite place, the Davis Islands home he shared with his wife, Linda. He was 88.

"He’s not suffering anymore," said Linda McEwen, who entered "a life of laughter and adventure’’ when she married McEwen in 1970. "He has been through a lot. We were pals. We were best friends. We’re all going to miss him so much."

News of McEwen’s death spread quickly, prompting public and private reflections about his effect on the Tampa Bay area.

"Tom was Tampa sports – period," said Leonard Levy, the civic activist and McEwen’s longtime friend. "Without Tom’s support for this community, we couldn’t possibly be the place we are today."

It’s a place that built two football stadiums and hosted four Super Bowls. It’s a place that attracted the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, a place where the Stanley Cup was improbably hoisted and the World Series once visited. It’s a place where professional soccer once attracted near-sellout crowds. It’s a place where major college football is played and that hosts a New Year’s Day bowl game.

And it’s a place where Selmon arrived in 1976, wondering how his life with the expansion Bucs would evolve. In 1995, after a decorated career, Selmon was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. McEwen successfully presented Selmon’s case before the Hall of Fame selection committee.

"I remember coming to Tampa and having people say, ‘Tom McEwen is the man you need to get to know. … Tom McEwen is the man around here,’" said Selmon, now a fundraiser for the University of South Florida athletic department. "When you first came across him, it was almost like he was the mayor.

"It didn’t take me long to realize he was much, much bigger than that."

Thomas Massey McEwen was born in Tampa on March 16, 1923. He grew up in Wauchula as a member of a pioneer Florida family that included cousin and former Florida Agriculture Commissioner Doyle Carlton and other brother Red McEwen, a well-known Tampa attorney and civic leader before his death in 1976.

After his graduation from the University of Florida, his military service and stints at two other Florida newspapers, McEwen became a Tampa fixture.

He was a prolific writer, churning out his must-read sports column, "The Morning After," six days a week during much of his tenure at the Tribune, which began on April 1, 1962. McEwen also wrote a Sunday letters to the editor column – "Hey, Tom!" – that famously cast him as the know-it-all foil for questions, barbs and venom (along with some occasional love) from his readers.

He supervised a sports staff that grew from seven to 61 at one point.

He wrote more than 10,000 columns, including many that caused consternation for English teachers everywhere, who complained about his run-on sentences and lack of syntax.

In the industry, though, McEwen was regarded as a giant.

"Tom has been more important to Tampa than cigars," said Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, when he presented McEwen the Red Smith Award, the highest honor in sports writing, in 1993.

McEwen, once named one of Tampa’s 25 most influential people, was the only member of the media to sit on both the college and pro football hall of fame selection committees. He won a record 19 Florida Sportswriter of the Year awards.

He was as comfortable at a black-tie dinner as he was in a private booth at the old Malio’s or the Buccaneers’ training table.

For many years, McEwen and his wife hosted an August brunch at their waterfront home. It wasn’t unusual to see politicians, judges, police chiefs and university presidents mingling with team owners, coaches and players. The fare usually included fried catfish, grits and collard greens, washed down with mimosas.

To his critics, McEwen skirted the rules of journalism ethics, ignored the politically correct manners of recent times and was an unabashed booster of Tampa, which was, in his words, "this wonderful, admired place in which we live."

His hands-on, personal style endeared him to coaches and athletes. When McEwen spoke, it was a conversation, not an inquiry. And while his peers often were in the buffet line, McEwen usually was on the field, sometimes just to say hello.

"I don’t like any sports writers," baseball great Ted Williams once said. "But I like Tom McEwen."

McEwen developed a long-term relationship with mall developer Eddie DeBartolo, who had purchased the San Francisco 49ers. In 1978, when DeBartolo used McEwen’s hotel room to secretly interview the coach at Stanford University.

The coach was Bill Walsh, who later led the 49ers to three Super Bowl championships.

"He was the mold, and now it is broken," said DeBartolo, who now operates a sports and entertainment business in Tampa. "What he did for Tampa and the community could never ever be measured. He literally put this city, almost on his own, on the sports map."

McEwen’s career of sports advocacy hit a high note in the 1960s, when he campaigned for the facility that became Tampa Stadium. That led to an NFL expansion franchise.

 

On Jan. 26, 2003, when the Bucs defeated the Oakland Raiders 48-21 to capture Super Bowl XXXVII at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, McEwen watched the proceedings, almost like a proud father.

"Tom is a loyal friend to me and my family," said former Bucs coach Jon Gruden, now a broadcaster with ESPN’s "Monday Night Football’’ series. "I always admired his work, and I thought he was fair in what he wrote about us."

"His professionalism speaks for itself, and in his own way, he challenged me to be the best Buc I could be," former Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "He also challenged me to be an ambassador for Tampa Bay.

"I ran into him recently and he still had his wit. He told me he was proud of me for being an ambassador. That meant a lot to me."

Throughout the NFL, the news of McEwen’s death prompted fond memories.

"Tom McEwen will always remain a legend, not only in Tampa but throughout sports," NFL senior vice president of public relations Greg Aiello said in a statement. "We are forever grateful that Tom’s many talents helped the growth of the NFL and entertained fans for so many years."

"Tom McEwen was a legendary difference-maker in journalism, sports and the Tampa Bay region,’’ said the Glazer family, owners of the Bucs, in a statement. "Had Tom decided to dedicate his trademark smarts, gusto and energy to something else, there would be no Buccaneers."

As it was, McEwen received a lengthy education in covering adversity, chronicling the Bucs from the franchise’s 0-and-26 beginning, then later, through 14 consecutive losing seasons. McEwen once said he could write a handbook on "How to Cover Defeats." But he persevered and wrote about the good times, too.

"I grew up on Tom McEwen, and I had a lot of respect for the man," said former Bucs quarterback and team executive Doug Williams. "When you talked about sports in the Tampa Bay area, you were talking about Tom McEwen. Whatever he said, that was the word."

"Tom didn’t look to create dirt," said former Bucs executive Jerry Angelo, now general manager of the Chicago Bears, who first met McEwen while an assistant coach at the University of Tampa in the early-1970s.

"He saw a bigger picture. He knew he had to be critical and analytical, but he didn’t believe in piling on and hurting people. He’s an icon. We were the lowly Bucs a lot of those years, but he was always there, showing his face, doing his job and doing it with class and fairness."

McEwen’s impact still can be seen practically everywhere.

The press box at the St. Pete Times Forum bears his name, as did the press box at the old Tampa Stadium. After Raymond James Stadium was built, the street just south of the new facility was renamed "Tom McEwen Boulevard."

McEwen was honored as a distinguished alumnus of the University of Florida. UF gives a football scholarship annually in his name. An endowed scholarship in McEwen’s name is awarded every spring to a mass communications student at the University of South Florida.

In 2004, three years after his formal retirement from the Tribune, when his writing consisted of online pieces for TBO.com, McEwen sat near the ice and watched the Lightning win an NHL championship. Later that summer, Lightning president Ron Campbell had the Stanley Cup brought to McEwen’s house to honor his efforts in helping the franchise get started in the early 1990s.

"He was just omnipresent, just everywhere in this town," Gruden said. "When you think of Tampa, you think of him."

"As a columnist, he could take his shots," said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, formerly the Bucs’ general manager. "My father learned that when he coached the Bucs. But Tom McEwen was a fair journalist who earned everyone’s respect. Above all, he talked up his community."

Many times, his talks were hilarious.

"He had a quick, dry wit and he was a real pleasure," said Rays vice president Rick Nafe, formerly executive director of the Tampa Sports Authority. "Tom made my job a lot easier’’ by providing editorial support during a time when the city built three major facilities (Steinbrenner Field, the Ice Palace, Raymond James Stadium) in a five-year span.

The only regret, one of McEwen’s friends said, was that Tom can’t deliver the eulogy at his own funeral on Friday.

That task will fall to Monsignor Laurence Higgins, founder of St. Lawrence Catholic Church.

Higgins first met McEwen in 1958, when they both arrived in Tampa. Ever since, he has considered McEwen a friend and confidante.

"I know that Tom has spiritual peace," Higgins said. "I can’t imagine someone who has accomplished more in this area. I know he took a lot of pride in everything. He helped a lot of people along the way. He helped me more than he ever realized."

McEwen, an accomplished after-dinner speaker, knew early on that Higgins would deliver speeches at weddings and funerals. Years ago, McEwen passed along his three rules.

Prepare meticulously, then practice your presentation.

Always check the sound equipment.

Make certain there’s a light at the podium, so your words can be clearly read.

"And I will do all three of those things, like I always have, ever since Tom taught me how to go about it,’’ Higgins said. "I’m going to miss that man. I love him. But it gives me great joy to know that he served his family, he did his job well and now he has been called home."

In addition to his wife, McEwen is survived by his son Rick; daughters Virginia Mullaney, Gabriella Gramming and Elissa McEwen; grandchildren Christopher Stork, Stephanie Flynn, Sean Mullaney, Thomas Linthicum and Richard McEwen; and three great-grandchildren.

McEwen funeral

WHEN: 2 p.m. Friday

WHERE: St. Lawrence Catholic Church, 5525 N. Himes Ave.

RECEPTION: 3-5 p.m., Higgins Hall (next to the church)

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