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VOL. 39 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 20, 2015

The sporting life of David Climer

From John Merritt to Michael Jordan, his most memorable moments, interviews

By David Climer

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I’m blaming Rudy Kalis. As the years passed in a long career as a sports writer, I always swore I’d never be the oldest guy at the press conference.

As long as Rudy was in the house as sports anchor for WSMV-TV, I was safe. Then he got a morning gig at Channel 4.

And there I was – the oldest guy at the press conference.

Damn you, Rudy.

Upon further review, thank you, Rudy.

That’s what it took for me to walk out the door of The Tennessean. After 38 years – 41 if you count part-time work – I accepted a voluntary early retirement offer.

October 30 was my last day. On Halloween, I put on the mask of a man that no longer works for a daily newspaper.

I grew up addicted to two things: sports and writing. Going cold turkey isn’t easy. Some days, I feel like I should be in a 12-step recovery program. I’m not yet a month removed from the only job I ever wanted.

It was my call to take the buyout and walk. Many others that have left The Tennessean in the last few years weren’t as fortunate.

But if you’re expecting to read a rip job of The Tennessean, you’ve come to the wrong place. As a kid in Lebanon, Tenn., I dreamed of one day being a sports writer at The Tennessean. Serving as a sports columnist for the last 21 years was above and beyond anything I ever hoped.

Longtime Tennessean sports columnist David Climer gets a supportive lick from Ava at his home near Lipscomb University.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

So what’s it like to write four columns a week?

It’s great.

And it stinks.

Some days you walk into the office and nail it. You pick a topic and the words flow. It’s so easy you feel like you’re stealing.

Those are the good days.

And then there are the other days. You wake up with nothing – no ideas, no words, no hope. At low points, you find yourself hoping that a coach, maybe even a coach who’s a friend, will get fired so you can opine on whether it was the right or wrong move.

It’s a heck of a way to make a living. I’m asked quite often where this profession is headed. Damned if I know. These days, everybody has a blog. Legitimate reporters are losing market share to carnival barkers. The louder you scream, the more web hits you get.

And make no mistake: Web hits are how we keep score.

At my previous job, I was introduced to the wonderful world of metrics. While it was never presented to me in so many words by one of my former bosses, I understood that my worth as a columnist was determined to a great degree by the number of web hits I secured, not by the quality of my work.

Among Climer’s many mementos is this photo with then-University of Tennessee Coach Johnny Major at his annual golf tournament.

-- Photo Courtesy Of David Climer

That’s why so many columnists spend so much time swinging away at low-hanging fruit. That’s where the web hits are found.

Looking back, I was lucky to move into the columnist role at a time when the local sports scene was experiencing a remarkable growth spurt. The downtown arena was built. The Predators were born.

For reasons only he knew, Bud Adams took a liking to Nashville and exported his Oilers from Houston.

In a few short years, we became a major league city.

Contrast that to the Nashville I knew as a young sports writer. When I started at The Tennessean, the biggest sports event on the calendar was a Vanderbilt-Tennessee football or basketball game.

Prep sports were a huge deal. When the women’s pro golf tour hit town as the Sara Lee Classic in 1988, we covered it like it was the Masters.

Looking back, the best thing that happened to me in my journalistic career was being assigned the Tennessee State beat in 1977. I was fresh out of the University of Tennessee where I had done some part-time work for The Tennessean, covering practices and games.

At UT, there was always someone in the sports information office to help with things like arranging interviews and supplying statistics. At TSU, you were on your own. It was sink or swim.

Merritt

-- Tennessee State Athletic Media Relations

And for a time, I was drowning. I was in over my head, a white kid covering a historically black football program, trying desperately to act like he knew what he was doing when it was apparent to all that he had no clue.

Then John Merritt took pity on me. He saved my career almost before it got started. It’s a shame that so many newcomers to the Nashville area have no idea who John Merritt was.

In the ’60s and into the ’70s, Merritt’s teams were among the best in black college football. When major college programs in the South were reluctant to recruit African-American players, Merritt seeded NFL rosters with remarkable talents like Too Tall Jones and Richard Dent.

Beyond that, he was a larger than life figure whose influence extended far beyond the football field.

Smart politicians sought Big John’s endorsement. The man could win games and get out the vote.

If he liked you, you had no better friend than John Merritt. I thank my lucky sports writing stars that he took a liking to me.

I distinctly remember standing on the sideline at the end of an evening practice during my first year on the TSU beat when Coach Merritt strolled over, cigar in the corner of his mouth, hand extended.

“Dave,” he said in that booming voice, “they tell me I’m stuck with you. So let’s see if we can work this out, OK?”

From that moment on, I belonged. It’s been a wonderful journey.

Expect to read more David Climer articles on sports and other topics in upcoming editions of The Ledger.

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