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Louisville Slugger Tim Sullivan, Ex-U-T Sports Columnist, Laid Off in Kentucky

BusinessLouisville Slugger Tim Sullivan, Ex-U-T Sports Columnist, Laid Off in Kentucky

Tim Sullivan worked at the Louisville Courier Journal for 10 years. Times of San Diego photo illustration

Tim Sullivan’s debut column for The San Diego Union-Tribune appeared May 27, 2002, after he witnessed Robert Horry’s legendary three-pointer at the buzzer to lift the Lakers over the Kings in the NBA playoffs.

At Staples Center, Sullivan wrote: “This was not Derek Jeter anticipating a throw missing two cutoff men, but Jed Clampett striking oil with a stray bullet.”

Swish!

For 10 years, Sullivan wrote with the grace of a Jabbar skyhook and flair of a Dr. J dunk, ably filling the huge shoes of retired columnist Tom Cushman.

And then he was gone, bounced after well-publicized bouts with U-T publisher Doug Manchester and the paper’s CEO, John Lynch. Sullivan resisted “Papa” Doug’s insistence that his sports staff cheerlead for a new Chargers stadium downtown.

This month, Sullivan is being remembered in San Diego and across the country in the wake of his layoff at the Louisville Courier Journal, his 10-year perch until a dozen days ago.

He announced his exit with trademark humor.

“All of those Courier Journal subscribers who canceled their subscriptions (or claimed to have canceled subscriptions they didn’t have) on my account, it is now safe to return to the C-J because I have been laid off,” he tweeted Aug. 12. “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, etc.”

In interviews, Sullivan said he was the only CJ staffer booted amid a wide blood-letting across the Gannett chain of newspapers. He’s been promised 28 weeks’ severance pay.

He wasn’t told why he was let go, but theorizes it was “driven mainly by salary.” He thinks the same was a reason behind his June 2012 firing at the U-T, also on a Friday.

Higher-ups at the University of Louisville and other targets of his investigative reporting presumably cheered his departure, along with readers who harped on his “negativity.”

Courier Journal management wouldn’t comment on Sullivan.

Instead, Gannett replied to a Times of San Diego inquiry with the same statement offered many media outlets:

“We’ve been transparent about the need to evolve our operations and cost structure in line with our growth strategy while also needing to take swift action given the challenging economic environment,” said Lark-Marie Antón, chief spokeswoman of the Virginia-based chain. “These staffing reductions are incredibly difficult, and we are grateful for the contributions of our departing colleagues.”

Tim Sullivan (right) takes notes after the Cincinnati Bengals beat the host Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 7, 1990, in Anaheim. Bengals coach Sam Wyche wore the gag loin cloth the Sunday after he created a stir by preventing a female reporter from entering the locker room. Photo courtesy Sullivan

Gannett PR added: “As a matter of policy, we do not discuss personnel records. … Out of deep respect for our colleagues, there is no further comment.”

Sullivan, whose wife, Lisa, still works for Gannett in the design department, says he’ll remain a Louisville resident.

“I have two children, two grandchildren and my son’s wife is eight months’ pregnant with No. 3,” he said. “My son and his family live about four miles from me and my daughter’s family about 20 miles away.”

Though aiming to retire at age 70 (in a little over two years) and start taking Social Security, Sullivan says he hasn’t started a job search and isn’t sure he will.

“I think I can afford to retire and may choose to if nothing intriguing should surface,” he said. “I received a call from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which is looking to expand its operation to cover the Cincinnati Bengals, but I’m not interested in commuting 90 miles for beat work.”

Sully, as many call him, says he discussed free-lance possibilities with Cleveland, “but no specifics at this point. I have also been approached about doing some free-lance work for Churchill Downs and selling advertising for a radio show, but neither of those opportunities appeal to me.”

On Twitter, he soft-pedals his plight and resisted taking a knife to his former employer. Instead, he encourages his fans to subscribe to the paper online — since the print edition, produced in Indianapolis two hours away, is woefully late with sports news.

“I’m fortunate that I can afford to be choosy, and I have not yet been bored by inactivity with multiple home-related projects on my plate,” he said via email.

In the first days after the layoff, he returned messages and phone calls — and tried to respond to more than 300 Twitter posts. (“Absolute travesty,” one said.)

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“But as I learned after losing my job in San Diego, I’ve become old news very quickly,” he said. “A horse racing source suggested yesterday I write a book about Bob Baffert and his controversies, but that’s not a book I want to do or think would sell.”

His fans beg to differ.

In San Diego, retired U-T colleague Peter Rowe called Sullivan a superb wordsmith.

“When he and Nick Canepa alternated sports columns, we had one of the best one-two punches in journalism,” he said. “Tim was quick on his feet and I believe that, at least in part, sealed his fate here.”

Rowe recalls that shortly after Jeff Light arrived as the top U-T editor, a party on the fifth-floor patio of the Mission Valley plant saw Light explain “we were no longer a newspaper company. Instead, we were a news company. Reporters and columnists would still contribute to the print product, but also file regular online dispatches, incorporating words, photos and videos.”

Tough on New Boss

“That’s when Tim asked the single most relevant question ever uttered in a staff meeting,” Rowe said.

“Jeff, will time expand?” Sullivan retorted, then added as Light looked puzzled: “Right now, all of us are working full time just to meet our deadlines for the paper. So will time expand?”

Rowe says: “I don’t recall how Jeff responded. But I do know that, within two weeks, Tim was gone.”

Jay Posner, now the sports editor of the U-T, covered the NBA in 2002 when he drove Sullivan north to see Horry and the Lakers play in the Western Conference finals.

“The thing about Tim as a columnist was he would think nothing of having a deadline of, say 8 or 9 o’clock for a column, and at 5 o’clock it would be like: ‘Hey, Tim, do you know what you’re [writing about]?’ ‘Nah, I got a couple things going on.’”

Canepa always referred to Sullivan as a bleeder, Posner said.

“He would bleed over every word in his column,” he said. But despite never enjoying working under time pressure, “if you gave him a deadline, he would meet it.”

When in San Diego, he’d work from a desk in the third-floor newsroom — atypical of many columnists. Posner said he witnessed his process — as well as his obscenity-laced temper when he fought computer problems.

“He had a great reporter background having been on the baseball beat for so many years,” Posner said. “You’d better be a good reporter on the baseball beat.”

Sullivan and others said he was about the sixth choice as Cushman’s replacement — behind the likes of Mark Whicker at The Orange County Register, Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle, Art Thiel of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Kevin Paul DuPont of the Boston Globe.

‘A Great Reporter’

In fact, DuPont was offered the job, but his family objected. (And Ostler turned out to be too pricey, with U-T managers “quickly stunned by how much money he was looking for,” said one source.)

Posner, who retires in November after 34 years at the U-T, says Sullivan used to accuse him of dragging him to L.A. events so Posner could use the carpool lane. 

Despite Sullivan being down the list of candidates, “I always felt we were very fortunate to get someone of Tim’s quality,” Posner said. “In addition to being a great person, who I enjoyed working with, he was a great columnist, a great reporter.”

Thiel, a staple of Seattle broadcast, print and online media, told Times of San Diego:

In the sweaty, sarcastic knot of beat writers/columnists that were frequent travelers back in the journo day, Tim was a guy who you hoped would show up in the bar at the media hotel. It was also nice when he made it to the press box too. But that was secondary. Anyone can do that. Tim could work a bar. A smile, a joke, some background dirt on a local controversy he was covering, and the occasional Sinatra impression — what else do you need?

Besides picking up the tab. Tim knew his topics, his peeps and himself, all of which made him a formidable essayist. His only target was the reader, his only offering was the truth about the events of the day. Some of his subjects and institutions he rattled may not have liked it, but those complainants were lint to be flicked from the lapels.

In the contemporary world where big media and big sports are virtual partners, the sagacious voice of independent thinking is undervalued, and vanishing. Now more than ever, Tim Sullivan deserves a platform, should he choose to take it. If not, it would be a delight for many of us if he just worked the piano bar part-time.

Sullivan’s reputation as a truth-to-power-teller was captured in a recent column.

Charlie Springer, who blogs about University of Louisville sports, said Sullivan was affable but had a shortcoming — “his negative approach to covering athletics … always the reporter who feels obligated to ask the most provocative questions during any news conference.”

“That may have been the reason other local reporters avoided some of the tough questions; they knew Sullivan would do it,” Springer wrote after the layoff. “He came to be known as the negative force in the room or at the press table.”

Not so fast, says Tim Layden, one of the nation’s most revered sportswriters.

A former senior writer at Sports Illustrated who now works for NBC Sports, Layden told Times of San Diego:

The remarkable thing is that Tim has never become irrelevant, never lost the ability to connect his own voice with readers. That is no small accomplishment, and the area where many longtime writers, and especially columnists, fall short.

Better yet, in Louisville, Tim not only retained the sharpness of his editorial voice, but produced a steady stream of stories — particularly on horse racing — that broke news on a beat that’s very important in that city. The guy just kept working, without losing a single inch off his fastball.

We’ve all seen dozens of colleagues lose their jobs. I won’t claim to understand every nuance of why this has happened. But a readership that loses Tim Sullivan’s voice is worse off, and less informed, today than yesterday.

While most CJ colleagues wouldn’t comment on Sullivan’s layoff, one did.

“Tim was a well-respected journalist among his peers and co-workers in Louisville,” said prep sports and horse racing reporter Jason Frakes. “In a market filled with fan-boy ‘journalists,’ Tim may have been the last one left who was not afraid to ask the tough question. That turned off some people, but Tim always stayed true to the mission. He’ll be greatly missed at The Courier Journal.”

Boxer in Family Past

How did Sullivan become so admired — and reviled?

Perhaps combative DNA?

“I am unable to confirm a distant relationship to the boxer John L. Sullivan and have been told a grandfather once fought under the name Eddie Drew,” he says. “I am aware of no records of his bouts, however.”

Born in Annapolis, Maryland, he grew up mostly in Virginia.

From second grade through high school, he lived in Springfield, saying: “If you’ve seen ‘Remember the Titans,’ T.C. Williams was a rival school and that film depicts events from my senior year in high school. The movie takes significant liberties with the truth, but that’s another story.”

Any journalists in the family?

“Not sure it qualifies as journalism, but one of my ancestors was a Civil War-era photographer in Richmond whose studio took pictures of several prominent Confederate generals,” Sullivan said. “Some of them are contained in the collection of a Richmond museum.”

He said he came to sportswriting via a process of elimination.

“I was a terrible athlete — painfully slow, with sub-par upper body strength — and a mediocre student,” Sullivan said, having played four years of Little League baseball “without distinction.”

“I often tell people I took math as a foreign language and I was far out of my depth in the hard sciences. My strongest subject was history and I was fortunate to receive some timely encouragement regarding writing while still in high school,” he said.

He chose the University of Missouri School of Journalism “largely because of its ranking in [a school] library book.”

“As I recall, there were only three that graded A in journalism: Missouri, Columbia and Northwestern (or maybe it was Stanford). Given how selective and expensive Columbia and Northwestern were (and are), I didn’t bother applying to those two,” he said. “Missouri and Georgia accepted me and I chose Missouri sight-unseen.”

After graduating from Mizzou in 1976, Sullivan briefly worked for the Tulsa Tribune before joining The Cincinnati Enquirer in January 1977.

Cincinnati Stint

There for 25 years he “chronicled a wide range of subjects – eight Olympic Games; the gambling probe that led to Cincinnati’s fallen hero, Pete Rose, being banned from baseball; complex financing debates over new stadiums for baseball’s Reds and football’s Bengals; and sensitive human interest stories,” said his U-T biography.

“He served as beat writer covering the University of Cincinnati, the Bengals and the Reds before being named a columnist in September 1984.”

Chuck Scott was the U-T sports editor who hired Sullivan, but recalls he had “significant help” from RB Brenner (who now teaches journalism at Stanford University after being metro editor and Sunday editor of The Washington Post) and input from deputy sports editor Doug Williams and prep sports editor Jess Kearney. “And [U-T editor] Karin [Winner] of course needed to sign off on it.”

Said Scott: “Hard to believe that was 20 years ago already!”

Sullivan was frequently honored in the annual Associated Press Sports Editors writing competition.

Kentuckians reading the state’s largest paper — with 11 Pulitzers to the U-T’s four — prized his work. His layoff triggered laments.

“I’m just reading that @TimSullivan714 is out at the @courierjournal and that’s ridiculous,” said college basketball coach Tom Crean. “I know times are different but Tim deserves to be read and followed at a high level.”

Animal activist and lobbyist Marty Irby said: “It’s sad to see you go. You have truly been the most consistent and dedicated journalist in the mainstream media that has covered the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, and I am personally very grateful for all of your great work! 🐎

Radio host Mark Ennis tweeted: “Even when I’ve disagreed with you I have always admired your fearlessness and unwillingness to be in anyone’s pocket. This says more about Gannett than it does you.”

And sportswriter Patrick Borzi wrote: “Props to my pal @TimSullivan714 for the classy way he handled a really tough day, courtesy of our friends at @Gannett. As usual, the biggest losers in all this are the readers, who never seem to matter when someone’s bonus is at stake.”

Indeed, Sullivan took the high road (albeit with comical jabs).

In one reply, he said: “The severance deal was good enough that I might have accepted it had it been presented as a buyout offer. I’m pretty close to retirement. Just not THIS close.”

Sullivan also quipped: “After 35 (non-consecutive) years with Gannett, I thought I’d at least get a cake on the way out. Instead, a figurative pie in the face. Sigh.”

But he wasn’t about to let the “negative” rap go unanswered.

“Funny how no one complained about my negative writing when Louisville was winning the Sugar Bowl, the NCAA Championship and going to the College World Series,” he tweeted. “Could it be that you’re blaming the messenger when the news is not so good? Have a nice day.”

12.9K Followers

His first love remained baseball.

Though asked to migrate his Twitter audience from @TimSullivan714 to @TimSullivanCJ, he abandoned posting on his newspaper-branded account after a short time.

His fans grew to nearly 13,000 followers. Many knew 714 wasn’t an area code but an homage to Babe Ruth’s career home runs. (Although he once said it was his son’s birth weight.)

“When I was dating my wife, I told her I would likely propose on a major religious holiday that was not Christmas,” he said. “My mom correctly guessed I meant Babe Ruth’s birthday.”

Sullivan says people have generally been “very kind and more than generous” in reaction to his layoff.

“I expected a little more negative feedback from Louisville fans, and there’s probably a fair amount of that on university-centric message boards, but I have not sought it out,” he said. “While I appreciate the many nice things people have said, I am inclined to think most people’s impulse is to overreact when a friend loses a job.

“Given the state of the newspaper industry and, in particular, the latest earnings report from Gannett, it’s hardly shocking that a 67-year-old sportswriter making a relatively decent buck would be vulnerable. The good news is that I’m much better positioned to absorb the blow now than I was 10 years ago.”

On Twitter, he repeatedly expressed gratitude for a long career.

He said his layoff — revealed in a morning meeting with the editor and “an HR person I didn’t know” — was “driven mainly by salary,” his pay among the highest in the shrinking newsroom.

“When you’re making decent money, you become a target,” he said.

Ken Stone worked with Sullivan at the Union-Tribune.

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