Break the Story First

My new book “Pass the Nuts” is now available. Here’s a sample from the book—taken from Chapter 11.

In the 1960s, it was imperative that breaking news on the high school beat broke first in The Plain Dealer. Our sports editor Hal Lebovitz made that a priority. We hustled for everything, from coaching changes to college announcements by star players. I don’t remember if we had Brian Dowling’s announcement first when he declared for Yale. We probably did. I do know that two years later we broke the story when running back Larry Zelina of Benedictine decided on Ohio State.

Zelina was the high school player of the year in Greater Cleveland in 1966 when he led the area in scoring. I have a recurring memory of Larry exploding up the middle through a hole in the line and racing 40 yards untouched into the end zone. He did that a lot. He led the Bengals to two consecutive Charity Game victories, both over South High, and was the only player to be named Charity Game MVP twice. Along the way I had done a story on Larry in The Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine and had been at the Zelina home in the Harvard-Lee neighborhood. I had a good relationship with them and secured from Larry a promise that he would tell us first when he decided on college. All the usual suspects were after him. It was on a warm Monday night in early May of 1967 when he decided on Ohio State. Woody Hayes was sitting in their living room.

“But we can’t tell anybody yet,” Larry said.

“What?!” said Woody. “Why not?”

He wanted to put Zelina under protective custody with an official announcement.

“I promised Mr. Coughlin I would tell him first,” said Larry.

Woody thought that was fine. A nice big story in The Plain Dealer would establish ownership.

“Let’s get him on the phone right now,” said Woody.

Larry dialed up The Plain Dealer sports department. Dick Zunt answered the phone.

“He’s not here right now. He’s covering the Euclid city council meeting,” said Dick. “Can I help you?”

“I can only talk to Mr. Coughlin,” said Larry.

Woody began to fidget. Surely, he wondered, what does a guy covering the Euclid city council have to do with me getting my player?

I will explain that to you right now.

John Sheridan, who covered high school wrestling for us, also was the editor of the Euclid News Journal, his hometown weekly newspaper. That was his full-time job. He did it all. He was the editor, police reporter, politics writer, feature writer, sports writer, he wrote editorials and he endorsed his friends in the local elections. He was busy covering the news and taking care of his friends. In the spring of 1967 he felt he needed a vacation. He wanted to take his corpulent body to the beaches of Fort Lauderdale. To make this possible, however, he had to find a replacement to put out the Euclid News Journal. Selfishly thinking only of himself, he put it to me this way, “If you don’t put out the Euclid News Journal for me, I will not cover high school wrestling for you.”

This was pure blackmail. John was only part time with The Plain Dealer, but he was the only person who knew anything about wrestling. I caved in without a fight. He had all the cards. For those two weeks I worked two jobs.

And so on that Monday night, Larry Zelina and his parents and Woody Hayes got out the white pages and looked for the number of Euclid City Hall. Don’t ever expect that somebody will answer the phone in a municipal building at eight o’clock at night, but that night somebody did. A lady tapped me on the shoulder. “You have an important phone call,” she whispered. “Follow me.”

She led me to the city council office and handed me the phone. I interviewed Larry, got a comment from Woody and I was forever grateful to Larry for his loyalty. The city council story could wait until the next day. When council adjourned, I went back to The Plain Dealer and wrote the Zelina story for the first sports page. In 1968, Larry was a starting halfback on Ohio State’s national championship team.

* * *

In January of 1965, Leo Walczuk called. It was about 10 o’clock at night. I answered the phone. I didn’t know him but I knew of him. He was the father of basketball player Lee Walczuk, a junior who was averaging 30 points a game for Gilmour Academy.

“I’m going to transfer him to St. Edward tomorrow morning,” Leo said.

Mr. Walczuk was famous for saying things like that. Ed Chay, my predecessor on the high school beat, said that a year earlier Leo had called at least twice saying that he would transfer his son to St. Ignatius one time and St. Joseph on another occasion. He never followed through. None of that ever happened. We could not take him seriously. He had cried wolf too often.

But I couldn’t entirely dismiss him. The more he talked, the more serious he sounded.

I called St. Edward basketball coach Jim Connors at home on Robinwood Ave. in Lakewood. I reached him just before he went to bed. He knew nothing about such a development. He knew of Lee Walczuk. Everybody knew of Lee Walczuk. He was in the news all the time as he neared the 1,000-point mark in his career. He had started as a freshman at Gilmour, which had a nice team under Geoff Morton, a young coach of high esteem. Gilmour was winning about 80 percent of its games under Morton.

Connors, however, also had a nice team with a delicate balance. The Eagles had a 15-1 record. They had three players who averaged about 15 points each. They were senior John Wells, a 5-5 all-scholastic guard; junior Walter Violand, a 6-1 forward; and Ralph Pavicic, a big body 6-4 center. They were like a finely tuned watch. Each player had a distinctive role; each player knew his role and each player stayed within his role. Connors was not looking for mid-season transfers. Actually, it was well beyond mid-season. There were only two regular season games left and then the tournament.

I put nothing in the paper. A lot of fathers talk that way at night but wake up the next morning and think more clearly. For Lee to transfer to another private school and be eligible to play varsity basketball immediately, the family would have to actually move. They would have to pack up their many children and their possessions and move. Those were the rules of the Ohio High School Athletic Association. What Mr. Walczuk proposed seemed illogical. Gilmour was a top-of-the-line prep school with an outstanding basketball team. I know parents who would trade lifetime servitude to give their children that kind of opportunity.

Nevertheless, all night long I worried. He just might do it. And if he did, it would happen on Press time. School started at 8:33 a.m. If he’s walking the hallways, some kid is gonna see him—hundreds of kids will see him—and all it takes is one kid with a dime to call the Press and say, “Guess what!” and they would have the story in their home edition. There was a pay phone a few steps away from the main office and another in the gym lobby.

The next morning at eight o’clock, Lee and his father were in the main office at St. Edward High School signing the papers and handing over a $150 check for Lee’s tuition for the second semester, which was just beginning. And a kid did drop a dime. He called Hal Lebovitz at The Plain Dealer. Nobody called the Press. We had the scoop the next morning. To comply with the Ohio High School Athletic Association rules, the Walczuk family moved to an apartment on the Lakewood Gold Coast, within walking distance of St. Ed’s.

At practice that afternoon, guard Dan McNamara nodded toward Walczuk and said, “He’s the key.” It was a magnanimous remark. Walczuk had just taken McNamara’s starting job.

The reason Leo transferred his son was media exposure. Gilmour was not a member of the Ohio High School Athletic Association at that time, which meant it was not part of the state tournament. St. Ed’s, on the other hand, expected to go deep into the playoffs. St. Ed’s won its last two games of the regular season with Walczuk taking his thirty shots and everybody else standing around watching. St. Ed’s was out of sync. The chemistry was wrong. Coach Jim Connors fretted. In the first tournament game, St. Edward, which had a 17-1 record, was upset by Lakewood, a team that had gone 8-10.

The next season was tense. St. Ed’s needed two basketballs—one for Walczuk, another one for everybody else. Connors quit in December saying, “I’ve got a tiger by the tail,” and football coach Joe Paul finished the season. Walczuk got a basketball scholarship to UCLA. His father packed up the family and moved there. Lee hardly ever played. Disillusioned with UCLA coach John Wooden and the preferential treatment accorded stars such as Lew Alcindor, Walczuk quit basketball and became an actor. He married a Polish beauty queen and had a number of children. Lee and his wife live in Hawaii where they have a business as wedding photographers.

Nothing turned out the way it was supposed to except for one thing. I got the story first.

Excerpted from the book Pass the Nuts, copyright © Dan Coughlin. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.

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