Goodbye to a dear friend of women's sports

AP Photo/Bill Shettle

"I think Bill understood the fundamental sharing aspect of basketball from the moment he started covering the game," DePaul coach Doug Bruno, on the late Chicago sports writer Bill Jauss.

Women's sports lost a good friend earlier this month, but I'm guessing only those who knew Bill Jauss realized it.

Jauss, a Chicago sports writer perhaps best known for his role on "Sportswriters on TV," a nationally syndicated talk show that predated by over a decade the plethora of similar shows today, died at 81 of natural causes at his home in Wilmette, Ill., on Oct. 10.

At his memorial service, friends and relatives laughed at the many mentions of his opinionated, liberal ways. In recounting his many achievements, the program for the service even noted that Jauss "had a soft spot for the working man and women's sports ..."

What we all knew as well was the sweet, generous, marshmallow-hearted soul he was. An offensive lineman on Northwestern's freshman football team in 1948, the season the Wildcats won the Rose Bowl, he later was a favorite instructor at the university's Medill School of Journalism.

He was a stickler, Jauss, a first-class journalist with a sense of integrity that absolutely never wavered.

DePaul women's basketball coach Doug Bruno, an assistant for the U.S. gold-medal winners in London, theorized that all of those things explained why Jaussy loved women's sports -- the DePaul basketball team, in particular -- and why he spent the better part of his career fighting with editors for the chance to cover them.

"I think Bill understood the fundamental sharing aspect of basketball from the moment he started covering the game," Bruno said. "And that probably came from being an offensive lineman and the understanding that the glamour guys couldn't do anything if not for the grunts up front, blocking and tackling.

"He valued women's sports and he fought the fight in editorial rooms with his editors to be able to cover us, and he fought for space in the paper. Then after he fought, he didn't look down on the assignment, he looked up to it."

Jauss drew incredulous looks and even cold stares when, during Michael Jordan's prime -- and in Chicago, no less -- he would dare to suggest to anyone who would listen that Jordan was a selfish player. Women's players were rarely selfish, he argued, playing a purer form of the game with superior fundamentals.

Jauss, who spent 37 of his 50 years as a sportswriter with the Chicago Tribune, covered Bruno's WBL Chicago Hustle teams of the late 1970s, and later women's sports at DePaul, Loyola and Northwestern, making DePaul's Lady Blue Demons his unofficial beat.

"When he did his radio and TV shows, the other guys would lambast him," recalled longtime Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Toni Ginnetti, Jauss' competitor on the DePaul men's basketball beat and one of his best pals off of it.

"When he did cover the women, he relished it and he'd talk about how it was a true game with none of the dunking, that they played the way the game was supposed to be played. … I'm sure when the women started dunking the last few years, Jaussy thought, 'Oh no, they're going to ruin the women's game the way they did the men's.'"

Dan McGrath, the Tribune's executive sports editor from 2002 to 2009, remembered the "debates" he had with Jauss over covering women.

"It was such a tough sell because of everything going on in Chicago sports," McGrath said. "But Bill was always there advocating, 'Let's not forget about the women.' He was my conscience in a way. One of the great things about him was his sense of fairness. As much as he appreciated the game, that fairness was just as much at the root of it."

Jauss would walk down Chicago streets and through the airport and literally be hailed by cab drivers and baggage handlers and the guys in the newsstands. "Hey Jaussy," they'd all holler, former Trib columnist Bob Verdi likening Jauss to "royalty" in an interview with the Tribune's Fred Mitchell. They knew him from the TV show, but also as one of the guys on the softball field or the corner tavern.

Jauss -- whose son David, the second of his three children, went on to become a major league coach and scout and a minor league manager -- was just as comfortable at Soldier Field or Wrigley Field as he was at a high school basketball game. He loved those, too. "He'd walk into those gyms," Ginnetti said, "and they thought God was covering them."

But it was the women's game to which guys like Jauss and competitors like the now-retired Sun-Times sportswriter Steve Tucker gave legitimacy just by their presence.

"One thing that will always stick with me," said former DePaul captain and assistant coach Sarah Kustok, now a sideline reporter covering the Brooklyn Nets for the Yes Network, "is that of everything going on in Chicago sports, Bill always made us feel ours was the most important game and the most important place to be, and that this is exactly where he wanted to be and exactly what he wanted to be doing.

"He could not be prouder covering women's sports and it was unusual to find a man who believed in it to that extent."

The battle continues, which Bruno finds ironic, often citing research, reported by the Women's Sports Foundation, that women receive just 6 to 8 percent of sports coverage nationwide.

"Sports editors will argue that the only sports that should be covered are the ones highly attended," Bruno said. "But I remember the Chicago Bulls had four beat writers covering them when there was nobody in the Chicago Stadium, and some really bad Cubs teams in the '50s and '60s, when the upper deck never opened and they still had coverage.

"It took champions like Jauss and Tuck to fight for us. And now one's gone and one's retired, and it's not like the torch has passed to a new generation of sports writer."

But it's not all bad. This column was written for a website dedicated to women's sports. And Bruno spoke by phone from New York, where he was attending Big East women's basketball media day, covered by approximately 150 media members.

Newspaper space is no longer the only obstacle to coverage of women's sports, but unfortunately there will always be others. That's all the more reason why every woman athlete in America should appreciate the Jaussys out there. He was just one guy, in one of America's largest sports outposts, but he fought the good fight for as long as he could fight it.

"Bill lost a lot of arguments, but it never beat him down," McGrath said. "If we didn't assign him a game, he went on his own. He was a true believer and he made all of us think about and appreciate what he was doing."

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