One morning, at least 20 years ago, I was a guest on the Birmingham call-in radio program hosted by Doug Layton, longtime Alabama football color and basketball play-by-play man. Doug took a call.
“Are Kirk McNair and Cecil Hurt the same person?”
Doug laughed and then said, “Of course they aren’t.”
Seemingly serious, the caller persisted, “Have you ever seen them in the same room together?”
I don’t recall what brought that on. I suspect the caller was not an Alabama fan.
I had not thought of that for many years, but it is one of dozens of memories that have emerged since I got word of Cecil Hurt’s death at age 62. Even when I believed there could be no other outcome, I continued to hope there would be a medical miracle.
I can’t remember what brought on the radio suggestion that Cecil and I were one and the same, but I feel certain I was pleased. Cecil had a wide following, wider even than his Tuscaloosa News audience. He was a regular on radio and television sports programs, and quoted by sports columnists and commentators around the nation as he rightly was considered an expert – an entertaining expert – on Alabama athletics.
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He turned down an opportunity to join the sports department at The New York Times. He told me, “The highlight of my year would be covering an Alabama game. Here I cover them all.”
I read Cecil Hurt’s column for its insight and its humor. I am not surprised that so many of the tributes to him have focused on his brilliance as a communicator. I thought of him as measuring every word before it reached the page.
Charley Thornton’s program of providing scholarship help for student assistants in Alabama’s sports information office was paying off handsomely even before Cecil joined us in the late 1970s, when I first met him. He was one of the very bright men and women who were above and beyond anything that could reasonably have been expected.
When I left the university to start ’BAMA Magazine, Cecil was one of those former student assistants who sometimes wrote for us. My successor as SID, Jack Perry, talked to me about hiring Cecil to be his assistant. I told Jack that I knew Cecil would do a good job in sports information, but I thought his real gift was as a sportswriter.
We stayed close over the years as we were constants in coverage of coaches from Paul Bryant to Nick Saban in football, C.M. Newton through to Nate Oats in basketball. No one could put too fine a point on it in discerning Cecil’s excellence in coverage of any sport, but I always suspected he enjoyed basketball more than football.
For many, many years we sat side by side on press row for basketball games in Coleman Coliseum. Frequently I’d be asked later, “What were you and Cecil laughing about?”
In football, he sat on the Bryant-Denny Stadium press box front row reserved for newspaper reporters and I was on the second row, not far behind Cecil. At crucial points in football games, Cecil would rise and walk up the couple of steps to lean on the rail beside my seat to discuss developments. No, not so much discuss. Opine.
That trait extended beyond sports. Cecil and I had similar interests and usually similar viewpoints on things other than Bama ball. When our offices were about a block and a half apart in downtown Tuscaloosa, he would drop in from time to time to have a cup of coffee and share thoughts.
We also had a relationship that I named “Just Be Ready,” more often starting from Cecil to me than the other way around. It was sharing information that neither of us would write at the moment, but that might come up later.
I was surprised to hear Saban say that he confided in Cecil, but not because that wouldn’t be a wise thing to do. I think a lot of Tide coaches in several sports would have been well-served to have sought advice from Cecil. By the time he gave it (subtly, perhaps) in a column, however, it was too late for them.
I had tried to get Cecil more involved in the Alabama Sports Writers Association, in part because I knew if he would enter the professional contests he would be the sportswriter of the year and columnist of the year, almost on an annual basis. But he wasn’t interested in competitions. “When’s the last time you entered?” he asked me more than once when I was pestering him. He knew I didn’t either, but I told him he should enter because he could win.
It was not unusual for Cecil to call me to see if I was going to be in my office for a while. One day he showed up to interview me! I had been inducted into the ASWA hall of fame and he was going to write the “local boy makes good” account.
“Do you realize how ridiculous this is?” I asked him. “I should be interviewing you.”
I wish I could interview Cecil Hurt. Or read his column. Or have a conversation with him. I can be grateful for our 40-plus years as colleagues and friends, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t have hoped for more.
Guest columnist Kirk McNair, a longtime fixture on the Alabama athletics beat, is editor and publisher of BAMA Magazine and writes for BamaOnLine.com.
This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Kirk McNair shares from his relationship with Cecil Hurt of four decades