One of the qualities a publication like SPORTS ILLUSTRATED must strive for if it hopes to achieve a long and successful life is diversity—in style, approach and point of view. This is the best insurance that it will continue to surprise, inform and entertain readers. No SI writer has spoken with a more distinctive—or entertaining—voice over the past 21 years than Bob Ottum, who will retire Dec. 31 from our staff of senior writers and join the ranks of special contributors. Ottum is a unique writer, a one-of-a-kind man.
The mere recitation of facts and figures is a poor way to sum up a career, but here are a few anyway. Ottum has reported to SI from almost every continent on earth, from every corner of the old 48 and from Alaska and Hawaii as well. He has written about events and people in all the major and darn near all the minor sports. His first SI story was on Davidson College and its colorful basketball coach, Lefty Driesell (Jan. 13, 1964), and his last one as a senior writer is on another basketball coach, the Utah Jazz's Frank Layden (page 48). In between, Ottum covered five Winter and two Summer Olympics for us.
One of his biggest coups occurred in 1979 when he went looking for Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, the star of the Montreal Olympics. "I got a tourist visa and wandered around behind the Curtain until, despite efforts by Romanian officials to discourage me, I found her in an obscure town in Transylvania called Deva," says Ottum. It was a marvelous story (Nov. 19, 1979).
As for his alleged retirement, Ottum could be a busy fellow. The author of seven books, he's now working on one with figure skater Scott Hamilton. We're counting on him for at least a few stories a year. And readers of The Salt Lake Tribune are enjoying his special style in a regular column. (He lives in a mountainside condo overlooking Salt Lake City with his wife, Joyce—a fine portrait painter, devoted church choir singer and virtuoso on their four-string homemade banjo-ukulele.) He has free rein with the column to explore any subject that amuses him, and the result is a lot of amusement for Tribune readers.
Ottum was born in Duluth in 1925 and joined the Navy in his teens. He served on an attack transport in the Pacific during World War II and afterward talked his way into a job with the Tribune, despite his having had no journalistic experience. In 1964 we took Ottum away from the Tribune, where he had been a reporter and, eventually, executive news editor. I can tell you we're mighty sorry to be giving him back.
Next week, SI will simultaneously announce its Sportsman—Sportswoman?—of the Year in the magazine and on national television. Merlin Olsen will again host the TV show, which will be broadcast live by Home Box Office on Tuesday, Dec. 17, starting at 8 p.m. E.S.T.