Phil Theobald: sportswriter for the people

by John Ring

In a recent edition of the Peoria Journal-Star, the new makeup of the sports staff was announced because of the impending retirement of award-winning columnist Phil Theobald.

"Can you believe that?" asked Theobald. "Award winning. I think I won one of those in my life. But people here seem to think it’s a big deal. Editors would come up to me and ask me to submit a certain column for an award. That’s not the reason I work here at the Journal-Star."

"Besides," Phil added, "you know what articles win those things? Politically correct columns. The ‘feel-good’ columns."

Phil writes his last column soon; his tentative date for retirement is December 1st. The Galesburg native and long-time sportswriter will leave after 40-plus years of writing for newspapers in Canton, Galesburg and Peoria.

Although he’s been a beat writer for several teams — among them the Bears, the Peoria Chiefs and the Bradley Braves — he’s best known for his columns and when he walked out of a Mike Ditka press conference (see sidebar). There’s little doubt that his columns provoke a lot of thought and, at times, stir up some controversy. But Theobald says he tries to make his writing appeal to all the readers of the Journal-Star — not just the hard core sports fans.

"A good writer appeals to all the readers. You have to learn the subject you’re talking about. learn about the individual. You do a dialogue, not a monologue. For me, I knew I wrote a good column when I’d see my wife reading it at the breakfast table."

"The English language is magic. There’s so much you can do with it. You try to get a feel or the pulse of the community and you have that blank sheet of paper in front of you; well, now it’s the computer if you can figure the thing out; and you go after it."

As far as the controversy goes, Phil Theobald laughs about it. He enjoys making people think and loves their passion. He’s taken hits from feminists, coaches, athletic directors, parents and Illinois supporters over the last four decades.

"I know that I can say this," said Theobald. "There’s not one person I interviewed or did a column on after 40 years that I can’t go up to today and shake hands and laugh with. If you’re fair, you’ll never make lifelong enemies."

"People thought that [former Bradley basketball coach] Jim Molinari and I detested each other. Nothing could be further than the truth. We still see each other, sit down and have a cup of coffee and talk to each other."

"I don’t on the surface dislike girls or womens sports programs. It’s not that I don’t like to watch them. But they had to be legislated to gain existence. At the outset, they were unnecessary. Most womens programs are not self sufficient, they have to subsidized, such as the WNBA. Even the LPGA tour is struggling. Just don’t give me contrived programs."

"A player like Jackie Stiles, who played college ball at Southwest Missouri, I’d go watch her play any day and that’s because she’s obviously put the time and effort in her sport."

Most recently, Theobald criticized the process in which the Braves hired Jim Les as their basketball coach last season. This angered the pro-Les crowd, especially when Theobald repeatedly referred to him as a stockbroker— which is what he did before being hired by Bradley.

"The hiring process was skewed; everyone knows that. The repetitive process works because I said he was a stockbroker and he was a stockbrocker and I wrote that he was a stockbroker. But it was a skewed process and Bradley’s a private institution and it can do that if it wants to."

Les — like some coaches — says he never reads the newspaper. Does Phil believe that?

"No. They read the papers, they listen to the radio stations and they hear what’s being said about them on the street."

Theobald was recently honored at Knox College because of his steadfast attendance at the annual Knox-Monmouth football game. "That was a nice gesture," said Phil. "People here at the paper would say, ‘Why are you going to that game?’ They couldn’t understand. Those football players enjoy what they’re doing. It’s not money-driven."

"People who take sports so seriously should remember that most of those sports end in the word ‘game’. In all the years I’ve covered sports, no matter what happens the sun always rises the next day."

Growing up in Galesburg, Theobald helped print the GHS newspaper, got his first job at Coney Island and then started his writing career with the Register-Mail. "Joe Morrissey was good enough to take a chance on me after high school."

"In Galesburg, there’s no sense of urgency growing up. When you’re 14, 15 years old, you can always find a fishing hole or sneak out onto Bunker Links. It’s an ideal place to grow up."

Theobald, who graduated from GHS in 1959, had a love-hate affair with scholastics. "I was very good at reading and writing but terrible in math and science. I actually graduated a year late. When I realized I wasn’t going to make it in 1958, I went home and told my Dad. He put me in the car, drove to the Navy recruiter and was getting ready to sign me up. But I got out of that, studied harder and graduated the next year."

Theobald plans to move to Arizona to enjoy his retirement. "My wife and I are looking at a place in Yuma and will move there if we can stand to be away from the grandkids. I’m just planning on sitting back for a year, regroup and then maybe do a book. I’d like to do a book on the Civil War. Then I’d like to do a book on sports, not a rah-rah-rah kind of book but just some things that happened over my career, in the press box and at events I covered."

"As time went on, I wrote less about the sporting event itself and more about the individual. I learned early that you can’t hit a home run with every column. Sometimes, you have to settle for a scratch single. If I didn’t fully understand a sport, I never tried to pull it off like I did. I never liked soccer but I covered the Bradley soccer team."

The Journal-Star, which has the best sports section in this area of a daily newspaper, will be a little poorer without Phil. For that matter, we all will.


What Phil liked covering . . .

"The 1985 Bears. They won the Super Bowl, had a great team. The first year I covered them was in 1969 when they had a 1-13 record. One time that year, Jack Concannon, who was the quarterback, was ready to take the snap but then tried to call a timeout. The center snapped the ball and a Cardinals linebacker broke through the line, caught it and scored. Probably the only intercepted snap for a touchdown in NFL history. Back then, there were probably eight or nine of us in the press box. Now there’s 80. It’s the talk radio guys and there’s still a good competition between the newspapers in Chicago."

"The 1998 home run derby with McGwire and Sosa. A very exciting time."

"The day my daughter Erin scored her first basket during a basketball game at her grade school."

What Phil didn’t like covering . . .

"The Atlanta Olympics in 1996. That was a real bummer. Everything was money-driven. It was a farce. I’d rather cover the Journal-Star Honor Roll meet than another Olympics."

Favorite sports individual he covered. . .

"Doug Collins, when he was at Illinois State. He did some phenominal things."

Favorite memories of Galesburg . . .

"I got my first job working at Coney Island. A guy named Ken Scheffler hired me. Silver Streak basketball was great back then. What a time that was. That whole era was special for Galesburg. Wearing the Silver Streak uniform was a big deal; it was a status thing to be on the team. That’s lacking now. It may still be that way in smaller towns or maybe in Quincy but not anymore in Galesburg and that’s a shame."

His 15 minutes of nationwide fame . . .

"In 1992, the Bears had lost a 21-0 lead in the Metrodome against the Vikings. Mike Ditka had told Jim Harbaugh not to call any audibles but Harbaugh did and Minnesota returned an interception for a touchdown. The Bears ended up losing. Ditka chewed on Harbaugh really hard for that. The Bears then had a week off before hosting Tampa Bay. At the Monday press conference. the first guy to ask a question, a radio guy, brought up the Harbaugh thing and Ditka blew his top."

"Ditka started cursing at all of us, calling us SOB’s and everything else so I just got up and walked out. Ditka followed me out and apologized. He said it wasn’t directed at me, that he thought the radio guy asking the question was trying to set him up. So that night, me walking out of Ditka’s press conference was on 24 different programs on television."

"You know, [Bears Owner Mike] McCaskey fired him later in the year and I hope that the incident didn’t contribute to that in any way. If it did, I really regret that because Mike Ditka was always fair to me. We alweays got along."