The night before the 2019 national championship game in Santa Clara, California – before Alabama took on Clemson – Hannah Saad, a C&IS University of Alabama student on staff of The Crimson White, sat at a table, surrounded by hubbub. The media hotel ballroom had been converted into a hangout space for working media. In one part of the room, a rowdy crowd played cornhole. There were large TVs everywhere because the NFL playoffs were taking place. Food and drinks were available and Saad took a spot at a table. As a college student photographer, she hadn’t really talked to many journalists who routinely covered Alabama football at the time. Cecil Hurt was sitting across from her.
Hurt, the Tuscaloosa-born authority on Alabama football, could be intimidating in his knowledge but his presence was never intimidation; more like serene and calming. Hurt took the time to talk with Saad.
“Here we are in a room full of national personalities and national media outlets and here Cecil was, taking the time to talk one-on-one with a student journalist,” Saad recalls. “He supported a lot of student journalists. It stuck with me that he took the time to talk with me, not only for journalism but also travel advice and even advice about taking care of dogs. After that, a lot of times our conversations weren’t even about sports or journalism. He’s just a great guy.”
Paul Finebaum – sports author, television and radio personality – remembers watching that moment.
“There were so many well-known people circling around who wanted to talk to him and he was with Crimson White students,” Finebaum recalled.
Many people knew Hurt as a sports columnist with hot takes and an ear down about the UA athletic department at all times, yet he was also an animal rescuer, loved music and professional wrestling and food enthusiast. Hurt loved his cat, Slim Charles, and his dog, Duchess, who was adopted when she had only a few years left to live. He also took in stray puppies.
His career spanned 40 years and he exemplified the best of journalism, as he rose to the top of his profession. Alabama Head Football Coach Nick Saban called him “friend.”
Hurt was never the kind of reporter to take notes on his phone. A notebook in hand, his writing managed to take sports to the masses by connecting it to pop culture or a current trend. He could make a mundane play seem like magic, but it was his hard work and studied love of words that made that magic. When he spoke – and it wasn’t often – people who knew him listened. He did not waste words. Always dressed comfortably, he was known as laconic and selfless.
Helping student journalists was not the only way he was selfless. Finebaum said after he and Hurt developed a trust, they would often share story ideas and material with one another, something almost unheard of in a business where having the most important information first can make or break a career.
“He knew that being at The Tuscaloosa News there was a certain status but I don’t think he ever appreciated how important and influential he was, “Finebaum said. “He began to appreciate his journey but felt compelled to give it back to students. It is a gift to be able to share that kind of information with young people who often seem too busy to listen. In his case they wanted to hear valuable pieces of knowledge.”
C&IS graduate Tony Tsoukalas worked with Hurt as an intern then, when he graduated, as a full-time copy editor on the sports desk. Tsoukalas now covers Alabama sports for BamaCentral but it all started with Hurt’s mentorship.
“He was the guy who didn’t mind helping out young writers. He wouldn’t leave out the young writers who often would get left out of conversations. As a young writer you don’t always get that, especially on big beats like Alabama football. We used to fight over who got to edit his stuff,” Tsoukalas said of Hurt’s work. “That usually went to the higher ups to read because it was almost like a privilege to read it first.”
One of those higher ups is Tommy Deas, who was executive sports editor at The Tuscaloosa News. Like Tsoukalas, Deas was a student at Tuscaloosa’s Central High School when he met Hurt – who was just starting out – and was mentored by him. Over the years Deas said he spent more time in a car and on the phone with Hurt than anyone else. He shared Hurt’s love of food and they would seek out off-the-beaten path places to eat the local cuisine in each city: Texas brisket, Carolina-style Bar-B-Q and steak in Hawaii.
On trips to cover night games Hurt liked to hike in national parks in the area in the mornings but always insisted on arriving to the press box three hours early because, he told Deas, he would rather sit in a press box reading than in a car staring at a bumper.
Hurt, himself a Junior, shares a name with his father who played football for Alabama under Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. He took an interest in sports but knew he was not destined to become an athlete, Deas said. His early interest was wrestling because of a local student that became one. How to reconcile a man who reads classics for fun with a love of wrestling?
“Those things are not as far apart as what you might think,” Deas said. “Wrestling is storytelling. That is what it comes down to. He probably liked and appreciated that more than anything else. It’s not just physical action. Wrestlers are storytellers.”
Hurt loved storytelling but also loved to teach the next generation of storytellers, through words and action.
Terrin Waack, a C&IS alumna, worked with Hurt as an intern then full-time at The Tuscaloosa News. Waack wore a bucket hat in honor of hurt, an ardent bucket-hat fan, as she watched the first Alabama game after he died. She recalled early days working with Hurt as an intern, when his reputation was large and his 6’3” height made him seem even larger than life to her. She metaphorically and literally looked up to him.
“As soon as I met him, I knew Cecil was the gold star of journalism,” she said. “What he said held so much weight in the community and I recognized that. Cecil helped a lot with learning how to use your own voice and own your words and take a stance on something.
He grew to be her friend and they ate Thai food often, for lunch. Hurt met her family on several occasions and silently cheered on her career as she went on to work at NASCAR.com.
“I considered Cecil a friend to the end,” Waack said. “If I needed advice, I would have gone to him in a heartbeat.”
Hurt, known for sports coverage, was also an avid foodie and traveler. He once took a year off to travel the world, to Micronesia and throughout southeast Asia.
Yet above everything he loved was his love of reading. Everyone who knew him knew that he always had a book with him. He taught young journalists that to be a good writer you have to read. Reporters in any press box were always impressed that he could read yet still keep up with what happened on the field. The first time Finebaum met Hurt was at a basketball game and Finebaum noticed the book Hurt was reading, “Catcher in the Rye.”
“It was always a parlor game to guess what would Cecil have next,” Finebaum said. “Would it be ‘The Iliad and the Odyssey’ or something more contemporary?”
Hurt’s long-time friend Chad Mize, who delivered the eulogy at Hurt’s funeral, recalled a time in college when, on a road trip, Hurt spent his time reading.
“Cecil was the most well-read person that I’ve ever known,” Mize said. I looked and in the back of van Cecil was reading “Moby Dick, and probably not even for the first time. He wasn’t going to score any points with this crowd reading ‘Moby Dick’ but that’s who he was. Cecil was smart back before everybody was smart. I know it’s overstated, but Cecil was so bright. That just gave him the opportunity to do things that other people couldn’t.”
Hurt’s well-read stature aside, he earned esteem for his work ethic and unassuming demeanor from those who knew him.
“What always impressed me about Cecil was how he was trusted by everyone. By coaches. By athletic directors. By school presidents,” Finebaum said.
Over the course of his career, Hurt’s deliberate, thorough manner earned him respect from everyone, even Saban, who recognized Hurt’s work with students. Coaches and reporters don’t often share that respect.
“Cecil Hurt was a good friend and one of the best sports writers I have ever had the privilege of working with, not just at Alabama, but at all of our coaching stops,” Saban said in a statement when Hurt died. “He was a man of integrity and a fair-minded journalist blessed with wit, wisdom and an ability to paint a picture with his words that few have possessed … He was a role model for young writers and the most trusted source of news for Alabama fans everywhere.”
From well-known coaches to students just starting out, Hurt’s life had a great impact. Perhaps Tsoukalas said it best:
“He had a way of making everyone feel important.”
Friends and family of the late sports columnist Cecil Hurt have joined together to establish a memorial fund in his honor. The Cecil Hurt Endowed Support Fund for Excellence in Sports Media, which has already raised more than $15,000, will prioritize support for students and initiatives related to the sports media field.
Those who helped establish the fund hope that it will not only carry on the memory of Hurt, but that it will make a difference in the lives of students who choose to pursue a career path similar to Hurt’s.
A portion of the fund will be designated to provide discretionary support for the College of Communication and Information Sciences’ Department of Journalism and Creative Media (JCM). Through this support JCM will offer programming for current students and industry professionals that strengthens the program’s mission and propels education and innovation in the area of sports media and sports communication.
“Cecil Hurt has multiple legacies,” said Dr. Andrew Billings, endowed professor and director of the Alabama Program in Sport Communication. “One, of course, was his own contribution to sports writing and reporting—which is legendary. However, another pertains to his role as a mentor to students and young professionals aspiring to make it in a competitive field. I’m excited that this endowment will help future young sports media professionals for many years more.”
In addition, the fund will bring visibility to Hurt’s legacy through the establishment of an annual Cecil Hurt Award. This award will be given to an outstanding rising senior whose studies are focused in the area of sports communication.
“This endowment will recognize and support the exact type of excellence that characterized Cecil’s life and his work,” said Dr. Mark Nelson, dean of the College of Communication and Information Sciences. “He was an inspirational member of our community, and this fund will inspire and support future journalists for many years to come.”
The renowned and revered sports columnist had a reputation unlike that of any other professional in the field and those closest to him desire that this fund will continue to perpetuate his story.
To make a gift to the Cecil Hurt Endowed Support Fund for Excellence in Sports Media, click here.