Feinstein: Remembering McNamara, Cotlar, O'Connell

John Feinstein
July 03, 2018 - 11:36 am

 John McNamara. Larry Cotlar. Jim O’Connell.

 Last Thursday morning all three were alive. By Monday afternoon they were all dead. The oldest was Cotlar, who was 66.

 Talk about life being unfair.

 One lived in Maryland, one lived in Iowa, one in New York. They were bonded by two things: a love of sports and a love of reporting on sports. Oc—no one called him Jim—was the national college basketball write for the AP for almost 30 years. Many of his readers didn’t know him because his stories often ran without a byline. But his smart, well-reported stories, filled with a unique brand of expertise, appeared in more newspapers than anyone year in and year out.

McNamara—Mac to most of his friends—graduate from the University of Maryland in 1983 and spent his entire professional career working for newspapers in the D.C.-Baltimore-Annapolis area. He covered everything there was to cover, but his first love was his alma mater.

That’s where I would see him most often—Maryland basketball games. I would almost always sit down and talk to him before a game, partly to catch up, partly to get caught up on what was going on at Maryland: John wanted to see the Terrapins do well but he was always clear-eyed about what was going on at the school.

I remember the two of us laughing when a mutual friend, who had graduated from Maryland with John, came up to us prior to a game in 2001 and told us, “it’s time for Gary to go. He’s a sweet sixteen coach—nothing more.”

Gary Williams had taken over at Maryland in 1989 three years after Len Bias’s death and in the wake of Bob Wade’s disastrous tenure that led to Maryland facing two years of harsh NCAA sanctions.

At that moment in 2001 he had taken the Terrapins to seven straight NCAA Tournament appearances—including four sweet sixteens—after rebuilding the program from the ashes.

John shook his head after our friend walked away, having declared that Mike Brey should succeed Gary.

“It amazes me that people around here don’t get it,” he said. “They think beating Duke and North Carolina should be easy, that getting to the Final Four is easy. If anyone is going to get Maryland to a Final Four, it’s Gary. He’ll do it on sheer will.”

Maryland got to the Final Four that season and won the national title a year later. John and I often asked our friend if he still wanted Brey to succeed Gary.

I thought about that and many other things early Friday morning when I learned that John was one of the five victims of the madman who invaded the Annapolis Capital-Gazette wielding a shotgun on Thursday afternoon.

John was 56 when he died, apparently trying to get a locked door open to lead colleagues to safety.

My wife, Christine, also lost a friend in the massacre. Rob Hiassen had been a client of hers when she worked as an agent in New York at ICM. We sat in our kitchen Friday morning in disbelief. How could this sort of thing possibly happen?

Of course it happens all the time. Children die in mass shootings because our elected officials—Democrat and Republican—refuse to change our outdated gun laws because they are cowed by the bullies of the NRA. I know, no one wants to hear about politics and this column isn’t about that.

Larry Cotlar worked in sports radio for most of his adult life. I first got to know him when I was a regular guest on ‘One-on-One radio,’ which later became ‘Sporting News radio.’ I can’t honestly say how often I was on with Larry but he liked to tell me when he called to ask me to come on that, “you’re always my first call.”

He may have said that to everyone, but I was flattered anyway and always said yes because Larry was always prepared and asked smart questions.

When he moved to Des Moines, he continued to call me on a sporadically regular basis. He was one of my radio friends who I never had to ask if I could come on to promote a book. He was always one step ahead, telling me he wanted to have me on as soon as he had a chance to read the book.

Unlike a lot of radio hosts who will open a book interview by saying, “So, tell me what the book is about?” Larry read the book and came prepared with questions. He also never failed—not once—to call after an interview to thank me for coming on. Clearly, he did that with all his guests. It’s probably one reason why guys a lot more famous than I am went on with him regularly.

I learned of Larry’s death Sunday through a Jay Bilas tweet—perfect example of someone more famous than me who went on often with Larry. There was flash-flooding in Des Moines on Saturday and apparently Larry’s van got trapped as the waters rose. He apparently tried to get out and get to safety because he was found by police several miles from his van.

I read a story on CNN Sunday, which quoted Andy Garman, one of Larry’s radio partners as saying that Larry was one of the most overwhelmingly positive people he’d ever met.

Garman hit it on the head. I never talked to Larry when he wasn’t upbeat. He had been through the ups and downs that have become an inevitable part of sports journalism nowadays—print, radio or TV. He never complained, just talked about what was next and always wanted to know what I was doing.

He was an absolute pro—and one of those people, like John McNamara, I always looked forward to seeing. When I went to an NCAA sub-regional in Des Moines two years ago, I had a long talk with Larry. I will cherish that memory even more now.

The least surprising death among the three and the one that hit me hardest was Oc.

Everyone who knew him was aware of the health struggles he’d had in recent years. Diabetes had claimed one of his feet a couple of years back and he’d had a heart attack and open heart surgery.

Somehow, he kept coming back to work, in part because he loved it, in part because he didn’t want to let his colleagues down. Oc was so well-liked that even the NCAA went out of its way to recognize him and make it as easy as possible for him to get to and from his seat at the Final Four—which is often difficult nowadays for those who are completely healthy.

Twenty-five years ago, when I wrote my second mystery, Oc was a character in the book. The reporter who is the book’s protagonist, goes to Oc looking for information on who might have wanted to kill a basketball coach in the midst of a recruiting war for a young superstar.

Oc, of course, goes out of his way to help. The book’s fiction but Oc’s response to a fellow reporter in need is absolute fact.

When the book came out Oc acted as if I had launched his career as a movie star. “I can’t tank-you enough for doin’ that,” he said (repeatedly) in his un-mistakeable New York accent. Years later, he still joked about how I had ‘immortalized,’ him in the book.

The truth is, it was the other way around. For several years, Oc was on the committee that picks the Curt Gowdy Award winners each year for the Basketball Hall of Fame.

I know for a fact that the people who run the Hall didn’t want me darkening their door, especially since I’ve been critical of the super-secretive system used to elect players and coaches for a very long time.

When Alex Wolff of Sports Illustrated and I finished in a dead heat in the voting in 2012, Oc suggested that a coin be flipped to break the tie with the understanding that whoever lost the flip would be the winner next year without any further vote.

Alex won the flip. A year later when the committee met, John DoLeva, the CEO of the Hall, began reading a list of nominees. According to several people in the room—confirmed later by Oc, but only with cajoling—Oc objected.

“This is already decided,” he said. “We agreed on this a year ago.”

“We have to go through the process,” DoLeva insisted.

Oc smelled a set-up. “You can go through the process,” he said. “But if the process doesn’t end up with John Feinstein winning, I’m walking out of here and going public with you going back on your word.”

As soon as DoLeva mentioned another name, another committee member, someone who had a very personal ax to grind with me, began pushing for that person as the winner.

Oc again pointed out the previous year’s agreement. “I never agreed to anything,” the guy said.

When the dust cleared, I had won. Others who were there said there was no doubt that if Oc hadn’t been so insistent, I would not have been chosen.

“Least I could do,” Oc said when I thanked him. “You made me famous.”

No, I didn’t. Oc made himself famous within the basketball world by doing his job brilliantly; by writing stories about the non-famous as often as he wrote about the famous; by being tireless and by loving the game and the people in the game. All of whom loved him back. He was 64 when he died Monday morning.

It is impossible to measure how much we will all miss him.

It’s been an awful week in sports and in journalism. Three very good men are gone—but I can promise they won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” spent five months on The New York Times bestseller list. His most recent YA novel—“Backfield Boys—a Mystery in Black and White,” was selected by the Junior Literary Guild as one of the best books of 2017. His new mystery—“The Prodigy,”—set at the Masters comes out in late August.