By Michael Fitzpatrick
It’s coming up on 51 years since the Browns beat the Baltimore Colts on a cold, gray, windswept day at the old Stadium in December 1964 to clinch Cleveland’s last professional sports championship. And Dan Coughlin, in one journalistic form or another, be it print, TV or radio, has been around to cover all the disappointment and heartbreak that’s permeated the Cleveland sports scene since that December day.
Coughlin, 77, is now semi-retired and living in Rocky River. He still appears on TV where he is a staple on Fox 8’s Friday night high school football coverage during the fall months. Not one to be idle in his autumn years, he’s also written a book — his third — entitled, “Let’s Have Another (Gray and Company Publishers, $15)”
In similar style to his two earlier books — “Pass the Nuts” and “Crazy, With the Papers to Prove It” — Coughlin writes about some of the memorable characters from the Cleveland sports scene he came across during his career in newspaper, TV and radio as well as some of his own personal shenanigans.
Coughlin wrote the first book after he took at buyout from Fox 8 about eight years ago. He said for years people had been telling him to write a book about his experiences, but when he was working full-time, he just never got around to it. After retiring he no longer had that excuse.
“’You’ve got the time to write your book,’” Coughlin said his wife told him.
But that book beget the second book, Coughlin said, after he learned the armchair critics felt he had left too much out of the first effort.
“’You should have written about this guy or that guy,” Coughlin said many told him after the first book was published.
Which led to the publishing of “Pass the Nuts” about 18 months later, which Coughlin admits now was “too quick.”
But Coughlin wasn’t done and he bided his time before coming out with book three.
“Now we’ve let everything simmer for about four years,” Coughlin said.
The latest book includes stories on Cleveland sports figures, such as Albert Belle, Paul Brown and former St. Ignatius standout quarterback Joe Pickens, who led that school to its first of many state title in the late 80s, and infamous former Cavs’ owner Ted Stepien. In the chapter on Stepien, Coughlin describes in detail the efforts of a Cleveland lawyer named John Schneider, who put together a deal with the the Gund brothers, that allowed the team to remain in Cleveland just hours before Stepien was ready to sign a deal to sell his advertising business to New York investors and move the Cavs to Toronto. Just imagine if the Cavs had left. There’d be no LeBron playing in Cleveland, nor any of those glory days with Mark Price, Brad Daugherty and Lenny Wilkens. But I digress.
The book is broken down into short chapters and Coughlin uses his unique touch and humor to capture the side of legendary Cleveland sports personalities that most readers under the age of 35 aren’t aware of. For example in the piece about Stepien (‘Ted Stepien; Canadian Sunset’) he includes an anecdote about Stepien’s botched attempt to garner publicity to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Terminal Tower. In doing so, Stepien attempted to recreate a 1938 stunt in which the Indians’ third baseman Ken Keltner threw baseball from the building’s observation deck to teammates below.
Stepien’s incarnation, however, was far less successful as onlookers ended up having to run for cover as Dudley softballs — tossed by Stepien himself — rained down from 700 feet above with one slamming into the shoulder of a 66-year-old man and another striking a 28-year-old woman named Gayle Falinski, which broke her forearm.
Coughlin, who graduated from St. Ed’s and then Notre Dame, once covered the Indians for two seasons. and every game story he wrote he started with a poem.
“It’s called light verse,” Coughlin said. “Sort of a nod to old-time baseball.”
He did it to stay away from falling into the trap of crafting formulaic leads, but said producing a poem to start every game story could be problematic.
“To come up with a clever lead for for Indians’ games for two years difficult,” he now admits. But Coughlin said it gave readers something to “forward to.
“But boy it was hard to get that done on deadline, especially when we are one time zone away.”
And while the stories in “Let’s Have Another” are sure to keep the rapt attention of any Cleveland sports fan, Coughlin can be just as compelling telling a story with the spoken word as he can be from behind a keyboard. He demonstrated this gift he in a recent phone interview when he talked about his brief stint as the host of a morning drive show on a Cleveland country music radio station in the early 1980s. At that time Coughlin found himself contributing sports reports on a show hosted by Gary Dee — one of the industry’s first shock jocks and a Cleveland radio legend.
Coughlin loved the gig, he recalled, which he could do from the comfort of his own residence.
“They wired my house like a radio station.I would go on the air in my underwear and do about a two minute commentary and then go back to bed. I would wake up only enough to where I could back to sleep,” Coughlin said.
But all good things must come to an end. Coughlin said one Sunday night after returning from a trip to South Bend to see a Notre Dame-Michigan State football game he received a message informing him to report to the station that Monday morning, Coughlin sensed he was about to get the axe, but apparently didn’t want to have to suffer the inconvenience of having to travel from his Lakewood home downtown to the station’s offices, which were located inside the Statler building, located on Euclid Avenue.
“I told them you can fire me, that’s okay. But do I have to drive down there, pay for parking just to hear that?”
It turned out that it was not Coughlin who was being fired, but instead Dee who was going to get whacked.
“They made me the morning disc jockey with a partner and in six months I went through three partners. I took their ratings from a seventh and a half to a one and a half. That, ladies and gentleman, is an NCAA record,” Coughlin said.
Coughlin’s career started in 1964 at The Plain Dealer, where he covered high school sports and other sports including that two-year stint on the Indians’ beat, before he took a high-profile job at the Cleveland Press. But just three months after he came aboard, the paper was bought by The Plain Dealer, who shut it down. Fortunately for Coughlin, his contract was such that he drew his Press salary for three years, during which time he landed a job at Channel 8, which eventually led to him become a sports anchor at the TV station.
Coughlin was also blessed with a little luck of the Irish. Take for instance the story of how he ended up in TV. When he made the jump to the Press, he ended up being the subject of a feature story on a locally produced show called PM Magazine, which ran on TV 8. Coughlin impressed John Cifani, a sound engineer at the station, with his camera presence, so much so that when the Press folded Cifani suggested to the station management that they give Coughlin the chance to do some stories for PM Magazine. That eventually led to a job as a sportscaster at Channel 8.
Coughlin was not without his foibles. He could make mistakes on air and in print.
One of his most memorable in print came in the early 70s when he wrote a story for The Plain Dealer about Doug Dieken taking over the starting left tackle spot for Dick Schafrath. The story was huge news at the time as the franchise had only had three starting left tackles its history. In today’s world of pro sports, such a move would have would call for a staged press conference, but not so back the early 70s.
“Back then we could go in and out of the locker room anytime we wanted. It was like public housing. Anybody in and out,” Coughlin recalled “(Dieken) is spitting tobacco juice into a Styrofoam coffee cup and we had a nice little interview.”
During the course of the interview Dieken talked about growing up on a farm in Illinois with two brothers as well as his collegiate career at Illinois. It was an easy story to write for a pro like Coughlin, who undoubtedly thought he had nailed it as they say in the newspaper business. But that was not to be the case.
“I walk into the locker room the next day and Doug walks up to me with a paper. And he says to me ‘You killed my brothers,’” Coughlin recalled.
A dumfounded Coughlin couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“What?” he recalled answering.
“Look at this,” Dieken said handing him a copy of the paper.
Coughlin said he re-read the story, which started off fine, and even mentioned that Dieken was the oldest of three brothers
“About six paragraphs down it read ‘Dieken, an only child,” Coughlin recalled. “And that’s how I killed Doug Dieken’s brothers.”
As they stay, truth is stranger than fiction. The stories penned by Coughlin have so often proven that to be the case.