It was the fall of 1990, and the entire sporting press was rushing to the defense of Lisa Olson, the attractive young Boston Herald reporter who claimed she’d been sexually harassed in the Patriots locker room. One writer, though, bucked the tide, going so far as to suggest she’d made the story up.
For professional contrarian Will McDonough, the Olson story was a three-fer too good to resist. It allowed him to evince utter disdain for his colleagues, take a stand against creeping gender equality in sportswriting, and reinforce what one acquaintance calls the seminal message of his career: "Fuck this yuppie journalism shit."
"I am not politically correct," asserts McDonough, the curmudgeonly 58-year-old Boston Globe columnist. And that, to him, is a badge of honor.
It was McDonough, in writing about Olson, who implied that women don’t belong in the locker room. It was McDonough who produced an explosive column — deemed racist by some — that suggested, without substantiation, that the late Celtics star Reggie Lewis had a drug problem. It was McDonough who scolded Houston Oilers lineman David Williams for skipping a game to be present for the birth of his first child. And it was McDonough who offended some Jews with an obit for sports agent Bob Woolf that included references to Woolf’s mother’s "guile and cunning."
And it’s McDonough who’ll be prominently featured this Sunday, January 30, chatting about the Super Bowl on NBC’s pre-game show.
Much has changed in sports journalism in the more than 35 years since Will McDonough — known universally as "Willie" — began his career. The under-educated, hardened practitioners of the "drink with your pals, screw your foes" style of scribbling have gradually yielded to a generation of fresh-scrubbed, ethically sensitive college graduates who are more likely to read the Columbia Journalism Review than the racing form.
But Will McDonough is holding the line.
In an era in which the evocative feature writer and the pithy columnist have supplanted the garden-variety beat man, McDonough is a stylistic ham-and-egger. At a time when most sportswriters haul tape recorders to the locker room, McDonough is strictly a phone man who brags about not taking notes. In an environment in which reporters now routinely deal with everything from HIV on the playing field to racism in the front office, McDonough is a champion of the good old days, when tricky social issues stayed off the sports pages. And with management and labor constantly at war over the millions of dollars that are at stake, McDonough — unlike many of his younger colleagues, who are closer both philosophically and chronologically to the players — is an unapologetic mouthpiece for the wealthy, silver-haired white men who own the bats, the balls, and the stadiums.
Stories of McDonough’s backslapping access to the lushly carpeted corridors of power abound. There’s the rival Herald reporter covering a league meeting who checks into the hotel room, opens his blinds, and sees McDonough at a table sharing drinks with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Or the football owners’ meeting in Florida at which McDonough shows up and, as the first order of business, heads out to socialize with Raiders boss Al Davis. No hanging around crowded media-hospitality suites with trays of stale cold cuts.
"He’s fixed in the former era," says one observer. "All his sources are middle-age white guys."
But if McDonough is a dinosaur, it is Tyrannosaurus rex. Despite the presence at the Globe of Peter Gammons and Bob Ryan, experienced, nationally respected experts on baseball and basketball, respectively, McDonough is arguably the most influential figure on the local sports pages; just this past summer, he was named an associate editor of the paper. He is certainly the most feared sportswriter in town, especially among his own fraternity. And despite a distinctly untelegenic appearance, he pulls down about $400,000 a year to talk about football on NBC.
One major reason for McDonough’s ability to swim against the tide is a three-letter word.
"He has the biggest ego of anyone who ever worked in this town," asserts another local sportswriter, more in anger than admiration.
"The biggest thing is having the courage of your convictions," McDonough responds. "I hope people understand that whatever they write or say about me — I don’t care. When they say you suck, and you know you don’t. And in the end, they get quiet."
A Southie tough guy
My Mother and Father were both from the "Old Country" (Galway), but I never thought of myself as being Irish from Ireland. I always thought of myself as South Boston Irish, which to me means loyalty, friendship, togetherness. The phrases I heard growing up in Southie: sticking together, taking care of your own, never forgetting where you’re from, have stayed with me all of my life, because I was always proud of my family, my friends, and where I’m from. That will never change.
— Will McDonough, holding forth on what it means to be Irish, in a special pamphlet produced for an Ireland Fund dinner several years ago.
The youngest of nine children, born at home without benefit of an attending physician, McDonough was always a talented athlete. He was the quarterback, and he earned All-City honors in football and baseball at Boston English. He also played those sports as a Northeastern University freshman, but his collegiate career was cut short by injuries and other problems.
He came to the Globe in 1957 as a Northeastern co-op student, and has been there ever since, except for a brief stint working with Bob Woolf in the early 1970s. (When then-editor Tom Winship tried to talk him out of leaving, McDonough, who’d been offered $50,000, cockily responded that he’d probably be making more than Winship. But the brief Woolf-McDonough partnership dissolved into litigation, and the Globe took him back. Woolf and McDonough later reconciled.)
By the latter half of the ‘70s, the Globe sports section was changing. Vibrant craftsmen like Leigh Montville and Bob Ryan were coming into their own. That spelled trouble for many old-fashioned sportswriters, but McDonough was determined to persevere.
"Will was not a great writer," notes former Globe sports editor Dave Smith, now at the Dallas Morning News. "The Will McDonoughs were being pushed back into the background. But he hung tough."
McDonough compensated by breaking some big stories in the early ‘80s — most notably the decision by University of Georgia star running back Herschel Walker to leave college and join the United States Football League, and the selection of Peter Ueberroth as baseball commissioner. In 1983, the Globe nominated McDonough’s work for a Pulitzer in a newswriting category.
In the mid ‘80s, McDonough joined Upton Bell on Channel 7 for a point-counterpoint segment in which they’d argue the sports issues of the day. In 1986, according to a New England Monthly profile of McDonough, he was lured to CBS’s NFL Today pre-game show for a reported $140,000 a year; four years later, he moved over to NBC. He’s finishing the last year of that contract, and McDonough says he’ll be re-upped.
Those who know McDonough say fame hasn’t diminished his instincts for kindness and loyalty. He’s the type of guy who makes a point of learning the interns’ names and helping the new staffers feel at ease; he rarely refuses a friend’s request for a favor.
And Willie’s friends are legendary. Red Auerbach, Carl Yastrzemski, Raiders owner Al Davis, and Bruins general manager Harry Sinden are among his better-known sports-world pals.
And then there are the Bulgers.
McDonough grew up with Billy, and he managed his friend’s maiden campaign — Bulger’s successful run for state representative, in 1960. He recalls Bulger as "basically a quiet guy, a religious guy, studious." As recently as last year, McDonough was still carrying the Senate president’s water when it looked like Bulger was going to kill the bill to build a new Boston Garden. While many in the media were bashing Bulger as an obstructionist, McDonough was using his column to let Bulger declare piously: "When you are right, and we in the Senate knew we were right . . . what some think of as heat never gets that hot."
Bulger helped return the favor last year by lobbying Cablevision to let his pal McDonough, along with advertising exec Jack Connors, do the commentary for the cablecast of the Senate president’s annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast.
Comparisons between the two South Boston contemporaries are unavoidable. Like Bulger, McDonough struggles mightily against modern values. Like Bulger, he has mastered the art of stroking friends and punishing enemies. And like Bulger, he has parlayed whatever skills and assets he commands into disproportionate, swaggering power.
McDonough’s connection to the Bulger family even extended to extraordinary trips he made in the ‘60s — while covering Red Sox road trips to Kansas City — to visit James "Whitey" Bulger in Kansas’s Leavenworth prison. Although only clergy and immediate family were allowed into the federal facility, McDonough says he gained entrance after another Southie native, then-US House Speaker John McCormack, wrote a letter on his behalf to prison officials.
Says one observer of McDonough: "He could have been the third brother" wedged in somewhere between the erudite Billy and the feloniously inclined Whitey. Adds another, referring to McDonough’s rugged exterior and selectively softer interior: "It’s a typical Southie thing. He’s kind of a ruffian with a heart of gold."
Yes, McDonough has his friends, but he’s even better known by his enemies. "If you’re in this business and you don’t have enemies, you’re not doing your job," he asserts proudly.
That list begins with rivals like Boston Herald sports editor Bob Sales and Herald sports-TV writer Jim Baker.
"I always thought he was a sleazebag," says McDonough of Sales, who once worked with him at the Globe before moving across town. By McDonough’s account, the relationship reached its nadir at a downtown charity event at which the two exchanged words and McDonough called Sales "a fucking asshole. . . . Ever since then I’ve been a target." Although neither man will clearly articulate the source of the tension, it’s a cinch that Sales, a bearded, hip New Yorker, and McDonough, an old-fashioned son of Southie, mixed like oil and vinegar.
Baker, among other things, has used his column to suggest that Will greased the skids for his son Sean’s rise to stardom as a baseball broadcaster and to call the elder McDonough "a management stooge." McDonough retaliated by describing Baker as "a 350-pound turd" in a quote for a 1988 Boston-magazine story.
Ironically, their one face-to-face encounter occurred in the press box at a Bruins game when McDonough approached Baker — who had become a Sean McDonough admirer — to thank him for being nice to his son.
McDonough’s War of the Roses, though, has been with former New England Patriots owner Billy Sullivan. Sullivan’s son Pat, the former Patriots general manager, traces the hostilities to a 1970s ownership struggle in which McDonough sided with one of Billy Sullivan’s rivals.
"My problems with them go back to 1965," says McDonough. "You got to see where Billy’s coming from. He starts by trying to con you, and if that didn’t work, he tried to bully you. I just said, ‘I ain’t cavin’.’ "
McDonough heaped unceasing abuse upon Sullivan’s head for much of his financially beleaguered tenure as owner. But there are several instances that stand out. One was Christmas Day 1981, when McDonough wrote a vitriolic column headlined life with billy, after the owner misled him about plans to fire coach Ron Erhardt. Another took place in March 1988, after McDonough identified, incorrectly as it turned out, an anonymous potential Pats buyer as British tycoon Peter deSavary. Pat Sullivan was furious, and he convened a press conference to accuse the writer of trying to "destroy my family." McDonough, never one to turn the other cheek, responded by telling Channel 7 sportscaster John Dennis, "I learned 25 years ago not to believe anything any Sullivan said."
And then, according to Pat Sullivan, there was the Philadelphia locker-room scene in the early ‘80s. McDonough and Billy Sullivan, 20 years his senior, were going nose to nose. Pat says he heard McDonough tell his father, "You’ve always been an asshole and you’ll be an asshole forever." Says Pat: "I lost it." The younger Sullivan says he shoved McDonough out the door. Later, on the flight home, he says he was approached by the team priest, who wryly who told him, "I’ll give you blanket absolution."
Given McDonough’s inability to suffer insult with stoicism and his in-your-face personality, it’s no surprise that his disagreements have on occasion turned from the verbal to the fistic. One incident occurred about a decade ago, when then-managing editor (now editor) Matt Storin — no shrinking violet himself — asked McDonough about a controversial story he’d written and soon found himself being challenged to a fistfight that was barely averted. Leigh Montville, now a Sports Illustrated senior writer, remembers McDonough popping a teenager during a heated moment in a pickup basketball game in Buffalo some years back. And nearly 15 years ago — during a locker-room incident that helped cement his gun-slinger reputation — McDonough cold-cocked Pats defensive back Raymond Clayborn with a three-punch combo after the player threatened to "bury" the journalist.
"This is a tough man," says Bob Ryan, somewhat reverentially. "He projects an aura of physicality about him."
Or maybe it’s just the rugged-jock ethos of the eternal high-school quarterback who hasn’t slowed down that much despite a mild heart attack four years ago and angioplasty in 1992. (Andrea Duggan, a former Channel 7 publicist, recalls seeing a very wan-looking McDonough at a Bruins-Montreal game the night before he was scheduled for surgery. "Mass General doesn’t have cable," McDonough growled.)
Once a ferociously competitive tennis player, McDonough has since transferred his aggression to golf. He didn’t take up the game seriously until he was 51, and Ron Hobson, a long-time friend who covers the Pats for the Patriot Ledger, remembers McDonough’s feeble attempt to swing the sticks at a San Diego course years ago. "He was the worst golfer I ever saw," Hobson laughs. "Now he’s addicted." And he’s got a very respectable 18 handicap.
Discussing his recreational philosophy, McDonough gets a hard gleam in his eye. "The greatest thing you can do in sports," he says, "is beat them on their own court." Clearly that philosophy extends to his professional life as well.