Thursday, May 10

In Harm's Way

I couldn’t have picked a more interesting time to work in Oklahoma City than 1988. KWTV produced and aired Oklahoma State University head football coach Pat Jones’ weekly TV show. Who knew the “Cowboys” were going to go 10-2? Who knew Barry Sanders was going to become a superstar at running back and win the Heisman trophy? Who knew that the Heisman announcement would be made while Oklahoma State was in Tokyo, Japan (of all places) where the team was playing Texas Tech in the “Coca-Cola Bowl?” Who knew that we’d arrange a live-from-Japan satellite interview with Barry right after the announcement in New York? Really a memorable football season for OSU football, for the station that billed itself “The Spirit of Oklahoma” and for me.

Also memorable because of KWTV General Manager Duane Harm.

When I started as news director Harm told me, “You can delegate some responsibility—but never trust anyone. That way you’ll never be surprised when they screw you. And they’ll always screw you.” Duane Harm ran his station and lived his life by those words.

Here’s how the coach’s show worked. Our KWTV crew, led by Sports Director Bill Teegins, would shoot the game then hurry back to the station the 60 miles from Stillwater, edit the highlights, and prepare for coach Jones’ live studio appearance at 11:00 Sunday morning.

That’s fine for a home game. But what if the game is on the road? The charter plane gets back to Stillwater at, say, midnight (or later). Then it’s back to the station at 1:00 a.m. (or later!), edit highlights for four or five hours, catch a quick nap (if you’re lucky) and air the show.

Duane Harm let me know that a good news director, a smart news director, a news director who didn’t trust anyone would find some excuse—any excuse—to “accidentally” show up at 4:00 Sunday morning. That way a smart news director could catch the crew goofing off and nip it (and them?) in the bud.

Duane’s suspicion was that he was being taken for a ride. My suspicion was that by 4:00 Sunday morning we had a crew that hadn’t seen a shower, a toothbrush or a bed in about 20 hours. But I desperately wanted to get off to a good start with my new boss, so I started showing up at 4:00.

I showed up, though, with two dozen donuts, fresh coffee, and an offer to play “go-fer” and do anything I could to help. I don’t know how much help I was, but maybe I provided a little moral support and I enjoyed being a part of the process.

As I said, that was Barry Sanders’ superstar, Heisman-winning year. The show was terrific, Pat Jones was what you’d expect from a big-time college football coach (whip smart, entertaining, a walking advertisement for his school and his program), and the dedicated efforts of the sports staff made it a big success.

The story has several endings; not all of them happy.

I left KWTV not too long after the football season. I told Duane Harm that I didn’t know why he had hired me in the first place, that I couldn’t be the kind of news director (or person) that he wanted me to be.

Some months later Duane Harm left KWTV; and here’s where things get cloudy. I have no personal knowledge of what happened, I can only tell you what little birdies told me. KWTV was and is owned by the Griffin family. After the death of company founder John Griffin, there were (the story goes) a lot of questions about how station money was spent. Specifically, I’m told, the Griffins (husband and wife) had signed a lot of paperwork Duane Harm had put in front of them without (it was said) really looking it over: like leases on a lot of equipment (cars, live trucks, a helicopter) that turned out to be owned by members of Duane Harm’s family. An insider told me that folks named Harm made a lot of money leasing equipment to people who thought they already owned it.

I do know that when a luxurious state-of-the-art horse racing track opened in OKC, KWTV had the most lavishly decorated suite in the place (to entertain clients, we were told); and I knew that Duane's wife did the decorating and spent (here's that word again) lavishly. Apparently the Griffin family didn't know it.

One day (I’m told by someone who was there) the staff was assembled, told that Duane Harm was no longer with the station, and asked to exchange their door keys for ones that matched the new locks.

Maybe when Duane told me that employees will always try to screw you, he was speaking from personal experience. There apparently were lawsuits and countersuits, but in the end everything was quietly settled.

Nice note: some time after Harm's departure I got a call from David Griffin, John’s son, who was trying to sort things out. He said he’d had individual meetings with every single employee to talk about the station’s direction. He said one question he had asked was, “What’s the biggest mistake we’ve made in the last few years?” and that many people had said letting me resign. On the phone, on the spot he offered me the job back. It was tempting—I really liked OKC and almost all of the people at KWTV—but I was already working for the CBS O-and-O in Miami, and didn’t want to look back.

Bill Teegins (whose real name was spelled “Tietgens”) eventually became the radio play-by-play voice of both the Oklahoma State football and basketball teams. In January, 2001, three chartered planes left Denver after a basketball game against the University of Colorado. The one carrying Bill, two players, a flight crew of two and five others connected to the basketball team crashed. All ten died. A memorial has been erected at the crash site 40 miles outside Denver, and there's another with a statue of a kneeling cowboy on the OSU campus in Stillwater. Bill was 48, and left a wife and daughter. I didn’t realize until I did some research as I started writing this that he was an eight-time winner of the Oklahoma Sportscaster of the Year award. That figures. He was good enough to win it, and modest enough not to talk about it. A good man.

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