When the National Football League draft begins Saturday afternoon, members of the state media will cram into the press facility at Lambeau Field to wade through the press releases, press conferences and propaganda that comes with the event each year.
Bud Lea doesn't want any part of that. The veteran sportswriter, who recently marked his 80th birthday, has other plans.
"I'm going to watch the draft on my terms -- at home, in front of the TV," said Lea, who began covering the Packers in the 1950s and still pens an occasional column for Packer Plus.
"If it's a nice day, I'll take my border collie for a long walk. Maggie loves to watch TV. Animal Planet is her favorite channel. She likes ball games. The draft will put her to sleep."
Though he knows that the draft is vital for the success or failure of NFL franchises, Lea is going to take a pass.
"Call me a party poop, (or) an old sportswriter who has seen too many of these things," he said.
Lea has seen plenty in more than 56 years in the business. His hearing isn't what it used to be, though, so he asked that the following Milwaukee Talks interview be conducted via e-mail.
Much as he did for decades at the Milwaukee Sentinel, Lea held nothing back. In a free-ranging cyber-chat, he talked about his career, dealing with Vince Lombardi, his favorite and least favorite athletes to cover and his involvement with the Milwaukee Braves Historical Society.
Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks interview with Bud Lea.
OnMilwaukee.com: How did you get your start in sports journalism? Did you kind of "fall into it" like so many others, or was it something you pursued early on?
Bud Lea: Although I never participated in organized sports as a youngster, I became interested in sports growing up in Green Bay. I began writing sports for the West High School paper, the Purple Parrot.
When I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I began writing for the Daily Cardinal and later became sports editor of the Cardinal. My first job after graduation in 1952 was sports editor of the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin.
Rochester was a great place to start. And because of the Mayo Clinic, I would end up interviewing sports celebrities who entered the clinic because of its renowned reputation. Most of the patients at Mayo had time on their hands and were pretty easy to interview, as long as the stories remained in Rochester and were not given to the wire services.
The family that owned the Post-Bulletin got pissed when I told them I would be leaving after only nine months on the job. The Milwaukee Sentinel had expanded its sports department with the arrival of the Braves in 1953 and offered me a job.
OMC: What was it like to work in MIlwaukee at that time?
BL: I was the low man on the totem pole at the Sentinel, a rim bunny on the sports desk.
The Braves were the premier beat. Wisconsin was coming off a Rose Bowl year and Badger football was the second best beat, followed by Marquette football and basketball.
OMC: I've heard you say that the Packers beat was not exactly coveted by staffers in those days.
BL: The Packers were among the worst beats because the team was so lousy. Because I was born and raised in Green Bay, sports editor Lloyd Larson assigned the Packers to me. Hell, nobody else wanted that beat because the paper didn't cover training camp, out of state pre-season games, and even some regular-season games -- pending how the season was going.
I started covering the Packers full time in 1954, went through the Liz Blackbourn years and in 1958 when the franchise hit rock bottom under Scooter McLean. Yeah, I covered that 56-0 humiliating loss in Baltimore.
And then this guy Lombardi came and everything changed. All of a sudden the worst sports beat on the paper became the best as Lombardi turned a miserable loser into a dynasty, and the Braves took off for greener pastures in Atlanta.
OMC: What was it like dealing with Lombardi? Did you know at the time that he would be revered as a larger-than-life coaching legend?
BL: Lombardi will always stand out at the head of the list of sports personalities I covered because I had never met a man quite like him. He was brilliant, tough, emotional, unpredictable, moody. And, oh yes, he was a perfectionist. He often talked about playing a game that was free from error, physical and mental.
After the Packers lost a game, you didn't know what to expect when you walked into his locker room. Often, you didn't know what to expect when his Packers won.
Most of his post-game press conferences were made up of short answers to sports writers' short questions. Anyone who asked a dumb question would get a go-to-hell snarl, and he volunteered nothing.
When I couldn't get up to Green Bay, say, following a game in Baltimore, I would have to call him at 10:45 a.m. sharp on Monday to get any kind of follow-up story. I prepared my questions in advance, and it was an awful ordeal going one-on-one with him. He answered a few with short answers and then said, "How many more? When I said, "I'm just getting started," he replied, "I've got to get to work." I absolutely dreaded those calls.
If Lombardi didn't agree with something I wrote, he told me so -- immediately. But he never held a grudge. Hell, he rarely lost.
One Christmas he sent me a personal card, apologizing for his rude behavior. I still have that card.
OMC: You were around for both. Which had a bigger impact on fans -- the Packers during the Lombardi years or the Braves in the mid- to late-'50's?
BL: As popular as the Packers became under Lombardi, I don't think they excited Milwaukee as much as the arrival of the Braves in 1953 and their march to the World Series. All of a sudden, Milwaukee became a Major League city after suffering from an inferiority complex compared to Chicago. The '50s were a time County Stadium was the place to be. It was all Braves, all the time.
OMC: What was the timeline like for you -- when did you leave the beat and become a sports editor and columnist?
BL: I continued to cover the Packers as the Sentinel's beat reporter and in 1972 was named sports editor to succeed Lloyd Larson, who was a great boss but had his pet projects - especially the Badgers, Braves and the Packers -- who could do no wrong. I went out and hired some much needed fresh, aggressive sportswriters to match up and give the Journal a run for its money on coverage.
The Sentinel wanted me to write columns besides running a sports department and it got a bit overwhelming with often 14-hour days. Thankfully, my wife and two sons were very understanding. In 1980, the Sentinel conducted a nation-wide search to replace me as sports editor and wound up with a guy from Wisconsin Rapids -- Joe Karius, who lasted a few years and left. I continued as a columnist.
OMC: You spoke about Lombardi. What other sports figures did you enjoy covering?
BL: Al McGuire was a sportswriter's dream. Of all the personalties I have dealt with, he was the most colorful and quotable. When he came to Marquette University from little Belmont Abbey in North Carolina, nobody knew what to expect. Here was a guy with a thick New York accent and a thin coaching resume.
I covered Marquette's national championship game on a rainy April night in Atlanta in 1977. McGuire was 48 years old and said he was right on schedule in calling it quits after that game.
"Can you imagine being in your 50s and still worrying if some cheerleader is pregnant?" he said. "Winning is only important in war and surgery."
BL: Brett Favre, in his prime.
OMC: What would you consider the top five sporting events that you covered?
BL: The Ice Bowl. The game probably should never have been played under those God-awful weather conditions. But what a game it was. What a closing drive. It was very difficult writing on deadline in a press box that felt like being in a frozen food locker. But we all survived and will never forget Bart Starr's winning QB sneak in the closing moments.
2. The first Super Bowl (Packers vs. Chiefs). Nothing can be compared to the first Super Bowl because it was the first showdown between the rival leagues. And Max McGee, who had been out all night, playing the game of his life with a hangover.
3. The Packers 1962 championship game at Yankee Stadium against the New York Giants. The wind was blowing so hard, the playing field was like concrete, and the Giants almost killed Jim Taylor every time he carried the ball. In those days, the media could hitch a ride to the stadium with the team, and riding to Yankee Stadium or the L.A. Coliseum with Lombardi in the front seat was like riding with General Patton and the Fifth Armored Division. The Packers were that confident.
4. Muhammad Ali, at age 34, retained his heavyweight title with a 15-round decision over Ken Norton on a cold September night in 1976. Talk about tough writing conditions: The ring was set up on the infield in Yankee Stadium. It appeared Norton won the fight, and when the decision was announced the press row turned into a full-scale riot area, as gangs of hoodlums came in waves and smashed press tables and chairs and sending writers under the ring for protection. There was little security because the NYPD were on strike.
5. Packers win third Super Bowl as Mike Holmgren's team beats New England Patriots in the New Orleans Superdome. After all those mediocre years following the Lombardi dynasty, the Packers finally put together a season that will never be forgotten with Favre, Desmond Howard and Reggie White making big plays and sending Bill Parcells and his favored Patriots to a stunning loss.
OMC: Which franchise was worse -- the Packers in the 1970s and '80s or the Brewers of the '90s?
BL: I think the Brewers of the '90s. Despite some awful teams at Green Bay, the Packers continued to draw capacity crowds and enormous coverage. Outside of 1992 under Phil Garner, there wasn't much to expect from the Brew Crew at County Stadium.
OMC: Who were your favorite athletes to cover?
BL: Brett Favre, Paul Hornung, Max McGee, Bart Starr, Jerry Kramer, Hank Aaron, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Junior Bridgeman and Donald Driver.
OMC: Who were your favorite coaches or managers?
BL: Mike Holmgren, George Bamberger, Don Nelson, Ron Wolf, Harry Dalton and Barry Alvarez.
OMC: Who were the biggest jerks?
BL: Pete Vuckovich, Brent Fullwood, Mike Caldwell, Sterling Sharpe, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Randy Wright, Cecil Cooper and Gary Sheffield.
OMC: Care to give an example?
BL: My introduction to Vuckovich: The Brewers just made a trade with St. Louis for him, and I met him in the visiting clubhouse at old Comiskey Park. When I approached him at his locker, he wouldn't turn around. He asked me what I did, and I told him I was a sports columnist for a morning newspaper in Milwaukee. Then he turned around and made just one statement: "I hate sports columnists," he said and walked away. When his playing career was over, he tried to be buddy-buddy when he joined the media as a TV guy.
OMC: How did the player-reporter relationship evolve over the years (or devolve?) Do you think that the huge salaries played a part in that process?
BL: Players are making too much money today. They seemed more approachable years before they became so filthy rich. Also, there seems so many people in the media today covering games that it's tough to get close to the players for interviews. Seems every little two-bit radio station has a guy covering games these days.
OMC: You've seen a lot of changes over the past 50 years in sports journalism. First there was TV, then 24-hour cable TV and the Internet. There have been changes locally. What do you think about that?
BL: I think it was better when we had two newspapers in town. There was a genuine competition to get stories. If the Journal Sentinel misses a story today, who cares? Who knows?
Perhaps because of my advancing age, I'm not a guy glued to ESPN, although I do feel the local TV sports guys are really cut short on their segment of daily news. I also don't bother reading blogs on the Internet. Seems every Dick and Harry can't wait to express an opinion. I wish the Journal Sentinel had a second sports columnist.
OMC: What do you think will happen to the Bucks? Can they survive this economy and can they survive without a new building?
BL: If it wasn't for Herb Kohl, the Bucks would have been long gone. There was excitement in the old Arena when Don Nelson coached the team. Sellouts. Great games. The team has drafted poorly and made some terrible trades, so I guess you have to say Herb must be accountable for the people he picked. About a new arena for the Bucks? Not during this recession. I just hope the Bucks remain in Milwaukee. With a decent team, the fans will support them.
OMC: You've put a lot of time and effort into the Braves Historical Society. The 50th reunion was a resounding success. What is on the horizon for the organization?
When County Stadium was being torn down and replaced by Miller Park, Johnny Logan asked me to help him form the Milwaukee Braves Historical Association. With County Stadium demolished, there would be no reminder that the best baseball team Milwaukee ever had ever existed here.
We started from scratch and now have more than 1,000 paid members, from coast to coast who belong to the MBHA. The 50th reunion of the 1957 World Champion Milwaukee Braves was a huge success, but it took an enormous amount of volunteer work. If it weren't for Potawatomi and Bud Selig, we would have never been able to have this reunion. When Logan and I visited Milwaukee industry that had been around when the Braves were winners during the '50s, few if any wanted to support the reunion.
We are still in business. We will be honoring Bob Uecker at our next dinner May 11 at Potawatomi's Northern Lights Theater. Uecker was the first home-grown Brave. We expect this dinner to sell out.
We are running out of guys to honor. One by one, the old Braves heroes are dying.
OMC: The Braves left town before I was born, but I appreciate all you've done to keep the memory alive.
BL: The reason I'm still putting out the Tepee newsletter and writing columns for Packer Plus is that it keeps me busy and allows me to forget some serious health issues. I've never really recovered from a botched up surgery five years ago, where I lost my hearing, among other things.
What the hell? I've turned 80. I'm just thankful to be able to get around despite too many surgeries. I still enjoy watching our teams.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.