— Retired New York Times sports columnist and 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Anderson has fielded this question before. The answer has been the same for a long time now.
What is the all-time favorite event that you have covered?
Without hesitation, Anderson answers, "The 1980 USA hockey team that beat the Soviets."
"Bingo," says Jim Spence, the former ABC Sports senior vice president and current College of William and Mary visiting scholar.
Spence, too, witnessed the "Miracle on Ice" in the compact Olympic Center arena in Lake Placid, N.Y.
More than 36 years later during Spence's "Television Sports Today" course at William and Mary, the two recounted the massive upset that galvanized the country. Spence normally invites two guest speakers for the course, which only runs in the fall, and on a Wednesday afternoon earlier this month, a group of 18 students gathered on the bottom floor of Tyler Hall to listen to Anderson tell sports stories of yesteryear and opine on NFL ratings, instant replay and boxing in the 21st century.
Anderson wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle and the New York Journal-American before joining the Times in 1966 as a general assignment sports reporter and becoming a sports columnist in 1971. His Pulitzer a decade later was for distinguished commentary. The 87-year-old New York native and New Jersey resident retired 10 years ago, but continued writing for the Times. His contributions are no longer as regular, although recent stories include a stirring September eulogy of champion golfer Arnold Palmer.
Spence's students asked Anderson about Palmer, Muhammad Ali and covering the Brooklyn Dodgers. The final question, the one about all-time favorite events, came from Spence, eliciting a several-minutes-long response from Anderson. And how could it not?
"There was so much interest in it," Anderson said. "It was national pride. It was also such a great upset. They were college kids and they had some very good players, but they had no business beating the Soviet team."
As Anderson noted, the 4-3 upset over the Soviet Union wouldn't have meant nearly as much had the Americans not followed it up by defeating Finland to win gold in those Winter Olympics.
Spence watched the Soviet game with four-time Super Bowl champion Lynn Swann, who told him the raucous scene, with 8,500 fans waving American flags to and fro, was more thrilling than any Super Bowl he played in.
Anderson and Spence would need plenty more of these sessions to relay the anecdotes they accumulated through lifetimes in sports. They probably could never fit them in adequately.
Spence, who left ABC in 1986, has a little more time to pass along the knowledge he gained in broadcast television. His classes, including the ones he leads with the Christopher Wren Association, get their share of stories about what it was like to work alongside sportscasters Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Jim McKay, Chris Schenkel and Howard Cosell. Most of them were off the air before Spence's undergrad students were even born, but his Christopher Wren pupils get a great kick out of these tales.
Spence fell in love with teaching at New York University and chose to move to Williamsburg, in part, because it was a college town. He hoped he might get the opportunity to continue teaching.
Spence believes "Television Sports Today" is a rare course because it concentrates on all angles of sports TV from business to production.
Spence said, "One of the reasons for the great success that we at ABC Sports had is that our top executives were involved both in the business side, the negotiation and programming side of network television sports, but also involved with production."
After the chat with Anderson on Nov. 16, Spence spent the remainder of the class breaking down a recent NASCAR telecast. He dissected the audio, graphics, camera coverage, and other aspects of the Phoenix race broadcast. The class previously did the same for NFL and MLB games.
Some of Spence's students are sports fans and take the class because it sounds like it will be fun. He recalls a senior who admitted he only took the course to learn something about which he knew nothing. But by the end of it, the student expressed to Spence through an evaluation form that it was one of the best courses he had ever taken.
"I think the kids enjoy it," Spence said, "but I think I enjoy it more."
Anderson, whom Spence called "one of the great guys aside from being a great journalist," draws similar motivation from inspiring others.
Anderson grew up with a notepad and pen, while the William and Mary students he addressed have had computers that become more "exotic" every few years, as he puts it. Times have changed, but writing the truth and giving readers valuable and insightful information stands the test of time.
Once at a charity golf tournament, someone informed Anderson, "You taught me to read."
"You can put those compliments on my tombstone as far as I'm concerned," Anderson said. "You can't think of a greater compliment."
Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.