A public thank-you note to Rusty Hampton

Rusty Hampton announced today he is leaving The Clarion-Ledger sports department to work for the engineering firm of Neel-Schaffer. This is really good news for Neel-Schaffer. It is awful news for the state’s largest newspaper, and even worse news for readers who get their sports news from the Ledger and its website.

I’ll get right to it: In 43 years of working full-time at newspapers, always in sports, I never worked with a more dedicated journalist. Rusty cared. He cared so deeply he continued to work all the harder when faced with budget cuts and staff cuts over these often painful last 20 years.

The staff and news hole got smaller; Rusty’s days got longer. As an editor, he was demanding and he was extremely detail-oriented. We didn’t always agree — and we sometimes argued — on what was best for The Clarion-Ledger and its readers, but we did have a mutual respect for one another’s opinions.

Rusty is an Oregon native who married a lovely Mississippi lady and has learned to love and understand this place better than many natives. He even says y’all now. He could have stayed in newspapers and gone to work other places, bigger places. He chose to stay here. It always amused me how fans — short for fanatics — always accused Rusty of being biased toward one of the Mississippi schools. The truth is, he had no horse in the race; he just wanted to make sure all the horses got covered fairly. As his staff continued to shrink, this became increasingly difficult.

Back in the old days, we made so many road trips together, he as the State or Ole Miss beat writer and I as the columnist. We worked hard and sometimes we played hard. Don’t know which was more fun.

One of the best times of my career was covering Mississippi State in the College World Series one year when the Bulldogs lasted eight days, which meant eight rounds of golf for Rusty and me. We called it the Omaha Open. We played golf in the morning, covered great baseball in the afternoon and evening and then ate thick, juicy steaks at some point each night. Then we got up the next morning and did it again. One year, a storm blew in from the north bringing gusts of up to 70 mph. The games were called off, but we played golf right through it. Rusty, who could hit a golf ball a mile, needed a 3 iron to reach a 125-yard par-3. On the next hole, a 400-yard par-4 with the wind, he drove the green. We lost that scorecard and I am glad we did.

Rusty and Cindy Hampton when Rusty was relaxing for a change.

When I joined the Jackson newspapers in 1979, we had 26 sports writers. When I quit being sports editor and went to writing columns full-time we were down to 18. Rusty was down to just six. Such a shame. I should stress that this is not just a Jackson thing, not just a Gannett thing, not just a sports thing. It’s happening to newspapers all over and I hate it.

This past year Associated Press Sports Editors judged Rusty’s Clarion-Ledger sports sections to be in the Top 10 in the nation in its circulation category in daily sections, Sunday sections and special sections. In the newspaper business, this is known as a grand slam. The entire staff, what was left of it, contributed, but Rusty made it happen.

Rusty, a valued friend, is a fine writer and a better editor. As an editor, he saved my rear end so many times I long ago lost count. Consider this a public thank-you. And a lament. The newspaper business just lost a great one.

19 thoughts on “A public thank-you note to Rusty Hampton”

  1. I worked for Rusty from 2006 to 2010. Rusty was relentless. Sometimes, that made you want to yell at him. But all of the time, that made you take pride in our product because you knew the dedication that went into it. When those inevitable calls of bias would come our way, I would get angrier when people would rip Rusty than when they would rip me, because I knew how much he sweated over the most minute details to present a fair report.

    He’s been an incredible mentor and I’m lucky to call him a friend.

  2. You knew Rusty did a good job because every fan faction would complain that the Ledger was out to “get” their school. They would complain about lack of coverage although the Ledger devoted more space to the Mississippi schools than any other paper in the region. He is tough but fair and no one ever questioned his work ethic. Smart? He married a Mississippi gal. Enough said.

  3. Nobody has ever worked harder to produce a quality sports section, or any newspaper section for that matter, than Rusty. The guy took a supposed 40- to 50-hour work week and turned into a 60- to 100-hour work week. Even when he wasn’t in the office, or in town, that night’s product was still his focus. I accused him of not wanting to go home for some reason, but knowing his sweet wife Cindy I knew better. He was just dedicated at a level few can understand. I never could.

    Rusty was really good at multi-tasking. He’s the only person I know who could edit a story — can you say rewrite?, carry on two conversations with people out in the office who were paying no attention whatsoever, rant about the writer of the story he was editing, and suddenly go all-Turret’s syndrome screaming obscenities, all while chewing on the end of a bic pen – never spitting the pen out — and trying to explain to his wife why he couldn’t leave until after the first edition rolled. Now that’s talent.

    One word of advice for his future co-workers at Neel-Shaffer, never ever borrow a pen from Rusty. All chewed up, I’m telling you.

  4. I met Rusty when I started working for The Clarion-Ledger Sports Department in 1986. Rusty was driven (“crazed” some might say) even back then. But he was always pushing to make our section better, always asking, “Why don’t we try this?”

    His arrival as sports editor coincided with my return from an exile in News.. Rusty and I had, uh, our differences at times. But I’d still rank him among my all-time best bosses. And working for him made me a better journalist. I probably would have gone on working for Rusty if I hadn’t been hijacked back to News.

    I was one of those people out in the office who tried not to pay attention to a “conversation” with Rusty from his office. That was impossible. Rusty’s voice is too loud.

  5. I covered Mississippi State for the Clarion-Ledger from 2010 until, well, just recently (March 2013). Rusty is/was a tireless worker, an editor who pushed you to your limits and made you better as a result. He was the type of editor who would question a sentence, a graph or item in your story and give you a minute or two to explain yourself. Like any writer, you would want to defend it but you knew he was right. Every moment is constructive with Rusty, and he is never “out of the office” — even when he’s at home or on vacation.

    Like many who walked through the doors at The Clarion-Ledger, Rusty Hampton made me a better writer and reporter. That’s all I can ask for from an editor and I’m glad he is always a phone call away when I need some advice or guidance. He’s one of the best.

  6. I learned most everything I know about doing this job, good and bad, from Rusty. He was the guy who sat across from me during my first job out of college, the guy who taught me that it was okay for a sportswriter to show up to work before lunch time and how to grind through anything the job threw at me on a daily basis.

    He never was my boss, he left I moved into his old gig, he came back and I left for other adventures. But the work ethic I learned watching him cover the college beat is the same work ethic I’ve carried with me ever since.

    I remember showing up to his 40th birthday party with one of those canes with a kickstand and rear view mirror attached, the perfect gag gift for an old guy. I was just a young pup then, of course. But my wife didn’t know who Rusty was other than some guy from work. So when she asked for details I told her, “he’s the dude I hope to be at 40.”

    Congrats Rusty on the new gig and the adventure it is sure to bring.

    1. I can honestly say that getting to learn from Rusty has been one of the biggest breaks of my career. His knowledge of how to work a beat and his passion for sports and the Clarion-Ledger was unmatched. The best part of working for Rusty was that you could have a decibel-raising, five-minute argument about a story or the section and the next day it was forgotten. It was never personal – just passion – and that’s why the CL consistently put out a great section.

      He could also down an unholy amount of Diet Mt. Dew and I’ve unfortunately picked up the habit! I’ve come around Rusty – it is a delicious light green beverage.

      Even though I left the CL in 2010 our friendship continues when we get together for lunch and discuss our latest endurance sports endeavors. I figured it Rusty could ride a bike for hundreds of miles I could at least get off my rear and jog a little!

      Rusty, you had a terrific run at the CL and I know you’ll be great in your new gig. Good luck!

  7. I was one year out of college when I started working with Rusty in 1986, back when Jackson was a two-newspaper town during the week. Rusty and I and the rest of Paul Borden’s staff at The Clarion-Ledger competed–hard–to report and write better than Rick’s crew over at the Jackson Daily News. Funny thing, though; when the papers merged, the competition continued, and Rusty was always one of the leaders. He worked to make us the best we could be, and largely because of him, we were.

    Rusty had a dog named Taz, but Rusty was the real Tasmanian devil, at least when it came to the non-stop energy with which he covered his beat. He always wanted to write more: more stories, with more length, about whatever he was covering. At least a third of his gray hairs must be from the times someone told him no. And, yes, Bobby, quite a few chewed-up pens met their demise for similar reasons.

    We worked together for more than 15 years. For eight of those, one of us covered State and the other covered Ole Miss. Somehow, Rockey Felker and Billy Brewer managed to tell us apart. Rusty brought to his work the intensity of the small-college pitcher he had once been and the wiliness of the left-hander he’ll always be.

    And he was somewhat better at golf than me.

    Congratulations, Rusty, on more than a quarter-century at The Clarion-Ledger and 12 terrific years as sports editor. Bo’ ‘f ’em.

  8. Great article, Rick.

    We miss guys like you, and will certainly miss Rusty. Our loss for sure.

    Rusty did do a great job of covering EVERYTHING. I was upset once because Rachel Givan had just won a national title at UNC and there was no mention of it- from what I’d seen. I wrote him a decently long two paragraph email asking why this wasn’t being covered. Rusty assured me it just hadn’t been put in yet- and she had a deserving article put in soon.

    Might seem like a small thing, but the fact that he took it seriously and I knew I was getting through to the head guy made a difference to me. I knew then he cared about the paper in general and its readers.

    It’s probably an unsung role, but he’s the kind of guy I’d want running my business.

    Good luck in your new role, Rusty.

  9. The first time I talked to Rusty, he almost immediately asked me why I would leave the job I had for the job I now have. I told him the truth — that I wanted a full-time beat job, and I thought it was a great opportunity. But a big part of the reason I thought it was that was him. I wanted to get better, and I knew I had to leave to do it. And if you’re going to leave, you might as well go to the best.
    I’m better off for having worked for Rusty the last 21 months. Like everyone before me has said, he works you harder and demands more of you. But because you know he’s giving more of himself than ever before, and his solution to every problem is not what can we cut but what can he do more of, you don’t even think about it and just follow his lead.

  10. Loud voice? Check. Screams obscenities? Check. Workaholic? Check. Sweet wife? Check. Pushes himself and folks around him to be their best? Check. Conclusion: Sounds like most of the good football coaches I know. No wonder he was great sports editor!

  11. Rusty Hampton is not just a great sports journalist, he is a great journalist. His work ethic and his high standards for the newspaper were second to none. He was fair to all schools and those who accuse him of bias would be satisfied with no one other than a homer.
    Best of luck to Rusty in his new pursuits.

  12. I, like Caroline wrote an e-mail to complain about an issue, to my surprise, Rusty responded in a short time. I certainly appreciated his prompt response! I have been a reader of the Clarion Ledger since 1973 (print and for the last 5 years internet, since I live in Georgia now). I read the Clarion Ledger primarily for Mississippi Sports and other news about my home state. I have tremendously enjoyed the sports coverage, under Rusty’s editorship. I have really enjoyed his columns. Good luck Rusty, in your future endeavor!

  13. Rusty: Rick and those who have left comments have pretty much summed up things pretty well. It’s really kind of amazing how someone from Oregon could have adjusted so quickly and become so embedded in the ways and wiles of Mississippi sports and Mississippi life as you did. I know you were in Louisville for a while, and it was a wise move when you returned to Jackson. I know had I been given the opportunity, I would have made the same choice. Once Mississippi gets in your blood it stays there no matter where you live. I don’t know what all your new job will entail, but I am sure you will be a great success and your new employer will be damn grateful to have you. And, Mike Knobler, you are right about the competition! Both papers back in the ’80s were unbelievable when it came to quality of sports journalism. I was so proud to see you continue that, Rusty, when you took over, even though they kept handing you a shorter and shorter stick in the fight. Again, good luck and congratulations!

  14. I stumbled on this hall of fame website the other day, just in time to see Rusty is leaving the Clarion-Ledger and Orley Hood was to start chemo treatment. You guys are two of my favorite people. I haven’t stayed in contact with Orley, but Rusty and I speak now and then, and we spent an evening with Rusty and Cindy a year ago on our way back from New Orleans. I also dropped by the Clarion-Ledger. My how times have changed since I was there 18 years ago. Seems in some ways like only yesterday that I argued with Rusty about golf coverage and got the secret to grilling pork tenderloin — Allegro — from Orley. As I read through all of the names of the people who have posted here so far, it brought back a lot of happy memories, and I admit, a few tears. We are all saddened at what’s happened to the newspaper industry. But we should all be thankful that we were able to spend some time together during the glory years. How fun it was!!!! I think Rick and Rusty, now that they don’t have to work 60 or so hours a week, need to put together a Clarion-Ledger sports department reunion, perhaps at the hall of fame. Good luck to all of you. (P.S. I am glad to see Rick still loves to write. I subscribe to the C-L e-edition and missed his columns. Now I can read him for free.)

  15. I worked for Rusty from 2004 to 2006 as the Mississippi State beat writer, easily the two most rewarding and challenging years of my professional life. I arrived from NY at 24 years old, having no idea how to be a beat writer but not yet realizing that fact. Rusty clued me in pretty quickly. I’ll never forget the beautifully written game story I turned in after a Mississippi State-Auburn game, one that was returned to me two days later that had grown to four pages with all the markups. I knew I was in for it. Two years later, I was equipped with the tools that would help me report on anything I ever wanted. It’s safe to say, working with Rusty was the best thing to ever happen to me and for my career. He was tough, dogged, and never settled. Those characteristics are contagious. So many of the lessons he taught me still resonate. For instance, I’ll never quote a player after a big win or new contract saying, “I’m excited.” That wasn’t allowed and still isn’t. If there is a public record available, it’s the first thing I’ll seek out. Oh, and if there is Sierra Nevada on tap, I’ll usually order it. I owe so much of what I’ve accomplished in journalism to Rusty, and I wish him success in his new endeavor. I know he’ll attack it the same way and will find the same success.

  16. I’ve read on sports message boards through the years the countless shots taken at Rusty — Ole Miss fans griping that he favored State; State fans complaining he favored Ole Miss; USM fans livid that he favored the two SEC schools. And, yes, most of the ridiculous rants were made anonymously.

    I cringed every time I read one of those posts because I knew they were untrue.

    Take this from someone who has gone on more road trips with him than I could ever count: Rusty has no “favorite” schools. He’s from Oregon, where he was a pretty decent left-handed college pitcher who somehow made his way to Jackson to the C-L in August 1984. For three years, we traveled back and forth to Starkville and across the country as the MSU beat writers. Rusty worked the C-L side. I wrote for the now defunct afternoon sister paper, the Jackson Daily News.

    During that time we covered some bad football teams, some so-so basketball teams and some really good baseball teams. We covered the ’85 Bulldog baseball squad that included Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Jeff Brantley and Bobby Thigpen. I can remember sitting with Rusty on the roof of Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., after State had finished fifth in the College World Series, discussing the fact we would long remember covering that group of players.

    I found out real quickly that he wasn’t afraid to ask a coach the tough questions. And many times, we would be battling each other to break a story on the next football coach, athletic director, etc. Rusty kept me on my toes, made me work tirelessly, in part because I knew he was.

    I figured Mississippi had him locked up for good when he fell in love and married a local girl, Cindy. They did journey to Louisville, Ky., where he covered UK sports for a few years. But they happily found their way back.

    He and Cindy have made it a mission to rescue dogs. They are now on their fourth greyhound, and they have two more dogs they saved.

    I chuckle at Rusty’s arrival from Oregon. He was driving a Plymouth Sapporo, which had no air conditioner. Remember, this was August. In Missisisippi.

    “Hey, man,” he told me a couple of weeks later. “I got an air conditioner installed in the car.”

    When he picked me up that Tuesday morning to head to Starkville for football coach Emory Bellard’s weekly press conference, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was as if someone had taken an outside air conditioning unit from a home and somehow wedged it beneath his console. It barely left room for someone in the passenger seat. But off we went, me crammed against the door with cool air blowing, and Rusty lecturing me on race relations in the South and everything that was wrong about it.

    I finally asked. “What’s the racial breakdown of Oregon?”

    He shrugged. “Probably 99 percent white,” he said.

    “I don’t disagree with your ideologies,” I told him, “but I also don’t feel you’re exactly an authority on race relations in the South coming from a place that is whiter than flour. Why don’t we just listen to some music?”

    But that was my first true glimpse inside Rusty Hampton: He vehemently values equality.

    And no matter what fans of a particular school might think, that belief has carried over in his role as sports editor on a daily basis.

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