It was a chance meeting that would forever change his life …
Had he left minutes earlier on that hot August afternoon, he would have missed that golden lead of a ‘temporary’ sports reporting gig for a local paper.
Now almost 44 years later we celebrate ‘The Dean’ of local sports writers –- award-winning and much-beloved John Zant, as our first 2012 Presidio Sports’ Sports Figure of the Month in recognition of a near-lifetime of outstanding local sports reporting and feature coverage.
A span encompassing over 8,000 pieces penned … typed … and even blogged.
Not bad for a guy who started life in La Cañada in the San Fernando Valley foothills – the second of three kids to a refrigeration engineer dad and a stay-at-home mom, who loved reading and encouraged her children to do the same.
Young John always did what his mom told him and was soon captivated by James Bond novels.
He attended St. Francis HS, a nearby, 300-plus-enrollment, all-boys school where he ran track (100 yards in 10 seconds flat) and played football, ‘averaging eight yards a carry as wingback’ (official records somewhat scant here).
In his senior year, his football team finished 12-1 and beat La Mirada for the CIF-3A Championship in front of 25,000 people at the LA Coliseum.
And it was at St. Francis, where he cultivated his early interest in writing – volunteering for both the school paper and yearbook staffs.
After his 1964 graduation, he moved up the coast to UC Santa Barbara …
“UCSB was perfect,” he says, “It was out of L.A. and not-too-far away from home.”
By his junior year, he was an Anthropology major and serving as yearbook sports editor – even developing a nice friendship with Donn Bernstein, then UCSB’s Sports Information Director.
In his senior year, he was yearbook editor-in-chief for this massive publication dedicated to T.M Storke, of Santa Barbara News-Press fame and fortune – owner and Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial writing.
But, it was Bernstein who would later change his life shortly after Zant’s 1968 graduation. Zant returned over the summer with his dad to deliver baby brother, Jim, at school.
After unpacking and lugging stuff to Jim’s football dorm room — they were getting ready to leave when Bernstein stepped in …
He put his arm around the new grad and asked what he was doing.
Zant replied he “had nothing nailed down.”
“Well, the Santa Barbara News-Press needs someone to cover high school sports in the fall,” Bernstein responded. He then picked up the rotary phone and called Phil Patton, then-SBNP Sports Editor and Zant had a job interview two days later.
Mark Patton, Phil’s son and long-time local sports writer, takes it from here …
“My dad hired Z at the News-Press based on the strong recommendation of Donn Bernstein, UCSB’s sports information director at the time. Z had just graduated from UCSB, and the News-Press never hired anybody without several years of professional experience, but ‘Bernie’ told Dad that taking a pass on Z would be like the Dodgers declining to sign Sandy Koufax. Dad took a chance, and Santa Barbara has been rewarded for that for nearly 44 years.
“I worked with him at the News-Press for more than 30 years, during which time he won many writing awards and was nominated for the Pulitzer. He writes with detail and wit and poignancy. The News-Press, flat-out, has never had a better writer.”
And so began John Zant’s professional writing career at $105.00 a week.
“I thought I was rich!” he says.
He was assigned the Dos Pueblos HS football beat (DP was only in its second year of infancy). On his first day of work, he toured all three local high schools and met the Dons’ great Sam Cunningham — they remain friends to this day.
For the SBNP, he later covered local basketball and amongst his celebrated work — he is most proud of his trend-setting Women in Sports four-piece series, shortly after Title 9 passed in 1972.
“It’s the finest work I’ve ever done in journalism, “ he says, “And a similar piece (not his) later appeared in Sports Illustrated.”
It was cutting-edge at that time and Zant truly lived what he wrote.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, he also covered his alma mater — the UCSB Women Gauchos basketball team, then starting a successful run under new coach Mark French.
And as Sports Editor, he was bumping NASCAR off the front sport pages “to make room for the girls.”
Some readers were not happy and they let him know it!
Zant witnessed Erin Alexander set a UCSB record when she torched USC for 40 points in LA in 1996 … and was there last weekend to celebrate her induction as UCSB’s newest ‘The Legend of the (Thunder) Dome.”
He says he always looks for the local angle in whatever he writes — whether here or there a la covering the Rose Bowl … or the Olympics in Munich, Montreal, L.A., Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens like he’s done … and he has been blessed with great local connections such as ‘Sam Bam’, Jim Ryun, Bill Toomey, Karch Kiraly, Terry Schroeder, to name a few.
He’s been on the local scene so long that he has covered three generations of athletes – kids, their kids and now their grandkids!
Zant still regularly attends the Santa Barbara Athletic Roundtable Monday Press Luncheons and recalls the very first one….
“It was September 21, 1970 because Monday Night Football premiered that same evening. MNF has since changed channels but SBART still meets at Harry’s.”
In 2007, Zant’s 38-year SBNP career came to an abrupt end, along with six other reporters who were all fired en masse – an action that rippled across the country.
“All were doing what we believed was a legal protest in a labor dispute – all fired on the basis of lack of loyalty,” Zant said when interviewed on camera at the time.
Since then, he moved over to The Independent with a weekly column and regular, online reports.
And the beat, as they say, goes on …
Zant is a dedicated family man. With wife, Kathleen, together they enjoy a blended family of six kids, all grown.
In his spare time, he savors jazz and has an incredible ‘vinyl collection’ that would even make Kareem envious!
He is a familiar face around town attending sporting events or just riding his bike – his main mode of transportation.
“It’s the only exercise I get since my knees are so bad from football,” he offers.
About Zant’s lifetime achievement and this latest appreciation, mentor Bernstein says, “You cannot say enough nice things about John. He’s mild mannered … a great and professional writer … and a very charming and graceful person. He is deserving of all the accolades that are coming to him.”
Echoes protegé Mark Patton: “And nobody benefitted more from Z than me. He became my mentor, teaching me more about writing and story-telling than anyone else in my life. He was both my colleague and my boss, but most of all he remains my great friend. He is as genuine and true-blue as he is talented.”
“He is the ‘Jim Murray’ of Santa Barbara,“ adds Barry Punzal, long-time friend, former colleague and boss.
So had Zant left moments earlier and not bumped into Bernstein on that hot 1968 August afternoon — he might have become an award-winning feature writer for Sunset Magazine – a position he later turned down after joining the New-Press.
And about his life’s vocation — his favorite saying comes from the late Red Smith, the first sport writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize …
“Writing is easy. I just open a vein and bleed.”
It’s Santa Barbara’s good fortune all these years that John Zant ‘bleeds local sports’ and that fate intervened when it did because ‘timing is everything’ and those ‘few minutes’ have made all the difference in the world.
For all of us …