Matt Wellens column: Ken Godfrey once threatened to kick me out of Northern Michigan University
Sitting in my seat Saturday on the media deck of the Superior Dome, I received a familiar clutch of the shoulders while I tweeted away from the Northern Michigan University spring football game.
The squeeze of my shoulders was familiar, but not the person doing it.
I should clarify that I knew the person behind me well – senior associate athletic director Steve Reed – but he’s not the person I associate with that gesture, nor the venue.
During my four years as a student reporter, that kind of greeting came late in the third period of hockey games at the Berry Events Center from a nervous Ken Godfrey, the former Wildcats athletic director who once threatened to toss me out of NMU.
Reed was there when Godfrey made the threat on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2005 – the final night Bernie Anderson ever called himself head football coach at Michigan Tech.
A week prior to that, Godfrey and his search committee met to review a list of around 40 candidates who hoped to replace Doug Sams, however, I knew there was only one man Godfrey really wanted for the job – Anderson.
As a junior electronic journalism student and sports editor of The North Wind, I spent a month following the NMU football coaching search, often asking Godfrey multiple times a week whether or not Anderson was a candidate.
“Did you chat with Bernie recently? Was he interested in the job?”
Every time, Godfrey responded with the same statement, “Not at this time,” before ducking away from the rest of my questioning.
That changed on the night of Dec. 7 when I called Godfrey’s second-floor PEIF office in hopes of getting one final update before The North Wind put out its final edition of the fall semester.
His answer was just as short as always, but this time, all I heard was, “come to my office, now.”
I raced from the University Center in my soon to be dead Ford Taurus station wagon to the PEIF as quickly as one can drive a crumbling 10-year-old grocery getter that was pushing 200,000 miles.
I arrived at the PEIF to find a dimly lit second floor and an even darker athletic department office, with only the light of the AD’s office remaining. I walked into Godfrey’s office to find him and Reed chatting briefly. Both went silent and Godfrey had me take a seat.
Reed began to leave the office, but before he could leave, Godfrey spoke up.
“Steve, wait, I want you to hear this. Shut the door.”
Holding a single sheet of white paper in his hand, Godfrey looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Matt, if you publish this before tomorrow morning or if I see this information on some hockey message board, I swear you will be done at this university.”
I recalled this moment in my journalism career with Reed late last week. He seemed to remember it a little differently.
“I thought he was going to do much worse,” Reed said with a laugh.
After spelling out my future crystal clear should I not play by the rules, Godfrey dismissed Reed, took a seat and slid me the piece of paper.
I read the first few sentences and began to sneak a smirk knowing I had been on the right track all along.
I looked up from the press release that was due to go out to the rest of the media the next morning to see I wasn’t the only person with a grin. Godfrey couldn’t keep his excitement contained any longer over stealing Anderson.
From there, the tension lessened, though Godfrey continued to remind me about the delicacy of situation both he and Anderson were in, especially since the Tech’s administration and players had yet to be informed of their football coach’s defection.
The next day, while the rest of the Marquette media was being surprised by an early morning press release announcing a new football coach – eight days earlier a release said stay tuned for a list of finalists – The North Wind was rolling off the presses with a front-page story on Anderson’s hire, complete with an exclusive interview with Godfrey.
I eventually had to tell a few people about the hire upon returning to The North Wind office, convening a small committee of editors such as our editor-in-chief and news editor, who needed to know why I wanted to hijack the front page at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday.
Fearful Godfrey would follow through on his threat, I gave my colleagues a similar ultimatum.
Later on the next day during Anderson’s introductory press conference at the Dome, Godfrey gave me a hug and thanked me for keeping my mouth shut. I thanked him not only for the big scoop, but for allowing The North Wind to get the story published on Dec. 8 rather than late January when the publication returned for the winter 2006 semester.
Normally you’d like to forget the night you almost got kicked out of college, but for me, I’ll never forget it.
The Anderson scoop will probably go down as one of my best because there was no Twitter or Facebook at the time to spoil the fun five seconds after besting your competition.
It was more than just a great career accomplishment, however. It is one of my best memories of my time at NMU and one of my greatest memories of Ken Godfrey. I’ll always be thankful to Ken for giving me that moment.
Thanks Ken. Rest well.
Editor’s note: Ken Godfrey passed away last week at the age of 64 following a long battle with graft versus host disease as a result of a bone marrow transplant during treatment for acute myeloid leukemia. Godfrey will be remembered today during a 2 p.m. memorial service at Messiah Lutheran Church in Marquette.
Mining Journal Sports Editor Matt Wellens worked with Godfrey from 2003-07 while a student reporter/editor at The North Wind and as reporter for The Journal his senior year at NMU. He can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens.