Understanding the genius of Van McKenzie is much like understanding infinity. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, there’s more.
This larger-than-life Runyonesque figure ran roughshod over America’s sports sections for more than 40 years. No section was so bad that he couldn’t fix it and no section was so good that he didn’t want to blow it up.
Through the years, McKenzie shaped plenty of sections. He started at the Ocala Star-Banner, then went to the Orlando Sentinel, Today (now Florida Today), St. Petersburg Times, New York Daily News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The National – the first nationwide sports daily in this country – and back to the Orlando Sentinel.
"Van had the best story instinct of any sports editor I’ve ever known," said Dave Kindred, a past Red Smith Award winner. Kindred worked with McKenzie in Atlanta and at The National.
"Whether it’s columns, features, news, graphics, design – you name it, he knew the good stuff when he saw it," Kindred said. "Better, he knew how to get his people to do it. First, because he was a great judge of talent and character, he hired the right people. Then he gave them all the support and freedom they needed, and in return, they gave him their best work and a promise to do it again tomorrow."
McKenzie was singular in his purpose, to have his section be the best. Before he physically arrived in Orlando (for the second time) he sent the staff a memo, which was later labeled the "Vanifesto." It showed his resolve.
"Starting immediately," the Vanifesto read, "every decision made will be based on reaching a goal to be the best sports section in the country. Not one of the Top 10. The Best One. It is a lofty goal, and we’ve got some work to do to get there. We’ll start by raising the journalistic standards of the Orlando Sentinel sports section to a higher level. What was good enough yesterday isn’t good enough today. And what we do today won’t be good enough tomorrow."
And then he gave his warning.
"Words to live by: ‘Never assume anything.’
"Words to die by: ‘That’s not the way we do things around here.’ "
Strong words from a big bear of a man, who was really a big softie on the inside.
McKenzie always had a fondness for his time in Atlanta. If creating arguably the best sports section in the country wasn’t enough, he was tapped by the editor to run the coverage of the Democratic National Convention.
"It was unprecedented," said Rick Jaffe, who left the Los Angeles Times to work with McKenzie on the convention project. "Never before or since have I heard of a sports guy and his ‘crew’ to literally be in charge of producing political convention coverage. (Editor Bill) Kovach had that much faith in him that he knew he was the only one in the building that could pull it off."
From there, Frank DeFord tapped him to be the managing editor of The National. He was given an almost unlimited budget – which he overspent – and brought in the best collection of writers and editors ever assembled.
The concept was grand, the journalism was even better, but they never quite worked out a way to get the paper to the public. It folded 15 months after McKenzie arrived.
McKenzie chased his entrepreneurial spirit after The National folded, opening a pair of cinema pubs in the St. Augustine, Fla., area. But that wunderlust soon waned and he wanted back in the business. Orlando called. He answered.
"When Van arrived, he showed us how to be a great sports section," said Lynn Hoppes, the Sentinel’s associate managing editor for sports. "He erased the boundary lines and created his own. He wanted every day’s sports section to be better than the previous one. He instilled this value into us, and his legacy will live on."
In the fall of 2003, McKenzie was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.
"I’ve bet a lot of longshots in my life, it’s about time for another one to come in," McKenzie said at the time.
McKenzie continued to work through two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. Even when he was on disability he would insist on driving to a restaurant and interview perspective employees.
Early on the morning of Jan. 26 of this year, McKenzie died peacefully at his home, with wife Sandy and sons Van Jr. and Von by his side.
That day, Sportsjournalists.com, a Web site usually the home to anonymous griping, became the focal point of McKenzie tributes and the lovefest lasted for page after page and day after day. It was cathartic for those who knew and loved him.
McKenzie always looked to the Red Smith Award as the pinnacle of sports journalism but he wasn’t sure he was worthy. Today shows that was one of the few things he was wrong about.