Buzz Bissinger: A Savior for the City

More than two decades ago, Buzz Bissinger won a Pulitzer writing for the Inquirer, then published his masterpiece, Friday Night Lights. Now he’s rich, and famous. So why is he back at the Inky as a columnist — and why is he so mad?

THE LAST TIME Buzz Bissinger was a newspaper writer, Ronald Reagan was president, Wilson Goode was mayor, nobody in the world had ever blogged, and the Philadelphia Inquirer had a circulation of close to 500 large. Under legendary editor Gene Roberts, the city’s newspaper of record was in the midst of a Pulitzer blitzkrieg that would snag 17 of the coveted prizes in a decade and a half. Buzz, in fact, had just won one, along with two colleagues, for a series of articles on corruption in the city’s courts.

The year was 1988. Ed Rendell had recently lost two straight elections: for governor, to Bob Casey Sr. in 1986, and to Goode for mayor in 1987. David L. Cohen was seven years out of law school. And Buzz, at the height of his and the Inquirer’s powers, was about to make a move that would prove oddly prescient: He would leave his job to move to middle-of-nowhere Odessa, Texas, and write a book about high-school football. The result, Friday Night Lights, would become a New York Times best-seller, be named the best football book of all time by Sports Illustrated, be made into a hit movie and critically acclaimed TV series, and launch Buzz into the career stratosphere. He’d go on to write for TV’s NYPD Blue, the New York Times, and, especially, Vanity Fair, for which he specializes in epic tales of tragedy and waste: failing shock jock Don Imus, doomed Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, disgraced journalist Stephen Glass, the sad denouement of Joe DiMaggio.

Which made it all the more perplexing to pick up the Sunday Inquirer last fall and see, once again, Buzz’s familiar byline, attached to opinion pieces of distinctly domestic reach: on Philly’s new D.A., Mayor Nutter’s budget, a trip to Costco. What wasn’t so familiar was the tone: Lynne Abraham was “a vulture,” Tom Ridge had managed to “fail upward on the basis of nothing,” that budget was “voodoo,” and Ed Rendell was engaged in “a Custer’s Last Stand to be the center of attention.” It was no mystery why the paper — its circulation in the dumps, its staffing slashed, its owners mired in monetary woes — would leap at the chance to showcase a famous alumnus. But across the city, Inquirer-ing minds wondered: Why was Buzz Bissinger so mad?

BUZZ COMES TO the door in black leather. You yourself are wearing a lace blouse, so for a moment, there in the vestibule, the two of you embody a Stevie Nicks/Don Henley duet. The leather makes you a little nervous to follow him inside, but once you do, you see that his Chestnut Hill house is comfortable and sunny. You sit, and his dog, a yellow Lab, comes and noodles you, utterly lacking in dignity. It’s a trait she and her owner sometimes share.