Joe Jares, a former Los Angeles Daily News sports editor and columnist in the 1980s and ‘90s who spent more than 15 years at Sports Illustrated, died Saturday night in Los Angeles. He was 78.
A general-assignment reporter at the Los Angeles Times as well as a writer for United Press International and the Los Angeles Herald-Express before joining SI, Jares covered more than 20 different sports, specializing in tennis and college basketball.
He authored nine sports-related books during his career, topped off by the popular 1974 “Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George,” an affectionate history of pro wrestling from the 1940s to the ‘60s. Sports Illustrated ranked it at No. 76 on its list of the “Top 100 Sports Books of All Time” in 2002.
The book was inspired by Jares’ father, Frank, a pro wrestler best known as “The Thing,” a villain among the ranks of performers in that time.
“In his prime, Pop was just a shade under six feet tall and weighed 230 pounds with short brown hair, a neck like a steel pillar, big biceps and ears much more like cauliflowers than rose pedals,” Jares wrote in the book. “Most people can fold their ears in half, but Pop’s seem to be made of solid gristle and will not bend more than half an inch. He had, and still has, rather full lips and prominent cheekbones, a Slavic countenance that would fit perfectly in a Warsaw union meeting or the Notre Dame line.
“His wrestling stage name was Brother Frank, the Mormon Mauler from Provo, Utah, but really he was just Frankie Jares from northside Pittsburgh, the son of a Bohemian butcher from Czechoslovakia and a U.S-born mother, also Bohemian. … Naturally, he grew up to be a tough guy, but something of a gentle, tough guy. He spanked me only twice in my life. Even though he traveled a lot, I thought I knew him, but I actually did not know him well at all until I spent one summer with him in Tennessee and Alabama – the summer of 1956.”
In addition to writing at SI (1965-1981) and writing and editing at the Daily News (1982-2002), Jares became a prominent professor at the School of Journalism for his alma mater, USC, during the 1980s. He graduated in 1959 as a Phi Beta Kappa. The former Daily Trojan sports editor also played on the freshman basketball team at USC after graduating from Hamilton High School in L.A. For his coverage of the university over his career, he was inducted into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015.
One of his favorite USC-related pieces for SI was in October, 1968 called “Life in a Jock House,” about Trojans athletes who were members of his Kappa Alpha chapter in the 1950s – football standouts Jon Arnett, Ernie Zampese and twins Marlin and Mike McKeever, golfer Al Geiberger and swimmer Chuck Bittick.
Upon the passing of John Wooden in 2010, Jares wrote a special column for the Daily News about the legendary UCLA coach that included: “He was an idol to many long before he won his first NCAA championship 16 years into his UCLA tenure. I grew up in West L.A. when a ‘Johnny Wooden’ haircut (shaved sides, flat top) was cool and there was no better place to get one than at the Blue ‘n’ Gold barbershop in Westwood (slogan: ‘We’ve been trimming Bruins for over 40 years’).”
In 2011, Jares also did a special piece for SI for their series, “The Best Team I Ever Covered,” about the 1968 UCLA Bruins basketball team. In that, he wrote: “Watching John Wooden, Lew Alcindor and the Bruins roll to the NCAA title that season — their second straight and fourth in five years — was made more delicious because the Bruins were not perfect. They actually lost a game, and not just any game, but a contest played before the biggest crowd in the history of the sport.
“(Full disclosure here: I went to USC, UCLA’s bitter crosstown rival, and was a starting forward on the 1955-56 frosh basketball team that lost four times to the ‘Brubabes.’ Did this cause me discomfort in covering Bruin triumphs? Not at all. I wanted to report on the big stories. Also, I’m not above sleeping with the enemy — my wife is a UCLA graduate.)”
Among the other books Jares wrote was “Conquest: A Cavalcade of USC Football” in 1981 with coach John Robinson; “Clyde,” with New York Knicks star Walt Frazier; “Basketball: The American Game,” and “The Athlete’s Body” with Ken Sprague. His last was “The Golden Age of College Tennis” in 2009 with former USC coach George Toley.
When Jares left Sports Illustrated in the early 1980s to join the L.A. Daily News staff, longtime columnist Dennis McCarthy said it brought the paper “class and credibility … We finally had a guy on our Triple-A team with major league talent and credentials.
“When you wrote something good, he was the first guy to let you know. When you bombed, he was the first guy to let you know. If they’ve got a broadsheet up in heaven, they just got themselves one hell of an editor/writer.”
Jares, who battled recent lung disease as well as pneumonia, is survived by his wife, Suzy, as well as two daughters, Hayley and Julie, a granddaughter Emma and grandson Noah. Services are pending.