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Pioneer sportswriter, local legend Cliff Morlan always left readers wanting more

Cliff Morlan delivered the news with a folksy flair and a love for his subjects. His words danced on the page and kept readers enthralled until the last line. In an age when print was king, Morlan reigned behind a blend of authority and humanity.

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Cliff Morlan, pictured here in 1966, was a sports columnist who worked at the Pioneer for 38 years. Morlan was one of the most beloved figures in the Bemidji sports community. (Pioneer archives)
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Snipping away at his barbershop in downtown Bemidji, Cliff Morlan always had his ears open.

As the town’s men gathered to debate the day’s sports topics, Morlan was central to the conversation. It’s how he filled a daily column in the Pioneer for half his life.

Morlan’s “Sports Review” appeared nearly every day in the Pioneer papers of old, when clever lines and captivating stories went through typewriters instead of laptops. He became known as “Mr. Sports” in Bemidji by covering everything from peewees to professionals for 38 years.

Morlan even claimed that he didn’t take a vacation for 20 years to make sure that no one else took his job while he was away. “I was afraid someone else might come in and do a better job and I’d be out of one,” he said.

Morlan started at the Pioneer in 1941 for $10 a week. He was so committed that he wrote his column right up to the eve of his death in 1979.

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Now, take a look back at a beloved pillar of the paper who helped shape the Bemidji sports community into what it is today.

An unlikely source

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The Pioneer honored longtime sports columnist Cliff Morlan with this graphic in its centennial paper in August 1996. (Pioneer archives)

Morlan’s upbringing wasn’t one that should have produced such a sports scribe.

His education in Crookston ended after the ninth grade, and “he was very conscious of this,” read a Pioneer editorial shortly after his death. “Even after 38 years of writing a daily column, he worried about such things as spelling and punctuation. But he knew people and he loved them, making him an educated man in ways few could ever aspire to equal.”

Not only that, but he was dedicated and passionate -- a combination that fueled a legendary run in Bemidji.

His column first appeared on May 1, 1947, which was then named the “D-X Sports Corner” and sponsored by a local gas station. He introduced himself with a hearty “Howdy, sports fans!” and dove right into the latest news on Bemidji State Teachers College track, prep and college football and even local bowling.

He delivered the news with a folksy flair and a love for his subjects. His words danced on the page and kept readers enthralled until the last line. In an age when print was king, Morlan reigned behind a blend of authority and humanity.

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“While one might frequently disagree with his point of view, no one could fail to like him,” the Pioneer once described. “He always said what he felt and let the chips fall where they may. But he spoke with kindness and understanding and a warmth about him that put everyone around him at ease.”

For the next 32 years, Morlan was a central source for sports in the Pioneer. In 1959, he was joined by his “sidekick” and soon-to-be sports editor Jim Carrington -- who went on to have a 52-year run in the sports department himself -- and the two built an empire of unmatched local coverage.

“He loved the games and he loved the participants. And who has ever been in any sport in this area who did not know him?” the same Pioneer editorial said. “… And his column was read. It was perhaps read more than any other thing printed in The Pioneer. No writer could ever hope for a greater compliment.”

A front-row fan

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Cliff Morlan produced his daily "Sports Review" column after the Bemidji High School boys basketball team won the Class AA state championship in 1974. His iconic header can be seen in the top left corner. (Pioneer archives)

When the Bemidji High School boys basketball team was in the 1974 state championship, it was a good thing that Morlan was on press row and not in the starting lineup.

“I must admit that the kids had more confidence in themselves than I did,” Morlan wrote in his column. “I felt that Richfield was about a seven-point favorite. (Bemidji) appeared over-confident at the start of the game but it didn’t take them long to realize they had to fight for their lives.”

Morlan and more than 13,000 other fans watched the Lumberjacks shade Richfield 52-50 in “a whale of a basketball game,” he so chronicled.

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Morlan witnessed Bemidji teams win five state championships during his run at the Pioneer. Bemidji State men’s hockey added six NAIA national titles in the same span. Individually, nine Lumberjacks were crowned state champs and 11 Beavers national champs during the Morlan era.

He praised the Red Lake turnout at the 1973 baseball state tournament, when Native Americans like John Buckanaga and Earl Sargent led Bemidji to the title. And he championed female athletics as one of the leading advocates for local prep and college programs.

Not only did he document the history, Morlan also served as one of the biggest BHS and BSU fans in attendance.

“As a booster of Bemidji and the Lumberjacks and the Beavers, there was no equal,” the Pioneer editorial said. “When one of the high school teams went to the state tournament, no team member could possibly have been as excited as Cliff.”

Jovial jack of all trades

Morlan was much more than just a columnist, though.

He wore many hats -- barber, coach, referee and fishing guide to name a few. A “Gone Fishing” sign often hung in the front window of Cliff’s Barbershop by mid-afternoon. Morlan had a fondness for Blackduck Lake, Upper Red Lake, Lake Bemidji, Cass Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish.

He also embraced Minnesota’s fledgling professional teams and was more than willing to hitch a ride to the Twin Cities to catch a game in person.

Just two weeks before his death, “it took all the strength he could muster” to climb 65 rows of stands to reach the press box for a Gopher football game in Minneapolis. He then attended the North Stars-Rangers hockey game that night and a Vikings-Buccaneers football game the following day.

“He was far better known in the press boxes of the Twins, Vikings, North Stars and Gophers than 90 percent of the metropolitan writers and far better liked than almost most,” Carrington once wrote.

Morlan was something of an athlete himself, too.

In 1944, while most college students were off to fight in World War II, Bemidji State football coach Jolly Erickson assembled a team of 17-year-olds too young to draft and a number of older players in the community “whose academic standing was subject to some debate.” Morlan and the Beavers went 4-0 that season, still the only undefeated season in program history.

He could swing a bat, too, playing semi-pro baseball in Bismarck, N.D., alongside future pitching legend Satchel Paige.

Morlan was even a top-flight bowler with a perfect game of 300 on his résumé.

In 1937, Morlan moved to Bemidji, where he lived out the rest of his days. It’s a move that served the city well, and certainly one that provided Morlan with a mighty fulfilling life.

A venerable Vikings reporter

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Minnesota Vikings Coach Norm Van Brocklin, left, works with quarterback Fran Tarkenton at training camp in 1961 at Bemidji State College. (Contributed)

Perhaps the highlight of Morlan’s time at the paper came when the Minnesota Vikings were in town .

“This is the biggest thing that has happened to Bemidji,” Morlan declared in his column.

For the first five years of the Vikes’ existence, they held preseason training camp in Bemidji. Morlan rubbed elbows with coach Norm Van Brocklin, rookie quarterback Fran Tarkenton and the rest of the bunch.

The expansion franchise was drawn to Bemidji State College because of its cooler climate and a brand new Chet Anderson Stadium.

Morlan penned regular updates on camp each year. He got to know the players and told all in his column -- including a dead-on prediction for the future success of Tarkenton. He was a daily part of the team’s routine, which enabled him to be “almost a part of the coaching staff.”

The Vikings left for Mankato starting with training camp in 1966. “No one took the shift to Mankato any harder,” Carrington wrote.

‘Bemidji’s friend’

Morlan’s long battle with cancer ended on Nov. 12, 1979. He was 66.

His standard column space -- stripped down the left side of the sports cover -- was left intentionally blank for a week in his memory.

Praise from readers came pouring in over that span, some of which the Pioneer ran in its tribute to Morlan in the Nov. 18, 1979, paper.

The veteran was described as “one of the best sports writers in the state of Minnesota.” Another reader lamented that “the north Minnesota sports scene has lost a true friend. Cliff’s candid comments were always widely respected… by players, coaches and fans.”

Even in his final days, Morlan was such a fanatic that he requested the Bemidji High School fight song be played at the beginning of his funeral service and the Bemidji State fight song at the end.

“Cliff Morlan was Bemidji’s friend,” the Pioneer editorial said. “Few could ever be as much a part of the community as Cliff. He was known by all and liked by all.”

“There were some bad times but mostly good times since he first hit town in 1937,” Carrington wrote. “And the good times were legend.”

Micah Friez is the sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he joined the Pioneer in 2015 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing. Follow him on Twitter at @micahfriez for Lumberjack and Beaver updates.
What to read next
The Pioneer wants to hear from you: Who is worthy of being named the Pioneer Sportsperson of the Year? The winner could be anyone: An athlete, a coach, an administrator or any other figure who’s made a mark within the Bemidji area’s sports landscape this year. Criteria considered are successes within sports, impact in the community and the lasting significance of accomplishments or influence.