Bill Bilinski? Cool

There’s a game my wife, Kate, and I often use to kill windshield time on long drives. We call it “Cool/Not Cool” and the objective is to name people who can’t help being cool — whether they want to or not. 

While we disagree on some choices, we normally find consensus on certain people. Tom Hanks is cool. James Taylor? Cool. Stevie Wonder and Carole King? Cool. Walter Payton? Cool. Paul Newman and Robert Redford? The coolest. 

They can’t help it; they were born with a healthy dose of the “IT” factor.

And as much as Bill Bilinski doesn’t want to hear this, he’s cool too.

Bill was the sports editor at the South Bend Tribune until his recent retirement. Before reaching the top of one of the Midwest’s best sports departments, he was a reporter for the Herald-Argus in LaPorte and sports editor at the Pilot News in Plymouth. 

When he arrived at the Tribune in 1983, he continued to cut his teeth by covering high school and other local events before landing the plum assignment of covering Notre Dame football. Like everyone in the sports department, he fielded calls from local coaches and correspondents and edited the work of his compatriots — all with the goal of making the sports pages a more comfortable place for readers to land. He also wrote an interesting book about the 1988 Notre Dame national championship team.

Much of this you might already know about Bill. What you might not know, though, is just how cool he is. 

Bill and I played high school baseball and football together. We were friendly at that time but not overly so. We ran in different circles. While he’d be playing cards with other classmates (normally the smarter guys), I was doing things of a somewhat seedier variety. 

He was conscientious as a student. Me? Not so much. But life had similar plans for Bill and me, and fate drew us together in a way neither of us really saw coming.

I was studying journalism at Valparaiso University and he was doing the same at Hanover College while living with John Schellinger, one of my closest friends since first grade. I interned at the Herald Argus as a student and later took a paid internship at the Vidette Messenger In Valpo before accepting a full-time job there upon graduation. 

Bill started his career at the Herald Argus, and more and more we found ourselves elbow to elbow in press boxes and while interviewing local coaches and athletes. Despite the lack of the internet, cell phones or computers, we had fun chasing stories and trying to drive readership to our respective publications. We look back on those days with fondness, although many of the articles we penned were cringe-worthy at best. 

A couple of years later, there was an opening at the Tribune and we both applied. We both were summoned by sports editor Bill Moor to meet in person with him, managing editor Ed Perkins and editor in chief Jack Powers. 

Long story short, Bill got the job. I was disappointed, of course, as Kate and I had embraced the idea of moving back to South Bend with our new son. But I was thrilled for Bill and I knew the Tribune would not be sorry about its decision. That’s when the cool started to show.

Bill called me when the announcement was official and promised to do all he could to help me when another opening arose. I took a job with a public relations firm shortly thereafter, and we moved back to South Bend anyway. Another opening did arise a year or so later, and true to his word he went to bat for me. 

After much hand-wringing, I opted to continue on my new path, later using the relationships I had cultivated to become a sales rep for a local printing company. In all, things worked out swimmingly for everyone involved. Bill had a great run at the Tribune, the Tribune landed a loyal and talented employee — and future member of the Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame — and I’m still peddling print. I look back on that time as the underpinnings for what has grown into a wonderful friendship.     

From our mid-20s until our early 50s, we played softball together. Together we joined an established and successful team comprised primarily of former high school pals. We limped away together as well, still thinking we could turn a double play with the best duos in town. Others would probably disagree, but we certainly believed it. 

When one of our teammates and classmates blew out his quadricep while running to first base,  we knew it was time to go.

Our friendship continued to blossom, especially after we lost John Schellinger, our mutual bestie, to a heart attack at the tender age of 43. That was very difficult, and we leaned on each other in commiseration. We got to know each other’s families better, and I became acutely aware how much this guy meant to me and everyone around him.

Let’s fast forward to this past Sunday. I had the opportunity to sit in Bill’s living room as some of the region’s best sportswriters told stories (lies?) about our common interests as we celebrated Bill’s retirement. It was fascinating to sit back and realize that Bill has the same effect on them as he does on me. For different reasons perhaps, they think Bill is a pretty good guy as well because they speak of and to him with respect and admiration. 

He was the boss of most of the attendees for several years, but there was no obvious employee vs. boss animosity. It was interesting to be a part of that dynamic in Bill’s home, where despite the obligatory insults and jocularity flying around, Bill was still the coolest guy in the room.   

Two years ago, Bill and his wife Jolene experienced the worst fate any parent can face when they lost their eldest child, Nate, at the age of 30 after an eight-year battle with brain cancer. It rocked their world, and everyone whose world touched theirs. 

They were — and are — devastated, but they never lost their composure, at least in public. They tried to move mountains in support of Nate and enveloped themselves in their family and close friends as they grieved. To this day, I can’t imagine how they can even function. 

During Sunday’s visit, Bill Moor (from whom Bill Bilinski assumed the reins of the Tribune’s sports department) asked if I had any story ideas for this fledgling web site. I could only think of one –that Bill Bilinski is truly one of a kind.

Bill still tries to try to fly under the radar, the quintessential “look over there” star. He won a state championship in American Legion baseball, set records in high school and college, and became a Hall of Fame sportswriter. Heck, he’s still at his high school playing weight. But Bill would never tell you that. He’d rather hear your opinions about the Cubs or Notre Dame or politics and is genuinely interested in other people’s kids and grandkids. 

He’d rather be teased about the time he struck out — looking, mind you — in slow-pitch softball. He’d rather talk about how great it is to win a dollar from a buddy in a casual game of golf. He invariably deflects the limelight onto others while knocking the socks off whatever challenge life throws at him.

Bill Bilinski? With him, cool is an understatement.