The best, most unbelievable stories, as it turns out, are always the true ones. So, here's a little story for a Wednesday morning that stretches all the way from Buddy Ryan to Tiger Woods, and you can rely on every word.

More than 20 years ago, when Ryan was coaching his first season for the Eagles, I was working at a suburban tabloid newspaper with great ambitions, and we hired a football writer who had a few of his own.

Our previous Eagles beat writer had left for a job at a bigger paper. He is no longer a sportswriter and the bigger paper no longer exists, but that was still the opening by which Barry Levine entered the world of covering professional sports in Philadelphia.

"That was a long time ago, in a different life," Levine said yesterday. "It was fun because Buddy was such a colorful character and it was a great little newspaper that liked to shout in its headlines. I remember those as fun days."

What I remember is that Levine wrote as if his hands were on fire and he was trying to put them out on the keyboard of his laptop. The stories were often incendiary, too. Not wrong, not inaccurate, but not underplayed, either. Buddy didn't much like him.

As in the old movies, the pages have fallen from the calendar, a bunch of pages. I lost track of Barry, although we heard he had gone to work for one of the supermarket tabs and then found his way into television as a reporter for A Current Affair.

I hadn't thought of him in years until the Tiger Woods stories broke in the mainstream media almost two weeks ago, with credit for the original reporting on Woods' alleged infidelities given to the National Enquirer. The woman named as a mistress of Woods in the story, Rachel Uchitel, was denying that she had ever had a relationship with the golfer, and she was denying it loudly. The skeptical mainstreamers went to the Enquirer for comment.

The Associated Press article ended with this line: " 'The story stands for itself,' said National Enquirer executive editor Barry Levine."

Makes a heart proud.

Let's leave aside for the moment the tawdry nature of the story, which continues to metastasize every day. If you want to see Tiger as a victim, that's a feeling shared by many, but his own admissions indicate he's not an innocent victim. As Rachel was followed by Jaimee and Mindy and Cori and Kalika and on and on, the trench got deeper. Once it reached the waitress at the pancake house, the story was through the looking glass.

At the epicenter of it, still breaking new details, is the reporting team directed by Levine. In its issue that reaches the street today, according to Levine, the Enquirer will report that Rachel and Tiger spoke on the phone shortly before the Escalade went out of control in his driveway with the golf club-brandishing wife in close pursuit.

Is this any way for a nice guy from Levittown, a graduate of Pennsbury High and the Temple University journalism program, to make a living?

"I loved the years I spent as a sportswriter," Levine said. "But I genuinely found my calling in tabloid journalism."

Levine, a 1981 graduate, was inducted into Temple's Gallery of Success this year, largely as a result of the Enquirer's reporting on the affair carried out by John Edwards while a presidential candidate. That reporting led to, among other things, a federal grand jury that is investigating whether Edwards misappropriated campaign funds in order to hide his affair and the child that was allegedly a product of it.

The public's right to know on that story is hard to argue. But should the same standard be applied to Tiger Woods? Is his personal life really fair game?

"He transcends his role as the world's greatest golfer. He's in the living rooms of our readers on a regular basis doing commercials and endorsements," Levine said. "Does he have a right to privacy on this? Absolutely not. The proof is whether or not it's true. We reported it like any other story. And if a story is going to be broken on a legitimate big celebrity, I want us to break it."

The Enquirer routinely pays for tips and information from sources - "Just like the police," Levine said - a practice that the mainstream media do not employ. Once the information comes in, Levine puts together reporting teams to verify it. He had about a half-dozen reporters on the Woods story before breaking it, sending part of the team to Melbourne, Australia, last month to document a rendezvous between Woods and Uchitel that convinced Levine it was accurate.

"The mainstream media has gone to a pack mentality. They don't want to report anything until everyone else reports it. No one wants to be the first to put their foot in the pool. We want to be the first ones. That's what we wake up for every day," Levine said. "This is the kind of old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting that made me want to get into the newspaper business in the first place. Break big stories and get it right."

Levine said it was probably the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post that first set him on this path, even though the path may have diverged into somewhat different woods, no pun intended.

"I met Bernstein and told him he had inspired me to do what I do," Levine said. "He laughed, patted me on the back and said, 'Keep going, kid.' "

Levine has done that, a long way from his start in the Philadelphia AP sports department under legendary curmudgeon Ralph Bernstein, and a long way from the time we often worked together at Eagles games. After all those years, though, I would be willing to bet he still types as if his hands are on fire.

Bob Ford:

Ambulance at Woods' home

Tiger Woods' mother-in-law was rushed to the hospital, and later released. D5.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com.