The Tribune may have dodged a mullet. Jay Mariotti says he’s not going there after all.

With rumors flying hot and heavy, the Tribune posted a headline on its home page Tuesday night that said, “Former Sun-Times columnist Mariotti not joining Tribune.” The reason given by Mariotti in the single-sourced story was that for legal reasons he and the Tribune “both decided that we can’t do what we wanted to do.” His contract with the Sun-Times, the paper that let him quit last month, contained a noncompete clause, and “the Sun-Times’ lawyer threatened me with a lawsuit in 64-point type” if he crossed the street. Mariotti said that before talks broke off, he and the Tribune Company “talked about television, about the Internet, about the newspaper.” 

A Tribune writer told me, “Many of us are absolutely thrilled, as you can imagine.”

The online article, written by Jim Kirk, made no mention of the deep dismay that washed through the Tribune when word spread that Mariotti might be coming aboard, nor of the role internal lobbying might have played in nixing the deal. Readers also had reason to wonder how reliable a source Mariotti is about his own affairs. When Mariotti left the Sun-Times he told Kirk that he was big and it was the papers that got small. “I’m a competitor and I get the sense this marketplace doesn’t compete,” Mariotti said then. “Everyone is hanging on for dear life at both papers. I think probably the days of high-stakes competition in Chicago are over. To see what has happened in this business. … I don’t want to go down with it.”

From Michael Cooke, editor in chief of the Sun-Times, and sports columnist Rick Telander, I heard a somewhat different story about Mariotti’s departure. 

So some wary Tribune staffers were uncertain how much faith to put in Mariotti’s account of events this time around. They also understood that the noncompete clause will expire next August.

“It’s a good night,” said the writer quoted above, “but I’ll be happier when he takes a job in Serbia.”