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A coach even the faculty likes

Win or lose, John Bridgers of Baylor is an anomaly on campus. He really thinks the game is fun

It was gray and misty in Austin, Texas last week as once-defeated Baylor took after undefeated Texas, but the differences in the football philosophies of the two teams were as distinct as one could wish. All week long Texas newspapers had written with more enthusiasm than accuracy that this would be the first time that two such opposites met "at the summit." Defense-minded Texas was trying to win its first national championship and attack-minded Baylor, with the country's top passer, Don Trull, and leading receiver, Larry Elkins, was struggling for its first Southwest Conference title in 40 years. Neither team planned to forsake its style for the game, although each coach gushed praise for the other.

Shortly before the kickoff, Texas' conservative Darrell Royal and Baylor's venturous John Bridgers met on the field. "John," said Royal, "a lot has been printed in the papers this week and I'm not sure the quotation marks were always in the right places, but I want you to know that if we have to stub our toe this year, I hope it's against you. I think you people do a tremendous job, and I want you to know there's no hard feelings on our part."

"You know I feel the same," said Bridgers. "The kids decide the games, anyhow, don't they?"

The "kids" certainly did. Don Trull completed 19 passes for 204 yards and Elkins caught 12 of them for 125 yards, but the difference between the two teams was Texas' unrelenting defense which, with hard tackling on the receivers and a furious rush on Trull, made each completion more difficult than the last one. From the end of the first until early in the fourth quarter, Baylor made only one first down. Quarterback Duke Carlisle then came on to play defense in the closing minutes and protect Texas' 7-0 lead, gained on a third-period touchdown. Carlisle's last contribution was a brilliant interception in the end zone. He dove in front of Elkins to take a Trull pass from the Texas 19-yard line, with just 22 seconds left.

In the SWC, where defense-oriented field position football has been dominant ever since Royal started winning with the method in 1957, there will be many saying that they knew all along what the outcome would be. Among them will be Baylor alumni, a large number of whom have become desperate over their school's inability ever to win an SWC title. "They are suffering," said one local businessman not long ago, "from an alarming and deepening neurosis." Another Waco man asked plaintively, "Is it too much to ask for one conference championship in a lifetime?"

The old grads cost Bridgers' predecessors—George Sauer and Sam Boyd—their jobs, although in six years (1950-1955) Sauer's teams had a fine 38-21-3 record and in 1956 Boyd's 8-2 team went to the Sugar Bowl where it beat Tennessee. Last year, Bridgers' fourth at Baylor, they threatened to take his job when his team started in a slump and lost five of its first six games.

The main charges against Bridgers were that he was soft on his players, he kept players of proven inability on his teams, he passed too much and failed to emphasize the defensive game, and he lacked the "killer instinct" when he had a rival team beaten badly. To all, Bridgers gladly pleaded guilty, which was something like a Puritan telling the witch-hunters that he did not believe in God. But did the alumni get Bridgers' scalp? They did not. Just as the campaign to oust Bridgers got really hot, President Abner McCall of Baylor announced that he had signed Bridgers to an unexpected five-year contract. Explained the President: "We had a group that was all set for a new coach. I thought it was time to put that idea to rest." McCall went on to say: "He had proven himself to be a man of principle, unshakable principle. I didn't want to take a chance on losing John."

In an era when coaches think football is war, and war is hell, John Dixon Bridgers is a refreshing iconoclast who not only believes that football is a game but thinks it should be played for fun. Consider, for instance, these heretical practices which, should they become accepted, might unravel the woof and warp of heavy-pressure college football:

•Nobody has ever been cut from a Bridgers' squad just because he cannot play good football.

•Nobody has ever been eased out of college in order to save a scholarship for a more deserving player.

•Nobody raises a voice against a player in practice, nor criticizes him openly. Laughter is considered as much a part of practice as calisthenics.

•Bridgers believes that the name of the game does not necessarily have to be "knock." "Trull's one of the best players in the country," says Bridgers, "and he never hurt a soul. He couldn't if he wanted to. That's my kind of player—a thinker, not a hitter."

•Bridgers believes a rule is a rule, even if it costs him dearly. "Bridgers gives character-building meaning," says Dr. McCall. "A few years ago a lineman who meant a lot to the team got into a scrape. A dean asked John what he wanted to do about the boy. 'He violated the rules, didn't he?' John asked. 'Then pack him on home.' "

A more celebrated case involved Bobby Maples, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound All-Southwest Conference freshman quarterback who got married the summer between his freshman and sophomore years. Bridgers has a rule against marriages before the junior year, since he feels they interfere with school (not football). He will not encourage them by continuing scholarship aid and he refused to make an exception for Maples, even though a wealthy graduate offered to pay Maples' tuition. Alabama announced that Maples was transferring there, and the reaction from Waco practically broke the glass in Dr. McCall's office. Happily, Maples' parents relented when Bridgers would not. They agreed to pay for his school bills at Baylor.

•Even under severe pressure, Bridgers refuses to bench offenders when they make mistakes. "They're college boys," he says, "not paid professionals, and as long as I'm coach I'll make decisions and run this team."

•Bridgers insists on leaving the game to his players. "Coach Bridgers thinks initiative is part of playing football," says Trull. "He trains the quarterbacks to call their own game, then says they're on their own. I checked off more than 15 times in the Arkansas game [Baylor won 14-10 in what at the time was considered a huge upset] and from what he said later, I guess the coach was pleased."

•Finally, Bridgers gets along with the faculty. Dr. Ralph Lynn, professor of history, said: "I have been here since 1946 and Bridgers is the first coach we've ever had who came to graduation exercises. He's the first one to take part in the campus life in general. I remember when we'd get more than our share of thugs for football players. But John Bridgers changed all that. And he's changed my ideas about football not belonging on the college campus, too. He is my kind of coach."

The pros liked him, too

Surprisingly, these examples of Bridgersiana, which might strike some as naive, impressed professionals as much as they did the Baylor players. For two years, Bridgers was line coach with the Baltimore Colts. He had come from Johns Hopkins, the very much de-emphasized school (SI, Dec. 3, 1956), a fact that was a source of vast heavy-handed humor for the tough Colt linemen.

"I've played ball for an awful lot of coaches," jibed all-Pro tackle Art Donovan when Bridgers first appeared, "but never did I think I'd end up playing for a refugee from Johns Hopkins." Some players called Bridgers "Hopkins," but, like Donovan, they eventually respected him and regarded him with special affection. "Coaching is understanding," says Colt Tackle Jim Parker, "and John has lots of that. He's excellent. He always told you if you did a good job or a poor one, and you didn't have to wait around dying a slow death to get the word. If he asked me to come to Baylor to help him, I'd go, even if I had to pay my own way. He's that kind of guy."

All-Pro Halfback Lenny Moore says: "You just wanted to do a damn good job for him. He treated you like a man. He'd stay after practice to help anyone who wanted it. Big Daddy Lipscomb would do anything for John. Our defense broke the club record and we were the NFL champions when John was there, and he had a lot to do with our success." Baltimore Tackle George Preas adds, "He had to prove himself, but he did, in quick time, too. It was his hard work and character that won us over."

After four years under Bridgers, NFL Rookie of the Year Ronnie Bull wrote him a letter. "You are not only an excellent coach," Bull said, "but an excellent example to your players. You will always have me behind you because you played a big role in my life."

Never a big person physically nor even a gifted athlete, Bridgers attended Auburn on a football scholarship. His twin brother Frank, now the president of a mechanical engineering firm, remembers him as the most competitive person he knew there. "In our senior year," he recalls, "we both took the same trigonometry class. I was a math major, he was in business. My average for the course was 99. His was 100."

Bridgers worked hard and made the squad but never won a football letter. He graduated with the highest scholastic average in the School of Business, turned down a fellowship at Yale Law School and took a job as coach at Sewanee in middle Tennessee in order to support his wife, Frances. The Bridgers have a married daughter, Cindy, and two boys, Don and Dixon. Father John is more interested in his sons' grades in school than he is in their ability to play football.

When Bridgers, a Baptist, went to Baylor, a Baptist school, he was not exactly what the alumni wanted, although they did not know it at the time. Dr. McCall did, though. McCall had been responsible for the investigation of Texas A&M when that school was placed on probation by the SWC for flagrant violations of recruiting rules. The investigation made McCall a strong advocate of sane athletic policies.

But Bridgers would like to win as much as the alumni, and Saturday his team came close enough to upsetting Texas to gain recognition as one of the strongest college football teams in the country. "If Elkins had caught that last pass and they had thrown for two points," Royal said after the game, "I don't think I'd ever gotten over it."

And then, like most coaches who, win or lose, play against Bridgers' teams, Royal felt compelled to add something about the man. "He's one of the people I trust. Because we've been winning, our type of program has made it hard for John. Our success has been damaging to him. His alumni throw it up to him that Texas is winning with a running and defensive game. But I'd hate for us to be seven points behind, with only a couple of minutes to play, and try to take the ball as far as they did. Bridgers coaches his type of game better than any I know."