College football is a sport that has nearly always belonged to the head coach, just as saloons have nearly always belonged to the bartender. The reason is simple. Players come and go, moving into the world of higher finance (the NFL), or into insurance companies, or into communes. The coach remains. At least most of them do. The coach stays behind to rebuild, to invent the quadruple option and the mushroom-T, to think, up humorous excuses for all of last season's fumbles, and to argue that his seven dozen returning lettermen do not mean so much since they are 1) not hungry enough, 2) undecided about how good they want to be, 3) actually untested against the type of powerhouses they'll have to play and 4) having trouble arranging their labs so they can get in enough practice time.
Still, over the years the college coach has produced a game that delights the multitudes. Onward and upward soars the collegiate spectacle in attendance and interest—indeed, on all fronts—even though it is thoroughly dominated by the psychological intensity, the technical genius and the offhanded wit of an elite society within the profession. If this somehow seems more true than ever as the 1971 season begins, it is perhaps because the problems of the sport are more complex than ever and the coach, by necessity, has been forced to become a better broken-field runner verbally than any immortal on his team feetwise.
Not terribly long ago the college coach only had to worry about a few untidy problems. He needed to find a quarterback, who could draw a play in the dirt with a stick and say "Hup." He needed to find a guard who could pull and not run over his quarterback. He needed to know a lenient English professor on the campus. He needed to know where he could get two seats on the 50 for his wife's friends. He needed to know where he could find a cushion for his chair in the office. And he needed to know a contented alumnus who would sell him four new tires at cost.
Things have changed for him. Some of the coach's players today have so much hair on their heads that if they dyed it green they could be mistaken for mimosa trees. Some of his players are better acquainted with pro scouts than with their own teammates. And the coach has other concerns, such as rising costs, dope, revolts, injuries on artificial turf, jets, domes, trustees, fathers, Walter Byers and columnists.
It has worked out that today's head coach at a major university has become more than he ever bargained for. To be successful he must be a public-relations dynamo, a headshrinker, a federal narcotics agent, a data computer expert, a politician, a salesman, a fund raiser, a boardroom executive, an after-dinner comedian, a CPA, a social-welfare worker, a labor-management consultant, a TV personality and a philosopher. In his spare time, probably during lunch at Harvey's Burger Shake, he can worry about a defense for the Veer T.
In one sense the football coaching fraternity is a massive one. When you consider all the men who are devoted to it on levels extending from the peewees to the pros, counting assistants as well, there are literally thousands, perhaps a hundred thousand. However, in quite another sense, it is a fairly select club. Throughout the realm of college football the NCAA says that only 119 teams are currently rated as major. In other words, there are only 119 major head coaching jobs in the country. If major is supposed to mean that these teams are all relatively equal, then the NCAA is having its little joke. Which it does in its weekly statistics during the season when somebody like South San Geronimo Tech is up there challenging Notre Dame for the total offense lead.
But aside from this minor annoyance, the number of major teams is extravagant because well over a third of them simply couldn't compete with the others any day of the week, much less on Saturday. The number of teams that are relatively equal is closer to 70 or so, and even this is a stretch. The number of teams that have a realistic chance of winning a mythical national championship is more like 50, which means that at the most there are only 50 first-rate head coaching jobs. And to be painfully honest there really aren't that many. The fact is, there are no more than 20 or 30 schools today where a man can be a consistent winner.
"It helps to be at a state school," says Bear Bryant, "where you've got all those lawyers and doctors and judges going for you as recruiters."
While the coaches continually change the rules to streamline the game, to give everybody a better chance, they say, they have only aided the most ambitious and aggressive institutions. The coaches wanted free substitution and got it, "so more kids can play." They wanted a two-point conversion rule and got it, to create upsets and drama. They wanted more automatic time-outs, to run more plays and score more, which the good teams do. They wanted more assistants to pay attention to detail, a further refinement of football's "educational process," and the good teams have them. They wanted artificial turf for speed, and the rich schools have it.
But what has happened? Well, in the past 10 years that all of this has been coming on—streamlining the game for everybody—only eight schools out of the 119 "major" teams have managed to capture any sort of cup, scroll or plaque significant of a national championship. Which is what it's all about, as far as the fans are concerned. Most 6-year-olds can name the elegant eight: Texas, Notre Dame, Ohio State, USC, Alab ma, Michigan State, Arkansas and Nebraska.
Thus it is not astonishing to realize that the men who have been coaching these schools are pretty much the top men in the profession; that their personalities virtually dominate the college game. And have. And perhaps will. They are the Knute Rocknes, the Amos Alonzo Staggs, the Fielding H.Yosts of today.
Coaching images are not quickly gained, even if that is what a man has in mind (and none admit they do). Something more than just winning is required, although victories must be heaped up first or the coach may find himself selling encyclopedias. The image builds with seasons of success, loitering in the Top 10, going to bowls, concocting colorful terminology, producing All-Americas. Slowly a mystique arises. The coach's ideas begin to sift across the land, and contemporaries within the profession begin to copy his techniques and his organizational methods: his Veer, his Monster, his Split-Six, his Wishbone. Gradually, the football fan begins to absorb the coach's wisdom. In reverent tones from others within the business and encircling it, the fan hears:
"Ara always finds a quarterback."
"Devaney gives you a lot of different offensive looks."
"McKay builds from defense."
"Darrell can throw if he has to."
"You'll never see Frank neglect the kicking game."
"When Woody has good tackles and a fullback..."
"Bear can adjust."
"Shug's teams don't quit."
"Ara believes in offense."
"Just watch how Darrell's offensive line gets off, and..."
"McKay has a rapport with the blacks."
"Devaney has a way of keeping 'em all happy."
"Woody gets an effort."
"Darrell believes in defense."
"Ara gets an effort."
"Frank believes in balance."
"If Woody gets you at home..."
"When Shug has a passer..."
"Bear gets an effort."
"Darrell believes in offense."
"Ara knows the name of the game."
America has come to know these men of vast mystique only too well by now. The big winners. The men of inventiveness and impact. Of quote and unquote. There they are now, pockmarking our dailies—veritable giants in half-column zinc—and looking concerned on television. They are star personalities on campus, their victories achieved more by their own sheer intellect and guile than by anything their cluster of potential first-round draft choices and assorted All-Americas might have done. There's Texas' Darrell Royal, the slick country prophet. There's Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian, the impassioned faith healer. There's Alabama's Bear Bryant, the drawling executioner. There's Ohio State's Woody Hayes, the cantankerous general. There's USC's John McKay, the wisecracking professor. There's Arkansas' Frank Broyles, the shrewd evangelist. There's Auburn's Shug Jordan, the gentlemanly war hero. There's Nebraska's Bob Devaney, the droll sheriff.
Among the things they have in common, along with a few others who are near them in stature—Duffy Daugherty, Ben Schwartzwalder, Joe Paterno, Paul Dietzel, Charlie McClendon, Bo Schembechler, Frank Kush, Doug Dickey—is a deep and unrelenting belief that the college game is better than anything mankind ever thought up, including the pro game. They also possess a taste for realism, and an urge for work. Listening to one is often like listening to any of the others, disregarding accents and punch lines.
"A good coach is a man who can do four things," says USC's John McKay. "He gets good players, has team morale, keeps up with technical trends and has the ability to communicate with his players. That first item is the most important."
Solely for reasons of revenue, the college coach finds himself debating his own game against the pros, which of course he enjoys.
"If the pros are playing a new game," says McKay, "they're doing something I can't see on Sunday. A guy runs down the field and you throw a pass. Their timing is more intense and they have better personnel, that's all."
"We play a faster and more exciting game," Woody Hayes insists. "Even to the point of passing. And I don't think there's any question that our defenses are more varied."
Darrell Royal has always wondered what would happen if a pro team ran a bunch of quarterback options and student body sweeps at all of the great pro cornerbacks. "All they have to play is the pass," he says. "You'd wear out your quarterback pretty quick, but then you could go buy a new one." Because the colleges are using both the drop-back pass and option football, Royal sees more offense on the field on Saturday than he does on television on Sunday. And thus, as Woody says, more defenses, too. But in both games, college or pro, a man wins or moves on—and some do both: Missouri's Dan Devine to Green Bay and UCLA's Tommy Prothro to the Los Angeles Rams. "The way to look at it," says Royal, "is not that they went to something better, but that the pros had to come to us to find people they wanted."
It would appear that 1971, more than ever, will be the year of the coach. Not just because the elite all have fascinating problems: Ara needs a quarterback, Woody needs a new team, Devaney needs to fight complacency, Darrell needs a new winning streak, Bear needs a comeback, McKay and Broyles need some good luck. There have been wholesale changes to accent the season. A lot of Jim Pittmans, Frank Lauterburs, Bob Blackmans and Pepper Rodgerses have gone to a lot of TCUs, Iowas, Illinoises and UCLAs, hoping to become, in a new place and a new time, a lot of Darrells, Bears, Aras and Woodys. Whatever happens, for better or worse, the coach will be able to explain it perfectly, for college football belongs to him.