The Coach did not look his best. For one thing, his concession to what he calls "jogging togs" consisted mainly of a faded brown sweat suit and a tattered pair of Keds tennis shoes, reflecting his distaste for that particular athletic endeavor. ("Joggers bore me," he said, "and I resent being one.") For another, his handsome face, forever tanned and yet only modestly creased, was stubbled with gray whiskers and still moist from his run. He had made it in the predawn so nobody would see him. His face was also a little lopsided from a root-canal performed the day before.
He said one of his former players, now an oral surgeon, had given him a bargain rate of $400 for the work, and it was an offer he couldn't refuse. "A simple extraction of the grieving tooth would have been much cheaper," he said. "But when you get older, you tend to cling to things. That tooth and I go back to some very exciting times."
"Is there a message here someplace?" I asked, knowing that The Coach would not otherwise have ordered a meeting at such an ungodly hour.
"Of course," said The Coach. "The 'sobering impermanence of verities.' "
"Uh?" I said.
"We are into the '80s, Scribe. It is an exciting but terribly disquieting time, full of change and portent and promise. And new teeth."
The emerging sun reflected off his monogrammed coffee mug. Except for the driver of a doughnut truck, we were alone in the off-campus cafè where the mug (which also bears the dates of his championship seasons) has been kept clean and ready for him every morning since his coaching days at M——. His presence at the cafè still inspires awe and helps get his companions civil treatment from the plump, sullen waitresses.
I poured cream into my own cup—a standard model, stained with use—and waited for him to get to the point.
"I attended the wedding of the daughter of one of my former assistants last weekend," he said. "A lovely girl with ginger-colored hair who used to sell me Girl Scout cookies. Instead of Oh Promise Me, the vocalist sang a Billy Joel original, to the accompaniment of dueling trombones. I couldn't identify it, but it wasn't really so bad. The job got done—the couple got married. You don't always have to agree with the form if the content is correct."
"Coach," I said, yawning discreetly through my nostrils, "your gift for nostalgia is always entertaining, but at 6 a.m. I am slow to recognize what this has to do with the changing '80s and 'new teeth' and...."
I stopped when he raised his hand in a kind of benedictory salute.
"The coaches who set the styles in the 70s, and before that, are almost all gone now," he said bleakly. "Royal and Broyles and Bob Devaney finally got their fill of buttering up 18-year-olds and kicked themselves upstairs, to athletic directorships. John McKay defected to the pros. Parseghian, in the prime of life, found life less nerve-racking as a color man on prime time. Charlie McClendon was forced into retirement. Dan Devine is giving it one more year, then he's out. Woody and Frank Kush got the ax, done in by their own anachronistic intemperance. Shug is dead.
"It's hard to imagine, but our 'elder elite' are now Paterno, Schembechler and Yeoman. And only two of those are what you would call legitimate candidates for the midlife crisis. Don't ask me which two."
"Aren't you forgetting...?"
"Bryant? As my colleagues in the botany department like to say, you don't compare a sequoia with a bunch of pine knots. The Bear is a breed apart."
The waitress intervened with fresh coffee, pouring The Coach's automatically and, as an afterthought, freshening mine. I thanked her and she grunted amiably in her retreat.
"What does it mean?" The Coach continued. "It means that four coaches—Parseghian, Royal, Devaney and McKay—who accounted for five national championships in the '70s—are no longer in the college game. But more important, a whole way of coaching—and the perceived verities that went with it—has vanished. What did they all have in common? They were...."
"Authoritarians," I said hastily. "But that's not news, Coach."
He waggled his finger at my coffee cup. "Next time take it black, Scribe. It wakes you quicker. Yes, in their prime, benevolent dictatorship was the accepted form of athletic government, but those times were already changing in the '70s, and coaches with them. Their athletes started hanging around the office and asking why. The coaches not only had to say, 'Please run through that wall,' they had to explain the logic in it. But the real common denominator was the laissez-faire budgetary privileges coaches enjoyed. Money was no object. They passed out scholarships like handbills—60 or 70 a year—often taking athletes just so nobody else'd get 'em, and then treating 'em all like crown princes. It pretty much kept the competition gasping."
"So you're telling me that the 'new teeth' elite are the Barry Switzers, John Robinsons, John Majorses, Jackie Sherrills, Lou Holtzes...."
This time I held up my hand.
"Let me finish. And they are all having to do it by 'relating' to 'only' 30 players a year and the 95-man roster limitation the NCAA imposes. That's not news, either, Coach. You said yourself a couple years ago that the 30/95 rule was necessary to revitalize college football—save flagging economies and juice up the competition. You would have to agree that it is doing those things."
"I did and I do," said The Coach. "The leveling factor has been very gratifying. I love it when LaVell Edwards has Brigham Young challenging for the Top 10. Bobby Bowden got FSU there, and into a major bowl to boot. Lee Corso took Indiana to a bowl game. Temple beat California in a bowl. Whole conferences have risen up. Not one, but three Atlantic Coast Conference teams beat Georgia, one of the big dogs of the Southeastern. Clemson knocked off Notre Dame.
"But so many things have happened, and so fast. I have serious doubts that those bright new stars in the coaching galaxy"—he flinched at his own cliche, but plunged on—"will, under the circumstances, last as long as their predecessors. I know they won't last as long as Bryant. Switzer, by the way, reminds me a lot of the younger Bear."
"I don't understand that part, Coach. Why won't they last...?"
"You will, Scribe, you will. Drink up. Get the juices flowing." He drained his mug and held it out as the waitress materialized with the pot. While she poured, he fixed me with his steel-blue eyes. "No matter how good they get at telling funny stories, Scribe, coaches are still conservatives. Never forget it. They may hum along with Billy Joel, but in their hearts they hear Oh Promise Me. And nowadays, the Sherrills and the Osbornes and the Robinsons and Holtzes have something else in common."
"You already said it—inflation," I said.
"You're being impertinent, but, yes, that's part of it. They are being asked, by ever-increasing degree, to solve our campus racial problems, our academic problems and our economic problems. They have to be slick and adaptable. They have to make heads and tails out of Title IX, and 'Affirmative Action.' And still finish in the Top 10, of course. It's a tougher job than ever.
"For the coach of the '80s, 30/95 is more than just a formula, it is a symbol of tough times. It embodies both the exigencies of change and the money crunch, and the quality of the game is directly tied to it. Within its application bad things are happening, and some surprising good things."
"Bad things? What bad things?"
"The limits were well intended, meant to take into consideration the natural attrition rate of football rosters. But in practice, they turned out to be flawed. When you allow a coach to sign 30 athletes a year, but hold the total limit to 95, and mix that with all his other pressures, you get him doing the kind of thing we're seeing now. Wielding the old hatchet. Cutting players—the euphemism is 'not renewing their scholarships.' 'Encouraging' players to leave by generally making their lives miserable.
"Oklahoma had to cut 10 or 12 one year, but had the decency to help get them scholarships elsewhere. It doesn't always work so cordially. One school is now facing a lawsuit from a player who asked the ultimate 'why'—'why me?' Why, indeed. If you seduce a young man into coming to your place over eight or 10 others, and he does his best and keeps his academic nose clean, the least you can do is see to it that he gets his education. Don Fambrough of Kansas wonders if we have the right to cut 'em. He means the moral right. We make the evaluations that bring them in, not the kids. We should be willing to swallow our mistakes. The last thing we need for college football is to revive the days of the tramp athlete.
"But, in the final analysis, the fault is neither the coach's nor the player's—it is the NCAA's. Thirty/95 is simply a mathematical mistake."
"I thought you were against increasing the limit to 120."
"Oh, I am, Scribe, I am. I'm against any increase. Ninety-five is plenty. The proof is everywhere. The very best teams seldom recruit the 30 they are allowed every year and almost never reach the 95. USC, for example, recruited only 15 players this winter and has only 87 on scholarship. LSU has never recruited 30 in a single year. Even the schools you'd think would try to load up quickly in order to gain ground have found that being forced to be 'selective' has made them very selective.
"Wisconsin had only 84 players on scholarship last year, and won't reach 90 this year. Oregon State recruited only 23. Jim Dickey of Kansas State says that even with the availability of all those athletes who used to wind up on the bench at Nebraska and Oklahoma, he still finds it difficult to get quality after the first 16 or 17 recruits. He won't have more than 80 on scholarship this year."
"Then what should be the formula?"
"Dick Crum of North Carolina says we should recruit only the number of kids we graduate each year—hold it to that. I like the idea, but it's not practical. Twenty-five a year, however, would be ample, with the stipulation that if you recruit fewer one year you can make up the difference the next, as long as you never exceed 30. Then I would slightly modify the outer limit. Keep 95 as the roster maximum, but adopt the Football Coaches Association's recommendation that as many as five academic scholarships be made available for players who have reached their senior seasons and are no longer considered squad material. That would allow them to get their degrees—and, at the same time, eliminate the need or the opportunity to run off anybody."
"You mentioned academic troubles. Are you blaming 30/95 for what happened in the Pac-10? Fraudulent grades and transcripts? Half the membership on probation? The Rose Bowl in chaos?"
The Coach sighed ponderously. "That would be much too broad an indictment even for you, Scribe," he said. "There is, however, a correlation."
He paused. Academic fraud in intercollegiate sport is an old nemesis of his, but fighting it has tended to tire him over the years.
"You could look at what happened in the Pac-10 two ways," he said at last. "One, chickens coming home to roost. Something that should be happening all over the country, in every major athletic league and conference—and I mean every conference. Today. What happened on the West Coast might very well be merely the first domino to fall.
"The second way is to see it as a positive thing. An awakening. School presidents and chancellors saying, in effect, 'We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore. No more prostituting the academic process in order to further the athletic. Never mind waiting for the NCAA to do something, we'll clean it up ourselves. Stand aside.'
"You take the latter view and you see something much stronger coming out of this—a new commitment to virtue and principle. I tend to agree with that latter view. Come to think of it, I tend to agree with both views."
"You're not blaming coaches for this, are you, Coach?" I asked, smiling. "And how does it relate to 30/95?"
He eyed me suspiciously. "No, I never blame coaches," he snapped. "Except the cheaters. I blame the cheaters. But coaches don't allow morons to pass through the educational system, educators do. Coaches don't make it possible for a 4-year-old girl who can't read or write to get college credits, as the Chicago Tribune proved was possible last month. Our administrators have done that. If academicians had spent half as much time caring for and looking after kids as the coaches do, they would have realized a long time ago that you can't satisfy every special interest and cater to every 'noble cause' and still maintain academic fealty.
"But, you say, does that have anything to do with 30/95? Only laterally. A matter of economic necessities crashing head on into coaching realities. First we put unremitting pressure on the coach to win, and to balance the budget. Then we are shocked when, left to his own devices, he finds loopholes in the system and makes the school look bad. We are the fools, not him.
"Limiting a coach to X number of players is not the bad part. The bad part is telling him he has to win, immediately if not sooner, with that number, and then expecting him to go out and recruit class valedictorians when we've made it possible for him to deal off the bottom. That's not only unrealistic, it's stupid."
The Coach looked at his watch and slid back his chair.
"I've got five miles to go to get home, Scribe," he said. "If you've got transportation, I'd advise...."
"Whoa, Coach," I said. "What about those 'surprising good things' you said were happening with the 30/95?"
The Coach smiled lopsidedly and relaxed in his seat.
"Oh my, yes," he said. "The walk-ons!"
"Walk-ons? What's so surprising...?"
"It's the happiest, most encouraging change of all. Wherever you look these days you find young men—truly student-athletes—coming out for teams. Even the biggest teams. Coming out because they want to come out. Because they want to play for old Bankrupt Tech, with or without a scholarship, not because they got conned into it.
"It's happening everywhere—the walk-on traffic in American college football is positively booming. Bowden says he gets an 'extraordinary number' at FSU every year. Paterno has taken to holding back a few scholarships to dangle like carrots in front of the 35 walk-ons he averages every year at Penn State. Many others are doing the same. Wayne Hardin at Temple says he actually depends on walk-ons. Of the six captains Temple has had the last two years, four were walk-ons. Gordon Adams of USC is a walk-on quarterback.
"Can you imagine what this is doing for esprit de corps? Not just on the football team, but on the entire campus? Kids working their tails off for a chance to play in a jayvee game, or maybe crack the traveling roster? Kids who weren't seduced or bribed into it, who just want to be a part? I tell you, Scribe, it's positively thrilling."
He got up to leave, removing from the zippered pocket of his sweat pants a crumpled bill and depositing it beside his empty mug. He tapped his swollen jaw and grinned.
"Incidentally," he said, "this was done by a former walk-on. Quid pro quo. Like I've always told you, Scribe, the system can work."
The Coach was already jogging when he hit the door.
They walk right on and they say, "I want to play."
And on that hopeful note, Scribe, you'll forgive me if I jog on out.