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Original Issue


It wasn't just you, Coach, it was the whole system

I am troubled, and I feel the need to make things right between us.

I received your letter regarding the excerpt from my book The Hundred Yard Lie that ran in this magazine (SI, Oct 2), and I'm glad we talked on the phone and then saw each other before the Northwestern-Ohio State game on Nov. 4. I was proud to be part of the group of old Wildcat teammates who returned to Northwestern that day to dedicate a meeting room in the John C. Nicolet Football Center to you and to the 1968. '69, '70 and 71 teams. I'm ambivalent about big-time college football, as I was when I played the game, but I can't change the fact that I was forged by the sport or that it still sets me apart from the crowd.

I think we worked out our differences that Saturday morning; I hope so. Still, I can't resolve my feelings about any matter having to do with sports unless I put them in print.

I know which part of the book excerpt distressed you. It was the section in which I recounted your pulling my hair in public and telling me to get a haircut—after I had graduated and was no longer a player but an independent, working adult. I wrote that your action manifested a football coach's fundamental selfishness in his quest to control those under him and to do what he was hired to do: maintain order and win games, not build character or independent thinking. In my book I admitted that the episode was not really a big deal. It was simply a convenient, symbolic refutation of a popular myth: the football coach as man-builder. But it seemed to you that I was holding you up as a fraud and a villain, lumping you in with all those dirty, rotten coaches you abhor. I know that's how Bo Schembechler—your pal—read it, which is why he said publicly, "Rick Telander is a loser. He's been a loser all his life."

I could say that Bo don't know diddly, that he never knew me as a kid, back when I had a prize butterfly collection and aced all my spelling tests. But we know Bo, don't we, Alex? He was only sticking up for a brother. Bo knows put-downs.

You told me in your letter that you may have embarrassed me in front of a few people but that I got even: I embarrassed you in front of millions. That was never my intent. Rather, I needed to make a point about college football coaches generally: and because you were my coach, you were the man I had to use as my example.

But it is amazing the power that football coaches have over their players, even when the coaches are no longer coaching and the players have moved on to other endeavors. It's possible that a player may need to slay his coach symbolically in order to move on. But that's one for the shrinks. I didn't mean to slay you, Alex. Honest. But I must move on.

In a way I am envious of you, envious that you and Bo and your brethren can see things so clearly and be sated so easily, so fully. A win puts you at peace, soothes you the way a big meal soothes a cat. But what is winning in the real world? Out here nobody keeps score, and there are no timeouts. I only wish I could be as certain of anything as you coaches are of everything.

I will never forget our first meeting, 22 years ago. I was 18, a skinny high school senior on a recruiting trip, and you were a barrel-chested coach in his prime. You sat behind your desk at Northwestern's football complex, smoking a cigar, and I sat in front of you, sick as a dog, the victim of my recruiting party the night before. You told me that you couldn't offer me a scholarship, because some "blue chippers" might come through. Your cigar made me not care at all. Moments later I got sick in the parking lot, a wretched teenage failure.

A few weeks went by, the blue chippers didn't sign and you gave me one of the remaining free rides to Northwestern. I was very proud. Our uneasy alliance had begun.

I know you were not a dirty coach or a cheater or a liar or a phony. When Woody Hayes accused you of teaching cheap tactics, it enraged you. Your assistants called Hayes "the fat man" after that, and so did we players, because we didn't like him either. You were not a bad coach, Alex, but you were part of a system that is fundamentally flawed. It wasn't really your fault, and it wasn't mine. But you were the adult and I was the kid, and we can't change that.

Coaches and players go in lockstep through life, inextricably bound up by coincidence and fate, as do parents and offspring, cops and robbers, priests and sinners. It's a tangled web that only goes straight at the end. You saw me suffering at the dedication ceremony, Alex, and you walked up to me with your tough coach's walk, the way you have a hundred times before. I may have flinched.

"Smile, Rick," you said.

That was nice. We must be friends.

I know I'll always be your player.
Rick Telander