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Original Issue

The Firing Line

Football is still weeks away, but for some college coaches, including George Perles, it's already third-and-long

Try playing the Michigan State numbers game, created last winter when university president M. Peter McPherson decreed that football coach George Perles must have "an outstanding season." Trouble is, McPherson has refused to define what he means by "outstanding." "Is it 7-4?" says Spartan basketball coach Jud Heathcote. "Is it 8-3? Go to a bowl game?"

So the state of Michigan has a new game of chance, like Lotto or Cash 5. Save the Coach, they could call it. Or maybe Hang the Coach.

Walk with John Mackovic as he straddles the burnt-orange line that separates the old guard of Texas football—the Orangebloods, with their big money, long memories and, in the matter of football coaches, quick trigger fingers—from the realities of the college game today. "We're trying to redevelop a football tradition here," says Mackovic, implying that the old tradition is dead.

Listen to the unmistakable rasp of Gerry Faust, bouncing off concrete walls in the belly of the Rubber Bowl, a decaying 54-year-old stadium next to the Soap Box Derby track in Akron. Faust is selling, preaching, dreaming, never giving up, finally seeing a glimmer of promise at the end of a 13-year trial that began at Notre Dame and which he refuses to see finish in failure at Akron.

Numerous and varied are the means by which a college football coach becomes endangered. But one way or another these three have ended up in the wringer as the fall of '94 approaches, and they are not alone (chart, page 70). No coach, however, sits more precariously than Perles, his future placed in doubt by his president's public pronouncement. None sits more controversially than Mackovic, whose personality has even become a subject of statewide debate. And none sits more famously than Faust, forever known as the high school coach Notre Dame shouldn't have hired. As college football teams prepare to begin practice, these three coaches are at crossroads of the most perilous kind.

Perles's cantankerous 11-year reign at Michigan State has been prodded toward termination in a soap opera that has engulfed the athletic department since he used a dalliance with the Green Bay Packers in 1988 to extract a raise, a retirement annuity and a 10-year contract from the school. Two years later, as compensation for his saying no to the New York Jets, Michigan State named him athletic director while letting him remain as coach. "We've had some fun," says the 60-year-old Perles. "We had a chance to go to Green Bay. We had a chance to go to the Jets. It's a great country. One thing I think I can do fairly well is negotiate."

But living with the spoils is something else, and in 1992 Perles was forced to give up either his coaching or athletic director position. He resigned as AD and was replaced in that job by Merrily Dean Baker, a gender-equity pioneer working at the NCAA who is philosophically the polar opposite of the old-school Perles. Their relationship has always been chilly. Perles, whose hard-line philosophy hasn't changed since he was a defensive assistant with the "steel curtain" Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70s, has never invited her into the locker room, and at the banquet celebrating the '92 football season, he introduced nearly everyone in the department except Baker.

Enter McPherson, who took over as president last fall. His response to the tension in the athletic department was to issue his intriguing statement, in which, according to a university press release on March 1, he "conveyed his expectations of Coach Perles and the team." Besides calling for an outstanding season on the field, McPherson said he wanted to see "collegiality in the department of intercollegiate athletics," a thinly veiled mandate that Perles and Baker, who communicate by phone and memo, at least occasionally converse in person.

Perles's last three teams went a combined 14-20; the '93 team wound up its 6-6 season with a Liberty Bowl loss to Louisville. So Joel Ferguson, the chairman of Michigan State's board of trustees, has a straightforward explanation for McPherson's memo. "George was told to have an outstanding season because the board, the fans and the alumni were disgruntled with mediocre records," says Ferguson. "We're not happy. We do want to win. It's painful to see Michigan go 9-2, 8-3, 10-1 every year. With our facilities, our location and our tradition, we shouldn't be in the middle of the pack, losing to teams in minor bowl games."

Perles won't be bullied into a public fight. The closest he'll come to betraying bitterness is when he says, "I think it's not unusual that all presidents would like to see an outstanding season. Whether they make a public statement, I don't know.... [An outstanding season] isn't anything different from what I want."

To help him in this endeavor, the university let Perles open the checkbook to hire veteran NFL defensive coordinator Hank Bullough away from the Detroit Lions. It is also pouring $4 million, including the cost of new artificial turf, into Spartan Stadium. Perles has 14 starters back from last season, seven on each side of the ball. "No excuses," says Ferguson. On the street in East Lansing the consensus is that 8-3 would be just about outstanding, especially considering that the Spartans must face Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State in consecutive weeks and end the season at Penn State.

The politics of Texas football are more clandestine but no less dangerous. Mackovic's predecessor, David McWilliams, was forced to resign one year after a 10-2 Cotton Bowl season and with four years remaining on his contract. It is the curse of the Longhorn program that many of its fans live desperately in the past, recalling with stubborn fondness that Darrell Royal's teams won 167 games in 20 years and national championships in 1963, '69 and '70. "Very long memories," says Mackovic. "Very long and very vivid."

The reality today is that Texas was 6-5 in 1992, Mackovic's first year, and 5-5-1 a year ago. Memorial Stadium was filled only once in those two seasons, and the Longhorns haven't been to a bowl since they lost 46-3 to Miami in the '91 Cotton. On the positive side, Texas's 1992 and '93 recruiting classes were ranked among the top 10 in the nation, and Mackovic has been playing an obscenely young team—six freshmen and seven sophomores started last season.

"We played a bunch of freshmen," says Mackovic, 50. "It's working here. It is working."

Yet good recruiting cuts two ways, temporarily easing pressure but encouraging higher expectations. "It takes longer than three years to rebuild," says athletic director DeLoss Dodds. Then, cutting the other way, he says, "But I think this year is going to be a good year."

Mackovic fancies himself a visionary who is refashioning a program to meet the demands of the '90s, not the '60s, and is building at his own pace. "The game has changed," he says. "The rules have changed so dramatically that it's difficult to make a quick turnaround."

His imagined fan base is in the 20- and 30-somethings who have helped turn Austin into a transplant haven. The university's power brokers, however, are at least a generation beyond that and not as patient as Mackovic. He faces obstacles that Royal never did, including stricter scholarship limitations and the flight of Texas athletes to increasingly competitive out-of-state colleges. (In 20 years only 10 of Royal's letter winners came from outside Texas.) Mackovic also has to grapple with a perception—encouraged by rival schools—that minorities are not always welcome at Texas. "People told me at Texas I'd be just another nigger around," says junior Longhorn linebacker Robert Reed. "They were grossly exaggerating."

"Things are tons different now," says Royal, whose Texas coaching reign ended in 1976 but who still lives in Austin. Do the fans understand this? "All they understand," he says, "is winning and losing."

They know that Mackovic's mediocre record makes him vulnerable, so they pounce on anything, including his personality. He likes wine, they like longnecks. Their blood is orange, his blue. "Far more than anything else, I'm shy," says Mackovic. In reality Texas fans would sip chardonnay with Claus von Bülow if he got the Longhorns back into the hunt for the national championship.

If Mackovic is ever going to get the Longhorns back on top, this seems to be his last, best opportunity. The ground is more fertile, with Colorado and Texas A&M both playing in Austin, and 18 starters are expected back.

So Mackovic, who in 1986 took the Kansas City Chiefs to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years and took both Wake Forest and Illinois to bowl games, grinds forward. "When there are dirty jobs to do," he says, "I know who's asked to do them." This is the dirtiest job of all at Texas: making people forget history.

Akron's history is no factor at all. John Heisman coached the Zips in 1893 and "94, and their history has been largely nondescript since. It's Faust's history that's the story. Nothing he does from today until his retirement will erase the stigma of going 30-26-1 from 1981 to '85 at Notre Dame. Now, after eight seasons at Akron, he remains relentlessly average: 42-43-3.

The numbers would seem to indicate that he is working against a clock. Akron fans, however, appear divided on the subject. One portion respects Faust as a diligent, honest gentleman who will never embarrass the university. Another portion is still resentful of Faust for having been foisted upon the program in 1986 by then president William Muse and for having done nothing miraculous since. And on the subject of fans, there aren't enough of them: An average of 17,741 came to the 35,202-seat Rubber Bowl for five home games last year.

There are mitigating factors. Faust has a four-year contract extension that begins this year, and Mike Bobinski, the aggressive, 36-year-old athletic director appointed just last spring, has overseen more than $1 million in improvements to Akron's athletic facilities (including new artificial turf for the Rubber Bowl). But like the recruiting at Texas, such positives only diminish patience. Even Bobinski—who was an assistant AD at Notre Dame while Faust twisted in the wind, and who wishes desperately to avoid a repeat of that death watch—says, "I do want to win, and I believe the program can win with Gerry."

Faust, 59, remains convinced that he sits on the cusp of a breakthrough. Under him Akron became the first program to go from Division I-AA to I-A, despite laughably inadequate facilities. Faust would sooner miss Mass than criticize another human being, but his job was not made any easier by the fact that Bobinski's predecessor as athletic director was Jim Dennison, who had been forced out as football coach to make room for Faust.

"Seven years I was beating my head against a wall," Faust says, gently doing just that, for emphasis. "It was a tough move [to Akron], a very tough move, because of the facilities and the jump to I-A. I think we've done an excellent job with what we started with."

He remains upbeat about his tenure at Notre Dame. He even returned to South Bend in April to watch a day of spring practice. Faust admits that when he took the Irish job. "I didn't know what I was doing." but he still dreams of a triumphant return. "If Notre Dame called and asked me back. I'd go," he says. "You never know."

For now there are problems enough at Akron, what with only three defensive first-stringers back from a 5-6 team. "We're going to win here," says Faust. When recruits see the improved facilities, he says, they'll come, and people will know then that Gerry Faust can be a good college football coach. Won't they? "I am a good college football coach." Faust says, uncharacteristically defiant.

But for Faust, as well as for Perles, Mackovic and all the rest, that is a judgment for somebody else to make.