Troopers protect the coach -- and a little more
Jeff Tedford had better keep this to himself.
Don't bring it up at the January coaches' convention. The shame would be too great. Then again, his peers might be too busy pitying him to mock him.
|One burly Alabama trooper tried to keep a young SI writer from chronicling a big Bear Bryant moment. He even threatened to have the writer arrested. ESPN New Media senior vice president John Papanek recalls his 1981 encounter at Legion Field. Story.|
He has no brawny dudes in flat-brimmed hats to protect him from the pesky paparazzi and polluted hoi polloi. No heat-packing buffer between him and the fawning fans. No poker-faced patrolmen clearing a path to that solemn coaching tradition, the postgame handshake.
"I don't really even recognize it," Tedford said of his sad lack of security. "...I've never been fearful of my safety. I've never even thought about it that much."
Geez, Jeff. You probably drive a Festiva to the country club, too.
Actually, it's only theoretically about safety. In reality, trooper presence is partly about ease of movement through fired-up (or liquored-up) crowds. And it's mostly about status -- for the coach and for the cops, who seem to excel at working their way into the background of TV shots.
"It's kind of a little plum detail if you're a football fan," said Maj. Cary Sutton of the Alabama State Police, now in his 16th year -- and fourth head coach -- working the sidelines at Crimson Tide games.
It's a football tradition that, by most estimates, dates back nearly 50 years. And like many football things that sprang from the Deep South, most everyone is convinced it began with Bear Bryant.
Sutton is something of a historian on the subject. He believes the Bear first got his trooper escort in 1958 (Bryant's first year as head coach at Alabama) or '59.
Naturally, Sutton said, Auburn coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan got one shortly thereafter.
And it gradually spread around the South from there, as coaches and schools tried to put on Bear airs. At Florida State, trooper Billy Smith began escorting the head football coach in 1964 and simply never stopped. He retired as a cop more than 20 years ago, but he still puts on his uniform and accompanies Bobby Bowden on the sidelines for every game.
Familiarity can be the key to landing (and keeping) one of these gigs.
Legend has it that when Jackie Sherrill was at Texas A&M, he would fly in his favorite cops from his previous stop, Pittsburgh, to work Aggies home games.
Today, a head coach can't go anywhere on game day in the South without police backup. In Alabama alone, Sutton said, every football-playing college -- from Alabama to Alabama A&M -- has a contract with the state police to provide support.
That includes Troy. The school might be a low major struggling along in the Sun Belt Conference, but it's not short on cops. Three troopers and one city policeman work every game with the team, home and away.
Lt. Charles Ward has been with Troy 12 years. Like many Alabama officers who start at the smaller schools, he started out envisioning working his way up to the big time: Alabama or Auburn.
"But once I started working with Troy, I didn't want to work with anybody else," Ward said.
Ward is so much a part of the program at Troy that when the Trojans made their first-ever bowl trip, to California for the Silicon Valley Bowl in 2004, he got a bowl ring. He's not alone there.
Sgt. Glen Doyle of the West Virginia State Police, one half of coach Rich Rodriguez's personal detail, has a ring from the Mountaineers' 2006 Sugar Bowl triumph over Georgia, plus plenty of other swag (shirts, shoes, hats).
"That is one of the perks of being on the detail," Doyle said.
But this is much more than just a Southern thing these days. In almost every area of the country you can find cops jogging alongside head coaches, like secret service with the president.
I asked all 119 Division I-A programs about their police presence on game day. Seventy-five responded. Of that 75, 72 percent have somebody shadowing the head coach either at home or away (or both).
Troopers are ubiquitous below the Mason-Dixon Line (exceptions: Wake Forest and Baylor). The one area that hasn't caught on to TrooperMania is out West.
Five of the eight Mountain West Conference schools reported having no sideline troopers, and the other three didn't respond. In the Pacific-10, there are no troopers in the Bay Area, the state of Washington or Arizona State. USC and UCLA said they use campus police. Oregon and Arizona didn't respond.
Most schools said the police were there for security purposes. Yet most of them acknowledged that their coach has never been seriously threatened physically.
Perhaps that's uniformed deterrence for you.
Still, there are some opposing crowds that will make it a bit dicey for the visiting coach getting off the field. ESPN colleague Mark Schlabach says he and the cop shadowing Steve Spurrier after one Florida-Georgia game shared a bath from a 64-ounce cup of tobacco spit aimed at Spurrier.
And even the school's own supporters can pose a problem. Losing fans are unhappy fans. Sutton recalls one confrontation between an abusive Alabama fan and coach Gene Stallings after a Gator Bowl loss.
Even happy fans can pose a threat. Doyle said that his sidekick in the Rodriguez detail, Randy Schambach, once had to flatten an overexuberant West Virginia fan who came running up to congratulate/embrace the coach after a victory.
"He just basically laid him out," Doyle said. "It looked like a football move. He knocked him down on the ground."
After that Sugar Bowl win, Doyle and Schambach also had to wedge space for Rodriguez and his family through a wild (and well-lubricated) crowd of Mountaineers fans at the team hotel. They pushed their way to the elevator and loaded the family aboard, and Rodriguez went up a floor and yelled down to the throng in the lobby from the mezzanine.
The sermon on the mount, football style.
But the job consists of more than hanging out on the field and chop-blocking intruders. A big part of most troopers' duties is providing advance intelligence on road trips and arranging travel routes to and from stadia and airports.
Ward and his detail made the grueling drive from Troy, Ala., to San Francisco for the Silicon Valley Bowl ahead of the team, just to scout out traffic routes and scout out logistics.
"It was two-three days' drive," said Ward, in an Alabama accent thicker than sausage gravy. "It was a good little piece. And it rained every day we were out there. It was miserable."
With Alabama playing at rival Tennessee on Saturday, Sutton and his detail will leave their post in Montgomery and drive their squad car to Knoxville on Thursday. They'll meet that day with the Tennessee university police to discuss traffic logistics for pregame practice and on game day, then take those officers out for dinner.
On Friday afternoon, they'll meet the Crimson Tide at the airport and escort the team to the stadium for its walk-through practice, then to the team hotel. Saturday they will escort the Tide to Neyland Stadium for the game, and from there to the airport; then they'll stay Saturday night in Knoxville.
During the game Sutton and his mates will be stationed at either end of the team area on the sidelines, which is between the 25-yard lines. They'll be cheering for Alabama -- very stoically.
In fact, Sutton got his job because of excessive celebration by another trooper at an Alabama game during Ray Perkins' first season succeeding Bryant.
"Alabama made a big play, and off came his hat like a Naval Academy graduate," Sutton said. "That caught the eye of the camera. That was his last game."
Better to remain impassive and keep your job. Even if your role as a safety provider is overstated and overrated in a lot of locales.
Like, for instance, Colorado. When I asked CU sports information director Dave Plati in an e-mail about the police presence on game day in Boulder, he cyber-scoffed.
"Our coach doesn't need protection," Plati wrote. "He's accompanied by a 1,300-pound buffalo."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.