Have you ever been in the audience when a bit player is thrust onto the stage of the Great White Way before a standing room only house? The mortified stand-in can wilt in the footlights, play it cozy and be sure to be deleted from the reviews. Or she can go for it, belt out her number, and hope she isn't laughed out of the theater. Everybody in the house holds their breath, pulling for the brash kid. A star is born or a heart is broken … every time. Looking on as a spectator, this becomes a moment you never forget or one that tempts you to demand a refund.
Last Saturday, two serious underdogs had marquee football programs on the ropes in the big fellows' stadiums, and the nation panted like a begging puppy to hear the outcomes. I was traveling from West Point, N.Y., to Chattanooga, Tenn. (Don't do that.) At every rental car counter or airline gate someone asked, "Did you hear what is going on in Raleigh?" Late in the evening, as we watched the last part of the Ohio State-Texas game, the score from Knoxville became more interesting than the big game, which was dominated by the Buckeyes.
The underdog head coaches' late decisions have tongues wagging and "experts" pontificating from coast to coast. Akron's J.D. Brookhart and Air Force Academy's Fisher DeBerry each opted to go for the monumental win over the safer overtime. Brookhart guaranteed himself a spot in the Akron Hall of Fame with a Dennis Kennedy touchdown for the 20-17 victory. NC State's Chuck Amato is one of a long line of prestige coaches to lose to a Mid-American Conference team, but Wolfpack fans are salivating over the prospect of running him off.
DeBerry is being second guessed after going for two and being stuffed in the 31-30 loss to Tennessee in Neyland Stadium. He called it "The most disappointing game I've ever been involved with. It was a game I thought we should have won, a game we could have won." Phillip Fulmer is in a quiet room somewhere with his therapist, who is gently chanting, "You won the game, Phillip … you really did … you won … let it go … You have to come around … You have a real challenge this week …"
Whether we are players, coaches or fans, we are riveted by the crucible of public decision making in prime time, of leadership under the most intense pressure, of the potential for grace under fire with millions watching. The leadership acumen becomes the story and remains fixed in our minds long after the scores are forgotten. Coaches gain reputations more quickly from these moments than from all other situations combined.
That is why I so vividly remember Steve Logan.
Logan is best described as "the finest college head football coach not coaching college football today." The former East Carolina mentor enjoys coordinating an offense in NFL Europe during the springtime, and is a budding radio talk show star in the Raleigh-Durham market the rest of the year. He has utter flexibility in that call-in guests are often required to read and recite certain written materials in order to get on "Steve's air."
I recalled a big brouhaha with Logan in 1996, in a situation similar to last week's games. He was the East Carolina head coach and had traveled to West Virginia to play the Mountaineers. I called, asked if he remembered, and learned that he retains every detail.
Characteristically, his opening gambit was something like, "The game went precisely as I had predicted. I told the team what would happen. It was like a magical dream, except for the final play." (He went for two and lost, 10-9.) This is the same Steve Logan that once said to me that his game with Southern Mississippi that year had been played in mud of "Biblical proportions."
Talking with Logan is like visiting with a fine college professor. One has to stop occasionally for directions, inquire about vocabulary, and then continue with the journey. Test anxiety is part of the process until he cracks a joke, and then, like all good professors, laughs at his own material. I find myself imagining him before a team, and thinking I would like to have played for this guy. He is a leader, and leaders like to be the ones in the cauldron, the ones held accountable and the ones holding the keys to greatness.
How and Why?
"So, Coach Logan, why did you envision the game as you did, and what were the factors governing the decision to go for two?" I inquired. Logan commenced to teach history: "Well, the sudden death overtime format had just been put into effect that year. So we had a chance to be the first game to have used overtime." I needled, "Were you tempted by that, with your flair for the dramatic?" "Nope, not a chance," he responded.
"We were in a huge, hostile stadium, a place where we never did win, and I knew our only chance would be to hang around, keep it close, and then mount a late drive. It happened, just like I said. I mean, just like I said. We were down 10-3, playing our hearts out against a great West Virginia team, got the ball back with a couple of minutes left, went right down the field and scored. Now it was 10-9, and I reminded the team of my prediction. The guys were right with me. Then I called the perfect play, the one we had rehearsed. We put the ball on the left hash, rolled Marcus Crandall to his right, he made a great throw, and our receiver was one inch out of bounds."
And the response? I queried. "I was hung in effigy all over Greenville, N.C. There are still some Logan look-alikes hanging around the streetlights there."
I asked if he had any regrets? "It was the single greatest call of my life," said Logan. "And here is why: We knew the parameters -- huge, vociferous crowd, great opponent who had superior depth, intimidating atmosphere and low expectations. We took what we knew, and what we had to work with, and we created a plan. We sold the plan, and when it was time to execute under pressure, by golly we did it. It was just one inch from the great result. I wouldn't change anything but that one inch."
I wondered if there might have been an equally good overtime approach. "No," Logan said. "Because of the fatigue, the overwhelming numerical superiority of West Virginia and the officials, we had no choice. Those guys are human. Do you think they will make the controversial call under those circumstances in overtime? No way. Furthermore, if we had been playing at home, I would have done just the opposite!"
This is fascinating and instructive for current and future leaders. We have to be grateful for the DeBerrys, Brookharts, and Logans, who teach young people the lasting value of integrity, well-calculated risks and grace under fire.
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is currently the Executive Director of Leadership Baylor, a comprehensive leadership initiative at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. His column appears each week during the college football season.