The Curious Cult of College Coaches

Originally Published: October 3, 2005
By Andrew Bagnato | ESPN College Football Encyclopedia

The following is reprinted from ESPN College Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Game , edited by Michael MacCambridge

Bo Schembechler loved to tell this story: president Gerald Ford, a former Michigan center and co-captain, showed up at a Wolverines practice. Flanked by the Secret Service, Ford wandered onto the field. The team lined up in formation, but just before the snap the players realized that one of the president's bodyguards was standing in the path of the play. (It was a power run -- what else?) Schembechler asked the agent to move. He wouldn't. The players glanced at Schembechler, who barked, "Run the guy over if you have to!" The ball was snapped and the agent barely lunged out of the way as the squad, winged helmets and all, thundered toward him. "Nothing," Schembechler wrote in his autobiography, "interferes with practice."

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The anecdote is as instructive as it is amusing. College football coaches don't let anyone encroach on their turf -- be it the president of the university or the president of the United States. On Saturday afternoons, the school president can walk through the packed grandstand without being recognized. Down on the field, his coach is escorted by state troopers. The coach is usually paid two or three times more than the president. And when was the last time anyone brought a life-size cutout of the Penn State president to a tailgate party outside Beaver Stadium?

It's no wonder college football coaches often believe they are larger than life. In many ways, they are. Some have been so big they required only one name: Woody. Bear. Ara. Bo.

"Football is a coach's medium, just as movies are a director's medium and fascism is a dictator's medium," wrote Jim Murray, the late Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize-winner. "I sometimes think the last stand of dictatorship in this world is the college football coach. His word is law, his rule is absolute, his power is unlimited."

Coaches are the perfect products of a game that inspires root-hog-or-die passion despite its sometimes-questionable ethics. College football is a colorful thread in the fabric of the nation, especially in the South and Midwest. In those places, college football coaches loom large.

Consider Bear Bryant, the legendary coach of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama politicians courted Bryant, whose popularity transcended party lines. "Usually, Bryant was linked with church rather than state -- 'The Bear walks on water,'" Alabaman Diane McWhorter wrote in a history of the Civil Rights era. "His televised postgame recap, The Bear Bryant Show, had become the City of Churches' strictest Sunday ritual." At a time when Alabamans struggled to come to grips with desegregation, Bryant's Tide was a source of statewide pride (except in Auburn precincts, where Bryant was loathed). Years after his death, a museum dedicated to Bryant attracts thousands of visitors to the Tuscaloosa campus.

To outsiders, coaches may appear to be distant figures. But players frequently develop an enduring emotional bond with their coach. Eight members of Bryant's 1982 Alabama team served as pallbearers at his funeral. Nine players on Eddie Robinson's last Grambling team were the sons of former Robinson players. "That [legacy] was the highest compliment for what we were trying to do at Grambling," Robinson, who retired with more victories than any college football coach in history, wrote in his autobiography.

Robinson often spoke about his role as a father figure to his players. Fans rarely see that side of a coach. But it doesn't stop the faithful from exalting them -- the winners, at least. In 1988, after leading Notre Dame to its 11th, and last, national title, Lou Holtz was no longer viewed as a clipboard-toting quipster. He was now a business expert, despite having scant experience beyond football. Holtz wrote a best-selling business book, Winning Every Day, and by 2004, Holtz the coach/corporate guru was pulling in more than $40,000 per speaking engagement.

No matter what he does on Saturday, or to whom, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden often spends his Sunday mornings in the pulpit. "& And on the sixth day, he smote the Gators ... " In Baton Rouge, Louisiana State fans sported Saint Nick T-shirts to herald the hiring of Nick Saban. Their adoration surpassed mortal understanding when he led the Bengal Tigers to a share of the 2003 national championship.

"We love our coaches because they are 'doers' and because the games they preside over transcend our routine day-to-day experiences, and because it is comforting to think of them as being, like movie stars and lead guitarists, 'bigger than life,'" wrote columnist Rick Telander, a former Northwestern cornerback.

Coaches typically don't think of themselves as movie stars and lead guitarists (except former Washington coach Rick Neuheisel, who was known for playing a few licks at team parties). But they often see themselves as generals engaged in a critical, if bloodless, conflict. There are long ties between football and the military. "I learned a great many things in the Marines that helped me as a football coach," former Iowa coach Hayden Fry wrote in his autobiography. "The Marines train men hard and to do things the right way, just as a football team must train."

Former Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy served in the Navy. The University of Tennessee's cavernous stadium is named after General Robert Neyland, a former aide-de-camp to West Point superintendent Douglas MacArthur. After Neyland retired from the Army, the Volunteers hired him with a specific marching order: beat Vandy!

"Football is so similar to the military, and because they're so similar, a football program has to be run the same way," Colorado coach Gary Barnett once said. "You have to move large numbers of people and there has to be a high degree of order and control happening."

The coach's authority often seems as inviolable as that of an Army general. And like many generals, coaches often become swaddled in myth. Think of Patton with a playbook. No coach has enjoyed more mythic status than Knute Rockne. Having turned Notre Dame football into a standard-bearer for Catholic immigrants who couldn't find South Bend on a map, Rockne was already something of a celebrity when he perished in a plane crash in 1931. But he became ingrained in the national consciousness when a B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan played George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All-American. It didn't matter whether Gipp ever uttered that fabled deathbed request. Rockne's "Win One for the Gipper" pep talk quickly became part of American lore.

Rockne was the first college football coach to transcend the sport. But the spiritual father of the modern college football coach -- the my-way-or-the-highway autocrat -- is Amos Alonzo Stagg, who turned the University of Chicago into a national powerhouse at the turn of the century. School president William Rainey Harper hired Stagg to build a football team that would help Chicago earn the kind of recognition reserved for Ivy League institutions. Stagg did that. But as the Maroons became more successful -- they won seven titles in the conference now known as the Big Ten -- Stagg began to assert his autonomy. "Stagg stubbornly refused to allow the athletic board to exercise control and, when it asked to examine the eligibility of players or showed any sign of asserting its authority, he complained vigorously to Harper," wrote John Sayle Watterson in College Football. "Through football, Stagg put Chicago in the limelight but often seemed more interested in his own reputation than in the institution that employed him."

The Maroons' fortunes had flagged by the time Stagg left the South Side in 1933. Fed up with the excesses of big-time football, the University of Chicago discontinued the sport in 1939 and dropped out of the Big Ten altogether in 1946. But the die had been cast for the modern college football coach -- a dictator who jealously guarded the sanctity of his "program."

It wasn't long before all-powerful coaches such as Leahy at Notre Dame and Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma began to dominate the sport. "Your head coach today has become an absolute dictator," William "Pudge" Heffelfinger, the first Walter Camp All-America in 1889, wrote in 1954.

Heffelfinger's description fits a score of latter-day coaches, including Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. Carr has been dubbed "Paranoid Lloyd" by beat writers covering the team because he's gone to such lengths to limit media access to one of the nation's most widely followed programs. Heffelfinger also would not have been surprised by Kansas State's Bill Snyder, who is renowned among peers for his almost obsessive attention to detail. During a team meal at the Wildcats' hotel, Snyder once complained to aides when the caterers provided butter in foil-wrapped packets. Snyder had wanted whipped butter because, he said later, it had less fat. "There are a lot of little things like that," Snyder said. "If you do pay attention to detail and the "little" things are important to you, you make them important to people in the program."

Football, by rule and by nature, breeds a need for control. Players line up in set formations before launching intricately planned attacks. Control is critical even after the whistle: a team may be penalized for "excessive celebration" if it parties too hard after scoring a touchdown. Ever watch a coach after his team hits pay dirt? He's the one grabbing players and pulling them back to the bench. Never mind that 70,000 people in the stands are going bananas.

"You go through the history of great college coaches, and they have this history of being totally in control of everything," says Murray Sperber, a retired Indiana University sports historian. The best coaches seem to exert the strictest control. Woody Hayes was a control freak. Lee Corso wasn't. Understand?

All this power can go to a man's head. At a time when many coaches in other sports have had to make concessions to professional leagues and adapt to changing social mores, college football coaches have mostly kept their fiefdoms intact. In basketball and baseball, the top prospects can go directly from the preps to the pros. Not in football. An NFL rule, upheld in a 2003 court challenge by former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett, bars players from entering the draft until they've been out of high school for three years.

The rule gives college head coaches tremendous leverage over players. But they're facing other threats. They are being held increasingly responsible for their players' off-the-field conduct, not to mention their graduation rates -- a concept foreign to Bryant and his peers. The old boys-will-be-boys attitude has been replaced by uncomfortable questions about who's minding the store. Part of this has to do with the broadening scope of the media in the Internet age. But coaches also believe the accountability is linked to the astronomical salaries they command. "Because of that, there's no question that people are less patient, less tolerant, and want to hold [coaches] more accountable when they make that much money," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said.

This shift in attitude may pose the greatest challenge to the college coach's rule. Just ask Mike Price, fired by Alabama before he coached a single game. Price's sin? An off-season visit to a strip club after he had been warned by school officials about his public conduct. But while Price, who later latched on with Texas-El Paso, paid dearly for his actions, two other nationally publicized cases in the spring of 2004 showed that coaches have retained a good measure of invincibility.

At Ohio State, 14 Buckeye football players have been involved in at least 13 incidents since the school hired head coach Jim Tressel in 2001, an Associated Press search of court records revealed. Among the problems: assault, drunken driving, robbery and carrying a concealed weapon. To outsiders, the Buckeyes appeared to be running amok. Not to then-OSU athletic director Andy Geiger, who publicly absolved Tressel of any responsibility for his players' conduct. Think that had anything to do with the fact that Tressel led the Buckeyes to the 2002 national title?

"In my experience, if a coach is winning and they're making a lot of money [for the school], people have been more lenient," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "That's just the sort of society we live in."

Meanwhile, Colorado's Gary Barnett found himself embroiled in a controversy surrounding his program's recruiting practices. At least nine women, including former CU placekicker Katie Hnida, said they were sexually assaulted by Colorado football players or recruits. The first accusation surfaced in 1997, two years before Barnett's arrival in Boulder. The accusations provoked a public outcry, but Barnett was placed on administrative leave in February '04 only after making derogatory remarks about Hnida. The Boulder case drew the attention of Congress, which pressed the NCAA for tougher national recruiting rules. Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football and any effort to regulate it represents a serious challenge to the coaches' command.

From Miami to Seattle, coaches anxiously watched the CU situation unfold. Would the school hold Barnett responsible? And if so, would that signal an end to the hegemony coaches have enjoyed for a century?

They need not have worried. Although CU forced Barnett to adopt more stringent recruiting standards than his Big 12 rivals, he kept his job. Applause rippled through the packed campus news conference announcing Barnett's reinstatement. Elsewhere, Barnett's players openly celebrated. Score another victory for the dictators.

Andrew Bagnato reports on national college football and basketball for The Arizona Republic.

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