Somebody once said that in college football it's a lot easier for a coach to live with being No. 1 than it is to live with being No. 47. What generally happens to a man when his team cannot win is that he winds up selling tire tools for a living. And all that really happens to the coach of the No. 1, if and when he tumbles, is that he winds up the season with a 6-4 record and turns down the Peach Bowl. All this is what somebody once said. It was probably a wise guy sportswriter who had nothing to lose but his trip to Miami.
There are other things that have been said about trying to be No. 1 and then struggling to stay there indefinitely. It has been said that most of the fun is in the climb; that there's nothing on top but agony and worry about the road back down. It's been said nobody can even get there unless Notre Dame loses two games. It's been said that games are tougher to win when you're No. 1 because the burden is so heavy, but it's also been said that a losing streak can be more strenuous on the coach's nerves because he has to read the help-wanted ads between workouts.
Obviously there are numerous advantages and disadvantages to being No. 1, which means being the national champion, incidentally. And perhaps for the uninformed they should be outlined clearly.
The advantages are as follows:
September 10, 1972
1. The coaching staff gets a bonus, maybe a raise, or at the least some gift certificates for new suits at the local hardware store, and their wives get a year's supply of free permanent waves from Loretta's Beauty Shop.
2. The athletic department station wagons get repainted in the school colors.
3. Barmaids around town get to wear sweatshirts with No. 1 stenciled on them.
4. Campus protests diminish—slightly—in size and regularity.
5. For a year at least, recruiting is easier.
6. The school fight song turns up on jukeboxes everywhere.
7. The head coach gets a book ghostwritten for him.
8. A rich alumnus contributes a new artificial turf in exchange for lifetime seats on the 50-yard line.
9. The coaching staff is in great demand at clinics, luncheons and banquets.
The disadvantages are these:
1. The head coach loses all his bonus money in a taco franchise.
2. Five key members of his staff leave to take head jobs of their own. And beat him some day.
3. The state's high school athletes mysteriously enter into a "down cycle" and the blue-chippers aren't what they're supposed to be.
4. The head coach attends so many clinics, he forgets how he got to be No. 1 in the first place—hard work.
5. The academic community begins making noises about a "football factory."
6. Next season's starting backfield gets busted on grass.
7. With no one returning to the squad but a second-string center and a defensive back who's had three knee operations, preseason polls make the team No. 1 again.
8. The new artificial turf turns purple and curls up around the edges.
9. The chancellor who backed the head coach during his 6-4 years retires.
As the saying goes, a lot of these problems are good ones to have, because they mean that you're winning. How to handle success on a big scale is a problem that only a few major-college coaches have had to deal with. And no one has ever figured out the best way to do it, from Walter Camp to Bob Devaney (see cover), who happens to be the man with the problem currently.
Among the modern elite who had to contemplate the dilemma before Devaney, if their thoughts add up to any kind of advice at all, it's this: stay humble, stay loose and keep a sense of humor.
Says Texas' Darrell Royal, who has had three national champions: "The real problem with being No. 1 is that if you're not careful you'll get to believing all those nice things being said about you. You'd better be the same when you're 6-4 as when you're 10-0.
"The worst pressure comes from losing. Winning takes care of itself. It builds confidence. You can say on one hand that when you're winning, everybody's out to get you. That may be true, but I also think the team with confidence can psych somebody into losing, into thinking they're not good enough to win.
"But everybody's got to lose eventually. The town tough can get all the room he wants walking down the street—until somebody puts a scab on his nose.
"It's harder to keep your confidence up when you're losing than it is to keep from being impressed with yourself when you're winning. I insist it's a lot easier when you're winning. You've got morale and the backing and excitement are there. So's the advice. Everyone wants to help you coach a Chris Gilbert, a Steve Worster or a Jerry Sisemore. But nobody wants to help you coach that old boy who's slow and not very well coordinated.
"As for superstitions, I agree with Duffy Daugherty. It sure is bad luck not to have good players."
Whether Notre Dame is No. 1 or not, Ara Parseghian feels the pressure every week. Everybody always wants to beat Notre Dame.
"I never thought about it before I became the coach at South Bend," says Parseghian, "but looking back on when I was at Northwestern I guess I relished the four victories over Notre Dame more than anything else.
"We can all pretend not to be bothered by the pressure of being favored, but it's there. For instance, when we play a team that's not in the top rankings, we do everything possible to keep the team from letting down but sometimes nothing works. Take last season. We played Tulane a week after Ohio U. had beaten them 30-7. There was no way to get our team up. So what happened? Tulane pushed us around pretty good and even led at the half 7-0. We eventually won but it wasn't easy."
The Irish coach adds, "There's definitely an advantage in playing against a No. 1 team when you're pretty equal. They have something to lose and you don't. In our second game against Texas, the whole world was telling us we couldn't win, so we got great preparation and we were able to win. I knew, and so did Darrell, that there wasn't much difference in the teams but we had the psychological advantage.
"I know it's a cliché, but on any given day...."
For all of the debate that polls create, college football wouldn't be the same without them. That's what USC's John McKay believes. "I don't know anybody who doesn't read them or argue over them," McKay says, "and I don't know any coach who wouldn't want to be No. 1 at the end of the season. Polls stir up excitement during the dead part of the football week—Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday."
McKay has twice coached a national champion at USC and he'll take the pressure and attention it causes any old time over a mediocre season.
"Time is the big problem that success creates," he says. "There's no time to coach, once you're on top. You've got to meet constantly with all your new 'friends.' You've got to be interviewed and photographed all the time. They say it makes recruiting easier but every recruit wants to see the head man and if he's off at a banquet, you lose the kid. Pretty soon, you lose enough good ones and you're not off at banquets and clinics any more because nobody wants to hear you. You're a loser again."
Meanwhile, the good assistant coaches come and go. "You win and they go to head jobs, and now you've got to take a year off getting your new assistants conversant with your concepts and philosophy. It's a vicious circle," McKay admits, "but it's what we work for. Anyhow, it keeps me young."
For 1972, all of these problems fall again on Nebraska's Devaney. He wound up sharing No. 1 with Texas after the 1970 season, and he took all of the trophies last year. If Nebraska can do it again this season, Devaney, in his last year before retirement, will join a fairly select list of coaches who have won three national championships in a row.
It keeps being written that this would be an unprecedented achievement, but technically it would not. Over the years there have existed at least a dozen polling systems such as AP, UPI, Helms and the Football Writers, and several teams—USC and Minnesota in the 1930s and Army during the Blanchard-Davis era—have received No. 1 ranking from one poll or another for three straight seasons. What is true is that no team has ever finished No. 1 three years running in the AP poll, which has lately been conducted after the bowl games are over and is therefore more realistic than, say, the UPI, which closes before the bowl games. Nebraska and Bob Devaney, with two already won, have a shot, but considering the calibre of the Big Eight, it will not be easy.
"The pressure is sure around," says Devaney, "but so are the compensations. I like winning. But we know we have to lose sometime. It'll be a shock and a disappointment but you can't worry about it."
Devaney wanders around Lincoln absorbing advice these days. He got a lot of it last year before the big one with Oklahoma. "One guy had a great way to stop the Wishbone. It should have been; he had 12 men on defense," Devaney laughs.
Like any other winning coach, Devaney finds much of his time given over to the press. "We have good relations," he says. "Maybe it's because I learned a long time ago that you don't win an argument with them."
Devaney says, "It would be more fun if we had any time to laugh when we're winning. But you can only laugh from Saturday night until Sunday morning when you start looking at the film of that next opponent."
Bob Devaney would agree with John McKay that he doesn't try to recruit bad football players. He recruits good ones; therefore, Nebraska always has the ability to win. And he would surely agree with Darrell Royal or Duffy Daugherty that it's terribly bad luck not to have good athletes, or to have the fewest points on the scoreboard after 60 minutes.
And unlike the others who've faced the same problems, Devaney is superstitious in another way. He and his staff collect pennies for luck. They've also collected a Johnny Rodgers, a Rich Glover and a Willie Harper, which is luckier still.
If Nebraska somehow does it for a third time, it will be Devaney and his people who do it. A Rodgers and a Glover and a Harper—and all those others—have always been the best way to get in the race for No. 1.