The Coach had been in Honduras digging for Mayan artifacts (his collection is said to be vast), and from there had vacationed briefly in Managua. He was only now responding to messages. "Yours, Scribe, was third from the top," he said, "but I came here anyway, knowing your addiction for knowledge would require detailed answers. And the need to repeat a lot." He put his feet on the edge of my desk, crossed his highly polished loafers and, leaning back in the chair, removed the cellophane from his Jamaican cigar ($1.50 retail).
"Parity," he said. "It is time to think of parity as something worth striving for. Something necessary. The various conferences are out of balance, top-heavy in perpetuity. Vanderbilt must be given at least a fighting chance to rise up and smite the Alabamas; Rice a reasonable shot at mighty Texas; Washington State a crack at the Rose Bowl every 15 or 20 years...."
"Whoa, Coach," I said. "I haven't asked the question yet."
"You want to know what college football needs in this roseate year of '76. It is your annual question," the Coach said, drilling the end of his cigar with the sterling punch he keeps on his key ring. "The first thing it needs is to be left alone, it being, as they say, better than ever—drawing more fans, making more money. But the potentates are always doing their damndest to screw it up, so you can forget that. I used to tell my young president at M——'You must not think of football as a profit-and-loss item. You must think of it as a profit-and-expense item. Once you start worrying about losses you miss the point, as well as nullifying your chances to recoup later on.' My president was one of those who voted this past year to reduce coaching staffs to nine, thereby throwing able bodies into the streets and opening the door to class-action suits. The saviors of football have always been able to find and string up innocent parties. Non compos mentis."
September 5, 1976
"What does that have to do with parity, Coach?" I asked, leaning over to light his cigar. With his first puff he blew a perfect ring and, his steel-blue eyes squinting thoughtfully, watched it dissolve. I waited impatiently for him to go on.
"The bane of college football today is recruiting. Oh, how I hate it—the long drives in the night and the lonely hotel rooms." He paused. "Well, mostly lonely. The phony back-slapping. The pandering to drunken alumni. The lying—"
"I mean white lies to kids and parents. Telling Junior he's a cinch All-Conference. Telling Mama what a fine meal that was, when you almost choked on the okra. Recruiting is the root of almost every problem coaches have, including the ones that get their teams thrown in the slammer by the NCAA. They demean themselves. Actually, some of them makes asses of themselves. Besides that, it's expensive."
"I don't think I'm following you, Coach."
"You will, son, you will." The Coach got up and began to pace. I noted how trim he still looked. Occasional TV color jobs and commercial shilling obviously agreed with him.
"Recruiting in its present form suckles the caste system, helps keep the downtrodden down," he said. "The operational word is expensive. Every coach wants the best material, so he can win and go to bowls and get a five-year extension on his contract. It would be un-American to want otherwise. But it is absolute lunacy for 40 or 50 coaches to spend thousands of dollars jetting back and forth across the country to recruit one solitary athlete. The poor get overrun in the bidding. Oklahoma actually bragged about spending $10,000 to recruit Elvis Peacock."
"Yeah—from Miami, a mere 1,800 miles from Norman. Well, forget what that had to do to old Elvis' head, having the illustrious coach of Oklahoma make two trips to see him, and his assistants eight trips. One brought his wife just to take Elvis to supper. Forget the irony of it: that you can't pay Peacock $10,000 to play for you but you can spend $10,000 to get him to play for you. This demonstrates the lengths a big-budget team can go to, quite within the rules, to get a boy. I don't mean to single out Oklahoma. Last year when Michigan played Ohio State, 16 of Michigan's 22 starters were from out of state. Its star tailback and fullback and six other starters were from Ohio. Fancy that. Ohio State's wingback was from Pittsburgh, its quarterback from Washington, D.C., its fullback from Long Beach, N.Y."
"Yes, and Joe Namath was born in the shadow of Pitt Stadium. So what? That kind of thing happens all the time."
"Scribe, if you will just hold on to the rail the fog will lift. What I'm saying is that a coach from Dallas, Texas shouldn't have to camp on the doorstep of a kid in West Covina, Calif. this or any year. I'm saying—my palms get moist when I admit it, being a onetime transgressor myself—I'm saying the trouble starts, and the balance tips, when they do this."
He poked the air with his cigar.
"Now I yield to no man in my abhorrence for the professional game. All that litigation—ugh! But one thing the professionals do is make a conscientious effort to level the competition, with the so-called equalization draft. The Steelers were laughingstocks of the NFL a few short years ago."
"Are you saying colleges should draft players?" I cried, incredulous.
"Of course not." He sank back into the chair and crossed his legs. "I knew this would take time. No, not a draft at all, but Designated Territories, Spheres of Influence drawn up by areas to include x number of high schools engaged in tackle football. Take as an arbitrary base 150 schools and 10,000 athletes. If a coach doesn't have that many high school players in his home state, make a circle out from his school until you encompass those numbers. You can't physically recruit outside the circle."
"Some of the circles will overlap," I said.
"When they do, you extend them concentrically—look it up—until each school has the required number." The Coach drew contentedly on his cigar.
"Who draws the circles?"
"The NCAA, of course. It'll take some study, but it'll be worth it because it'll make it easier to catch the cheaters. The NCAA loves to bust the cheaters." He chuckled. "But I digress. Besides cutting recruiting costs by a staggering amount, what would this do?"
He was up, absently examining the shelves of my library and extracting a small book of Milton's poems, which he began leafing through as he talked. "For one, it would give the coach at Duke a word in edgewise with the kid in Asheville who can throw a football 50 yards through a doughnut, but who ordinarily would be entertaining Darrell Royal and Joe Paterno this weekend. With less pressure, that blue-chipper might wind up playing before the home folks and making Mama proud.
"The pressure on a kid today is unbelievable. Every coach I know, when he's had a couple, admits how hypocritical the system is. An ex-SMU star told a Texas paper about the money that flies around—if you can call under the table a flight. His advice to youth was, Take it and run.' A Pac-8 coach told me that when he was a high-schooler in Los Angeles he got so sick of seeing recruiters hanging around he would call home first to make sure the coast was clear. Elvis Peacock's folks had to change their phone number three or four times.
"Now that reflects on all of us. And it continues ad nauseam, because the NCAA doesn't make it tough enough on the crooks. If it was me, I'd ban the player and the coach for life! Put the fear of God in all of 'em! Throw the rascals out!"
He slammed Milton down on my desk top, causing the pencil jar to jump. He stood mute for a second.
"Sounds drastic," I said.
"Nothing is too good for the profession," sighed the Coach, and sat down again.
"But what if the boy in Asheville wants to go to Notre Dame, Coach? Or West Point? What if—"
"What time did you get to bed last night, Scribe? I said physically. I didn't say a coach couldn't write a letter, or make a phone call, or vice versa. Or get some film shipped in. If a kid in San Diego wants to go to Notre Dame, let Dan Devine write him a letter. Dan likes to write letters. A 13-cent stamp beats a thousand-dollar air fare. And it wouldn't hurt to have the final offer in writing and notarized, too."
"What about the service academies?"
"Waive the rule. They've got enough problems, as it is."
I offered a match to rekindle his cigar, and he went on more calmly.
"Now for the nuts and bolts. Parity isn't just a police action. A school that wants to be up there has to ask itself if it wants to pay the price. What are its vested interests? How important is it to compete with the best, to vie for bowl games, a TV spot? Even the national championship? Does it want those things, or does it want to be in the Ivy League? And does it have a stadium that seats 35,000, 40,000?"
"What does the stadium have to do with it?"
"Everything. A school with a 15,000-seat stadium will never be compatible with a school that has a 70,000-seat stadium. It can't hack the compensation ratio. It can only make real money on the road, playing big-draw schools, because most big-draw schools won't waste their time playing in a small stadium. Figure it up: if take-home pay were $7 a ticket, teams participating in a 70,000-seat sellout would share $490,000. In a 15,000-seat stadium, they would share $105,000.
"Of course, stadia size won't matter, either, if the rich continue to make power plays on the poor and forget they're all in this together. Alabama put it on one school last year because the school was in a slump and wasn't drawing at home, though it had a big stadium. Alabama said either come to our place or we cancel. Not very nice, and very shortsighted. The teams that are down need some big home games to pull themselves back up. Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State tried to pressure Indiana this year, tried to make Indiana switch those three games out of Bloomington. Indiana said no. Good for them. It may be absurd for a school with a small stadium to crave a home game with a team as powerful as Michigan, but it wouldn't wreck Michigan's budget—those people are crawling in dough—to play before 35,000 fans at another institution once in a while. The superpowers have to exercise some sufferance. Noblesse oblige, damn it!"
He was up again, waving Milton around.
"Television has done this—it's made moneygrubbers of the big teams," he said. "Like a friend of mine in Kansas City says, the pot gets bigger and bigger and the wheel keeps going faster and faster, like a centrifuge, throwing off those who can't hang on. Television rights have tripled in the last 10 years—to a record $18 million. ABC has good reason to be generous, of course. The Nielsen ratings were up 12%. So this year, teams in a nationally televised game will share half a million bucks, and in regional games, $380,000. That kind of money can float an entire athletic program.
"But what happens? The teams that become TV stars want it all for themselves. Like dogs in the manger. The more they get the better they get. The better they get the more ABC wants them. The more TV dates they get the more money they get the better they get. Round and round. Since the 1960s, the rich have become outrageously rich, and the poor fight for scraps. It's what my friend calls the Vidiot Factor. It will wreck half the teams in Division I if somebody doesn't stop it."
"How do you?" I asked, enthralled.
"Number one, everybody must adopt the Big Eight's plan for dispersing television and bowl money. Anytime a Big Eight team makes the tube or gets a bowl check, it goes into the league pot, to be shared equally. The exposure, the value of being 'on,' is extra reward enough—no telling how great. Certainly Nebraska hasn't suffered. Most conferences already have a share-the-wealth plan, but there is no continuity. The Pac-8 has the worst: the two competing teams share 40% in a national game and 60% in a regional, then each gets another one-eighth of the rest, along with the other six teams in the conference. By the time a check reaches Oregon it's about big enough to treat the team to a Burger King.
"Next thing you do is balance the major conferences numerically. Rearrange the floor plan. Make all of them 10 or 11 teams strong, so that the sharing is not only equal among the teams within the leagues but between teams in different leagues."
"Rearrange the floor plan?"
"Put Georgia Tech back in the Southeastern Conference and Miami of Ohio in the Big Ten, providing Miami agrees to add some seats. Miami already knows how to beat the Big Ten teams, it just needs stadium parity. Add South Carolina, East Carolina, Virginia Tech and West Virginia to the Atlantic Coast. Put North Texas State and Memphis State in the Southwest—Memphis is right across the river from Arkansas. Add Tulsa and the Air Force to the Big Eight. Move Arizona and Arizona State out of the Western Athletic Conference and into the Pacific-8 where they really belong, and balance the WAC by adding San Jose State—which has a new stadium in the works—San Diego State, Utah State and Pacific. Now do you begin to see the pattern? Now with the addition of a 12th game—"
"A what? Wait a minute, Coach. You're way ahead again. I don't see the pattern. I don't see parity in TV money. Two or three conferences dominate the scheduling, and the independents don't share with anybody. Notre Dame takes it home in bushel baskets."
The Coach squinted at me and grinned.
"You bring up points I should have made, Scribe, but I have not overlooked them. With the conferences thus aligned, it would be no skin off ABC's nose to give each one at least two dates a year, national or regional. That wouldn't preclude the viewers' getting their fill of the USCs and Texases. Then you wind up with a group of 11 major independents—Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Penn State, Miami of Florida, Syracuse, Florida State, Boston College, Tulane, Southern Mississippi, Army and Navy. When any of these schools gets a TV game, it has to split with the others."
"Notre Dame would go through the roof."
"Let 'em. We're talking about parity, the good of the whole. It's to Notre Dame's benefit to keep teams like Tulane and Pitt from going under in off years, 'off meaning years they're off television."
"You left out some schools. What about Ohio University and Villanova and—"
"They're kidding themselves, with the schedules they play and the stadiums they have. Go back to what I said about vested interests. But I'd still keep the door open—review the roster annually."
"I think I'm getting it, Coach. But did you say 12th game? I don't...."
"Right now. This year. Twelve games across the board. We used to play nine, then went to 10. The only holdout was Woody Hayes. Hayes was a bulwark against progress. Now everybody plays 11. The fans love it, the players love it. Even Woody plays 11 now. So much for bulwarks.
"Why 12 games? First, because the college season is way too short. The pros play 20 to 23 games, including exhibitions, and they're older and fatter and less gung-ho. Bud Wilkinson says it's tragic the way we turn December over to the pros just when our fans have their appetites whetted. Second, play 12 because all that a lot of programs need to get over the fiscal hump is an extra payday. And you wouldn't really have to extend the season. Just about every school has an open date between the first of September and the first of December. Fill 'em up. Play somebody like Alabama and it's a big payday. Administrators would love it, being bottom-line happy. And the players would rather play than practice. Practice is a bore. And the coaches just get more paranoid when they have an extra week to think."
I lifted my hand to make a point, but he ignored it.
"You're going to say the academicians would complain because it would interfere with semester exams, or some other foolishness. Well, football players do better in class during the season. Check it out. Nobody complains about basketball teams playing 27 games. Nobody complains about baseball teams playing 60 or more. No, they complain about football because all football does is finance everybody else." He was up again, pacing.
"I wasn't going to say that, Coach," I said hurriedly. "I was going to say scheduling takes time. Some matches are made eight, 10 years in advance."
"Do you think I don't know that?" the Coach said testily. He stuck his thumbs into the band of his Pierre Cardin slacks and hitched them up. "Do you think I got those stock options and that split-level on the 13th fairway by making Xs that couldn't get around the Os? Scheduling is the easy part. You simply play your natural rival twice."
"You do what?"
"I knew I'd be repeating myself. Listen, Scribe. Who does Clemson like to play more than anyone else? South Carolina, of course. The only thing Stanford fans would like better than the Cal-Stanford game is two Cal-Stanford games. Everybody has a team they love to hate. Play 'em twice, home-and-home. Like they do in a lot of sports."
"I think I've got it," I said.
"C'mon," said the Coach, and turned smartly toward the door. "I know a place where the luncheon quiche is light as a feather and the martinis will dry your sinuses. I also want to show you the new Mercedes I'm breaking in. Triton gold."
I followed him obediently, making a librarian's mental note that he was taking Milton with him.