Most head football coaches do not die on the job, except in the gradual sense, defeat by withering defeat. Neither do they usually retire, clutching an engraved watch and mumbling banalities to a wet-eyed audience at the downtown Ramada Inn. The vast majority do not even get the chance to withdraw from the job into a warm, safe athletic directorship. For every one who does, there are a hundred who wind up selling real estate. Starting out, a new head coach has two things in common with the head coach he has replaced: 1) an absolute belief that he can do the job, no matter how grave the odds (coaches laugh at odds; coaches are not realistic); and 2) the very good chance that he will not—and will get fired. In other words, it is a helluva way to make a living.
Here, then, is Craig Fertig. Age 34. Southern California-bred. Bright. Articulate. Been around. Hobnobbed in school with people named Frank Sinatra Jr. Quarterbacked USC to a national championship in 1962. Starred in the Rose Bowl. Learned coaching and stand-up comedy at the knee of John McKay. Went over the wall with Tony Curtis (Spartacus), walked Vivien Leigh's dog (Ship of Fools) and taught Charlton Heston everything he knows about quarterbacking (Number One) as a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild. Fertig means "ready" in the German of his father (his mother is Irish).
So, what is Craig Fertig about to do this fall? Why, to head-coach the Oregon State football team. Corvallis is his new town, that onetime Prohibition stronghold where the Elks Club is still big and everybody plays cards at the country club on Wednesday night, and where the citizenry doesn't mind if you visit as long as you don't try to live there. Oregon State has won one conference championship (in 1964) since the Pacific Eight was founded and hasn't been to the Rose Bowl in 11 years. It was locked out last year by having the bad luck to lose 10 of its 11 games. Say hello to the head coaching business, Craig Fertig.
Here, too, is Ron Meyer. Age 35. Handsome, outgoing and independently poor. But on his way, it would seem, to being rich. An Eagle Scout. A walk-on football player who made good at Purdue, where he was a rara avis: his grades were better than his football. Won the Big Ten Medal of Honor for scholarship and, eventually, a master's degree in history. Did time as an assistant coach at Purdue, was a scout for the Dallas Cowboys and served three years as a small-college coach in that hotbed of athletic fulfillment, Las Vegas. At Las Vegas, he was instructed not to make long distance calls without clearing them with the president's office. Meyer studied military history; he believes in predestination. He does not think it inconceivable that he will be Coach of the Year someday.
September 5, 1976
What Meyer is the coach of this year is the Southern Methodist University football team in Dallas. SMU won a national championship in 1935 and later gave the world Doak Walker, Kyle Rote and casts of thousands in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday afternoons, 1947-50. SMU has lived off those glories ever since, as if in a protracted opium dream, and fired coaches who did not bring them back. The latest, Dave Smith, lasted three years and was "let go" last January. Attendance at the Cotton Bowl got so bad the SMU publicity department quit putting the figures in the press book. The Mustangs were playing in the shadow of the professional Cowboys and, worse, in the leg-irons of an NCAA probation for having the brass to pay their players. The week Ron Meyer was signed to be the 11th SMU coach, the NCAA extended the probation until 1977. Step right up to the big time, Ron Meyer.
And here is Douglas N. Barfield. Age 40. Made it to middle age a teetotaler. Soft brown eyes, jug-handle ears, a self-deprecating manner. Barfield describes himself over the chicken and peas at banquets as a "warm speaker." Asked what he means by a warm speaker, Barfield says, "Not so hot." Bar-field's next-door neighbor and closest friend growing up in Grove Hill, Ala. (pop. 1,825) was David Mathews. David became president of the University of Alabama and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Barfield became a 160-pound quarterback at Mississippi Southern ("Auburn told me I was too small; they were probably right"), a high school coach for eight years ("I learned to line the field on Friday afternoons") and an assistant coach at Mississippi Southern, Clemson and—finally—Auburn.
The only head-coaching job Doug Bar-field ever applied for was at West Point in 1974. He did not get the job but said he did not expect to. "What would they do at West Point with a slow-talking Southern boy?" The opportunity of becoming a head coach had apparently passed when he was suddenly faced with the offer to succeed Ralph (Shug) Jordan, the resident legend at Auburn—25 years on the job, national and conference championships, bowl games, etc. Everybody who knew anything about coaching told Barfield what a fool he would be to follow a legend. "What you want," he was advised, time and time again, "is to be the coach who follows the coach who follows the legend." Barfield listened to the good advice—and accepted the job. Last fall, as a lame duck, Jordan had his worst season in 23 years: 3-6-2. Auburn football watchers said the talent he left behind was "the leanest in years." Take it away, Coach Barfield.
And here, finally, is John David Crow. At 41, the best known of the four. Big, blond, rugged good looks only slightly impaired by a paralysis (from childhood) of the left side of his face. Robert Mitchurn should have grown up to look like John David Crow. Louisiana-born and bred. Was an All-America and won the Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M under the young Bear Bryant, who said watching Crow on the football field was like watching a grown man play with children. A 1,000-yard rusher in pro football and an All-Pro with the Cardinals and 49ers. "The shiftiest big man" Otto Graham ever saw. Quit to be an assistant coach at Alabama, to catch Bryant's act from the other side ("I don't want Coach Bryant's job," said Crow, "I just want one like it"). Back to assist at Cleveland and San Diego, getting the pros out of his system.
Bryant once singled out John David Crow as one of the few men he would unqualifiedly endorse for any job. Crow's job as the first Heisman winner to become a head coach will be to keep the people of Monroe, La. from expecting him to take Northeast Louisiana University to the Orange Bowl this fall. Northeast hired Crow as athletic director and head coach, a bargain at $27,500 a year. With an athletic budget that would compare favorably with, say, McNeese State's, and a little old 8,340-seat stadium, Northeast climbed—tentatively—into Division I of the NCAA last fall, winning four games. Now, with Crow, it has raised its sights further. Monroe can scarcely believe its good fortune. "What do we call you?" new admirers ask Crow. "My mother always called me John David," Crow answers. "Well, I want you to know, John David, that I never told an Aggie joke in my life." Welcome home, John David.
Four coaches starting out—Fertig, Meyer, Barfield, Crow. Four ostensibly on the same mission. Four with the wind at their backs. They are the celebrities at every gathering, the beneficiaries of every glad hand. They have one thing in common: they have not lost a game.
Craig Fertig said the Oregon State offer was his first to be a head coach, though not his first brush with employment in the state. As backfield coach of the Portland Storm, World Football League, R.I.P., for the abbreviated 1975 season, Fertig had a $65,000 contract, of which he received $5,000, and a $2,500 moving bill the Storm apparently overlooked when subsiding. Fertig went back to USC, for which he had set passing records as a player and which he had helped coach for almost a decade.
It did not surprise him, despite his Portland adventures, that he found the Oregon State offer appealing. "A man can get used to breathing fresh air," he said. "And when somebody says 'Good morning' around here, I don't have to wonder what they mean." Nevertheless, it apparently surprised Oregon State people that a worldly, witty young man like Fertig would take the job. While he protested, "I love it—honest," they apologized for their inability to be Los Angeles. They apologized for being in the sticks (rival recruiters call Corvallis "Corn Valley"). They apologized for the steady, numbing winter rains that seldom turn to snow but often chill the bones of regulars at Parker Stadium. They apologized for Parker Stadium, with its 41,000 seats. They apologized for their school being 100 years old and virtually devoid of tradition. They apologized for the alumni's unfailing ability to think small. "When I talk of winning 12 games," said Fertig, "they talk of winning six."
Oregon State moved to oust Dee Andros as head coach before the 1975 season, mostly because the team had won only seven games in three years. The athletic board deliberated seven hours before granting Andros a stay of execution, but the team sealed Andros' fate with a 1-10 year and an average home game attendance of less than 17,000. Andros didn't wait for another board meeting. He resigned.
A round, country-fried hunk of ham, Andros got to be known as the Great Pumpkin (State's principal color is orange; orange is the backbone of Dee's wardrobe) when his teams were regular spoilers in the Pac-8 in the late 1960s. Though he lost more than he won and never got to the Rose Bowl in 11 years, Andros made friends. They were behind him last December, helping him get kicked up, instead of out, into the athletic directorship, from which he gratefully hired Fertig in December. "Craig, old boy," he told Fertig, "this fat old neck is in your hands."
Fertig and Andros have become fast friends, though socio-physio opposites. The ruddy-faced son of a ruddier-faced Huntington Park, Calif. police chief, Fertig is more yam than pumpkin, more rock 'n' roll than country. He also does not play cards. "You don't play cards!" new friends in Corvallis ask him, as if that were a symptom rather than a choice. "Dee and Tommy played cards." Fertig is reminded that Tommy Prothro got the Beavers to the Rose Bowl—once, in 1964—and was a bridge-playing fool. Fertig is willing to dabble at golf, but as a devout indoorsman does not own a rifle, a shotgun or a fishing rod, essentials in every Oregon home. His attempts to tame the wilderness have been inauspicious. He tried sawing a limb from a tree in the backyard of his new house in Corvallis the other day, and the limb bowed and whipped him across the nose, knocking him cold.
The house is a $68,000 split-level. Though it was not part of the deal—head coaches are given new houses only when they've won a few games—Fertig said he got some "mortgage help," along with a salary of $28,000 and a Chevrolet Caprice.
More important to his success were the things Fertig got that Andros hadn't had, and that Dee, from above, was glad to help him get. He was allowed to add an eighth coach to the staff, partly to help recruit. Assistants' salaries were increased. Almost $100,000 in office and training-room facilities were approved, including a $25,000 fitness machine for the weight room. The recruiting budget was almost tripled, to $85,000, it being recognized that Oregon's sparse pickings make it imperative that recruiters forage down the interstates for potential Beavers, half of whom are usually imported. Permission was granted to spruce up the uniforms ("They been looking at my black helmets too long," said Andros). There was a vague promise of a future stadium addition, to bring capacity to the 60,000-seat range.
Dr. Robert MacVicar, the school president, explained this sudden vigorous outpouring of support. "There is no value in being the everlasting doormat," he said. "We intend to do what it takes." The school's athletic program ($1.9 million this academic year) had been living off reserves from past successes and had dipped into the red the last two years. The effect was galvanic. "I can talk to people until I'm blue in the face about our nuclear reactor—and get polite applause. If I talk football, they not only listen, they talk back."
For his part, Fertig tacked up his autographed pictures of Charlton Heston, O. J. Simpson, John Wayne and John McKay and went to work. "Five days after he got here, he had his eight coaches signed and on the road," said Andros. "Now that's impressive." Fertig quickly signed 30 athletes, 20 from junior colleges. Andros said he knew Fertig was doing something right because he got a complaint call from Colorado about his recruiting.
"They said I was 'hiding' a boy," said Fertig. "He wasn't hidden. He was staying at his coach's house. Of course, I knew where he was. I just didn't tell Colorado. The hell with them."
For Oregon State Publicist Hal Cowan, Fertig was a promoter's dream. Wherever two or three people were gathered, Fertig gladly dropped in. "I got him set up with 15 golf tournaments in a row, to play and make speeches," said Cowan. "I called it a terrific way to sell the program. He called it the Bataan Death March."
"He had me speaking morning, noon and night," said Fertig. "How do you bring yourself to be entertaining in a Chinese restaurant at 6:45 in the morning?"
Fertig's appealing banter is laced with McKayisms, delivered in the waspish McKay style. "I told them about my first season at USC," Fertig said. "We're playing Ohio State and I'm all set to watch a great game from my spot on the bench when Coach McKay says, 'Fertig, you're starting.' Pete Beathard had been hurt in the warmup. We recovered a fumble on their eight-yard line after the kickoff. I warmed up with a left-handed center, but our regular was a righty. The first snap pops up in the air and out to the 21, where Ohio State recovers. In those days we played both ways, and I'm still on the field, thinking, 'How 'n hell am I gonna get out of this?' The first play, they run a sweep and I throw myself at the blockers and get knocked out. The play goes for a touchdown. When they help me off, Coach McKay grabs my arm and walks beside me. My mother's in the stands, thinking how nice to have a coach who cares. What he's saying is, 'Fertig, you son of a bitch, if that guy hadn't gotten you I'd have killed you!' "
From the moment he and his pretty blonde wife Nancy were introduced at halftime of an Oregon State basketball game in January, Fertig has ridden a wave of approbation. "Everybody's behind him," said Publicist Cowan. "The press, the alumni, the fans." A group of girls called the "Orange Aids" painted the locker room. Fans waved freshly stenciled "Orange Crunch" handkerchiefs. A 20-page slick-cover promotion booklet featuring Fertig rolled off the presses. In the first four months of the year, the Beaver Club, which annually contributes 14% of the athletic department's operating budget, equaled the funds raised all last year. In a lounge in Portland, a man walked up to Fertig's table and handed him a check for $1,000, "to help finance the weight room."
"He's not the first," said Fertig. "We're pushing now. They might not come around later on."
"What we have to do is take advantage of the enthusiasm," said Cowan. "Put some people back in the stands. Make it so it'll be a mistake not to be in Corvallis on Sept. 4 [for the home opener with Kansas]. Sell that son of a gun out!"
"Right on," said Fertig.
In the booklet, Fertig is quoted: "Coaching is teaching, and taking care of people who take care of you...." He promises to help players with academic needs, marital problems, summer jobs. He says he is against athletic dorms. "I want kids to experience more than just being football players," he says.
On the surface, his approach on the field in spring practice was as light and solicitous as his rhetoric. He said that "everybody starts even—I won't even look at last year's films. I'm throwing 'em out. We're going to elevate, not demote." Workouts seldom went over an hour and 45 minutes. "You can't force kids to work themselves to a frazzle anymore," he said. "It's no longer a stigma to quit."
The players responded. "He doesn't talk like a coach," said one. "He knows your name," said another. When some not-so-eager Beavers failed to run off the field after an unusually rigorous workout, thereby breaking one of the few rules Fertig imposed, teammates routed them out of the showers and made them go back and do it again.
By contrast, his coaches "worked like hell," Fertig said. Until housing was secured, seven of them, Fertig included, occupied the honeymoon suite of the Town and Country Motel. "We had six beds. The last guy in slept on the floor."
On a recent drive to Portland for an appearance, Fertig told Cowan how much Corvallis had grown on him. He said it had been easy to alter his recruiting pitch. "I used to sell 'em on wearing the garnet and gold and running down that ramp into the Coliseum. Now I tell them they can play right away here, and they can't get this"—waving his hand at the woodlands—"in the big city."
He had just gotten a call that morning from one of his assistant coaches, Ed Sowash, with news of the signing of a split end in California. "I called the boy's mother and told her how tickled I was, and how we'd take good care of her boy. She said, 'You better be able to cook good, then.' I gave Sowash the day off."
Publicist Cowan said it wouldn't hurt to point out to future recruits that Corvallis wasn't the dead end rivals liked to make it. He said after some research he'd found you could get a beer for a dime at Mother's Mattress Factory on Tuesday night, 70¢ pitchers at Murphy's on Wednesday (with free peanuts) and all the "double-dribbles" (two for the price of one) you wanted at the Thunderbird on Friday.
At that moment Fertig pulled past a car with an incandescent bumper sticker, and began to laugh. The sticker read: DON'T CALIFORNICATE OREGON.
Ron Meyer said he is a name-dropper. "You mention 1,000 guys in football, I've met 700 of them," he said. "I pick up the blue book and it's old home week. I don't stand around and say, 'Hey, I'm Ron Meyer,' but I know where Fairmont State is, and when I meet a guy from Alabama I ask him, 'How's old Dude Hennessy? Tell Dude I said hello.' " Ron Meyer said he is also a status seeker, a condition spawned by the dreams of a driven youth and a voracious reading habit. His literary tastes run to military biography. He treasures a book on Rommel sent him by Bud Wilkinson. With it, he can drop a name and make a military point at the same time. He thinks MacArthur should be required reading.
"They say war is for generals and historians, but I read that stuff and I think, like Patton, that was predestined. I've wanted to coach since I was in the ninth grade. Red Blaik was my hero. And Zuppke and Hayes. I was keeping charts and playbooks when I was 15 years old. I can see myself as Coach of the Year some day."
The future Coach of the Year is a short, button-nosed, freewheeling dynamo of a man with flashing eyes, a modish shag haircut, slacks-and-sweater combos and two-tone patent-leather shoes. "Ron likes to dress up a little," said his second wife Cindy, who has given him two daughters to go with the two sons from a previous marriage. "He had those high-heeled boots before anybody. He also likes cars."
When Meyer went to coach in Las Vegas in 1973, he was picked up for his interview in a dusty old Volkswagen. "Two years later I was driving a new Thunderbird." Now, at SMU, happiness is a maroon Cadillac Coupe DeVille, with a white opera top. He said maybe you shouldn't mention that, SMU being such a conservative place. He was reminded that the Cadillac is not invisible.
Flashy appearances aside, beneath all the chrome and needlework lives an intense, hard-driving ambition. Meyer said he can identify with men—football coaches, generals—who have had to come out of the rough to make something of themselves. He recollects his background: A big-family, low-income upbringing in Columbus, Ohio. His father a truck driver. His every childhood move calculated to get him somewhere. Up. Out. He says the only reason he stayed in the Boy Scouts so long was that it gave him ushering privileges at Ohio State football games.
In high school he captained his football, basketball and baseball teams, and presided over his class from the ninth through the 12th grades. At Purdue he was the classic walk-on: from nowhere to the starting lineup and a 5.2 grade average on a 6.0 scale. Then to coaching the Purdue backfield and scouting for the Cowboys before talking his way into the Nevada, Las Vegas job.
The Volkswagen reception hardly fazed him. His approach then, as now, was slam-bang. He did not rule by committee. "Councils of war breed timidity and defeatism," he said, quoting MacArthur. "I went after 'em."
On the first day of practice, the Las Vegas quarterback quit after one lap. Two assistant coaches threatened to do the same. It was 125° and new shoes had worn blisters on their feet. There was no trainer to turn to (the budget didn't allow for one), no air-conditioned office to repair to.
Meyer began with 117 players, including holdovers and conscripts, and in order to cut down to the 72 scholarships he was allowed, ran a shuttle service to the Las Vegas airport. "We had to make regular runs out there just to be sure none of the good players were slipping away with the bad," he said. He wound up with 60 players.
He offered a money-back guarantee if a ticket buyer didn't like the games. He walked from his home to the stadium to prove it could be done when Vegas fans complained that the stadium was remote. He called sportswriters about offending stories, then invited them over for a beer and a round of golf. He suspended his best player, Mike Thomas, the NFL Rookie of the Year last season with the Redskins, for cursing an assistant, then reinstated him. When attendance fell off to 5,000, Meyer challenged the whole town. "What Las Vegas needs," he announced, "is a kick in the butt." The next week's game drew 13,000. A football team that had lost 10 games in 1972 went 8-3, 11-0, 7-4.
While this irresistible force was building in the West, SMU was languishing in Dallas. The glory days had long gone from the Hilltop. In 1975, SMU's record under Dave Smith dropped to 4-7. Some of its honor had faded earlier when it was nabbed by the NCAA for paying members of the specialty teams and giving one player an apartment rent-free.
A freshman player died of meningitis, and the team was placed in quarantine for two weeks. The students were openly critical of the program and came to SMU games in the Cotton Bowl in trickles. Crowds, once 60,000 a game, dipped to under 20,000. The student paper charged that Smith, confining the team in an athletic dormitory, alienated it from the campus. His favorite response to any question, said the paper, was "No comment." Under fire, Smith resigned.
But if SMU did not want Smith, no one seemed to want SMU, either. Johnny Majors, Lou Holtz, Hank Stram and Darryl Rogers turned the job down. Ron Meyer got a friend to mention his name. Eventually, he got a call, and Athletic Director Dick Davis came to see him. Meyer leafed through his ploybook and thought it would be cool to show up a little late for the meeting. He arrived at the Vegas airport, in his glistening T-bird, 15 minutes late. Davis hardly noticed. He had already been there an hour, because of a time mix-up, and had lost $80 to the slot machines.
Under such dire circumstances are often forged holy bonds, or at least ones that get the crusade cranked up. Meyer signed in late January. He was given a five-year package which, with a television deal and other fringe benefits, immediately tripled his $20,000 Las Vegas income. Ron and Cindy and the children moved into a $90,000 house.
Davis said what attracted Meyer to him, and vice versa, was exactly the chemistry SMU's tired body had been craving. "Ron Meyer is merchandisable," Davis declared. "He's young, he's intelligent, he's a charmer. He can talk to the kid on the street or the president of the bank. But, number one, he's a builder. He proved that at Las Vegas. Successful coaches are builders. He's only 35, but he has the mentality of a 45-year-old."
"Hey, not so fast," said Meyer, smiling and holding up his hands, stretching them out of his powder-blue cardigan.
"For 20 years, the worst merchandising in college football was done at SMU," said Davis. "The first question people still ask is, 'Where's Doak? Where's Kyle?' That was 25 years ago! We've had Ray Berry, Don Meredith, Jerry Levias—a lot of guys since then. But people still talk about Doak and Kyle.
"I'm no coach. I'm here to run a $2 million business, the athletic department. I didn't leave 24 years with Merrill Lynch to preside over the death of SMU football. Everybody around here likes to blame the Cowboys, but it doesn't wash. Dallas is 2½ times bigger than it was in 1947. There's plenty enough people to support us both. Dallas is a management town, success oriented. It won't support mediocrity. But when Texas and Oklahoma play here, you can't buy a seat. Now we've got a guy"—he pointed his pipe at Meyer—"who can cope with Darrell Royal. We haven't had that before.
"But you can't reverse 17 years of decadence overnight. Ron has no pressure to win right away. He's got a long-term contract. In 1977 we play Ohio State here. That's the one we'll hit, Ohio State. The key game in SMU's future. For now, our biggest draw will be curiosity. People coming out to see what Ron can do."
When Davis paused to relight his pipe, Meyer said, "It's a hairy edge. Coaches get contracts in years, alumni measure them in months. We've got to sell some tickets, but we can't promise more than we can deliver. One of the writers picked us to finish ninth out of nine in the Southwest Conference. I told him I didn't know if I liked him or hated him, but I could guarantee him we'd do better than ninth."
Later, Meyer joined a Dallas Ford dealer and two other men for a round of golf at the Preston Trail club. Between shots, Meyer said he had prescribed some strong Las Vegas-style medicine for the SMU team in the spring. The Mustang practices ran from 2:30 to past six almost daily. He said he had had to jerk a few players around, grabbing them by the jersey and ordering them to shape up—" 'Dammit,' I said, 'I'm gonna make you a football player if it kills me.' " Laggards and those who committed procedural sins (missing meetings, being late) were invited to partake in postpractice "Mustang Reminders," a diabolical Meyer-inspired exercise in which the convicted must run up and down the field, flopping chest-first on the ground every five yards.
One of his coaches, Meyer said, suggested they should ease up a little.
"I told him, 'No way.' I said, 'We're going to beat TCU in that opening game if we have to drop the stadium on 'em. We're going to win because we're sewer rats.' "
The coach asked him what a sewer rat was. Meyer said, "I told him it was a rat you can't kill. I caught one once in Columbus and put it in a box. It wouldn't die. It survived everything. A human being can do that, too. DDT in his system. Pain. Disease. What a man does in wartime, the heroics, is a good example. Churchill said, 'Just doing your best isn't good enough. You have to do what's necessary.'
"I'm usually the good guy to my players," he said. "I let my assistants be the bad guys. I have iced watermelon on the field in the middle of practices, Dr Pepper in the dressing room. I sweat with 'em, get close to 'em. They don't call me Ron, but I give them a lot of freedom. No training table. No curfew. I don't believe in athletic dorms. If a boy wants to study till 4 a.m., I'm not going to send somebody around to turn off the light. They had that here, and it didn't work.
"But I told the players in the spring, 'I'm not going to deny you the right to be great. I'm not going to have you sitting in a bar 20 years from now saying he was too easy.' Kids are crying for discipline today. They don't have the answer, but they think Woody Hayes and Darrell Royal and Bear Bryant do. Did they respond? Hell, yes, they responded. We only had two quit. Peer pressure wouldn't let the others quit. This is the Southwest Conference—a way of life."
Meyer got out of the cart to line up a shot. The Ford dealer, who had played behind Rote in 1947, said he had not seen so much enthusiasm for SMU football "since the coaching days of Matty Bell." He said that from what he could gather "Ron did the best recruiting job on the Hill in 23 years. He even had the president entertaining a quarterback he flew in from Boston. It's amazing."
The blade of Meyer's seven-iron flashed, and the ball took off low toward the green, skidded, bounced high and rolled to within three feet of the pin. Meyer held up his club and free hand in a touchdown salute, his handsome brown face splitting across stark white teeth. When he got back in the cart, he said, "The jury is still out on Ron Meyer. No one has named their kids after me. No one has professed great love. No one has carried me off the field on their shoulders. I'd like those things." He smiled. "Maybe I'm just a total bastard. You know, they call me the Archie Bunker of the staff. You suppose Archie's in the Blue Book?"
There was a time, Doug Barfield said, sipping coffee during the cocktail hour at Stoker's in downtown Auburn, when he thought about chucking it and going home to Grove Hill and his father's furniture business. His father always wanted him to, he said. The business had a lot of appeal. Victory on a football field is illusory; a Tubbs and Baker end table, if not a joy forever, is at least money in the bank. He was at Clemson at the time, he said. "I talked it over with everybody. The kids [Gary, now 16; Kathy, 14] said, 'Oh, no, Dad. We want you to coach.' The thing was, I didn't want to wake up one morning a 55-year-old assistant coach somewhere."
The early-evening fashion show had begun and the restaurant hostess, who had changed to a pants suit for the first act, paused at the table to model and say hello. Barfield nodded politely and returned the greeting.
"I wrestled with it again my first year at Auburn. My freshman team didn't win a game. I talked to my old coach, to my wife's parents—they're only three hours away. I asked Coach Jordan his plans. Don't make this sound ridiculous, but I have never feared for my job. It's just that I'd hate to go back to Grove Hill and say I'd failed."
He said he knew how those who followed coaches like Leahy, Blaik, Neyland, Dodd and Wilkinson had made historical crash dives, never to be heard from again. "Every coach believes he can do it, though. I didn't have time to think about it. President Philpott said, 'Come on over,' and I said, 'Yessir,' and before I knew it I was the new coach. But even if I'd had three months, I'd still have to say, well, it's the head coaching job at Auburn. Too many people in the country would love to have it."
He said he thought being in "the Auburn mold" might have decided in his favor. Like Jordan, an Alabaman. And loyal. And a man who could do the things that were necessary while still keeping at eye level with those around him. "A lot of coaches are better qualified than I am," he said, "but Auburn folks are different that way. When you go 10 and 1, it doesn't matter where you're from. When you're 2 and 9, you better be their kind of fellow."
One man thought by many to be more qualified was right there on the staff. Assistant Head Coach Paul Davis had been at Auburn for the last eight of his 28 coaching years and previously was head coach at Mississippi State. With that little meanness born of partisanship, it was suggested around town that Davis' personal habits—he takes a drink now and then—may have had something to do with it. President Harry Philpott happens to share Barfield's religious convictions and does not imbibe. It is more likely that Davis' age—he is 54—was the deciding factor. Jordan, at least for public consumption, kept hands off, except to say he "wanted somebody from my staff."
"I had mixed emotions," said Barfield. I knew Paul would be hurt, so I talked to him. He's a good friend, the best I had my first year here. He understood—I certainly didn't hire myself. And, of course, he's on my staff now. But this was the kind of thing that didn't hit me until I got back home and thought it over. I knew I had Coach Jordan's big shoes to fill, and maybe I'm dense or something, but I didn't realize how demanding the job would be: the hours from home, the abuse a coach can take, the phone calls, the criticism. You have to be plenty strong."
He said he told his wife Betty that she didn't have to put on any airs, "suddenly become a big entertainer or something. She's conservative, not real outgoing. She doesn't like that kind of thing. I assured her I didn't want her to. But when I started bringing recruits around, she was two-for-two helping sign 'em."
A burly older man walked by the table. Barfield opened his mouth to say something but held back as the man kept walking, looking straight ahead.
"That's the toughest part of all," Bar-field said. "I'll never get over that. He was one of the coaches I had to fire. I had said we'd keep the entire staff, but when the NCAA passed the new limits, and I brought in a couple I wanted, I had to let three or four go. One opened a clothing store, another went to work for George Wallace, so I guess they're out of coaching. I don't think any of them wanted to leave. That man over there is bitter. I know that. I don't blame him. I hope I never have to do anything like that again."
He said he knew from the beginning he could count on Jordan as an ally. But Jordan's presence, looming everywhere, can be a fairly suffocating thing. Shug still parks out front, in the specially marked parking stall directly at the door of the athletic offices. He has an office in the building for as long as he wants it. The football stadium across the street bears his name. For a time, Alabama columnists wrung their editorial hands almost daily, wondering "How can there be Auburn football without Shug?" They marveled at the fact that Barfield could order a meal in the campus dining room without drawing a second look. Without, in fact, being able to get the girl writing the tab to spell his name correctly.
For what an Atlanta writer called "this thankless task" of legend-succeeding, Barfield nevertheless showed remarkable equanimity. "I know when I wear a mod suit people are going to say, 'Shug wouldn't do that.' And if they see me in a business suit, they'll say, 'Oh, looka there, he's trying to copy Coach Jordan.' But I'd be a fool not to copy some of the things he did. I can think of two right off: one, be a gentleman; two, win."
To that end, Barfield said, he hadn't made "a lot of promises," but he had gone to work. He had signed his allotted 30 freshman recruits before anyone else in the SEC, and had personally visited 20 of the first 28. He had been an active speech-maker. "I tried to go everywhere people wanted me," he said. "I have a hard time saying no, especially to the alumni. Next to the players, they're our most important people." He said he tried to eat at the players' dorm three or four times a week, rubbing elbows. He invited the seniors to his house for steaks and put on a team picnic at a lakeside cabin he rented. "I asked 'em to come to the office to see me, personally, to find out what might be bothering them. Is the food O.K.? The showers? I wanted them to look me in the eye and tell me how they felt."
His rules, he said, were no tougher than Jordan's, "But I'm not going to start by easing up. I want them to look and act decent. I don't know if it'll help us win, but the guy who'll throw trash on the floor will jump offsides in the fourth quarter. I believe that. Sloppiness can be a disease. Little things make big things."
Auburn football is always a financial winner, so there is no problem there, he said, but he'd like to do a few things with his share of the $2.2 million budget. He said he wanted to put up dressing-room signs that meant something. Add some carpet. Some piped-in music. Some new furniture in the dining hall. Some lights on the practice field. Maybe an all-weather bubble over a portion of the field.
For himself, he asked for less money than he was offered (he has a four-year $32,000 contract and a $14,000 television show). "My mother always said, 'Keep your nose clean and good things will happen.' I'd rather earn what I get. But that doesn't mean I don't intend to stay a while. We laid 300 feet of sewer line at our place the other day and planted some pecan trees."
In his new office, away from the heavy traffic he helped create, Shug Jordan held court for those who might want to hear about his 38 All-Americas and 12 bowl trips and championship games, or question his retirement. "I'm not a candidate for anything," said Shug. "I'm just going to sit in the corner and suck my thumb and enjoy my family. As Mrs. Jordan says, I raised everybody's children but my own." Speaking of Doug Barfield, Jordan leaned back in his chair contentedly and said, "Doesn't he project a wonderful image, though? Same age as I was when I started, and clean as a hound's tooth. Already has a feel for the job, too—the right demeanor, the strong inner fiber to go with the soft mannerisms. Right now the people are pleased as punch. Of course, the ultimate is winning. But I think Doug'll get his share."
Jordan's new office is bereft of memorabilia—no trophies, no plaques. Just one small sign on the wall behind his desk, bordered in black: "The moral of the quiet example/is to do the best you can./ Be proud of yourself, but remember/there is no indispensable man."
When W. L. (Jack) Howard, longtime mayor of Monroe, La., was pushing Northeast Louisiana University football a few years ago, he spun dreams of a packed 70,000-seat stadium (bigger, by conspicuous coincidence, than LSU's 67,720-seater) and thrilled his audiences with prospects of a Northeast Louisiana marching band that would just happen to number a few booming, clanging pieces more than LSU's. Having gotten on the bandwagon without knowing that much about football, Mayor Jack and his citizen's committee did not confuse most of the constituents, who correctly identified these dreams as pipe. Monroe, after all, was named after a steamboat. It was recalled, too, that Mayor Jack often had trouble distinguishing his Howard Brothers Discount Store from the City of Monroe, even before he was convicted in 1975 for unauthorized use of city property (his sentence was suspended). There was no mistaking his civic pride, however.
At the time, Northeast was playing in—and seldom filling—modest, unluxurious 8,340-seat Brown Stadium. The school itself is a baby. Founded in 1931 as a junior college and located along the DeSiard Bayou, the campus gets the full effect of the breezes that come in from the Olinkraft Paper Mill, and though it has the nation's second-largest building-construction school and third-largest school of pharmacy, its football program never won any prizes. It did not start playing the game at the four-year-college level until 1951.
But with the day approaching when NE-L would enter the privileged ranks of the NCAA's Division I, the state agreed to fund $6 million for a new stadium with a capacity of somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000. Not exactly what Mayor Jack envisioned, but a step up nonetheless. Because of the economy, when ground was broken last July the capacity of the projected stadium had been reduced to 15,000. It should be ready for 1978, when Northeast hopes to be playing a few teams like North Texas State.
Into this gap between dream and reality, NE-L brought John David Crow. Specifically, President Dwight D. (Del) Vines, a volunteer coach of the school's tennis team, a rail-thin realist who tries to dream his dreams in orderly sequence, brought in Crow. When Vines was ready to put the fire to Northeast's rocket, he did what any clear-thinking college president would do. He called Bear Bryant.
"There was a pause on the other end of the line, either because Bear didn't know me or because he was thinking," Vines said. "He said, 'I don't ordinarily recommend a pro player. They get fat and lazy and want all the money. But Crow's a 24-hour-a-day man. He's one of about five I'd say that about.'
"Crow had two other things going for him: he was a name, and he was a native. I didn't know him, but I was told he wasn't getting the satisfaction coaching pros he did coaching in college. I talked to John David on the phone. I said, 'I'll send you an application.' He said, 'Dr. Vines, I have never applied for a job.' That told me something.
"Crow's task here wasn't going to be easy by any means. The program was in shambles. The local schools felt ignored, the players complained about preferential treatment and abuse. We had negative reactions wherever we turned. There's nothing more sensitive in a community than the athletic program. If it has a bad rep, the university suffers. We were getting boys—I hate to say they were outlaws—but boys who couldn't make it at Oklahoma or LSU.
"Monroe is 130,000 people, and they all love football. There's no pro team, no big-college team around. We're it. And nothing does more to bring the community and the faculty and the students and the alumni together. Whether we like it or not, we can't realize our basic goals as a university without a respectable football team. They forget in a hurry how many doctors we've graduated, but they remember those football losses. I've had young people tell me, 'I'd like to go to Northeast, but your football team never wins anything. I'm going to LSU.' "
With Crow's arrival, said Dr. Vines, came "an enthusiasm we never had before." Leaflets and bumper stickers proliferated, proclaiming "the start of something big." The booster club went wild, relatively speaking. "People who used to give $100 were giving $1,000. Support doubled, tripled." A local bank ran a series of ads. Crow made 110 personal appearances. "Get some people together, and I'll talk," he said.
The boosters responded. John David himself raised money for six new scholarships. Local dealers provided cars for Crow and his staff. Crow talked an economics professor out of retirement and into the job of team academic adviser, at no pay. The Bayou DeSiard Country Club which, said Vines, "normally requires a man to open his veins to get in," welcomed Crow with open lockers.
The players, said Vines, loved John David's accent on discipline, "and, of course, so did I. Crow told me, 'Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I believe kids should go to class. I believe they should dress like they're going, and look like students. Is that old-fashioned?' I said, 'Yes, but I like it.'
"We were criticized by some for spending more money [The NE-L athletic budget is $750,000 this year, half of which is state funded], but in the end we have to think that with the support that's building we'll wind up spending less. Expectations may change according to how we do, but down the road I can see us in a minor bowl game, playing Tulsa and Memphis State, and maybe the second-division teams of the Southeastern Conference. Maybe increasing our stadium size to 40,000. We may never be an LSU or an Alabama, or make the Top 20, but the second 20—I wouldn't rule that out.
"I've given Crow his head. I believe in decentralization, and I don't believe in miracles. Maybe three years, maybe five."
In his second-floor office at old Brown Stadium, which he has had paneled and recarpeted since his arrival, behind a red-and-white plastic sign that identified him, John David Crow sat pondering these developments and decided they augured well.
He leaned forward and propped his elbows on the desk and put his fingertips together in front of his nose. He said he knew he wanted to be a college coach when he went to Alabama as an assistant, and saw "the gleam in those kids' eyes" when he got to them. He said it was the greatest experience of his life.
"I used to think I wanted to coach in the pros. But I didn't see that gleam at Cleveland or San Diego. The game had changed. Big money. Agents. The Browns had so-and-so"—he named a well-known back—"who was always running out of bounds [to avoid getting hit]. He said he couldn't afford to get hit. It made me want to throw up. I never ran out of bounds in my life. I never went to camp unsigned. I never had an argument about my contracts. I probably played for too little money, but the guys I played with played for fun.
"I knew if I ever got a college job I'd want a place like this. A simpler place, with tradition. My wife's from Arkansas, my kids were born in Arkansas and Texas. I was born 50 miles up the road in Marion. I've come full circle. I knew here I'd be in a place where I could tell a kid to cut his hair and shave his face and say yessir and nosir, and I'd get support doing it.
"People don't believe it when I say I would like nothing better than to spend the rest of my life as athletic director and head football coach at Northeast Louisiana. I did not take this job as a stepping stone. If I wanted to, I could have gone that route. But I don't even talk about levels. Every school's got the same problems, it's all in where you put the decimal. We're on the same level as anybody for teaching youngsters something, about life, about development. That's important to me. I've had all that other junk that goes with success. It's not important to me anymore."
Recruiting, he said, had been "tough." Northeast Louisiana is sparsely populated. There are 11 football-playing colleges in the state vying for players, six in Division I. In the past, Crow said, the recruiting budget was pared to the bone, "and when they ran out of money, they just stopped recruiting." He took a red pencil to budget priorities. "Big" teams on the schedule—Pacific, for example—had been guaranteed as much as $45,000 to come to Monroe. There was no chance to make that kind of money at the gate. "We'd be lucky to make $5,000. We took them off our schedule and paid the forfeit money. I'd rather play Memphis State up at their place for nothing than lose that kind of money here. We need it too badly. We'll play good teams, but let's go 11-0 first with the teams we're already playing. That'll fill the stadium.
"I don't care about stadium size," he said. "What concerns me—will it be a class facility? Some guys can put on a $20 suit and have class. Other people have to have a $200 suit. I don't care if we have 15,000 seats—if we fill them, you can bet we'll get more seats.
"People talk about going 'big time.' It'll be a long time. You got to do your knitting first. I want to go 11-0 this year. Then when I call somebody and say, 'My name's Crow,' they won't talk about the Heisman Trophy or Coach Bryant or the pros, they'll talk about Northeast Louisiana. Right now, we ain't scared nobody, and we ain't scared of anybody. We ain't been beat."
Crow recruited "the biggest kids I could find," and in the spring, when he assembled the past with the present, he took a better look. He said he found "about 10 good players." Some, he said, took longer to learn than others. "We were easy on them. We wanted to find out what we had, not how much we could work them. We only had five guys quit, a low number. We'll have our gut checks, I promise you. But for now, much of this is new to them.
"Discipline itself can be new. My dad was a rough-type person. He treated us that way—get out of line and get your butt whacked. Compliments were scarce. I came in here to put in a disciplined program. I want them to enjoy football, have fun, but I want them to pay attention, too. If you're gonna have a party, you got to get ready for it. We told them we expect them to come to practice, to go to class. When they didn't do one or the other, we got them up at 6 a.m. and made them run. We are going to get our money's worth."
Crow said he made plans to move the team out of the present motel-like dormitory, where each room opens onto the street, into a smaller one, where he could exercise better control. "There are two ways to go—either spread 'em out and let 'em roam, or put them where they can live together and learn about each other, build some spirit. I prefer it that way." He said, too, he was going to change some home games from night to afternoon, for a chance to get the scores on television and stories in the paper. "When we beat somebody," he said, "I want people to know it."
Sure, he said, he's had doubts—"a lot of them. Every time I turn over a rock there's a snake under it. We were building a new practice field. One day I looked out and they'd stopped construction. I ran out to find out what was going on. I said, 'Why'd you stop?' The guy said, 'We ran out of money.'
"We had to finish it two inches lower than it was planned."