The night flight to Nassau had made a stop (Atlanta, no doubt) that I'd napped through, and on awakening I was surprised to see The Coach's familiar profile at the window seat, one row in front and to my left. A Wall Street Journal was propped in his lap, and he was acknowledging a stewardess' delivery of a glass of sparkling clear liquid that I knew, despite the camouflaging twist of lemon on the rim, could only be Perrier. The stewardess, a leggy blonde with an overbite, was lingering, making small talk. Although well into what he calls the "Dei gratia" period of middle age and many years past his championship seasons at M——, The Coach is still the kind of man stewardesses hover over. I was glad, because it gave me a chance to collect my thoughts and tuck my shirt in. With The Coach, it's best to be prepared.
I hadn't talked with him for more than a year, not since he took an "advisory" position with one of the big NFL scouting combines. He said at the time that he did it "to keep my hand in, right up to the first knuckle." Minimizing the involvement was, I suspect, his way of softening his defection from the college ranks. He used to say the pro game "soared across the heavens of football like a concrete Zeppelin," and that "hell itself would freeze over" before he joined it, but that was before a second divorce put the freeze on his assets. What surprised me now, however, was his destination. Besides the fact that on him a tan would be redundant, the pro draft was only a couple of days away, and unless the process had been radically altered, Nassau was in the wrong direction.
The stewardess finally went away, leaving The Coach to mull over his investments. Instinctively sucking in my stomach, I got up, moved across the aisle and slid into the empty seat next to his. "Shouldn't you be out timing 40-yard dashes or measuring vertical jumps or something?" I said.
For three or four seconds The Coach kept an I-know-you're-there-and-I'll-get-to-you-in-a-moment fix on the Journal's agate type, then dropped his chin to survey my intrusion over the top of his reading glasses. Besides the color of his hair—a steely blue-gray, matching that of his eyes—reading glasses are his only obvious concession to the march of time. He smiled. "I spied you back there, Scribe, sleeping your life away," he said. "Put on some weight, did you?"
I exhaled audibly, there being no need to suffer the pretense if the jig was up. "I knew I was overweight as soon as I saw you, Coach," I said. "But never mind me. What's going down in the Bahamas?"
"Me. Scuba-diving on an old Spanish four-master believed to be loaded with coin. You must join me sometime when you're not quite so buoyant."
"But isn't the NFL draft coming up? Shouldn't you be at the Waldorf or someplace, making charts and talking intelligently about first-and second-round picks?"
"The draft is, indeed, coming up, but it is a charade that I no longer take part in," said The Coach matter-of-factly. "Once around was more than enough."
Remembering how often in the past he had sucked me in with such antes, I feigned disinterest, knowing that if he had more to offer on the subject I'd get it in due course anyway (he tends to save up), and that it's better to pace him.
"You've left the service of the pros?" I asked, miming a yawn.
"Only out of conviction," The Coach said. "But I'm glad I was involved for a while, because I now appreciate the draft for everything that it is."
"Which is what?"
"An ongoing, self-perpetuating insult to free enterprise."
"Woe is us," I said.
"Don't be impertinent, Scribe. I'm serious. The draft violates the spirit or the letter of every antitrust and restraint-of-trade regulation ever written. It is nothing more than human bondage, made acceptable only because of all the money involved and the circus we make of it once a year. It's still de facto slavery, even if the slaves don't complain.
"How'd you like to graduate from Princeton with honors in chemical engineering and be told you'd been drafted by Kaiser Aluminum and were being sent to Des Moines?"
I was vaguely disappointed. He had said as much before. "You didn't have to go undercover to find that out, Coach," I said. "The draft is now a well-publicized tradition. Congress doesn't mess with it, because the NFL needs it to 'equalize the competition,' and you used to say yourself that it keeps the cost of recruiting down by virtually eliminating it. A plus. The draft is the NFL's lifeblood. Congress doesn't like to fool around with the lifeblood of the NFL. Congress loves the NFL."
"Those coconuts on The Hill," The Coach said quietly.
"What? Oh, yeah. That's what you used to call 'em, isn't it?"
"No. That's what William Simon used to call them. I stole it from him. But he was right. Non compos mentis. They should have their coconuts examined."
The Coach closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. I was taken aback—a little saddened, actually—that he had run out of steam so quickly. I gestured to the stewardess, who was in your basic eavesdropping stance in the galley nearby. I had to gesture twice, because she was looking at The Coach.
"Well, unless you have more to say on the subject, Coach, why don't we discuss the pennant race?" I said. The stewardess came over, and without taking her eyes off The Coach, who, without opening his own, was hooking his glasses into the breast pocket of his Bill Blass lightweight suit, asked if she could serve me anything.
I waggled a finger at The Coach's glass. "The same, but with a twist of Smirnoff instead of lemon." She said, "Sure," and moved away, still without looking at me, and when I turned back, The Coach had reopened his eyes and was staring at me. I experienced a slight chill.
"Well, how about this, then?" he said, his voice regaining strength. "The equalization draft is not only unconstitutional, it's a socioeconomic disaster. Instead of keeping the costs down, the draft drives them up. It puts the selection process in the wrong hands and the players in the wrong places. It alienates fans and players alike, and confuses their loyalties. And it doesn't equalize anything. In short, it doesn't work. How's that?"
He suddenly looked quite revived, and I was startled by the force of his offense. He suggested I close my mouth until I could get some words to come out.
The stewardess' quick return provided a welcome moment's pause. Unsolicited, she had brought The Coach another drink along with mine and dropped two packages of cashews (my favorites) on his tray. The Coach slid them out of my reach.
"Should I go on, Scribe, or do you think that this might be over your head?"
"No, by all means, go on. Tell me how it 'drives the prices up.' Are you sure you're not talking about the competition with the new league?"
"I'm talking about the draft, primarily, and how agents who don't know horsehair about football but do know the market have a pretty good working formula for matching demands with the round a player is chosen in. Get a call in the first or second round, and they make you a millionaire. The third round, and you'll be close to it, and so on. Most players good enough to go in the first round should pretty much know their worth regardless, but down the line nowadays you have questionable, iffy talent getting compensated way beyond true value."
In gear now, he hurried on.
"There is great irony at work here. The players below the very top level would have no way of knowing what they're worth without the draft and would probably settle for a lot less money. And so the club owners who conceived the draft in the first place as a means of avoiding bidding wars are now, ex post facto, having to pay through the nose. The chickens have come home to roost in the NFL."
I raised a hand in protest. "But if you had an open market for all the talent, the rich teams would only get richer. Parity would be a lost cause."
"Your lights are on, but I don't think there's anybody home, Scribe. Where's the parity now? When was the last time the Buffalo Bills went to the Super Bowl? Or the New York Giants? Or the Cleveland Browns? Or the New Orleans Saints? Drafts don't raise a ship that's gone to the bottom. Intelligent, incisive leadership does that. No matter how low in the draft he picks, no matter how depleted his resources, Don Shula gets the Miami Dolphins back in contention almost every year. Tom Landry does the same with the Cowboys. Al Davis with the Raiders. When were the Chiefs in contention last?"
"I know what you're going to say now," I put in. "That it's still a 'coach's game.' That the good coaches always win. But the good college coaches win because they get the best talent, too, and without limitations—like a player draft—they keep right on winning, ad nauseam.' "
"That's not entirely the case, but you bring up a point," The Coach said. "If anybody needs competitive balance, it's the colleges, as dissimilar as they are. When the Notre Dames lie down with the Memphis States, it's hardly equal in any category of comparison. But the colleges don't have player drafts—that would be anathema—and in the last four years the national championship has been won by four teams who never won it before. Two of those, Clemson and Miami, weren't even competitive a few years earlier. They didn't get all the blue-chippers. They probably didn't get half the players they wanted. But their coaches went to work."
"All right," I said. "Say you opened up the market and let a player go wherever he wanted, to play for whomever he pleased. Why do you think the balance of power in the NFL wouldn't tip radically, and never right itself?"
"A number of reasons. First, the size of the squads. They're limited to 49 players. No one team or even a handful of teams could stockpile all the talented players, year after year. Most only add a few players annually anyway. The colleges have a 95-man limit, and their coaches still complain they can't get all the players they want. The 49-man limit, and an annual cutoff point for its finalization, would take care of the equality of competition as long as the coaches themselves were active in the recruiting, and therefore in the player selection.
"The way it is now, the process is wonderfully complex and breathtakingly computerized, and when the draft comes along the coaches sit with their stacks of readouts and evaluations that are compiled by guys in the field they never see, and they know that Player A can hurdle the goalposts and Player B can outrun a German shepherd for 40 yards, and they draft accordingly, and then they sit back and start flinching when the final returns are in. The scouting combines often make pitiful mistakes, and they're compounded by the coaches themselves being insensitive to the talent. A priori, a posteriori. Either way, it gets screwed up.
"Think not? All right. What do Rick Norton, Frank Emanuel, Mike Kadish, Chuck Bradley and Guy Benjamin have in common?"
"Dissimilar last names?"
"Try to be serious, Scribe. But since you can't, I'll tell you. Over the years, they were chosen in the first or second rounds of the player draft by the Miami Dolphins, one of the top organizations for assembling talent in pro football. How about Jim Jensen, Jim Eidson, Bill Thomas, Isaac Thomas, John Babinecz? All taken in the top two rounds by Dallas in the '70s. And every one of those guys washed out long before you could say he had a Dolphin or Cowboy "career." My own feeling is that the selection process just naturally improves when the head guy, the chairman of the board, is directly involved in the recruiting, so that the instinct factor can be brought into play and the—"
"Whoa, Coach. What the hell's the 'instinct factor'?"
"Something I used to call a good coach's ability to 'sense' a winner—not just a good player, but a guy he could win with—when he met one, or even saw one on film. It's something Bear Bryant used to call 'knowing people.' Or 'knowing winners.' You don't get that in a computer readout, or from a scout in the field who doesn't participate in the active coaching of a young man.
"A college coach never risks a scholarship on a player he doesn't know. The pro coach might not ever break bread with the guy he picks in the first round, or for that matter look into his eyeballs. If a pro coach had to sell a player on his program, he'd recruit. He'd have to or die. He'd find out, too, if the player really wanted to play for him, a vital factor. So the selection process would be improved and, of course, it would be the American way."
The Coach was on a roll, and he knew it. I drained my facsimile Perrier and settled back in the seat, knowing I'd lost the table for the duration, but not really minding.
"Worst of all," The Coach said, "is what the draft system does to the players' minds, and therefore the fans who might very well sense their alienation. The player comes in with a less-than-hearty attitude toward a town he never wanted to play in in the first place, and you're asking the fan to buy season tickets for a couple of hundred dollars of hard-earned cash and to give that player his allegiance. Then, at the first opportunity or whim, the player runs off to San Diego, leaving his devoted following with, at the very least, a strained sense of loyalty, and at worst a broken heart. How many hearts were broken in Buffalo when Joe Cribbs went home to Alabama to play for the Birmingham Stallions?
"Furthermore, the drafting process is almost guaranteed to send a player to the wrong place. Instead of a homegrown talent going on to play for the home team, he'll invariably wind up 1,500 miles away and 90 percent certain of being with a team he would never have selected in four lifetimes. I don't say O.J. Simpson minded playing in Buffalo, but do you think if he had had a choice he would have left Southern California? Don't make me laugh."
"I wouldn't think of it, Coach. But doesn't the United States Football League have a territorial draft that at least partly solves that problem?"
"Yes, and it's wonderful. I was in Tampa the other day, with the Bandits, and all around me Were Florida-born, Florida-bred players; happy in their work. Cris Collinsworth will be quitting the Cincinnati Bengals next year to join that group, just so he can go back home to play in Florida. Too bad the NFL isn't as progressive, or as attuned to a simple fact of life: When you hire a mercenary, better not count on his loyalty. These days, you better not count on anything. Caveat emptor."
"Hear, hear!" I said, and was not surprised to find the stewardess standing over me and beaming at The Coach.
"More nuts?" she said.
"No thank you, Miss," I said. "I've had plenty."