A real-estate agent was taking preliminary notes the other day at the home of the high school football coach in Massillon, Ohio. There was nothing new about that. Thirteen times in 45 years a Massillon coach has packed up and left, sometimes in triumph, sometimes in despair, but always with the knowledge that, for better or worse, he will never find another place like Massillon.
This house at 2034 Hickory St. NE belongs to the Currences—Mike, 45, his wife, Joan, 45, and their children, Becky, 23, a computer engineer with Goodyear, and Todd, 17, a high school junior-to-be and a fine linebacker. In nine years at Massillon High, Mike Currence won 79 games, lost 16, tied two and stayed too long. He may not sell his house right away, but sometime—perhaps soon, perhaps after Todd's graduation—the Currences will be history in Massillon.
"After five years a coach has outlived his usefulness," says Thomas Kimmins, an attorney and the president of the local school board. "That is absolute gospel."
On May 24 Kimmins and the board precipitated a Massillon monsoon when they fired Currence and voted to buy out the remaining two years ($19,330 worth) of his coach-athletic director contract. Currence, who also makes $27,000 a year as a math and phys ed teacher, says he is going to fight his dismissal. On June 19 he filed a seven-count suit in Federal court charging that he was fired for "insufficient reasons," that he was denied due process and that the board acted in conspiracy against him. He seeks reinstatement as coach—and $1.2 million in damages. But the battle, as Currence knows, is probably symbolic. Massillon has already named a new football coach. "Maybe we're old fogies," says Kimmins, "but that's the way it is."
And that's the way it has been since 1941 when Paul E. Brown packed up his 80-8-2 record and his six state championships in nine seasons and moved from Massillon to the head job at Ohio State and, from there, to professional legend-dom. People around Massillon date the "modern football era" from Brown's ascension in 1932. Until Currence, no coach had stayed as long as Brown, but others have followed his path from Massillon to plum college positions: Chuck Mather (Kansas), Lee Tressel (Baldwin-Wallace), Leo Strang (Kent State) and Bob Commings (Iowa). And Earle Bruce, who won all 20 of his games at Massillon in 1964 and 1965, became an Ohio State assistant and eventually the head coach. Those who weren't good enough to weather the Massillon pressure cooker simply were driven out before they could tarnish the tradition.
The irony is as clear as the big orange M on the jersey of the school's mascot, a tiger cub named Obie. The Booster Club, founded in 1934 by Brown, boasts 2,500 members in a town of 32,600. Junie Studer has hand-painted the paper-covered hoop through which Tiger heroes have ceremonially burst on crisp fall Friday nights for "a good 30 years." Robert (Doc) Immel, who was one of Paul Brown's student managers, has practiced dentistry, tended to his collection of circus memorabilia—he owns an authentic suit of Tom Thumb's underwear—and been a Massillon booster for 39 years. Junior and senior players walk around town in their sideline jackets with numbers on the sleeves during the fall "because it's always been done," as offensive lineman and senior-to-be Joe Luckring says.
But the head coach? He moves on.
"The funniest thing about this job," said Currence, who wasn't laughing, "is that I could never truly say it was my team. It's the town's team."
The school board says Currence was fired because his public support had eroded. But the nebulousness of that explanation might give the board trouble should Currence press his lawsuit. It could also give impetus to the petition campaign started by Cameron Speck, a p.r. man for the state highway department, to ask for the board's resignation.
There is no doubt that some Massillonians, not the least of them being members of the school board, grew disenchanted with Currence after he tried to hire two assistants from outside the district to be his offensive and defensive coordinators for the '85 season. Kimmins called the assistant issue the "red flag" that brought to the surface the other reasons for the firing, reasons that bubble away in a small-town olla podrida: He played this kid too much, this kid not enough, this kid at the wrong position, this kid at the wrong time. He offended this member of the board, this member of the Booster Club. He was too vocal on this, he didn't speak out on that. He should have scheduled this team, he shouldn't have scheduled that team.
Says John Muhlbach, a Massillon great who played at Ohio State, "I always found Mike to be pretty flexible in taking criticism. Sometimes I thought maybe he listened too much." Says Kimmins, "It has been extremely, extremely, I repeat, extremely difficult for Mike to take criticism." The situation is as murky as the water flowing down to the Sippo Reservoir on the east side of town.
But it's impossible to analyze it without reference to that 79-16-2 career record of Currence or the fact that he was 6-4 in '84, the worst record since Chuck Shuffs 6-4 in 1974. Currence's record had a lot to do with his dismissal.
"The pressures would not have been as significant if Mike had a Bear Bryant-type record," admits Kimmins. "Mike had the worst [career] record of any coach in 35 years. Somehow, Mike managed to lose the big games. He had what amounted to an 8-3 average. An 8-3 record is not satisfactory at Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Notre Dame and Texas. And I don't think it's satisfactory at Massillon."
But the record book doesn't support the board of education president. Currence was just one win short of Brown's alltime career mark. His winning percentage of .832 does not, as Kimmins says, average out to 8-3, but to 9-2. Subtract one for Kimmins' math, but add a point for honesty—he is expressing what many anti-Currence Massillonians are couching in glib phrases like "lack of support from the community." Excluding Shuff's two calamitous years of 12-7-1 and Bob Seaman's three years of 20-9-1, Currence does own the "worst record in 35 years," but that's like batting eighth on the '27 Yankees. He is up against standards like Brown's 80-8-2 (.909), Strang's 54-8-1 (.871) and Mather's absurd 57-3 (.950). Bear Bryant, by the way, had a .780 career winning percentage as a head coach.
"Mike has won about 8½ games out of every 10 since he's been here," says Paul David, a local booster and businessman. "Now what are we going to ask this next guy to do? Win another half so it's nine out of 10?"
The same thing that makes the Massillon job as attractive as any in high school football—the town's cradle-to-grave interest in football, the tradition, the avid cross-generational support—also makes it one of the most treacherous. At Massillon a coach is entrusted not with a team but with an heirloom. It's the town's team.
There is a tendency for outsiders to look upon Massillon madness as wrongheaded, as an obsession of a town in a time warp. Even in Massillon there are naysayers, like Polly Cochran, the retired head of the high school's English department, who says, "I went to one football game 25 years ago, got hit in the head with a whiskey bottle and never went back. I think the emphasis on football around here is a little ridiculous."
That emphasis, however, is what makes Massillon Massillon. On an autumn Friday night in the town there is something of America's spirit: the stream of honking, decorated cars turning onto Hess Boulevard, heading toward Paul Brown Tiger Stadium (capacity: 19,700); the inevitability of Studer leaving his downtown sign business a few hours early to paint the hoop; or of local booster Ed Annen leading Obie out of his basement, where the tiger cub lives, to head for the stadium; or the singular ritual of the Booster Club presenting all male newborns in Massillon with a rubber football. "He'll be a Tiger someday," mommies and daddies coo into their sons' playpens in this town.
But tradition is a many-headed beast, one that stomps on reality and coldcocks high school football coaches. Though support for Massillon football has remained rabid, the Tiger juggernaut hasn't quite kept pace. Massillon hasn't won the state championship in 15 years. Yes, Currence was able to beat archrival Canton McKinley a record seven out of 10 times, but he lost all three of his games against Cincinnati Moeller, which in Ohio—and U.S.—high school football has become what Massillon used to be. Why, the Tigers won 21 state championships between Brown's first title in 1935 and Commings' last in 1970. Twenty-one!
"The people here are restless about a state championship," says Immel. "It gnaws at them and embarrasses them, and don't let anybody tell you it doesn't."
No longer do visiting teams shiver in their cleats when they come to Tiger Stadium. No longer do they feel that they're blocking and tackling such poltergeists of Massillon's storied past as Harry Stuhldreher, Horace Gillom, Tommy James, the Houston brothers, Bob Vogel and Tom Hannon. The makeup of Tiger teams isn't the same as it was through the mid-'60s. New school districts have taken players away from Perry Township to the east, Jackson to the north, Fairless to the south and the big farm boys from Tuslaw to the west.
"People should be appreciative of the fact that we've kept a program going at an extremely high level for longer than anyone," says Immel. "But I guess it just isn't enough."
No, as Currence found out, it isn't enough. He wanted to be the first Massillonian to coach his son, but that won't happen. Currence still has a teaching contract, and he will stay at the high school and keep his family in town if Todd is able to play "comfortably" for the new coach.
"The people who thought I should automatically move on are living in the past," Currence says. "It used to be easy for coaches to get a job out of Massillon. But it's harder now to move right from high school to a head college job. Sure, I've had offers. But they were graveyards, dead ends. I didn't want to do that. I shouldn't have to do that."
As of last week, many of the sturdy Massillon teenagers who will make up this year's Tiger team had begun their unofficial summer workouts. At one point about 80% of the team signed a petition stating that they wouldn't play this fall if Currence were not the coach. But now that things have settled down a bit it appears that almost everyone will report. "We can't give up football," says Luckring.
For the past month Massillonians have been discussing the status of the football program over their morning coffee. And in the evenings, a committee, composed mostly of Booster Club members, has been screening head coach applicants. On Monday the committee announced it had chosen John Maronto, a coach at Detroit's DeLaSalle, to be the new keeper of the flame. Chances are Maronto will prove a good choice.
Everyone agrees Mike Currence was a good one. He just stayed too long.