I'm not going to coach football any more. Not that I have coached all that much; in fact, it was just one game. But that was enough for me, and this is my official resignation.
It all began with a phone call from my ex-friend, Jim Hess, who is the football coach and athletic director at Stephen F. Austin State in Nacogdoches, Texas. That's a Division I-AA university that plays schools that sometimes play Southwest Conference schools. He wanted to know if I cared to be a head coach in what they call the Media Bowl, an intrasquad game played at the end of spring practice for which members of the media take the places of the regular coaches.
Naturally said yes. There are only two species who take pleasure in second-guessing football coaches: sports-writers and everybody else. Sportswriters are the worst, and I'm no exception. I've never doubted—at least before this—that I could outmaneuver most of those sideline jockeys.
It was an illusion I treasured right up to the moment I took charge of the White team, my half of the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. That's when it dawned on me I didn't know anything about football.
December 15, 1986
But it was too late for defeatist thoughts. I had to win, and this was more than a matter of honor. My opponent coaching the Purple team was a member of the detested electronic media, a fellow named Robert Hill. I'm not suggesting that there is the slightest animosity between our two media; maybe I'm just allergic to hair spray.
Of course, before we could play we had to divvy up sides in a draft—the equivalent of recruiting, I guess. The first pick was important because of Todd Whitten, the starting quarterback. The year before, as a junior, he had thrown 27 touchdown passes and was second team all-conference. Winning the coin toss and drafting Whitten was, to me, the key to winning the game.
I tried—I thought with perfect logic—to circumvent the coin toss by pointing out that my opponent had a 2-1 record in the annual game, while I was 0-0. As the coach with the worst record, it stood to reason, I should have first pick.
Hess vetoed that, not surprisingly, but I won the coin toss and took Whitten. Hill got the second-and third-string quarterbacks, and I the fourth. That was the way the draft would go the rest of the way, position by position.
With his first choice the electronic-media whiz drafted weak safety Darrell Harkless, who was practically All-World and the best athlete on either squad. He was also, I later concluded, very nearly invisible.
As the draft drew to a close and opening practice approached, I grew edgy. These were real live college athletes and I was their coach, I kept thinking nervously. I was supposed to lead them. My hands started to shake, and the roster I was holding began to blur before my eyes. My condition was not aided by the genial remarks of Hill, who said, "How can you type with your hands shaking, like that?"
I had drafted mainly for the skill positions, while Hill had selected most of the starting offensive line. I managed to get the center and the starting tight end, but I badly needed a starting interior lineman. As I was about to make one of my last picks, a combination of nerves and too much iced tea struck. I assumed the draft would be halted while I excused myself.
I was wrong. When I came back I learned that my assistant, Kevin Gore, a sportswriter for the Nacogdoches paper, had drafted the starting running back, Henry Canady.
A gaffe for sure, I thought, but not desperate. On the whole, the draft seemed to have ended without a conclusive edge to either side. The Purple had the starting offensive line and most of the first-string secondary. The defensive lines were about evenly split, and I had the starting offensive backfield, with an inferior offensive line.
This, unfortunately, was not the way the coaches saw it. They picked my White squad as the probable winner—by 9-1. Talk about pressure. The local TV and radio coverage was unsparing in its admiration for my talent as a picker of football flesh. They hammered away at what a seeming shambles I had made of what otherwise might have been an entertaining contest. Just walking on the field, the White team should light up the scoreboard like a pinball machine.
If I was aware that a certain opposing coach was behind this electronic blitz of encomiums—and I was—I was not tipping my mitt to my players when finally we met for our first practice. Mum was the word about the overwhelming odds. While the regular coaches ran the practices, I stood around nodding my head coolly and looking for that little extra edge I knew I was going to need, no matter what the coaches and those airwave people were saying.
Hess came over to my motel the night before the game, and, looking for a little more power, I said, "How about if I suit up Noble and Dixon?" James Noble and Floyd Dixon were all-conference receivers from the year before who were no longer eligible to play although they were still in school.
Hess gave me a look that scarcely hid his incredulity. "You can't cheat in football," he said. "They got all those guys out there in the striped suits to take care of that." He just shook his head. "You are beginning to sound like one of those coaches you writers are always accusing of evil ways." So I was left to my own humble devices.
In the interim between practice and the game I huddled with my two quarterbacks, Whitten and Todd Hammel, discussing what we wanted to do. Without the good offensive line, I figured, we would have to stick to the short game, dinky passes and dive plays, for lack of blocking time. I would signal either pass or run, and leave it up to the quarterback to select the play.
I planned to leave the defense to my assistant, the aptly named Gore. But I did tell him I wanted to blitz frequently because I felt the Purple team's young quarterbacks would rattle easily.
Sounds like I had a lock on the situation, right? Forget it. First off, I couldn't get my players up for the game. They had begun to believe the hype they were hearing. My defensive tackle, Frank Robinson, said to me, "Hell, Coach, those hamburgers can't score on us. Get down heavy if you can find a line."
What do you say to that? My pregame speech was a failure. I remember mumbling something about "pride" and "executing" and "mistake-free football." I was so bad that safety John Barbe hung back as the team headed for the field. He patted me on the shoulder and said, "It's all right, Coach. We'll get 'em."
Gettin' 'em at the outset was hardly the problem; survivin' 'em was more like it. On our first play from scrimmage Canady fumbled. Purple had the ball on our 22-yard line and fumbled it back, but we weren't able to move. Whitten, as expected, wasn't getting time to throw, which meant we weren't getting out of our end of the field. We punted, they punted. They punted, we punted. Purple missed a field goal. We started driving. Canady fumbled—again.
That, for the second time, sent me to the table for water, a trip I would make frequently as the afternoon wore on.
Now, it generally takes a quarterback a little time to catch on to what the defense is doing and how to exploit it. Just as the first quarter ended it appeared that Whitten had glommed on to what was happening, because we were moving.
That's when friend Hess became ex-friend Hess. He came up to me as the teams switched ends and said, "Well, do you want to play Whitten in the third or fourth quarter?"
I said, "Whaaat are you talking about? I want to play him all of the quarters."
He said, "Coach, I can't do that. I told you I was going to have to limit Whitten's play. I can't let him go more than two quarters. Can't take the chance of him getting hurt."
"Him getting hurt! You're killing me."
I guess I would have been madder, but my freshman quarterback, Hammel, came in and moved the club down the field, and scored on a three-yard keeper. Seven-zip for the good guys.
Well, this was more like it. Coaching, I thought, could be fun.
And it continued to go our way. Tyler Tabor pinned the Purple deep in their territory with a fine punt, and when their quarterback went back to pass, our defensive end, Keith Melcher, got him in the end zone for a safety to make it 9-0.
Then something went haywire. I hate to say where, but I think you're going to figure it out. After the safety, Hammel took us down the field again. With time running out in the first half, we were on the Purple's 10-yard line with second down and goal to go. I took our last timeout, and we had a sideline conference. I wanted a timing pass to the corner of the end zone, with Hammel to throw it away if he couldn't be sure of a completion. That would kill the clock and give us time to get the field goal unit in.
Sidelines are fierce places to try to plot strategy. First of all there is that damn 30-second clock. If you think it's tough on quarterbacks, it's pure hell on the coach who is trying to consider yardage and down and what play to call. And there is always somebody asking you something. Or telling you something. Or just making noise in your ear.
That sounds like just about as good an excuse as any for what happened next. Instead of throwing the timing pass into the end zone, Hammel went to the tight end for a short completion. The end caught the pass but forgot to get out of bounds. Hammel forgot the clock was running and failed to line up the team and throw out of bounds. And I got confused between third and fourth downs and somehow forgot to get the field goal unit on the field in time. It was all one industrial-sized mistake.
The second half was not nearly as confused or as much fun. We had been able to rattle the Purple quarterback in the first half, but midway into the third quarter he started acting like he enjoyed the blitz, because he marched his team down the field and threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to cut our lead to 9-7.
That didn't seem to satisfy him. After Canady fumbled—what else?—this time on our own 20, Kyle Dalton threw for another touchdown.
They missed the PAT, and it was 13-9. I was getting tired of our stagnant nine points. Our punt returner must have sensed that, With a minute to go in the quarter, he took a short, line-drive punt and, behind a good wall of blocking, returned it 73 yards for a touchdown. We missed the PAT, too, but it was still our lead, 15-13.
A field goal, I was uncomfortably aware, could wrest the lead back, but we had Whitten in there. So what was the fear? I shortly found out. We couldn't move the ball. Someone wearing Darrell Harkless's number kept making tackles and either intercepting or knocking away passes. I knew it couldn't be Harkless himself because, when I had protested about pulling Whitten, Hess had vowed he would bench Harkless. And I knew this couldn't be Harkless because I had already seen him for three quarters. No, this had to be some impostor.
But he played an awful lot like Harkless. With time running out the player, whoever he was, intercepted one of Whitten's passes, jumping about eight feet in the air to do so, and the Purple shortly were within field goal range.
I have very little to add except to tell you that they kicked the field goal to go ahead 16-15. We spent most of the final seconds trying to find a place to throw the football where Harkless's double wouldn't suddenly appear. We couldn't find it. The final was 16-15.
I shook hands with the electronic media guy and tried to conceal my disappointment—no, let's admit it, my bitterness—as well as I could.
That night, after the game, Hess and two of his assistant coaches and I ate at an all-night breakfast place. They were in good humor. They had seen positive signs among a lot of their players, which boded well for the next season; they had had a night off; and they hadn't lost a football game. Me, I was experiencing the agony of defeat and doing my snarling best not to let it show.
Clyde Alexander, the coach of the linebackers, said, "Well, Coach, how'd you enjoy the game?"
He did it meanly. I fixed him with a look. "Clyde, there is going to come a game that is lost because one of your linebackers fouled up. Then I'm going to ask you the same question."
Hess said, "Now, gentlemen, don't pick on the man." He giggled. "I don't think he's real happy just now."
"Yeah, Hess," I said, "give them advice. Reduce me to a half a quarterback. Don't even give him time to adjust to the defenses before you pull him on me. And then let Harkless play the whole game."
"He didn't play the whole game. He didn't play any more than Whitten."
Gary DeLoach, the defensive secondary coach said, "You better look again, Coach Hess. He was in there about every play."
Hess had the good grace to look uncomfortable. He finally said, "Well, I meant to pull him." And, in the universal language of coaches, added, "I'll have to look at the films."
Hess once told me that after a loss he couldn't stand to read the sports pages or watch a sportscast for several days because he didn't want to read or hear about anybody else winning. I had said I thought that was a pretty juvenile way to act. After all, it was just a game.
When I got home I did not watch TV sports or listen to the radio or read the sports pages for several days. I did not want to read about winning baseball teams, winning volleyball players, winning period. When my wife won $5 in a seed catalog contest, I felt nauseous. I spent most of my time grinding my teeth over the boneheaded way I had botched getting the field goal team onto the field at the end of the first half.
At last, when I thought I could stand the pain no longer, it began to pass. I was becoming civil and even was polite to Hess when he called to say he had seen the film and that, yes, Harkless had been in there most of the game and it was his fault for letting it happen. He said, "Guess he just snuck in there a lot. I should have been watching."
I thought I was over it and went so far as to tell my wife I had been childish. She agreed, I thought, a little too readily. But I let it slide. The game was behind me.
And now I realize I've been using these pages to cry about the sad twists of fortune—something coaches only get to do by talking to sportswriters like me. That's why I quit coaching.
I think I'll stick to having the final word.
Giles Tippette is a novelist and punting couch at lame residing in Brenhum, Texas.