THE RAIN WAS A TEST. How much had life changed for quarterback Glenn Foley and the Boston College football team? Foley looked through the maroon birdcage on the front of his gold helmet last Saturday afternoon and saw umbrellas and slickers and blankets and sheets of plastic in the stands of Alumni Stadium. And he saw people. A revolutionary sight. People in the rain.
"A year ago we played Georgia Tech, just about the same time of the year," Foley said after the Eagles dumped Michigan State 14-0 to go 4-0 and nudge their way into the national rankings at No. 22. "The stands were half filled. It wasn't raining nearly as hard as it was today, but it was enough to keep people home. Today? The stands were packed, and they stayed that way to the end, no matter how hard it rained."
Go away? Come again another day? Not now. The BC defense was racking up its third straight shutout, a feat that no Eagle defense had accomplished in 50 years. The offense, with Foley, a junior, entering the game as the No. 2 passer in the country, was retooling in the wet weather, suddenly becoming a grind-it-out operation whose rushers gained 323 yards in 61 carries. The Eagles, 0-4 at this time last year, were in the midst of capturing a local sports public that had few other outlets for their passion.
The Red Sox were heading for last place in this baseball autumn. The Patriots? Please. Winless and dull, they might be moving to St. Louis at any moment. Other leading lights also might be flickering—Larry Bird of the Celtics retired to the painless pastures of French Lick, Ind., and Cam Neely, the injured Bruin star, is wondering when he ever will be able to skate again—but the Eagles are doing fine. Surprisingly fine.
"I knew that if we could win, the interest was there," second-year coach Tom Coughlin says. Coughlin, 46, was the quarterback coach during the last BC run toward the football big time, when Doug Flutie was the starter, scrambling everywhere on a path that eventually finished with an award presentation at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. Coughlin left in 1984, at the start of Flutie's senior season, to take a series of assistant jobs with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants. During the Giants' playoff march to the Super Bowl two years ago, he was named Boston College's coach, slated to replace Jack Bicknell, his former boss.
Coughlin was hired to bring a tougher hand to the Eagle program. Bicknell, nicknamed Cowboy Jack, had been a friendly taskmaster, a philosopher coach. After Flutie the alumni had envisioned life at a new plateau of football success. The Eagles, alas, settled into mediocrity after his departure. The 1990 team finished 4-7, after 3-8 and 2-9 seasons. Exit Cowboy Jack. Enter Coughlin, the tougher hand.
"Can I meet with you to do a story?" a Boston sportswriter asked Coughlin during Super Bowl week, as he finished out his time as the Giants' receivers coach while starting slowly on his Boston College work.
"I can see you at 5:30 on Thursday," the new coach replied.
"Will that be for dinner at the hotel?"
"Oh, no. That's 5:30 in the morning."
Coughlin proved to be everything he was supposed to be. The off-season workouts became tougher. The spring practice weeks became tougher. The coach who had always worked on the offensive side of the game now stressed defense and precision. These were the no-nonsense lessons he had learned in the pros. Football was a business. Efficiency was a goal.
"A lot of kids quit," Foley says. "It used to be we had 120 kids here playing football. A lot of walk-ons. There are almost no walk-ons now. It's just too hard, too much work if you never play in a game. I look around and see empty lockers where a lot of those people were. Some kids who could have come back for a fifth year didn't come back either. I think that's what the coach wanted, to get down to the people who could last. That's us."
"The whole first year was culture shock," says linebacker Tom McManus, a fifth-year senior who did return. "I guess some guys saw it as a positive, some guys as a negative. I saw it as a positive."
One locker that is filled and will stay that way through the season holds the uniform and equipment of Jay McGillis, a defensive back who died of leukemia in July. A starter as a sophomore in the first 10 games of last season, McGillis became ill before the finale against top-ranked Miami. He watched from the bench as the Eagles, on national television, lost a 19-14 decision that was a better indicator of the future than was their final 4-7 record. McGillis's memory is preserved in the locker, with his uniform number 31, which graces a patch worn on every BC jersey, and with assorted gestures and signals. After every Eagle interception senior safety Charlie Brennan holds up three fingers on one hand, one on the other.
"We can actually feel his presence out there on the field," McManus says. "I tell everyone that we should have a good defense, because we have one more player with us than anyone else has."
There are questions, of course, that still have to be answered. The four wins have all been at home, and the opponents—Rutgers, Northwestern, Navy and Michigan State—have a combined record of 3-10. The offensive line is young. Three of the four defensive backs are sophomores. All of this success is new air to breathe. West Virginia (3-0-1), this Saturday in Morgantown, will be an immediate challenge. Penn State and Notre Dame lie in wait further down the road.
"Right now our confidence level is real high, and we're where we should be," Coughlin says. "We've won all the games we played, and we played three outstanding games on defense. We're going to go to West Virginia and take it from there."
One thing is certain: A wet 4-0 is better than a wet 0-4.