Youth Must Be Heard

College football players are demanding a say, and coaches ignore them at their own risk
November 30, 1992

Early in this college football season it was faintly amusing to observe that the players at Memphis State, then 0-3, and South Carolina (0-5) had grown so disenchanted during their winless starts that they rebelled against their coaches and charged them with incompetence. When both teams then embarked on winning streaks, there was a lot of headshaking over the impetuosity of youth. By no means did these uprisings shake the foundations of the game; after all, Memphis State and South Carolina aren't among the schools that leap to mind when talk turns to college football's great powerhouses and legendary coaches. I mean, there has never been a Woody or a Bear at either of those places.

But last week the earth definitely quivered when player unrest burst into the open in Norman, Okla. That's right, Oklahoma—home of Boomer Sooner, Bud Wilkinson, an NCAA-record 47-game winning streak in the 1950s, six national championships and hordes of All-Americas. Football is so huge at Oklahoma that Barry Switzer, the Sooner coach from 72 through '89, and his players came to believe they didn't have to abide by the standards that applied to the rest of society. Before that arrogance ultimately cost Switzer his job, before a number of Sooner coaches and players were proved to have committed misdeeds ranging from minor NCAA recruiting violations to such heavy-duty crimes as rape and selling drugs, Switzer was among the last of a breed of larger-than-life coaches. He could charm the most-talented recruits, even those with egos bigger than Texas, and then whip them into a team that could flat get it on with anybody.

After Gary Gibbs succeeded Switzer, it was easy to see that the Sooners' attitude was changing, and mostly for the better, even if their record wasn't up to Switzerian standards. But only last week did it become clear just how drastic the change has been. Angry and frustrated in the wake of a 15-15 tie with lowly Oklahoma State on Nov. 14, about 20 Oklahoma players gathered in a team meeting room before Wednesday's practice to discuss why the team was having a disappointing 5-3-2 season. When some of Gibbs's assistants saw what was going on, the coaches brought the entire team together and talked out the complaints. The players' biggest beef was over the starting quarterback: Should the job go to fifth-year senior Steve Collins, whom they preferred, or to junior Cale Gundy, favored by Gibbs? Collins had led the Sooners to easy wins over Kansas State and Missouri while filling in for the injured Gundy, who reclaimed his starting job against Oklahoma State. The players also voiced concern over the coaches' special treatment of certain players, charging that Gibbs was not being open and honest enough with his players and questioning whether the coaches were properly using some of them. "I thought it was a healthy exchange," Gibbs says. "Fully open. A lot of players talked, a lot of coaches talked."

Encounter groups at Oklahoma? Touchy-feely sessions between coaches and players? What's next? Weekly bonding sessions in which coaches and players climb into a hot tub together to get in touch with their innermost feelings? What has big-time college football come to, and where in the name of Knute Rockne is it headed?

Any coach will tell you that players today are more complex and less pliable than they were in the heyday of such tyrants as Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant, who never had to worry about whether a player might be secretly taping conversations (as has happened to Auburn's Pat Dye) or whether the star tailback might sit out a year because he didn't think his coaches were putting enough emphasis on academics (as has happened to Ohio State's John Cooper).

It's difficult to tell whether the flare-ups at Memphis State and South Carolina had influenced the Oklahoma players, although there probably was something of a snowball effect at work. Also last week, 66 players at Morgan State signed a petition that asked the administration to dismiss coach Ricky Diggs. The players threatened not to play in last Saturday's season finale against Bethune-Cookman. The university chose to forfeit the game.

While it's easy to sympathize with the players, they must understand that at Morgan State as well as at Oklahoma a football team is not a democracy. The player's job is to follow his coach's instructions to the best of his ability, per the terms of his scholarship contract, and let the coach's fate be determined by the system's checks and balances. These days no university president or athletic board is going to keep a coach who's incompetent or unable to control his program. If anything, universities are becoming so impatient and unrealistic in their expectations that even successful coaches, like Johnny Majors at Tennessee, arc getting the hook.

As for the coaches, it's essential they understand that in these changing times, pushing around X's and O's is the easiest part of the job. The most important part is being able to handle 95 individuals who have different values and needs. Inspiring confidence and trust through communication is the essence of coaching. When players feel so neglected and disenfranchised that they rebel against their coach, it's almost certain the coach hasn't been doing his job.

As Bryant said in his 1974 autobiography, Bear, "I want to be as close as I can with a boy without destroying the coach-player relationship. I want my boys to always feel they can come to me. And I'll say this: You can learn as much from them as you can teach them."