Can we blame this on Bill Walsh, all these NFL coaches running like eager pizza delivery boys back to campus? Walsh, as you'll recall, was voted NFL Coach of the Decade for his success with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s. He then retired and fiddled with TV commentary for a while before emerging in 1992 as...the coach at Stanford. How strange was this? About like Michael Eisner quitting as CEO of Disney to run a video-editing shop in Encino.
But right now, with a sizable contingent of former NFL head coaches back with college programs, the move from the big time to the ivy halls is becoming, if not a certifiable trend, at least a career option that doesn't seem nuts. The group includes Dan Henning at Boston College, John Ralston at San Jose State, John Robinson at Southern Cal, Sam Rutigliano at Liberty, Gene Stallings at Alabama, Joe Walton at Robert Morris, John Mackovic at Texas, Lou Holtz at Notre Dame and even Georgia defensive coordinator Marion Campbell. They all have tasted the line wine of the pro game and found it unpalatable. Or, more precisely, their wine glasses were removed by surly headwaiters who then tossed the men from NFL dining halls.
It's tempting to say that all these coaches are simply losers, old guys who couldn't hack it in the big leagues. No one in this group is younger than 50, and all, except Walsh, either were asked to vacate their NFL offices or left under duress. As Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones said after pondering the coaching parade to the college ranks, "It's simple. They go where the jobs are."
True, there are hundreds of head college jobs and only 30 in the NFL. And for those who would make such a move, a major attitude adjustment is involved, one that has to do with pride and goals, financial rewards and even educational philosophy. Herewith are the stories of four men who are making that adjustment.
August 28, 1994
The Jaded Exec
The ringing notes of drills and hammers echo through Alumni Stadium at Boston College, bouncing through coach Dan Henning's office windows like a call to battle. The new seats—about 12,000 of them, which will bring the stadium's capacity to 44,500—are being built because of the school's recent football success and because of the complaining of former coach Tom Coughlin, who thought Boston College could never become a big-time football operation while playing in a dinky stadium.
Coughlin is history, having departed before spring practice to coach the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL, and now the 52-year-old Henning listens to the sounds of portent. "The track is gone." says Henning, a former coach of the Atlanta Falcons and the San Diego Chargers, looking through the blinds at the work in progress. "I guess something like 24 skyboxes are going in. Eight seats per box, $4,000 per seat, I believe."
He smiles wanly. Fans don't pay that kind of money to watch their team lose, and Henning knows it. The Eagles went 9-3 last season, the highlight of which was an upset of No. 1-ranked Notre Dame, and expectations are higher this fall. Forget that Boston College has swapped 1993 opponents Northwestern and Tulane for Michigan and Louisville, or that four-year starting quarterback Glenn Foley has graduated—the pressure is on.
But Henning, hired by Boston College following two seasons as offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions, isn't intimidated. He sneaks a cigarette on this newly nicotine-free campus and explains that if you've been around the pro game long enough, with all its me-first money-grubbers, you'll welcome the college game, no matter how win-oriented it may have become.
"Everybody would like to know his prospects for the next four years," he says. "Every stockbroker would like to be just one newspaper ahead. Nothing's guaranteed, though. A high school coach, a Little League coach—he feels the same pressure I do. But you know something? It costs $25,000 a year to go to school here, 2,200 freshmen are coming in, and there were more than 15,000 applicants. This is a pretty good place to be."
The NFL, he lets you know, was not. "In the pros you walk on eggs, worried about upsetting high-priced players," says Henning. "If push comes to shove you get shoved. It's all because of free agency and incentive clauses—players on individual agendas. That's not what I thought football was about. Do you know that last year the left tackle for the Lions, Lomas Brown, made enough to pay for all 85 scholarships here at Boston College'? The offensive line itself was making $8,000 a play. A play.
"In the pros I didn't know what to do. The jerk gets all the money and then swells up like a big toad. We used linebacker Chris Spielman as a goal line fullback because he'd do it. I asked him to block, and he said, 'Whatever you want.' I love that. But you'll get a wide receiver and ask him the same thing, and he'll say, 'I'm a pass catcher.' Well, not when Barry Sanders has the ball. So the wide receiver will do that old 'miss him if you can, hit him if you must' routine. What happens is coaches start changing their plays and themselves. The media get involved, and before long you're fragmented, lost."
And you can almost hear the axe, whistling in the breeze.
The Returning Hero
John Robinson, 59, probably never should have left Southern Cal. In his first tenure as coach of the Trojans, from 1976 to '82, he led them to three Rose Bowl wins and the 1978 national championship and won 82% of his games, third highest among currently active Division I coaches. Then he went off to see Paree, spending nine years as coach of the Los Angeles Rams before resigning in 1991. He had a year in the TV football booth before he accepted the reins once more at USC.
Now with one more college season under his belt, an 8-5 autumn. Robinson feels full of spunk. He has promised a national championship within five years. "Yeah, we shot our mouth off," he says with a shrug. "People say it's over at USC. It's going to be exciting to prove them wrong."
Robinson replaced Larry Smith, who in six years at Southern Cal never seemed to fit in with the alums, the boosters or the city itself. Robinson knows USC, and he has been in Los Angeles longer than the freeways. "Being a college coach is somewhat like being a politician on the stump," he says. "I make about 60 speeches a year to alums now. With the Rams I made none. L.A.'s in a slump right now, but we're coming out of it. It's unthinkable that we won't come back."
It is unthinkable, too, that Robinson won't be more fulfilled than he was with the Rams. "Sure, you make more money in the NFL," he says. "But what about your relationships with your players? In the NFL you basically end all your relationships by firing your player or getting fired yourself. In college you remain friends. It is an enduring thing. Even my own coach from back at Oregon, Len Cassanova, he's about 90—he calls me now, and I jump: 'Yes, Coach!' It's just a more emotional, feeling thing."
Behind Robinson on his office wall are photos of some of USC's premier running backs, all friends of his: Marcus Allen, Mike Garrett, Charles White, Ricky Bell and, yes, even O.J. Simpson. It is a strange and unpredictable world out there, but a big-name college coach can pretty much control his destiny. "When you run the program, you do what you want," says Robinson. "Want to run the single wing? Fine, do it. You may get fired if it doesn't work, but you get to do it."
That's not, he adds, how it is in the NFL. He mentions running back Eric Dickerson's conflict with the Rams, how it never should have happened, how Dickerson should have stayed a Ram forever rather than becoming an NFL gypsy. "We would have built our offense around him," says Robinson sadly. "He would have broken Walter Payton's rushing record."
And how would Robinson have kept Dickerson on the team? "I would have paid him more," he says.
The Bean Counter
Robert Morris College has been around for 73 years, and it has never felt the need for a football team. Until now.
A business college in Coraopolis, Pa., with an enrollment of 5,500 students—mostly commuters—Robert Morris has been smitten with the notion that a Division I-AA football program, sans revenue-draining athletic scholarships, will perk up everything from student spirit to sagging enrollment. The first Colonial team is set to kick off this fall, playing home games at nearby Moon High School Stadium while marching to the drum of none other than former New York Jet coach Joe Walton.
Walton, 58, who hails from nearby Beaver Falls and was a two-time All-America tight end and linebacker at Pitt, finds this venture compelling. After losing his job as the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator in 1991, he did p.r. for a moving company but found that to be pretty dull stuff. So here he sits, unlit cigar dangling from his mouth, making $45,000 with this little school, trying to figure out how much a jockstrap costs.
"I believe they're $3.50 apiece, cheaper in bulk," he says, shuffling through papers on his small desk in his small office inside the small athletic department. While going 53-57-1 with the Jets from 1983 to '89, Walton never thought about jocks. He never thought about the cost of anything.
"I can't tell you how many things I've learned since taking this job." he says. "I never thought about how helmets were fitted, who ordered shoulder pads, where the team was going to play. I played pro ball with the Redskins and Giants, became a scout with the Giants and then a full-time coach in the NFL. I always felt bad I didn't have any college experience."
Now he has it at its most elementary level. He has only one full-time assistant and a budget the size of the Jets' snuff bill. Basically, if he wants something done on this blank slate, he had better do it himself. He grinds the stogie in his teeth, unearths the appropriate notepaper and puts on his glasses. "O.K., to outfit a player—practice stuff, game uniforms, shoes, helmets and everything—comes to $328.46 apiece," he reads. He looks up, then studies the paper once more. "I got it down to about $300. Jocks at $1.53. See here?"
Most of the Robert Morris kids will be freshmen and not the greatest specimens in the world, and more than likely they will get their butts handed to them by the likes of Duquesne and Mercyhurst. Walton doesn't care. He's working 20 minutes from home, and as he says, "I was getting bored. Coaching's been my life. You get used to your kind of people."
He also feels good about being, as he puts it, "an extension of the admissions office." While most colleges pay dearly for their football troops, Robert Morris sees its athletes as so many cash cows. It received 228 applications for this year from football hopefuls—most of whom, if they attend, will pay the $6,540 tuition.
Walton's connections help the program too, fie got more than 120 golfers to pay $225 apiece in May to rub elbows with his old NFL buddies Joe Namath, Franco Harris and Joe Theisman. A pal of his even built the new locker room. "What I'm really looking forward to," he says, "is building a new stadium."
The glint in his eye means nothing but business.
The Old Professor
John Ralston, 67, is up on a ladder in the garage of this house in Los Altos, Calif., only 15 minutes from where he works as the coach at San Jose State. He and Patty, his wile of 43 years, have just moved from the house in Menlo Park where they resided for 15 years while John pursued various coaching jobs and side ventures. Included in Ralston's rèsumè, which covers 43 years, are head-coaching stints with Utah State, Stanford, the Oakland Invaders of the USFL and the Denver Broncos. There is so much water under the bridge for Ralston that one can easily forget that this man on a ladder stashing old bookcases in the rafters coached Stanford to Rose Bowl victories in 1971 and '72 and has already been elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Ralston refuses to live in the past. He looks at the tarnished and dented trophy that sits atop a storage box. It is the 1973 United Press International AFC Coach of the Year Award. "That's the only one of those things you'll see," he says from on high. "We moved things like that again and again, and finally I stopped and said, 'Why?' Enough is enough."
After being out of coaching for 10 years, Ralston signed on with San Jose State in 1993 for two reasons. First, his son Larry had died of AIDS at the end of '91, and he wanted to bury that pain by working with young men. Second, he had decided he wanted to coach until he could do nothing else on this earth. "I was with Larry for the year before he died, and I just, well, all of a sudden I got dozens of new sons."
Normally as ebullient as a cheerleader, Ralston gets blurry-eyed for a moment, before going on. "And the other thing is, you do get better with age," he says. "To amass all the knowledge I've gained through the years, why, it's almost a responsibility to share it."
San Jose State likes Ralston because of that knowledge and because the school is pretty certain that the old Bay Area resident (he played football at Cat in the '40s) isn't going anywhere. "Go to another college? No, no," he says. "But anybody who has coached in the NFL and not won a Super Bowl, you'd have nagging questions if an NFL job were offered."
Ralston left for the NFL in 1972, as he says, "on the crest of those two Rose Bowl championships." Now he has found that more than anything else, what coaching is all about is dispensing information. "Coaching is coaching," he says. "It's a function of teaching." He's standing on the garage floor now, sweating from his efforts, and his eyes blaze as he hears himself speak. "Imagine getting to talk to 85 young men every day!" he says. "Ah, the thrill. There's nothing I've ever found that feels the same."
Certainly, though, it must be odd for some of Ralston's charges to play for a coach nearly a half-century older than they are. "I don't know what they think of me," he says. "They probably think this old bastard's crazy. Personally, I don't see the kids as any different than 25 years ago. They all want to excel."
Patty comes into the garage, seeking an extension cord from one of the many still unpacked boxes. She charges about, even more self-assured than her husband. "A wide receiver," says Ralston after she has left. "No doubt about it."
He and Patty made this final move so he could be closer to school, so, with his workday beginning at 6:30 a.m., he wouldn't have to spend three nights a week sleeping in a San Jose State dorm room after having studied tapes until 11 p.m. Just as a point of speculation, it is suggested that maybe he would like to coach until he's 90 or 95, keel over on the field in mid-practice and be buried under one of the goalposts that bookend all football fields like gateways to another world. He considers the notion. "That," he says, "would be the ultimate."
College or pro—it doesn't matter.