The colored lights were glowing and half the ornaments were
already on the tree in the Oregon State football office on Dec.
11 when Dan Marlow, the secondary coach, popped his head around
the corner and asked, "Aren't we going to have a Christmas tree
Kari Ludington, a football secretary, gave him a puzzled look.
She pointed at the artificial spruce, which was roughly the
height and girth of a middle linebacker--and about as hard to
overlook. "Oh," Marlow said, drawing back and blinking. "It's
right there, isn't it?"
Marlow had missed the tree because it was not in the sight line
from his office in the narrow assistant coaches' corridor to the
closed door of room 117, the head coach's office--the office
with no name plaque. Behind that door Mike Riley, the man who
was considering an offer to become Oregon State's new coach, was
holding one-on-one interviews with assistants from the staff of
ex-coach Jerry Pettibone, who resigned on Nov. 25. Up and down
the corridor, nervous men popped in and out of tiny offices like
actors in a bedroom farce. They murmured, "What have you
heard?... What does it mean?... What did he say?"
In one of the offices running backs and special teams coach Bill
Singler was too wound up to sit behind his desk. Outside his
window raindrops plunked in puddles and dark clouds blanketed
the campus, but Singler was lost in more subtle portents, such
as the surprise postponement of an afternoon press conference in
Corvallis, at which Riley, the offensive coordinator at USC, had
been expected to be named Oregon State's coach. "That's
baffling," Singler said. "If they don't hire Mike, they're set
back until after Christmas." Singler tapped the floor with his
feet, bit his lip and stared at the minute hand of his clock,
which was creeping toward his 2:30 appointment with Riley. "I'm
going to go to the rest room before I go in there," he said. "Is
his door still shut?" He stuck his head into the corridor and
pulled it right back.
December 23, 1996
Outside room 117, at her desk, Francine Counihan seemed to be
near tears. Having worked as a secretary since 1984 at the right
hand of three head coaches--Joe Avezzano, Dave Kragthorpe and
Pettibone--she had become a sort of house mother to the
assistants. Now her brood was splitting up again. "It's
heartbreaking," she said of watching the assistants squirm over
their uncertain futures. "I don't know how they stand this
Similar scenes have taken place at other campuses in recent
weeks--at Alabama, Baylor, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky,
Maryland, Minnesota, Notre Dame, Pitt, Purdue, Tulane and
Wyoming, among others. At last count, 22 of the 111 NCAA
Division I-A football programs had either hired or were about to
hire new head coaches. And since new coaches generally retain
few, if any, assistants from the old regimes, the job scramble
has been more frantic than usual. "You've got just over a
hundred schools, with nine full-time assistants each," said
Singler, a former All-Pac 8 receiver at Stanford. "That's about
a thousand jobs. And there must be three times as many coaches
looking for work--qualified, experienced coaches. So, no, it's
not exactly the season to be jolly."
Unless, of course, your idea of Christmas is to be told you have
24 hours to clean out your desk and turn in your phone
card--which is what happened on Nov. 25 to the Maryland football
staff. "You talk about glum," says Kevin Rogers, a Syracuse
assistant who has lost his job three times in his 19-year career
when his boss was replaced. "You're thinking, This might be the
Christmas I can't afford to buy my kids gifts."
The bright side, if you can call it that, is that most
assistants are prepared for the pink slip in the office
stocking. After all, many work on one-year contracts. "It's a
very transient job," said Singler. "If you're an assistant, you
hold a position, on average, for three to 3 1/2 years. The head
guy lasts four to six."
Singler has held 10 coaching jobs in 20 years (chart, page 93)
and has been sent packing more times than he wants to remember.
His last two jobs, in fact, carried more warning flags than a
logging truck. At Rutgers last year he joined the doomsday staff
of Doug Graber, whose teams had gone 25-29-1 in the previous
five seasons. Then Singler signed on at Oregon State, where
Pettibone was coming off a 1-10 season. "You can't be too
choosy," he said. "There are only so many jobs, and it's
important to me that I work with people I respect."
Unfortunately, Pettibone packed it in toward the end of a 2-9
campaign--the Beavers' 26th consecutive losing season, a
Division I-A record--and his assistants immediately started
networking. "Every college assistant has a job board," Singler
said on Dec. 10, pulling out a legal pad whose top page was
densely covered with writing. "Some are on walls, in grease
pencil. Mine's on paper."
Singler's listed 30 programs with openings and, in a separate
column labeled bubble, schools where changes were rumored or
imminent. At the bottom of the page were columns for unsettled
NFL teams. More important than the school names, he said, were
the names of coaches and athletic directors that filled spaces
between the columns. After 20 years Singler's network of
contacts covers the country like an airline route map. "It's who
you know," he said, reaching for the phone.
It's who you know. This is the mantra of college assistants, who
recognize that most head coaches hire friends and colleagues
they've worked with on the way up. ("You could be riding on the
back of a garbage truck," says Craig Stump, recently let go by
Southwest Texas State, "but he'll hire you if he knows you.")
That's why Singler was encouraged by newspaper reports last week
that had Oregon State hiring Riley to replace Pettibone. Riley,
like Singler, is a native Oregonian; the two played for rival
high school powers--Singler as a star receiver for 1969 state
champion Medford High, Riley as quarterback of 1970 champion
Corvallis High. The two were teammates at the 1971 Oregon Shrine
All-Star Football Classic.
On the other hand, it was rumored that Riley already had six
assistants in mind for his staff, and no one knew if he planned
to retain any of Pettibone's men. "You're only as good as your
last job," Singler fretted, aware that his best coaching
credit--a three-year stint with the legendary Bill Walsh at
Stanford--was two rungs down on his resume. "When you're with a
losing program, you're branded a bad coach. People don't come
knocking on your door."
Unless, of course, they happen to be walking by. Oregon State
athletic director Dutch Baughman leaned in and asked Singler if
he had a minute. Singler stepped into the corridor. The two men
whispered back and forth, and then Singler returned to his
office and closed the door. "Yes!" he said under his breath,
pumping his right arm. Good news? Singler cocked his head,
hesitated and said ... maybe. "That's the first time in 20 years
I've had an AD come to me and say, 'Hang in there, it looks
He sat down behind his desk and rocked in his chair for a
moment. Then he bent again over his job board, trying to quiet
his mind. "Mike Price at Washington State was rumored for the
Minnesota job, but he's taken his name out of consideration. And
now Grambling might have openings."
Here's what they wonder, these assistants in limbo. They wonder
if the know-it-alls on the sports talk shows ever consider the
impact of their invective on coaches' wives and children. They
wonder if the newspaper columnists, screaming for heads to roll,
sleep well after tucking in their own kids at night. They wonder
if the big-shot boosters ever have to deal with a distraught
wife--as did Alabama line coach Danny Pearman, who came home
recently to find his wife crying over an unconfirmed television
report that he would not be retained by new coach Mike Dubose.
"I was depressed for about two or three weeks," says Auburn
assistant Pete Jenkins, recalling his dismissal by Louisiana
State in 1990 after an 11-year stint under three head coaches,
three ADs and three school presidents. "I felt I'd let my family
down." And just last month Craig Stump got the boot from
Southwest Texas State only 11 days after his wife, Mary Beth,
had open-heart surgery and four months after their newborn son,
Taylor Joseph, was operated on to repair a skull fracture he
suffered during birth.
"It's really hard," says UCLA assistant coach Gary Bernardi, one
of eight coaches let go from the USC staff in 1992 when John
Robinson took over after the Trojans' infamous Freedom Bowl loss
to Fresno State. "When most people lose their jobs, it isn't
reported in the newspaper or on the TV news," Bernardi says. "My
daughter was ridiculed at school after USC fired us."
Some coaches have been helped by the American Football Coaches
Association, whose executive director, Grant Teaff, persuaded
many colleges to grant assistants contracts that run from June 1
to May 31. "Now you know you're going to keep getting a check,"
says assistant Ron West, who remains in limbo at Baylor. "The
pressure at Christmas is not as bad. You don't have to jump at
the first thing that comes along." Other coaches protect
themselves by contributing to portable retirement programs,
cognizant that they will never work anywhere long enough to
qualify for a pension.
But nothing means as much to a coach as having an understanding
wife. "I didn't marry until I was 35," said Singler, "and I knew
it was true love because Leah agreed to marry me after I'd been
let go at Kansas State." Actually, Leah was in the business
herself, as an assistant sports information director at Kansas
State. She's not thrilled with all the moving, but at least she
understands her husband's passion for coaching. "I always tell
Bill, 'As long as you still love football, it's O.K. We can get
through it.'" Laughing, she adds, "I always look for the
positive in a situation."
Last week, while the number of Riley sightings in Corvallis rose
as fast as the rain-swollen Willamette River, Singler had to
handle domestic duties while fighting for his job. Leah was out
of town for three days on a family matter, so Bill ferried sons
Mitchell, 6, and Jack, 3, to and from day care; fed them their
daily ration of ice cream and Jell-O; and kept them up past
bedtime playing basketball in his carton-filled garage. "This is
the typical assistant coach's garage," Singler joked, "filled
with boxes ready to be packed."
On Dec. 11, though, Singler was in the football office
manipulating the X's and O's of surmise and speculation. As the
clock nudged 2:30, Denny Schuler, the offensive coordinator
under Pettibone, stood in Singler's door and brooded over the
canceled press conference. He asked, "Do you think Mike has seen
something, since he's been here, that he doesn't like?" Both men
knew that the odds of their being retained were long. Last year
at the six Division I-A schools where outsiders were brought in
as head coaches, only 11 of 54 assistants kept their jobs.
The phone rang and Singler answered. "Big Don!" he yelped. It
was Don Frease, the coach of Portland's new Arena football team,
calling to share his club's name: the Forest Dragons.
Counihan appeared at the door. "You're up next," she said softly
The assistant coach cupped his hand over the phone. "When?"
A minute later Singler walked briskly up the hallway to the head
coach's office, where a relaxed Riley met him with a warm
handshake and a smile. "Billy," Riley said.
It was still raining two hours later when a weary Riley emerged
from room 117, finished with his interviews. "It's very
difficult," he said. "You dream about putting your own staff
together--guys you coached with, people who played for you. But
that means turning out guys who've been loyal to the program and
have done a great job. Believe me, it's hard." Minutes later,
Riley was on the road to Eugene to catch a flight "home"--to
L.A., where he planned to say goodbye to colleagues and players
at last Thursday night's USC football banquet.
Singler, meanwhile, was home with his kids, trying to suppress
the urge to sing. "I feel real good," he had said in his office
before leaving. "It's not a done deal, there are a couple of
things that have to be worked out. But Mike was very
encouraging. I think--" Singler cut himself off and smiled. (As
SI went to press on Monday night, Riley had been named Oregon
State's new coach; Singler was still hopeful but also prepared
to start packing.)
Largely unnoticed was the fact that Ludington, the young
secretary, had finished trimming the tree. At one point while
Riley conducted his interviews an ornament--a small red
globe--had slipped from her hand and shattered on the floor.
"It's O.K.," she said, picking up the biggest shards with her
fingers. "I'll get a broom and sweep up the rest."
With that, she retreated down the silent corridor, where all the
doors were closed.
BILL SINGLER THEN AND NOW
Singler, who has never had the good fortune to be employed at a
school for longer than four years, knows the value of keeping
his job board (above) current.
YEAR SCHOOL TITLE RECORD
1977 Long Beach State Volunteer assistant 4-6
1978 Long Beach State Graduate assistant 5-6
1979 Long Beach State Graduate assistant 7-4
1980 Long Beach State Graduate assistant 8-3
1981 Southern Oregon
State QB and receivers coach 6-4
1982 James Logan HS
(Calif.) Quarterback coach 2-6-1
1983 Eagle Point HS
(Ore.) Assistant coach 3-6
1984 Cincinnati Receivers coach 2-9
1985 Cincinnati Receivers coach 5-6
1986 Kansas State Receivers coach 2-9
1987 Kansas State Receivers coach 0-10-1
1988 Kansas State QB and passing
1989 Oregon Inst. of Tech. Defensive backs coach 6-3
1990 Pacific University Head coach 3-5-1
1991 Pacific University Head coach 0-9
1992 Stanford Special teams coach 10-3
1993 Stanford Running backs/
special teams 4-7
1994 Stanford Running backs coach 3-7-1
1995 Rutgers Running backs coach 4-7
1996 Oregon State Running backs/
special teams 2-9