The Latest Wrinkle

October 19, 2003

Sure they're ageist, unpopular and politically incorrect, but age
limits ought to be the law in coaching. And the cutoff, cruel as
it sounds, should be 60. If you're any younger than that, you
shouldn't be allowed to coach.

Do you really wonder why? This is a miracle year for the
Miracle-Eared. When 72-year-old Jack McKeon was hired to manage
the Marlins in May, he said, "I feel like I'm 45." When Florida
beat the San Francisco Giants in their National League Division
Series, he said, "I'm down to 38." McKeon's life is rapidly
becoming a reverse auction, and right now the floor's the limit.
Do I hear ... 30? ... 21? ... 18?

Yankees coach Don Zimmer was surely feeling younger than his
years last Saturday when he heckled, then nearly haymakered,
impudent Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez. Alas, at 72, Zim now
needs the Clapper to turn your lights out. While his verbal abuse
quickly gave way to gerbil abuse, Zim did very nearly strike a
blow for the ages. And the aged.

In football, 66-year-old Dick Vermeil has the unbeaten Chiefs
bifocused on the Super Bowl. Bobby Bowden had an undefeated team
at Florida State before losing to Miami last Saturday. Of course,
the man is 73. At that age, "Dadgummit" is not only his signature
expletive, but it's also what his sons say when serving him corn
on the cob.

Professional coaching is, at its pinnacle, a gerontocracy. At 68,
Scotty Bowman was the oldest thing on ice not named Walt Disney.
In 2002, he retired with no worlds left to conquer, having won
nine Stanley Cups. Now, strangely, the NHL doesn't have a single
coach older than 60, though the league's best team, Ottawa, does
have a G.M.--former coach John Muckler--who will turn 70 this
season. Only Strom Thurmond was an older Senator.

Muckler is a few months younger than Hubie Brown, who got his
Caesar haircut from Caesar. Hired last November to coach the then
0-8 Memphis Grizzlies, Brown was--like Dr. Manette in A Tale of
Two Cities--recalled to life. "He sounds like a teenager rearing
for his first date," Grizzlies president Jerry West said the day
he hired Brown, who is old enough to have coached in two
Pyramids: Memphis's and Cheops's.

Yet he did get Jason Williams--heretofore exclusively interested
in no-look, no-think passes--to play defense. He somehow won 28
games with the Grislies, not least because X's and O's are
coursing through Brown's bloodstream. Indeed, this may literally
be so, if you count Vioxx, Fixodent and Minoxidil.

The same month Brown was hired, the Giants signed ex-Expos
manager Felipe Alou, 68, who said something interesting: "I'm
happy for the elderly." For what is, in life, retirement age has
become, in sports, rehirement age.

Previously, Alou had been replaced in Montreal by 68-year-old
Frank Robinson, though Wayne Terwilliger has navel lint older
than him. Last season, at 78, Twig managed the Fort Worth Cats of
the independent Central League to a division title. It was his
55th season in baseball--his career is now eligible for an AARP
card--which explains how, as a Washington Senator, he once
singled in a game-winning run off ... Satchel Paige.

It is said that in old age you needn't avoid temptation, because
temptation will avoid you. That is surely part of the appeal of
older coaches. At 66, South Carolina's Lou Holtz is more likely
to be felled by a hip joint than a strip joint.

Likewise, Drake has hired Dr. Tom Davis as its new basketball
coach. It doesn't hurt that Davis, at 64, is unlikely to frequent
fraternity parties, unless that fraternity is Phi Slamma Gramma.

At 64, Levitra spokesman Mike Ditka is putting the sex back in
sexagenarian. But--and here's another benefit--most coaches Da
Coach's age are unencumbered by endorsement deals. Joe Paterno is
more bran conscious than brand conscious.

And though Paterno's Penn State football team, with each passing
week, hits a low-water mark--even as his khakis do the
opposite--Joe Pa can take solace in another old coach whose name
was famously contracted: Connie Mack retired as manager of the
Philadelphia Athletics 53 years ago this week. He was 87 at the
time, 11 years older than Paterno is now.

"I'm not quitting because I'm too old," said Mack, who was born a
little more than two years before Lincoln was shot. "I'm quitting
because I think people want me to."

A scant four years after Mack retired, the Philadelphia Athletics
passed into eternity. Seventeen months after that, Cornelius
McGillicuddy did the same, the way an elderly husband passes
shortly after his wife.

The lesson is clear: Coach as long as you can. Coaches complain
that the profession prematurely ages them, but quite the opposite
is true. McKeon is aging in reverse precisely because he manages
the Marlins, leeching vitality from his players. The same goes
for Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, 62 going on 16, and looking
younger by the week.

Old coaches, it seems, never fade away. They just dye.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

What is, in life, retirement age has become, for managers and
coaches, rehirement age.

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