X's + O's = Zero Z's

October 02, 2005

Fighting Irish football coach Charlie Weis scheduled a predawn haircut in his office on the eve of his first home game, forcing his tireless barber to shear, shear for old Notre Dame at 4:45 in the morning.

Dolphins coach Nick Saban so cloistered himself watching game tape from Week 2 that he was oblivious to the hurricane warnings issued for South Florida.

And Seahawks defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes recently suffered a mild stroke that USA Today described, without irony, as a "wake-up call," even though a wake-up call is the last thing required by Rhodes, who appears to have gone sleepless in Seattle for the better part of two years. "I feel like I can survive off three or four hours' sleep," Rhodes said.

When did football coaches (and a great many basketball coaches) conclude that the less they sleep, the more they'll win? If you've reduced your alphabet to two letters--X's and O's--there isn't much room for Z's. And so coaches are now taking way too literally the phrase You snooze, you lose.

For one evening each week during the football season the sequestered coaches at Oklahoma invite their wives and children to the Sooners' complex in what has become a platonic version of a prison's conjugal visits.

Such get-togethers allow coaches to avoid the kind of awkward moment that Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil experienced when he was head coach at UCLA. During one marathon film session Vermeil ordered that a frame be frozen: In it was one of his sons, standing on the sideline. "God," said Vermeil, in a parental epiphany, "has David ever grown a lot in a year."

It's one thing not to recognize your own children. It's more unfathomable still not to recognize Madonna, whom Joe Gibbs, in his first go-round as Redskins coach in the '80s, confessed he had never heard of, although she was then at the peak of her fame.

During college basketball's frenzied recruiting period in July, one SEC coach lamented that he hadn't had time to see a newspaper or television in the previous week. When a reporter said that surely he'd heard of the previous day's terrorist bombings in London, the coach replied, stricken, "Did something happen in London yesterday?"

In their never-ending game of one-downmanship coaches see the bags under their eyes as status symbols, inverted chevrons ranking them as privates or corporals or sergeants of sleeplessness. But another basketball coach, who has served as an assistant in college and the pros, looks back on a lifetime of 10 p.m. hotel-room meetings with some ambivalence. "You end up ordering buffalo wings and watching Porky's Revenge on Skinemax," he says. "But you have to be there, 'meeting,' because other staffs are too."

This same kind of brinksmanship drove the cold war arms race--mutually assured destruction--and it can be a very tough cycle to break. When he became coach of the Redskins, Steve Spurrier vowed not to sleep in his office. "I read where Jim Haslett gets to work at 4:30 in the morning," he said of the Saints' coach, "and it doesn't seem to do [him] any good."

Of course, not coming in at 4:30 a.m. didn't do Spurrier any good with the Skins, but he did win a national championship at Florida, where the Old Ball Coach proved you can dominate while still playing golf on occasion. Notre Dame won a national title under Lou Holtz, whose staff didn't golf. "If he's got golf clubs in his truck or a camper in his driveway," Holtz liked to say of potential assistants, "I don't hire him."

Those two coaches had different work styles but got the same result. You say tomato, I say tomahto. You say Van Winkle (who slept for 20 years), I say Van Gundy (who hasn't slept for 20 years).

What's indisputable is that man needs sleep. Sleep is, in Shakespeare's words, "sore labour's bath, balm of hurt minds, great Nature's second course, Chief nourisher in life's feast." But a coach's daily feasts are all consumed from a Styrofoam clam box at a conference table, chased down by a dose of caffeine or a wad of chew. (Pete Carroll of two-time defending champ USC guzzles Mountain Dew; Saban won a share of the '03 title at LSU while abuzz on Red Man.)

"It is vain for you to rise early and put off your rest at night.... God gives to his beloved in sleep," says Psalm 127:2. Is that why we call them ungodly hours? Perhaps this verse should replace John 3:16 on those ubiquitous stadium signs.

Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden--whose autobiography is subtitled Winning with Heart, Passion and Not Much Sleep--famously rises most mornings at 3:17. The spiritual shorthand that will most readily spring to mind this weekend while watching hollow-eyed coaches stalk the sidelines is not Psalm 127:2 or John 3:16.

It's Jon 3:17.

• If you have a comment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

You say tomato, I say tomahto. You say Van Winkle (who slept for 20 years), I say Van Gundy (who hasn't slept for 20 years).

PHOTOSIMON BRUTY

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)