I NEED RELIEF. I need peace. You know that feeling you get when you watch a movie that has nothing but bad guys and scene after scene of double crosses. After a while, you just want something you can feel good about, something—anything—to believe in.
This is an article from the Jan. 19, 2009 issue
This Boston College football story is like that. Two years ago athletic director Gene DeFilippo hired an old friend, NFL assistant and former BC offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, to be the head coach. There was much excitement. Boston College paid the guy a million bucks a year to make the Eagles a national power. To some extent he did: BC was briefly ranked No. 2 in 2007. The Eagles won 20 of 28 games. They did lose to Virginia Tech in the last two ACC championship games, but all in all, things were going O.K.
Then the season ended, and word got out that Jagodzinski had been contacted by the Jets to interview for their vacant head coaching job. Well, DeFilippo flippoed out. He announced that if Jagodzinski interviewed, the BC coach would be fired. Jagodzinski interviewed on Jan. 6. DeFilippo fired him the next day.
At first I wanted to feel sympathy for Jagodzinski.... Hey, the guy had a chance to become an NFL head coach. Who would deny a man that chance? But then stories started appearing in papers that maybe Jagodzinski had been looking for a way out of BC. Then I wanted to feel good about DeFilippo for demanding loyalty and saying, "No more." Only, DeFilippo has his own history. He's the guy who brazenly chased bigger and better things by leading Boston College out of the Big East and into the ACC—shortly after telling Big East officials that he had no interest in leaving the conference.
"When I heard about [DeFilippo firing Jagodzinski]," says Jeff Fogelson, who was the athletic director at another Big East school, Seton Hall, when Boston College bolted, "I thought that the worst thing in the world would be for people to say what an honorable fellow this guy is."
The truth is there was no one in this story to feel good about, and more and more this is how I've come to feel about college sports. Coaches bolt for bigger dollars. Schools fire coaches who lose three games. Bob Stoops gets a $3 million bonus for staying at Oklahoma for 10 years, while Clemson pays $3.5 million to Tommy Bowden for leaving midseason. At Kansas State decision makers wanted the basketball team to win so badly that they held their noses and rescued Bob Huggins, unemployed since being fired in 2005 by Cincinnati, from his coaching purgatory. He repaid them by skipping town for his alma mater, West Virginia, after one season.
I need relief. So I call Herb Magee, the Philadelphia University basketball coach.
"This is where I belong," he says.
I needed peace. So I call Ken Sparks, the Carson-Newman football coach.
"We judge ourselves by the scoreboard," he says. "But you have to ask yourself, What scoreboard are you looking at? If your scoreboard's all about wins and loses, money and power, then that's pretty shaky."
Yes, this is what I need. Magee, 67, has been at Philadelphia University (the school formerly known as Philadelphia Textile)—as a player, assistant and head coach—for nearly 50 years. He's one of the great shooting teachers; he has worked with Charles Barkley and Jameer Nelson. He also has won 864 games, more than any other Division II coach.
He had chances to move. He had chances to make more money. "And who doesn't want to make more money?" he asks. But he stayed because Philadelphia is home, and because he loves his life, and maybe because Division II is in the shadows and more comfortable and closer to what he wants sports to be about. And also, maybe, because he knows that sometimes when chasing happiness, happiness is what you leave behind.
"Without sounding cocky, I do think I could have coached Division I basketball," Magee says. "But the way I figure it, coaching is coaching. You're teaching kids. That's what it's about, right?"
The trouble is, people say those words all the time, and they don't sound right if they come from coaches like Nick Saban or Bobby Petrino, men who would switch locker rooms at halftime if the price was right.
Sparks, 64, has been the coach at Carson-Newman in Jefferson City, Tenn., for 29 years. It's his alma mater. His teams have won 276 games and lost 70. They won five NAIA national championships before becoming a power in NCAA Division II. He, too, could have gone big time. People called. But he stayed in Jefferson City. He kept his children in the same school. He kept signing his one-year contracts.
"Listen, fortune and fame and power and pleasure, all those things appeal to this ol' boy pretty good," he says. "But there's a greater cause beside those things. I'm not one of those guys who thinks God comes around and slaps you on the side of the head or writes a message in the clouds. But best I can figure out, I feel like He's wanted me here."
Then he pauses to take a call from school president J. Randall O'Brien. Sparks needs to talk to him because he wants to drop off a homemade cake at the president's office.
Sparks and Magee are not the kind to judge. They understand that some coaches need to climb. They understand some schools need to win. But they believe, they have to believe, that there's something more. "I got into this thing to make a difference in kids' lives," Sparks says. "I think we all did to some degree. But now, I think, we're giving it lip service. And we're losing what matters."
Sparks and Magee plan on sticking around for a while longer, even if neither has received a $3 million bonus for staying at one school all this time. "But it's only been 50 years," Magee says. "Maybe that kicks in at 60."
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