- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 23, 2000

Ron Vanderlinden was a sad sight as he answered questions at his non-news conference after Maryland's football team lost to Georgia Tech on Saturday afternoon at Byrd Stadium. His voice was muted, his eyes clouded, his manner subdued. All he wanted, it seemed, was to be off somewhere by himself, maybe for a good cry.

We didn't know then, despite a smidgen of speculation, that Vanderlinden's tenure as the Terps' coach had less than 24 hours to run. Maybe he did know, or at least suspected. Asked to critique the season, he declined and moved on to other business.

Vanderlinden and his colleagues are in a rough, tough business. It's fine to recruit good young men, to represent your school with honor and dignity and to utter public pronouncements so positive they would embarrass a politician seeking re-election. But you also better win, something Maryland did only 15 times in 44 games under Vandy's stewardship. So bring on the next victim, and let's listen to his sunny spiel about great things to come.

I know that's what we'll hear when the new man is introduced in College Park because that's what we heard from Vanderlinden when he got the job, as well as from Mark Duffner before him. Heck, when John Heisman and Pop Warner were given their first commands, they probably promised limitless football riches, too. It goes with the territory.

Meanwhile, Vandy is out on the street, his coaching record forever besmirched by the numerical evidence that he didn't get it done in College Park. He'll turn up as an an assistant coach somewhere next season possibly in the Big Ten, from where he came and with luck he might get another chance to be a head man someday. No matter what happens, though, his life and the lives of his family and staff will be turned upside down.

Which brings us, circuitously, to today's topic: Why would anyone want to be a football coach?

True, the big winners the Bowdens, the Spurriers, the Paternos get rich and famous. But for each of them, there are perhaps 25 coaches at major schools who work inhuman hours, recruit until they gag at the mere sight of coffee cake, fend off impatient alumni who don't know a free safety from a free lunch and watch 19- or 20-year-olds running around, as somebody once said, "with my paycheck in his hand."

When the late Jerry Claiborne was turning out winners consistently at Maryland, I asked him how he celebrated a big victory in College Park. "Well," Jerry said, "I go home and have dinner with my wife and then watch a little TV until I fall asleep."

"Yeah," Fay Claiborne said, "then he wakes up, and I hear that darned projector running [with the game films] at 4 a.m."

Certainly, there are many rewards to coaching football at the high school or small college level, where it may not necessarily dominate 95 percent of your life and you can get down in the dirt and teach kids how to play. But in Division I-A, the "coach" is more of an administrator. He has a staff of eight or 10 assistants who do the coaching while he oversees matters, handles major problems and tries to keep the media and fans from eating him alive.

In short, it isn't much fun. There is, you see, always the Next Game unless you win a national title, in which case there is always the Next Season.

Without spending every minute with a coach and his team, there's no way to assess what kind of job he's doing. Look at poor Norv Turner. The Redskins lose two games in a row, and Dan Snyder is ready so the conventional wisdom goes to drop-kick him from FedEx Field all the way back to Dallas. The Redskins upset the Rams, and he is beyond any doubt a giant of his dubious profession.

I don't know how guys like Vanderlinden, Turner and their ilk can live their lives on the employment bubble, as most big-time coaches do. Folks like Jimmy Johnson and Bobby Ross didn't quit because they were tired of football. They quit because of the incredible pressures the game puts on coaches and always will.

A few, such as Bobby Bowden, seem to handle those pressures with equanimity and grace. Others, such as Steve Spurrier, act on the sideline as though coaching a football team is about enjoyable as natural childbirth.

The reason most of us enjoy sports is that we can pretend games and seasons are matters of great importance even if we know, deep down, that they really aren't. We still have to get up the next morning and resume our jobs and lives, regardless of what goes down between the lines.

For coaches, though, the games and seasons really do matter because they may not have jobs, or even lives, to resume if things don't go down the right way. Sometime I'd like to check the percentages of bad marriages and divorces among top-level coaches. For them, everything else in their world must be secondary at least until that world blows apart.

I feel for Ron Vanderlinden, and you should, too. He makes his living in a lousy profession, and it finally caught up with him.

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