- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal was considering what to say to President John F. Kennedy, who was scheduled to arrive later at Bergstrom Air Force Base after a short flight from Dallas. “I was supposed to be the first one to shake his hand and welcome him to Austin,” Royal said.

Kennedy, of course, never arrived. Of the thousands of questions raised that day, many of which remain unanswered, perhaps the least important, but a question nevertheless, is why, of all people, was Darrell Royal picked to greet the president of the United States?

“We were undefeated that year,” he said.

Why not Darrell Royal? He was more than a winning football coach. Back in 1963 and long after, he was the most recognizable figure in Austin if not the entire state — a true icon before the word became overused and misapplied. Royal was a larger-than-life figure who transcended college football and who belongs to an era that is about to end.

College football has always had its coaching legends. But now Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno and Lou Holtz represent the last of a breed, the remnants of a generation that towered over the game. It included the likes of Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and Ara Parseghian.

There were Frank Broyles, Vince Dooley, Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne and John McKay. There was Eddie Robinson, who coached at Grambling for 57 years, FDR through Clinton, and won more games than anyone else. And there was Bud Wilkinson, whose Oklahoma teams won three national championships and 47 straight games during one stretch. After he retired in 1963, Royal was asked to replace him. No way. “I didn’t want to follow Bud Wilkinson,” he explained.

Whose acts are too tough to follow now? Where are the coaches whose names will adorn stadiums and streets and libraries, coaches whose mere presence make grown, successful men practically grovel in deference? Where are those intimidating, imposing figures who, as Royal put it, “can walk through a rainstorm without getting wet?”

Where are they now? Mostly of another time. Largely because of parity, a broadening and critical media and the heightened pressure to win, only a few dinosaurs remain.

“There won’t be any more legends,” said longtime ABC broadcaster Keith Jackson, who socialized with such coaches, knew them well, and believes the game is worse off by their absence.

“I think we need ‘em,” Jackson said in his folksy tone. “I think we need that big figure, those kinds of men, because those kinds of men speak to strength, they speak to leadership. They’re anchors. This society needs the type of men and women who, when they walk into a room, you know they are there.”

In 2001, Paterno passed Bryant for the record in career major-college victories (Robinson won 408 games at the so-called “small college” level). Bowden moved past Bryant last year. Yesterday, Bowden won his 339th game and moved one game ahead of Paterno. Both men are in their 70s and whomever outlasts the other should hold the record forever. Third on the list, trailing by nearly 100, is Holtz, who is 66.

“I never thought about myself as a legend,” Holtz said, an arguable statement. The coach at South Carolina since 1999, Holtz has built or rebuilt six major programs in his 32 years of coaching and won a national championship at Notre Dame in 1988. Yet when he tried the NFL, he was something less than legendary. Holtz lasted less than one year, going 3-10 with the New York Jets in 1976. College is where he belonged.

Beyond winning a lot of games, Bowden, Paterno and Holtz project a distinct identity. Bowden is country, Paterno city. Holtz does magic tricks and traded jokes with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” To create an aura of greatness, charisma helps. The gravelly voiced Bryant, who won six national championships at Alabama, was as commanding and intimidating as any five-star general or rugged movie star. Bowden, who grew up in Alabama idolizing Bryant, likens the Bear to John Wayne.

Royal (three national titles) remains a polite, humble gentleman whose wry, homespun homilies (“You’ve got to dance with the one that brung you.”) became part of the vernacular. Southern California’s McKay cracked sardonic jokes while building the Trojans into a national power.

Others were more blunt. Hayes and Schembechler were tempestuous, irascible, sometimes violent coaches whose emotions often prevailed. But they were colorful. Michigan’s Schembechler was skilled in the art of the sideline tantrum, but he had little to be upset about. No team won more games in the 1970s, and he never had a losing season in 27 years. He retired in 1989 fifth on the career victories list.

Bo learned from the master, Hayes, for whom he worked as an assistant at Ohio State. Hayes ranted at officials, tossed sideline markers, pushed and punched cameramen and finally got fired in 1978 — after winning five national championships — for slugging a Clemson player during the Gator Bowl. By the way, the address of Ohio Stadium, home of the Buckeyes, is 411 Woody Hayes Drive.

“Some of them were tyrants,” Jackson said. “Some of them were kind, and some of them were statesmen. Bud Wilkinson’s thing was coming in and talking to his team at the last minute [before a game], looking like he’d stepped out of the pages of Esquire.”

Most of today’s coaches look, act and sound alike; they’re bland, low-key, noncontroversial. Among those active coaches with at least 100 victories are Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, Texas A&M;’s Dennis Franchione, Air Force’s Fisher DeBerry, Texas’ Mack Brown and Syracuse’s Paul Pasqualoni. Mississippi State’s Jackie Sherrill, fourth on the active career victories list, announced he will retire after this, his 26th season. But his teams stopped winning long ago, and he is known more for his run-ins with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

It is hard to imagine many of those coaches, all of them successful, living the sort of life Royal leads after they quit. Retired since 1976, Royal spends his days and nights in Austin and around Texas showing up at charity golf tournaments here, fund-raisers there and home games at the stadium named after him to “mix and mingle and shake hands with friends and neighbors.” Included among the friends and neighbors are every U.S. president since Kennedy, except Bill Clinton.

“I’ve got a calendar that’s chock full,” Royal said. “I’ve got something scheduled just about every day.”

At 79, a generation after he left the game, he is still busy being Darrell Royal.

• • •

If, as Woody Allen said, 90 percent of life is showing up, the other 10 percent is sticking around. Paterno, 38 years as head coach and 16 as an assistant before that, has spanned six decades at Penn State. Bowden became coach at Florida State in 1976 when Gerald Ford was president. Bryant, who coached at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M; before going to Alabama in 1958, lasted 25 years (and 25 winning seasons) as coach of the Crimson Tide. Royal coached 20 years at Texas and could have stayed longer but left on his own terms. He was only 52.

“I always wanted to leave when folks still wanted me to stay,” he said.

What a quaint notion.

“Not a lot of coaches get an opportunity to stay at one place like any of those people,” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said.

Said Paterno: “We had a little more control of our environment. Now it’s a little different story. … Every time you pick up a paper, somebody who’s supposed to win a national championship and doesn’t is in danger.”

Paterno cited R.C. Slocum, fired at Texas A&M; last year after 14 straight non-losing seasons. Not only did Slocum clean up a program dragged through NCAA mud by Sherrill, his teams won more games in the 1990s than any other team in the state ever won in a decade, including Texas under Royal.

“He does all the things you think are great, but a couple of guys didn’t feel he won enough games, and he goes,” Paterno said.

At one time, the goal of every coach was to play on New Year’s Day in one of the four major bowl games: Sugar, Cotton, Orange and Rose. These days, the four big bowl games are the Sugar, Orange, Rose and Fiesta. All are under the Bowl Championship Series’ rotating bowl system and are designed to produce a so-called “national” champion. A BCS bowl can pay as much as $17million to each team, and fans seem happy only when their team is in one of those games.

“There’s always been pressure to win, but the stakes are much higher now,” said ESPN commentator and veteran college football watcher Beano Cook.

Said Holtz: “People aren’t as patient as they used to be.”

These days, said Bowden, “it seems like coaches’ security is not as great as it once was. It seems like they used to give us five years. Now, they give us two or three.”

Texas has gone through four coaches in the 27 years since Royal retired. Hayes’ successor at Ohio State, Earle Bruce, went 81-26-1 and was perpetually criticized for failing to win the Big One. At Alabama, four of the five post-Bryant coaches resigned after 10-win seasons. Gene Stallings, who won a national championship in 1992, once said, “The people at Alabama loved Coach Bryant. They just tolerated the rest of us.”

Paterno said, “It’s a tougher job, and you have a tougher time convincing people they should stay at a place 25 years. … You lose a couple of football games and everybody wants to get on your back and say it’s time to do this or do that.”

Paterno knows firsthand. Few coaches have been as revered (he helped raise $14million for the university’s Paterno Library), but with Penn State 2-6 and facing its third losing season in four years, Paterno is hearing the critics. Even his pedestal has started to wobble.

“The minute somebody slips, somebody wants to bring them down,” Paterno said. “It’s a different environment.”

He means a different media environment. Back in the good old days, there was no Internet or talk radio, which most coaches despise for the venal criticism and anonymous rumormongering. For example, almost immediately after Ron Zook replaced Steve Spurrier at Florida last year, the Web site, fireronzook.com, appeared. It was later removed, but it’s back and thriving, especially now that the Gators have lost their bite.

The so-called “legitimate” media also has changed. Reporters once stood solidly behind the program. Dooley, who is in his final year as Georgia’s athletic director (his contract was not renewed), wistfully remembers when only a couple of beat writers would show up at practice, and then he would take them out to dinner.

Coaches’ on-field moves were not second-guessed, their behavior off the field went unreported. Players’ misdeeds were hidden. If athletes were getting paid or not going to class and still graduating, or the coach was visiting questionable places or hanging out with people of dubious character, the boys at the country club might have shared a wink or a chuckle, but people never read about it.

Now they do. Reporters today do their job and report. A lot of coaches don’t see it that way, mainly because it makes their jobs tougher. And anything that makes a job more difficult impinges on success. Few believe Bowden could have lasted this long if he had started coaching in the recent past. Once highly accessible and media-friendly, Bowden has drastically limited his exposure and has come to resent criticism of his program’s recent struggles and players’ numerous off-field escapades.

“When someone makes a bad decision, it becomes national,” Holtz said.

Mainly, however, winning consistently is harder than it used to be. There are more good teams, and fewer great ones year in and year out. Parity prevails.

“When I was coming up, it was just Alabama and Tennessee putting any financial resources into football,” said Arkansas’ Athletic Director Frank Broyles, who, as the Razorbacks’ coach from 1958 through 1976, dominated the Southwest Conference along with Royal and the Longhorns. “Then, all of a sudden, everybody started doing it.”

The main reason for parity is scholarship limits. Coaches once recruited as many players as they wanted, sometimes just to keep their opponents from signing them. The current limit is 85 scholarships.

“You can’t stockpile players anymore,” said ESPN commentator Lee Corso, who coached at Louisville, Indiana and Northern Illinois. “Woody Hayes used to close off the state to the rest of us because he always took guys that were pretty good and then sat them on the bench.”

It used to be, said Bowden, “that the people on top could stay there because they would sign their players and sign yours, too.”

Those days are long gone. Soon the legends will be, too.

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