"We create these giant Football Monsters when we win. They are voracious and we have to feed them every year!" Barry Switzer's eyes glittered as he described his least-favorite conscience-driven cartoon character.
Staying up late to write about Saturday's Michigan-Notre Dame melee reminds me of the level of fatigue most Football Monster coaches feel most of the time. The drain is indescribable and unforgettable. Coach Vince Lombardi was correct when he said "fatigue makes cowards of us all."
When I use the term Football Monsters I don't mean Dick Butkus or Joe Greene. I'm talking about the universities at which football is more important than religion, food or water. I mean the high-profile football programs that expect to dominate, to build the biggest stadiums, the biggest weight rooms, the biggest academic support systems -- the biggest everything. I mean the teams that publicize their "donors" in slick publications with even slicker categories of their largesse in terms of exclusive clubs that accrue in direct proportion to the cash "contributed."
Some of them even publicize their select parking places. Why not? Wring out a few more bucks for the "charitable" gifts to be closer to the "prestige" elevator which will take the big "givers" to the president's box.
When Switzer's imagination creates his Football Monster, it is born of those characteristics, along with a few more.
We were in relaxed surroundings on a trip sponsored by a shoe company, and I had asked Switzer about coaching at one of the powerhouse institutions, as he had done it at Oklahoma. He is not the only bootlegger's boy I have known, but he is certainly the most passionate one about our sport.
"We get these people all jacked up about winning national championships, and they learn to expect them," he continued. "They turn into monsters, man, and they will turn on you and eat you alive!"
Switzer's right. After 0-2 starts in the 2007 season, Charlie Weis of Notre Dame and Lloyd Carr of Michigan are dealing with their own Football Monsters as we speak. At those two institutions and a few others, there is never an excuse for a lapse. While the two coaches are in very different scenarios with their careers and constituencies, they have similar issues. While their situations could hardly be more different, the emotional and morale challenges are virtually identical.
Head coaches at powerhouse institutions establish the goals, make the staff and team schedules, set the pace, and demand the best from everyone. We love to brag and complain about our 80- and 90-hour work weeks as if they were imposed by divine ordinance. We get so tired we see through a gray haze, and we then expect to make quality decisions. Very few of us can make and maintain a schedule that allows for the proper ordering of priorities, maintenance of rest and health and lots of victories. The guys that pull that off deserve enormous credit.
For every Joe Paterno, Eddie Robinson and Bobby Bowden there are a hundred good coaches that fall by the wayside from the sheer fatigue and harassment. We coaches create our own prisons, complain about them, and then are usually dragged out by the inmates, kicked out by the warden, removed by our wives, or ordered home by our personal physicians.
As for the Football Monsters, we are hoping to satisfy them long enough to get the requisite number of great players to win every game. We offer a variety of sacrifices to the Monsters, hoping to sate their omnivorous appetites. Right now there are three sacrificial elements in the annual ceremony:
1. Recruiting: This is the process during which grown men and women spend countless hours and millions of dollars in an attempt to discern the decision-making process of 17-year-old males. Remember what you thought about when you were 17? I thought so. What happens is the male teen egos see all this as a sort of coronation, designed just for them. Some of them never recover.
2. Off With His Head: Since public executions and lynchings are declared illegal in the United States, our culture substitutes virtual destruction of reputations, families and privacy to those who dare invoke the wrath of the Football Monsters. Web sites that begin with the word "Fire" are considered clever substitutes for rational discourse, thus mimicking our current third-grade-level political process.
3. Football Games: Thoughtful, decent fans love the sport itself and enjoy the games for their grace, teamwork and physical nature. Fanatics show up to vent their spleen on anybody that wears a different color. One fanatic recently tried to remove a rival's scrotum for having the temerity to wear the wrong shirt.
At times like this, I am asked on a daily basis how in the world the coaches can handle the pressure. Men like Lloyd Carr and Charlie Weis know all about reality and deal with it, each in his own way. If they were not smart, tough and resilient, they would not have survived to this point. Each of them takes responsibility, seeking to protect assistant coaches and players. Each knows this will pass, and the Football Monsters will move to another neighborhood in due course. Each is working hard with his players to help them understand. Each is trying to explain to the folks that love them why they would see this through.
I assure you that each of them is teaching the players, their families, the fans and even some of the monsters about life. They are modeling leadership. Champions are never established by ease. Champions and future champions never quit. Teams that go to the top always endure nightmare moments. Life is precisely the same. The difference in today's world of technology and days past is that every detail of the life and thoughts of coaches and players is evaluated. Furthermore, those details and thoughts are evaluated by people who have no experience on the field and no idea what they are talking about.
The groups who do have great difficulty with the vitriolic barrage are the affected families and the players themselves. At one point in my career I learned that my scholarly wife was paying for groceries with cash. She detests carrying money around, and is an expert with plastic, so I asked what was going on.
"I go to the grocery store and hope they won't recognize me," she responded. "I just cannot tolerate the remarks."
At my radio show during the same period, I was shocked to see three of my best players seated in the studio. When I asked the producer why we were using study time to interview players, he said he had not invited them. I figured they were dodging study hall, so I asked what they were up to. They responded, "Coach, we came to talk to the nuts out there. Let us tell those people what is really going on! We don't want you taking all this crap!" Those students should have been thinking about math and grammar, not the whims of Football Monsters or the fate of their coach.
The mob mentality even drags decent folks into the fray. On a usually desolate road where I loved to walk my dog, I was passed one day by a bike rider. I ignored him until he turned his head, looked at us, and stopped. I was tempted to turn around to avoid him, growing angry at his intrusion into my only quiet time. As I slowed, he called out, "Coach are you Coach Curry?" I was trapped. I nodded and walked toward him. When I got close I could see a gentle face of middle age. There were tears in his eyes.
"Do you remember when you told the fans they were wrong to boo our quarterback?" he asked. I certainly remembered. "I am a minister of the Gospel, and I was one of those awful fans booing that young man," he said with quivering lips. "I beg your forgiveness. I am so ashamed." I assured him he did not need my forgiveness, and that I was sure he had sought the real thing from the real source.
Needless to say, I was deeply moved, and reminded once again that the good stuff that happens in all this controversy usually does not get to the public. Here is the good stuff:
Ministers and other people of good will come to their senses and make amends for their aberrant behavior. Players and families learn that controversy seldom lasts more than a few weeks, and that life moves on. Coaches, families, and players learn to forgive folks who attack them in print and on the air.
Most important, bonds are formed in the fires of adversity that last a lifetime, and perhaps beyond. Traditions of toughness and togetherness are built in the midst of great difficulty that are remembered, saluted and carried on by future teams and families.
What is required is leadership. Where there is honorable, well-conceived leadership, these kinds of moments are the building blocks for the best aspects of competitive team sport.
If you doubt me, check out the Paterno, Robinson and Bowden stories. In fact, check out the story of anyone who has been a beacon of encouragement and you will find the same, always honorable, well-conceived leadership.
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is the executive director of Leadership Baylor, a comprehensive leadership initiative at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. His column appears each week during the college football season.