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For all you television-football fans, let's get this straight first. Joe Bugel's the one hunched over on the sidelines with the greased black hair and the headphones. He calls all those dumb plays during the Phoenix Cardinals games. And, yes, he's the guy most responsible for losing the games.
And that was Bugel screaming and jumping up and down in the final seconds of the game last Sunday when his team lost yet another game, this time to the Indianapolis Colts.
The Arizona Republic is now taking a poll to determine whether Bugel should be fired. I say, who needs a poll? Bugel should be history. He deserves to be a head football coach about as much as Henry Kissinger deserves to be president. Both Bugel and Kissinger are back-room, behind-the-scenes guys. Bugel comes on a lot like Saddam Hussein, the well-known Iraqi politician. Before the battle is joined, Joe promises an exceedingly tough and boisterous engagement. When it's over, he becomes a modern Willy Loman, the poor schlump in desperate need of a smile and a shoeshine.
During preseason Bugel issued continuous war whoops over KTAR, the official Cardinals radio station. He kept urging his players: "Let's put on our hats and go to war." Bugel bawled out this clarion call on his regular interview show with Jude LaCava so often that Cardinal fans were led to believe they actually were going to see what Bugel lovingly calls "smash-mouth football" this season.
Now, with only one game remaining to play, the result has been the same as it is every year. The Cardinals are once again in last place. Now everyone wants to know who's to blame.
Bugel is almost as colorful as any character in Guys and Dolls, that 40-year-old tale currently undergoing a successful musical revival on Broadway. But like the characters in the Damon Runyon tale, Bugel turns out to be all flash, all talk. His problem is he never has the winning cards. He's a loser.
Like all head football coaches, Bugel is a con man.
Bugel's performance after losing to Indianapolis on Sunday is a case in point. This time his own coaching blunders were responsible for the loss. Bugel was calling the plays. He called all the wrong ones. That was so obvious that even the fans calling in after the game had it right.
Bugel was talking to Tom Dillon, the KTAR radio broadcaster, and John Mistler, one of the station's color men, in the locker room. "When you call a pass, you gotta make some completions," Bugel said, thereby laying the blame on his quarterback, Chris Chandler.
"You don't want to make excuses," Mistler interjected. "These setbacks can be a positive in later years."
Here is an example of the constant effort to cover up the Cardinals' sorry state. Things will always be better next year. That's what they have been saying since the team's arrival. But things only get worse.
"This is the lowest I've seen our football team," Bugel said. Then, like all losers, he began complaining about the injuries that will prevent him from fielding the Cardinal juggernaut we have come to know and love.
"I just wonder who can play next week," Bugel said.
I wonder who wants to see them play next week.
If local television media covered this team with the slightest skepticism, the insoluble problems of this franchise long ago would have been apparent. This is a team that has not made the playoffs in a nonstrike season in 17 years.
The television sports people have totally abdicated their roles as honest brokers.
They have even rolled over to the extent that the Cardinals' practice sessions have been closed to the media.
With the doors locked, how does anyone know they even practice anymore? Certainly, you can't tell it by watching them play the games. During this period, the giants of local telejournalism, led by the eminent Professor Bill Denney at Channel 12, have lain back, content to find an excuse for every Cardinals defeat.
"Another tough break for the Cardinals," Denney said on the 10 p.m. news. "They played real hard football, but the injuries were just too much to overcome."
I have been watching Denney deliver this line, or one only slightly variant of it, for five years. Denney is living and breathing proof that a television journalist can thrive successfully in a minor market with no apparent energy, no original ideas and a vocabulary of less than 50 words. For example, I can't imagine how Denney would get through his nightly three-minute segment if a superior were to declare he was no longer allowed to utter the word "real." For Denney everything is "real" good, "real" bad, "real" surprising or a "real" disappointment. He sometimes stretches his vocabulary by describing an event as "really" outstanding.
We are assured that J.D. Hayworth of Channel 10 is a sports expert because we have his word for it that his grandfather was a catcher for the Chicago Cubs. Hayworth is the perfect embodiment of the television airhead. He is big and sturdy-looking. But he is more concerned with being a smalltime Elmer Gantry than a journalist. Hayworth is so unfamiliar with ethics that he only too willingly served as master of ceremonies for former President Ronald Reagan's campaign appearance for George Bush in Phoenix's Patriots Square.
Tim Healey of Channel 3 seems so clinically depressed as to be incapable of uttering anything but reading the scores handed to him as they come over the wire. There is a single common denominator shared by every television sports reporter in this market. They all want to be friends with Joe Bugel and the Cardinals players. It seems their fondest wish is to pat Bugel on the back and tell him what a great job he's doing. They want him to know them by their first names and use them when he appears with them on the air. To them that is the symbol of success in Phoenix. And, above all, they want the job to be comfortable for both them and for Bugel. Let's all be gentlemen.
In that they have succeeded. The only ones who are left out in the cold are the football fans who are forced to watch a very dull football team that keeps losing year after year. Not only must they watch a dull team, but then they are also subjected to a mediocre, gutless crew of media people covering up for the Cards.
This extends to the radio coverage on KTAR, as well. Tom Dillon, the lead announcer, obviously feels he must maintain his friendship with Bugel. At least Dillon must do so until Bugel gets fired sometime this winter.
Here's Dillon talking to Bugel after last Sunday's game.
Does he ask Bugel why he quit giving the ball to Johnny Johnson, a strategy that was working so well it would have assured victory? No, of course he doesn't.
Does he ask Bugel when he's going to stop using injuries and poor officiating as an excuse for losing?
No, of course he doesn't. This is what we get instead.
"Thanks for the visit, Joe," Dillon says. "I know it's a tough one. But I wish you and the family Merry Christmas."
And Bugel says, "I want to say thanks to our fans, and I want to wish them all a Merry Christmas." Todd Walsh is another of the Cardinals' radio color men for KTAR. He apparently thinks it is his duty to defend the work of the local radio and television media.
He spoke disparagingly last Sunday of an Indianapolis writer who charged that "the Cardinals are playing out the string."
Walsh knows they aren't playing out the string, because the players, all protecting their lucrative jobs, tell him so. And he pretends to believe them.
It's not only the Cardinals who have quit and are going through the motions. It is also the local television and radio personalities assigned to cover them. What they are doing--and have been doing--is engaging in one big, lazy cover-up for all the years the Cardinals have been playing in Sun Devil Stadium.
But Bugel isn't through selling his snake oil yet.
"Our pride's at stake," he now says. "We gotta build for next year."
What pride, Joe? What next year?
A final glimpse tells all. At the close of the radio show last Sunday, Dillon presented Bugel with a gift for appearing.
"Here's a gift certificate for you, Joe," he said.
Then Dillon signed off.
"And thanks to Bill Bidwill for the nice dinner we enjoyed last night in Indianapolis," Dillon said over the air to the great Buddha who is the Cardinals' owner.
P.S. The Cardinals' tax reports reveal that Bidwill pays himself a salary of $1.3 million per year. He can afford the dinner.