OUT WITH MARMIE, IN WITH RICHARD NIXON
Head football coaches live in a terrifying dream world. In that world, tumultuous laughter and happiness can instantly turn into a nightmare. Great victories are the other side of the coin to heartbreaking defeats.
These coaches are very much like politicians. They are addicted to adulation. They distrust and dislike the media but are nevertheless drawn irresistibly toward the danger zone created by cameras and microphones.
A football coach understands from the start that docile media coverage can make him appear to be a giant, but that one or two irresponsible renegades in a press corps can shatter the very foundation of his football program.
Barry Switzer, the former coach at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, speaks frankly about his aversion to sportswriters:
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The sportswriters I like the least," he says, are the so-called serious reporters, who think a sports story must involve money, drugs, cheating or controversy in some form or other."
His view is shared by most coaches these days. We would all like to confine ourselves to the games. But how do you avoid all the rest of it?
Larry Marmie, who has already become a name from the past, always seemed like a terrified deer caught in the headlights of a runaway truck when he walked into press conferences after games.
Marmie, the perfect assistant coach, failed at the top job because he was numbed by the shameful politics required of a head coach in college football. Marmie was not a talented liar. He never learned to take credit for things he hadn't earned. Worse still, he didn't know how to blame his assistants and his players for things that went wrong on the field.
Unfortunately for Marmie, he succeeded Darryl Rogers and John Cooper in the Arizona State University head coaching job. Both Rogers and Cooper were adept at the art of dodging responsibility for errors and taking credit for anything that went right within a quarter of a mile of them.
And now Marmie has been replaced by Bruce Snyder, the Richard Nixon of college football coaches.
Like Nixon, Snyder often has been counted out. He has been in coaching 30 years already, and, for much of that time, he has labored in obscure places or in big places where he played an obscure role.
But, like Nixon, he is forever bobbing back up to the surface.
At an age when most coaches on the fast track were already at major schools, Snyder was at Utah State University, where he spent seven years, compiling a record of 39-37-1. He was the football equivalent of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag Archipelago.
From there, Snyder went to the Los Angeles Rams for another three years and the anonymous job of backfield coach. It actually took some real convincing on Snyder's part to win the University of California at Berkeley job on such slim credentials.
Snyder's great strength is that he has always been a constant observer of the college job market.
He also has been a tireless, if slightly boring, public speaker who has appeared at countless coaching clinics. His encyclopedic knowledge of the places where jobs are likely to open is legendary among fellow coaches.
Here is what Bruce Snyder announced the day he took over as head football coach at California in 1987:
I want to stay here at least 15 years and then retire." Snyder's team won only 12 games in his first three seasons. But in his final season, the Golden Bears were good enough to be ranked in the top ten in the country. And they lost by only one touchdown to the University of Washington, probably the best team in all college football.
So here was Snyder at Berkeley, which has been described as a place where half the people want to overthrow the government and the other half are seeking the perfect croissant.
He was hired at $131,000 and was making $250,000 at the end of five years.
When Snyder applied for the California job, his resume included recommendations from Lavell Edwards of Brigham Young University, John Robinson of the L.A. Rams and Eric Dickerson, the great running back and former L.A. Ram.
As a backfield coach for both the Rams and the University of Southern California, Snyder has coached Dickerson as well as running backs Anthony Davis and Ricky Bell. While an assistant at the University of Oregon, he coached wide receiver Ahmad Rashad.
Whenever Snyder is mentioned, the names of these players pop up. This is strange. The one thing in football that is generally acknowledged is that no one can coach running backs to greatness. They either have it or they don't. It is a totally natural phenomenon.
Did you ever hear anyone take credit for the running feats of Jim Brown, Walter Payton or Gale Sayers? But Snyder understands that an aura must be created around the head coach. So he persists in the fiction that he was responsible for the success of Eric Dickerson.
He knows how to cover himself with safe cliches. He knows the drill." He understands the vocabulary of the head coaching clan. He will be focused." His team will be willing to pay the price." They will move ahead one step at a time."
Snyder learned long ago how to claim credit for what his team does. He speaks convincingly of loyalty to the school at which he's coaching and yet he has always been ready to cut and run for the next job.
There is a subtlety about it all. The successful football coach manipulates the media so that all the credit for victories in the big game goes to the clever strategy designed by the coach and not to the performance of the players. In Snyder's case, it was trick plays which he insisted provided turning points in key games.
For years before he was forced out of his job in disgrace at Oklahoma, Barry Switzer was one of the best coaches in the country, and here's what he says about that: I believe that in the 1950s and 1960s, there were coaches who could consistently outcoach other coaches," Switzer said in his outstanding book, Bootlegger's Boy.
Bud Wilkinson and Bear Bryant were probably the last two who could do it. By the 1970s there were so many good coaches who were products of winning systems, who knew what it takes to win, that no coach could ever really outsmart anybody.
The magic was in the players."
But Snyder successfully convinced the media he was chiefly responsible for this past winning season. The better his team got, the more credit he received for calling trick plays. It wasn't the players who got credit for executing the plays, but Snyder for creating them.
As a result, Snyder ended up departing his job at California for the head coaching spot at Arizona State. In doing so, he doubled his salary to $500,000 a year.
That figure is more than is made by the governor of Arizona, the president of ASU, the mayor of Phoenix and all the police chiefs in the Valley combined.
There are two ways to look at this. Snyder is either the greatest coach in America, or Charles Harris, the athletic director at ASU, has made one grand and monumental error.
Snyder's success at California turned his career around. He was obviously prepared to make a leap forward.
Snyder knew Larry Marmie was on his way out at ASU. Everybody did. Charles Harris made no secret of that. And Snyder let it be known he could be tempted.
And yet, even while making this move Snyder displayed a proclivity to play his cards close to the vest. Not even his assistant coaches knew he was contemplating a sudden departure from Berkeley.
When the announcement came, they were all stunned. To date, he has asked five of the assistants to join him at ASU.
Even Snyder's wife and children were kept in the dark as to what might be coming.
They were stunned.
We're losing something here that we really loved," Snyder's wife, Linda, told Joan Ryan, a San Francisco sportswriter.
Snyder's two oldest daughters, now 21 and 18, decided they won't make the move to Arizona. They plan to get an apartment of their own and remain in California.
Bob Bockrath, Snyder's athletic director at Cal, made it clear that he felt he had been betrayed by Snyder. When the overture was made to Snyder by Harris, Snyder did not confide that information to Bockrath. Bockrath never learned about the offer until it was too late for a counteroffer.
Snyder's sudden departure was also a shock to Russell White, California's premier running back.
Now regarded as a prime Heisman candidate for next year, White came to play for California only after a drawn-out battle for his services with USC.
White is dyslexic. He was unable to read well enough to pass the entrance exams with a grade high enough to make him eligible to play in his freshman year.
Southern Cal told White that if he flunked the test he would have to go to junior college.
Snyder tells the story of sitting down with White to make sure he would be a serious student. Are you committed to earning a degree?" Snyder asked. Are you only using us to play football and go to the pros?"
White assured Snyder he was serious about college life. It must have been a warm scene. Certainly, Snyder must have assured the young man that they were now both deeply dedicated to the same school.
White has already learned an important lesson about life from his coach. Snyder has shown his former star running back that even the coach's dedication could be blown away suddenly by a generous offer from Arizona State.
White has already learned the power of money. So much for school loyalty.
Now, at age 51, Snyder is Arizona State's new coach. But for how long?
Once again, as he did at California, Snyder says he had found still another job that he would like to keep until his retirement.
Who knows what's next?
Snyder departed Berkeley so abruptly that there was no time for him to even say goodbye to the players on the team that had just won the Citrus Bowl for him.
I'm confused," one of Snyder's California players told a sportswriter. Why didn't he tell us?"
Snyder now appears to be in a no-lose situation. The widely criticized Marmie had spent the last two seasons rebuilding. Next year's Arizona State squad appears poised for a winning season.
It will justify another of Snyder's coaching cliches: This team will hit the ground running."
One thing is certain. Snyder will know how to accept the glory when it comes.
But for head coaches, nothing is certain. One never knows when the dream will turn into a nightmare.
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