In the final seconds, the pass was intercepted. Larry Marmie spun his body completely around with an involuntary motion. If it had been completed, the pass by Arizona State University's quarterback Paul Justin would have won the game.
But it was off the mark and the University of Arizona defeated ASU, 21 to 17.
For a few seconds, Marmie's mouth seemed to be working hard, as if he were breaking down a large wad of gum. But he allowed no other sign of the frustration tearing him up inside.
Out on the playing field, the winners hugged and jumped up and down in celebration. Dick Tomey, the UofA coach, ran over to snatch Marmie's hand and shake it, vigorously.
Marmie showed no enthusiasm for the traditional gesture. For him, it was all over. His job as head coach at Arizona State had been hanging by a thread. Now there was no chance he would retain it.
By losing, ASU had gone nine consecutive years without beating UofA. The final score was close. It had been an interesting and hard-fought ball game between two rather ordinary teams who also happen to be archrivals.
The sportswriters gathered around Marmie afterward. They put the questions to him so carefully that they might have been interviewing the father of a traffic fatality.
"Did you think you had a chance to win at the end?" "Everything was working the way we wanted until the interception," Marmie said.
His expression was sad but there seemed to be no anger in his voice.
Some coaches can't control themselves in defeat. Ara Parseghian, when he coached at Northwestern, once marched into the shower room after a defeat and ordered his entire team to line up naked against the wall.
Parseghian then marched up and down in front of them, glancing toward their genitals.
"I just wanted to see if any of you had balls," he said.
Darryl Rogers, a former ASU coach, used to blame the offending players by name. Frank Kush, now a legend, once punched his punter on the side of the helmet right on the playing field. Woody Hayes even physically attacked an opposing player on the sidelines.
But Marmie is a quiet bleeder.
"We didn't come up with the big plays when we needed them," he said. "It's a game of making big plays."
He was asked about the accuracy of the pass. Marmie answered, "Sometimes, you don't get the ball just where you want to put it."
Nobody wanted to ask Marmie whether he expected to get fired from his job.
All over the country, big companies are laying off workers by the thousands. President George Bush wants to do his best for the economy by saving the millionaire population of Kuwait at the cost of thousands of American lives.
But down in a dressing room in Tucson, Arizona, a group of sportswriters remains sensitive about a football coach's feelings.
Finally, the subject was broached in the gentlest possible manner.
"I don't want to talk about it," Marmie said.
One of the writers later wrote that he thought Marmie was on his way out. The writer, a gentle soul, added that he hoped he was wrong and that Marmie might somehow be able to save his job.
I hope the writer is right in the first place. Marmie should be sacked and the deed should be done as soon as possible.
Marmie is the wrong man for this job and the sooner they get about moving him out the better things will be.
That's why the fallout from this defeat may turn out to be more interesting than the game. This is the time to shake things up at ASU.
Right now, Marmie is the chief target. He should not, however, be alone.
The real culprit in Tempe for the last few years has been athletic director Charles Harris. It was Harris, new to the job at the time, who picked Marmie when Chuck Cooper flew off to take the head coaching job at Ohio State. Marmie, a decent and malleable sort, was one of Cooper's assistants. Instead of searching for a head coach with a talent and a reputation for recruiting, Harris reached down among the assistant coaches and gave the job to Marmie.
His players love Marmie. So do the coaches on the opposing teams because ASU has turned into a soft spot on their schedules.
If you understand office politics, the reason Harris picked Marmie was simple. Fresh himself from an assistant A.D.'s job at Michigan, Harris found it easier to move up an assistant coach rather than bring in a high-profile head coach who could prove a threat to Harris' own job.
It was a gamble that might have worked if Marmie had the capability to succeed at the Pac-10 level.
Marmie has failed to produce a good football team. At one point this season, ASU lost five games in a row.
Worse still, he's not likely to do much better in the future.
Now that Marmie's job security has been brought into question by the local dailies, he never will. It is impossible these days for a coach considered a candidate for the firing squad to attract top recruits.
With Marmie and Harris in the key jobs, the Sun Devil athletic program keeps slipping farther and farther into mediocrity.
Even worse, the alumni money is drying up. Attendance keeps dropping. Interest is waning. In just a little while, no one will care at all.
The team is now in Tokyo where it will finish its season against Houston, a team that figures to clobber ASU.
Harris sold this game to his bosses as a way to make a big chunk of income and at the same time give the football players a cultural experience.
How grotesque and warped can the mind of an athletic director become if exposed to an excessive amount of sun?
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I wonder why no one bothers to say what's really on their minds about an ASU football game played in a place called the Coca-Cola Bowl in Tokyo. There are so many reasons it's wrong that it would take another thousand words just to warm up.
It's not only a stupid place to play the game. The whole thing is cynical beyond belief.
The sportswriters put the questions to Marmie so carefully they might have been interviewing the father of a traffic fatality.
His players love Marmie. So do opposing coaches because ASU has turned into a soft spot on their schedule.