Only A Hick Sports Town Would Mourn For Stallings

The uproar over Gene Stallings' departure is just one more indication that Phoenix remains a hick sports town.

As a coach, Stallings was a loser. The Phoenix Cardinals will survive. They may not get any better, but they won't be any the worse for his leaving.

There's a revolving track that moves coaches of Stallings' level of competence in and out of the league. They get the jobs because of a personality that pleases the owner. They are run off when it becomes plain that nice guys don't win football games on a regular basis.

Stallings' mediocre record as a head coach, both in college and the National Football League, backs that up. Stallings' teams never won the big games. Instead, they were almost ingenious at finding ways to lose not only the big ones but those that weren't so big.

And like all losing coaches, Stallings developed an extensive litany of excuses to spout for the postgame locker-room interview.

Each week another explanation was at the ready as to what might have been only if there weren't so many injuries or the referees hadn't made so many wrong calls.

Stallings' long-time stature as a loser and creator of alibis is in the books. His Texas A&M teams were 27-45-1. This is not the career pattern of a man headed to displace Joe Paterno or Larry Smith as one of the premier college coaches in the country.

After leaving the college ranks, Stallings went to the Dallas Cowboys, where he served for more than a decade as an assistant to Tom Landry.

In 1986, he replaced Jim Hanifan as the Cardinal coach. Since that time Stallings has posted a 23-34-1 mark. Do you see signs of a Super Bowl team forming at Sun Devil Stadium? Like most mediocre NFL teams, this is a collection of world-class talkers. Every week the players have marvelous excuses for their losing performances.

I figure Stallings was taking high stakes last week when he told the press that he wasn't coming back. I view it as a high-pressure move to force Bill Bidwill into giving him a new contract before this season ends.

I think Stallings figured that he was so valuable as a spokesman that Bidwill wouldn't dare fire him. Surely, Stallings thought, Bidwill wouldn't antagonize the Cardinal fans in this way.

His problem was that he planned wrong. He doesn't know how to figure NFL money. Bidwill makes his money from the league's television contract. That's enough to keep him in bow ties and blue blazers. The fans--when they come--are gravy.

Besides, what do you say to a coach who announces publicly--with five games remaining--that he doesn't intend to return next year?

Do you keep him around so that he can play his swan song for the last month of the season?

No. Standard business practice dictates that you pay him off and send him on his way. And this is exactly what the Cardinals did.

Stallings wasn't fired. He fired himself. Better still for him, he walked away with all the money that he would have made had he stayed around to the end.

Exactly what makes any fan or sportswriter think Stallings was irreplaceable? Coaches like him are a dime a dozen.

I think he did two things surpassingly well. Neither of them has anything to do with football.

First, he shined his shoes better than any other coach in the NFL. Every Sunday people like Bill Parcells or Buddy Ryan would show up with dusty shoes. Not Stallings. His black coaching shoes didn't just shine; they glistened.

Second, he did television commercials. It wasn't that he was so good. It was that he didn't stutter and he was able to look directly at the camera. He reminded me a little of the Marlboro man.

Stallings was far more effective as a television spokesman for Valley National Bank than he ever was on the sidelines. I remember the commercial that featured Stallings and his ninety-year-old mother. It had a certain warmth that won the fans to his side. How can anybody fire a coach who is good to his mother?

And this past weekend, after Stallings was relieved of his duties, Valley Bank introduced what may be his final commercial. It humorously reflects Stallings' sudden need for quick cash.

But of course he doesn't need money. He has been very well paid all along.
Perhaps it's time to face some facts. This is not the ideal spot for a professional football franchise. First off, it's too hot for more than half the season.

I'm not concerned about the players. They are in near-perfect health. Besides, they get paid such inordinately high salaries, they willingly should toil in hell.

The real problem is that it is too hot for the fans. Only a population of masochists would pay huge ticket prices to sit in better than 105-degree weather week after week.

The sun beats down upon them mercilessly. Slowly, week after week, their brains are damaged.

And then Bidwill makes a coaching change and the fans react by sitting in the stands with paper bags over their heads.

And everybody seems to think that's logical behavior.

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Tom Fitzpatrick

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