TORONTO - Of all the sports heroes Americans love to worship, they reserve the highest pedestal for iconic college football coaches.
Two of the most admired have been forced out this year: Jim Tressel at Ohio State University in May, and Joe Paterno at Penn State University on Wednesday.
The two were sent packing for entirely different reasons: Tressel, for repeatedly and deliberately failing to report direct knowledge of an egregious NCAA violation committed by a handful of his players (trading their championship rings, jerseys and other team possessions for personal gain); Paterno was fired for turning a blind, uncaring eye for more than a decade to the alleged serial pedophiliac actions taking place within his football facilities by his former longtime assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky.
But the underlying factor that led to each coach’s ouster is the same, really: Years and years of sycophantic adulation isolates these men from reality, and compels them to believe their unrivalled campus power can see them through any controversy.
Such power is always dangerous. It can make iconic coaches bigger in stature than the teams they coach, the universities that employ them, the sport they work in, the communities they serve and sometimes even the states they live in. It often has been written that these men in fact “run” their university and get their way on just about everything they ever desire, or want done. They become used to successfully trampling any internal opposition. But their power is not unlimited forever, as Tressel and Paterno finally learned.
How did their britches get that big? By winning, and winning big, over a series of years. Americans love a winner, and the love for these coaches is real — as hard as that is sometimes for cynical Canadians to believe. That love may be over the top, or misguided, but it is genuine.
Often, these coaches get a cute nickname — such as “JoePa” for Paterno, or “The Bear” for Alabama’s Paul Bryant in the 1960s and ’70s. But in town, everybody just calls him “Coach.” Everybody from the chief of police, to the town barber, to school kids, to grandmas, to clergymen — even the professors and university administrators. To dislike “Coach” is practically to announce you’re un-American.
It was said that Bear Bryant was so popular in Alabama he could have been elected governor in a landslide at any time. Former longtime Nebraska football legend Tom Osborne tested that theory and got elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000, winning 83% of the vote three years after retiring.
Inevitably, these idolized U.S. college coaches further cash in with a book or two on how to be a winner, how to play by the rules — basically, how to live life as perfectly and as successfully as they do. These books add to their multimillion-dollar bank accounts, and help to further cement their legends as saints. If Tressel had only followed his own advice in his recent book, The Winners Manual: For the Game of Life, he’d still be coaching the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Tressel’s fate mirrors that of his distant predecessor, Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes, who to this day probably would win a poll as the most admired Ohioan ever. Hayes coached the Buckeyes from 1951-78 and, like Paterno, was admired on and off the field for his honesty and lofty ideals. But unlike Tressel and Paterno, Hayes’ temper was volcanic. Reprimands from his school and Ohio State’s conference, the Big Ten, did nothing to curb it; for years Hayes was untouchable. In the end, his temper — combined with his poorly regulated blood-sugar imbalance — led to his firing after he punched a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl.
Tressel and Paterno held so much power on campus that even their university presidents were more or less impotent, scared to discipline them when these transgressions first hit the news. When Tressel’s knowledge of his players’ rule-breaking was revealed in March, school president E. Gordon Gee was asked at a news conference if he was going to fire his embattled coach. Gee quipped, “I just hope he doesn’t fire ME!” No one outside Columbus, Ohio, laughed.
Similarly, in 2004 PSU president Graham Spanier told Paterno, then age 77 and struggling to field a winning team, that he needed to step down after 39 years. Paterno publicly told Spanier in essence to go jump off nearby Mount Nittany — he wasn’t going anywhere. Until this week Paterno remained, by far, the most powerful man on that campus.
Once the ugliness of Sandusky’s alleged sickening actions went viral, coast to coast, Penn State’s dithering Board of Trustees was finally left with no choice Wednesday but to fire Paterno. Just as Ohio State’s Gee was apparently the last American to understand that Tressel was toast.
If America is to learn one thing from the JoePa and Tressel messes, it should be this: Stop worshipping college coaches. They might donate massive amounts of their massive salaries to the university library, or general scholarship fund. And they most certainly have a positive impact on most of the hundreds, if not thousands, of young men they mentor.
But that’s it. They’re coaches. They might be honest and well-meaning most of the time, but they’re not perfect. They screw up. Sometimes big-time.
Just like the rest of us.
John Kryk, Sun Media's National Entertainment Editor, is a U.S. football historian who authored Natural Enemies, the history of the Michigan-Notre Dame football rivalry