Commentary

The end of coach worship

The PSU scandal exposed the dangers of elevating coaches to larger-than-life status

Updated: November 14, 2011, 11:41 AM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Joe PaternoRandy Litzinger/Icon SMIAfter more than 60 years as the football coach, Joe Paterno is out at Penn State.

On Saturday morning in the hours leading up to the kickoff of Penn State's home game with Nebraska, I flipped from channel to channel, from ESPN to ESPNU, to every cable news outlet. Like anyone not actually in State College, I had watched the now-familiar images revealed in the previous week and repeated over and over again.

Jerry Sandusky sliding into the backseat of a police cruiser. The bizarro news conference that announced the firing of Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier. Athletic department administrators and their lawyers walking amid camera flashes. Mike McQueary in his gray hoodie. The news van being flipped onto its side.

But there, on game day, one image that was shown on every channel that I flicked through was the most striking. It was Paterno's house, sitting there as the pregame warm-ups were happening just up the road without him.

It was then that it dawned on me that an era was ending right before our eyes. The sun was setting on the age of the larger-than-life college football coach. At first, the thought was a sad one. The feeling one gets when a chapter of his youth feels as though it has slipped away.

However, that sadness was tinged with a feeling of relief. The realization that this might also be the beginning of the end for, as it was described by the Pennsylvania attorney general's office, "a culture that did nothing."

That culture is built around the once proud but now antiquated, broken practice of coach worship. And it is within that culture where we can find some of the roots -- perhaps the root -- of the problems that plague college football today.

It's a culture that teaches the figurehead and his followers that all problems can be solved with a phone call, whether it's free tattoos from a felon or sex abuse of a minor in the locker room shower. It's a culture that gets a member of the video team killed because no one spoke up to tell the head coach at Notre Dame, "Hey, we probably should take this practice inside," because, well, he's the head coach at Notre Dame, and you just don't tell him what to do. It's a culture where the university president says things like, "Fire him? I'm hoping Coach Tressel doesn't fire me."

It's not a long walk to compare it all to Colonel Jessep and his men at Guantanamo Bay in "A Few Good Men". What makes sense on the base may make sense on the base, but take that situation off the island and put it into the real world, where it becomes a real world problem. Suddenly, it makes no sense at all. And the lost looks on the faces of those who took part, from the commanding officer to his underlings, aren't at all dissimilar from the shell-shocked expressions we've seen out of Penn State during the past nine days. That includes those directly involved in the Sandusky mess and even those students who woke up on Thursday morning to national headlines that didn't praise what they had done the night before but rather called them out for wildly misplaced passions.

It's your entire life. When you step out of it, sometimes you don't know what to do with yourself. I know coaches who have retired and then not known how to drive a car because they had always been driven everywhere their whole careers.

-- former Georgia football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley

"Universities, no matter how large, are relatively small worlds," University of North Carolina chancellor Holden Thorp explained to me earlier this year. "In many cases their towns are built around those universities. And then the athletic departments within those universities are even smaller. Everyone is so busy, and every minute of their lives is centered on that one building or office or stadium. It's like any other job. If that's all you do and all you know, then I believe it is very easy to separate yourself from the outside world."

It was a very polite way of saying "institutionalized," of saying that eventually one can get so deep inside where he works and lives that he ends up having no idea how to function on the outside.

"It's your entire life," Vince Dooley admitted shortly after his retirement in 2004, following four decades as Georgia's football coach and athletic director. "When you step out of it, sometimes you don't know what to do with yourself. I know coaches who have retired and then not known how to drive a car because they had always been driven everywhere their whole careers."

Dooley was a part of the glory years of coach worship. It was just a generation ago when we lived out every Saturday in the world of sideline gods, a world where only first or last names were required, never both together.

The book of Gridiron Genesis was written by the likes of Heisman, Rockne and Neyland. They begat Bear and Vince, Bud and Darrell, Bo and Woody and their Mount Rushmore-like contemporaries of the time. Even those names that may not have been nationally revered were treated as regional deities, from Johnny Majors to Pat Dye to LaVell Edwards to Don Nehlen. They never bought a lunch within their state's borders, never paid for a round of golf, and were handed checks just to come to a banquet and tell the same 10 old stories. They drove to work on avenues named in their honor, coached games in stadiums or on fields that bore their last names and in some cases walked past statues of themselves to get there.

Now that culture appears to be on life support, the sport being pushed into a long-overdue bit of evolution. Players and fans always will listen to and respect their head coaches, but that once-impenetrable trust has been weakened. Schools will still overpay for coaches. Athletic boosters will still erect trophies in the coach's honor. But before they all follow the living legend into the wilderness just because he tells them to, the would-be followers are increasingly pausing to ask why.

"I love the old stories," Cam Newton said earlier this week, taking a moment to give a history lesson on the names and the bronze faces that he loved reading about during his time at Florida and Auburn. "What you do now builds on what they did first. But everything moves on. Everything changes."

That's never been truer than during the past two years. During that time, the scandals have spiraled out of control. And the last remaining twin sequoias of the coach worship era, Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, have been felled. One was cut down by an internal civil war over his job, the other by the unfathomable actions of a onetime right-hand man. Both now wear faces of disbelief. They feel betrayed. They feel that the worlds they helped build, in the end, let them down.

They're right. It let us all down. And that's why their era had to end.

Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Ryan McGee | email

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