"The King of Sports" weighs the good and the bad of football's impact on the United States, ending with a chapter on safety and money reforms that could make the game "just as exciting and popular, but no longer notorious." The book's positive example is the Virginia Tech program -- the author spent the 2011 season with the Hokies team.
Why Virginia Tech? The head coach, Frank Beamer, is the winningest active coach in Division I. He's coached at Virginia Tech for 26 years, spurning big-bucks offers from the pros. His program's 20 consecutive years with a bowl invitation shows that a team can win game after game after game without taking shortcuts in ethics or in the classroom. The engineering school of Virginia Tech has been a leader in research into reducing sports concussion risk. And Beamer represents an Old South university with an African-American graduation rate many Northern colleges can only envy.
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As the day of the Sugar Bowl approached, Virginia Tech coaches became concerned about the knock on their program -- "Frank Beamer can't win the big game." This did not seem on players' minds, or if it was, none mentioned as much. "Back in my day, if we lost a game, we would be in a rage, we would smash lockers," says linebackers coach Cornell Brown. "Today the guys hardly react. They care, but it is important to be seen as cool and detached." Regardless of what they are feeling inside, contemporary football players feign indifference, shrugging and saying, "It is what it is." It is what it is has become the slogan of today's team sports, meaning anything from "I am philosophical about the situation" to "Look, we got our butts kicked, what the hell do you expect me to do about it?"
Beamer went to New Orleans with his fantastic streak of nineteen consecutive bowl seasons, but a losing bowl record. Entering the Sugar Bowl, the winningest active big-program football coach was 243-110-4 in regular-season play, just 8-10 in bowls. Virginia Tech's victory over Texas in the 1995 Sugar Bowl brought national attention to the Hokies, and by extension to the Virginia Tech admissions department. But in six appearances in the top-prestige bowls, Beamer hoisted a trophy just twice: over Texas in 1995, and over Cincinnati at the 2009 Orange Bowl.
The previous year, at the 2011 Orange Bowl, Virginia Tech played Stanford even through the early third quarter, then faded. In the college football regular season, any program that observes the NCAA limit on athletic hours, as Virginia Tech does, can't vary game plans much week to week. There just isn't time to study the next opponent, devise an original strategy and teach that strategy to players. But during the one-month layoff before a bowl game, there is time. Before the 2011 Orange Bowl, Stanford gave the microscope treatment to the Hokies' tendencies and realized Virginia Tech did not cover tight ends going deep. This was hardly an oversight: most college defenses ignore the tight end deep because college tight ends almost never go deep. Stanford sent tight end Coby Fleener deep. He responded with six catches for 173 yards and three touchdowns, breaking the Hokies' back.
This time around, Virginia Tech coaches felt confident they had prepared an original, opponent-specific game plan for Michigan. But otherwise they hadn't changed much. No extra psych-up, no special focus, the bowl week treated as a regular week. Schedules were even drawn that way. For instance, Thursday of bowl week was marked REGULAR MONDAY because players would be doing exactly what they did on any Monday.
The more I observed Beamer, the more comparisons I saw with Marv Levy, the Hall of Fame head coach of Cal, William & Mary, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills. Levy is the sole football coach ever to have reached four consecutive Super Bowls, so he must have known what he was doing. Yet he lost all four. And said he slept soundly after each, which may be the key.
The further a team advances into the postseason, the more the stress. Regular-season games can be won on the fly. In the postseason, psych-up and game-planning rise in importance. In the first Bills' Super Bowl, Buffalo was a heavy favorite over the New York Giants. The Bills had the then-revolutionary no-huddle offense and had just cruised to a 51-3 AFC title win against the Oakland Raiders, while the Giants had a plodding offense and were lucky to win the NFC title over the 49ers on a field goal on the final down. Giants coach Bill Parcells had taken boxes of game film of Buffalo with him to San Francisco; he and his coaches flew directly from San Francisco to Tampa, where the Super Bowl would be held, and began to study Buffalo's offense aboard the charter flight late Sunday night. Levy gave his players Sunday night and Monday off. When coaches arrived in Tampa on Tuesday, he decided it was too late to study the Giants, and they'd just use the same game plan that had destroyed the Raiders. But Parcells had spent all Monday studying that game.
Parcells wouldn't be able to sleep for a week if he lost a Super Bowl. Championships tend to be taken by driven, manic coaches with a win-at-all-costs mentality; the nice guys, who do not believe the world ends if they lose, tend to fall away at the last. Levy, a pleasant man who quotes Shakespeare and would make a fine dinner guest, was defeated in that Super Bowl by 1 point by Parcells, an angry man who often lost his temper in public. Levy's other Super Bowl losses came to Joe Gibbs, a gentleman but an obsessive perfectionist known for sleeping in his office during the season so as not to be away from game film, and to Jimmy Johnson, who as a coach had a cutthroat reputation, though mellowed after switching to sports broadcasting and buying a boat.
Bill Belichick, Nick Saban, Parcells -- in sports, many ultimate trophies go to win-at-all-cost types, while nice guys such as Levy and Beamer pull up just a bit short. For his part, Beamer said, "If we were 2-11, I would be upset. But we're 11-2 and going into a BCS bowl. Whatever happens, we have had a great year. If the program is doing OK and the university is doing OK, then you're OK. You should feel grateful." Within big college football, that distinction was getting lost.