A few weeks ago, Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini learned that one of his players had checked out of their hotel without paying for a bottle of water.
Mangini’s next move fell right in line with all the control-freak, single-minded, my-way-or-the-highway football coaches of legend. He didn’t tell payroll to subtract $3 from the player’s next check. He levied a $1,701 fine—the maximum allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
That was my most recent reminder that football coaches—the driven, paranoid, contradictory lot of them—do (and say) the darndest things.
October seems as good a time as any to celebrate (for lack of a better word) the American football coach for all his single-minded overwrought tunnel vision. In my 33 years of sports writing, here are a few who commanded my attention:
Joe Gibbs: The legendary Redskins coach is said to have asked his wife to tape dinner-table conversations so he could take the tapes to the Redskins’ facility and catch up on what the family was doing.
Dale Christensen: You never heard of him, I’m sure. He was a Illinois high school football coach, who thought it would be a good idea before a playoff game to have his players see him get shot.
In the news account of the incident one player said “the shock of the idea we were going to die” overshadowed any point the coach had been trying to make. Go figure.
Dick Vermeil:The first NFL coach I spent serious time around was Dick Vermeil, who led the Philadelphia Eagles to Super Bowl XV, quit citing burnout a few years later, and then later won a title with the St. Louis Rams in his reincarnation. My favorite Vermeil story came at practice one day. Workers were erecting scaffolding at one end of the stadium for the upcoming Rolling Stones concert. Hammers and drills were the background music of the day. That sort of distraction drove Vermeil wild.
When he walked over to where we stood for his post-practice press conference, someone mentioned the noise. Vermeil griped about the noise disrupting his practice.
“Dick, are you a fan of the Rolling Stones?” he was asked.
“I don’t know much about them,” Vermeil said. “But my kids read their magazine.”
Woody Hayes: His sideline rants at OSU were famous, especially the one at the 1978 Gator Bowl that cost him his job after he punched a Clemson player. “When I look in the mirror in the morning, I want to take a swing at me,” Hayes once said.
My favorite story about Hayes was just recently shared by a writer, who covered OSU football for the campus paper back in the day. Leonard Downie Jr. said last year that after OSU losses or ties, Hayes would conduct post-game interviews in the nude.
“He was an ugly guy,” Downie said, “so it would clear out the locker room pretty fast.”
Bear Bryant: Not that football coaches ever overestimate the importance of what they do, but the legendary Alabama coach once said, “If you want to walk the heavenly streets of gold, you gotta know the password, “Roll, tide, roll!”
Jon Gruden: Another NFL coach who, like Gibbs and Dick Vermeil, wore a lack of sleep as a badge of honor. In Tampa he was known as “Jon: 3:11.” No, not because he was a ravenous reader of Scripture. But because that’s when his alarm went off every morning.
John McKay: Consider McKay’s inclusion on this list as an intermission. He wasn’t like the others. His approach and especially his dry wit were antidotes for what ails some of football’s most driven coaches.
Lots of people probably know the most famous quote attributed to him. His Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a winless and hapless expansion team. Asked after one horrid performance what he thought of his offense’s execution, McKay said, “I’m all for it.”
A lesser known McKay moment came after his USC team lost 51-0 to Notre Dame. Addressing his Trojans in the locker room, McKay said only, “All those who need showers, take them.”
Lee Corso: (Extended Intermission) The former coach at Indiana and current ESPN analyst once said, “Hawaii doesnít win many games in the United States.”
Lou Holtz: A misplaced college coach, Holtz came to the New York Jets and tried to line up players for the national anthem according to size. He wrote a team fight song to the tune of “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” He didn’t last long for some odd reason.
Tom Coughlin: The Giants head coach has famously fined players for showing up early for meetings. Players are told to be there five minutes ahead of time. Four minutes early? Bam, fined.
As head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he fined players for not wearing socks. Coaches could not wear sunglasses. He once fined two players who were hurt in a car accident while rushing to a team meeting, his reasoning being they would’ve been late anyway.
Nick Saban: Once turned down an invitation to dine with Geroge W. Bush because the time interfered with his practice schedule. OK, avoiding politicians doesn’t reflect too badly on a fellow. But Saban also passed up a chance to play golf at Augusta National for the same reason. That’s different. That’s a man with a serious problem.
More Dick Vermeil: When the Eagles made the playoffs, CBS wanted to do an interview with Vermeil and his family at home around the Christmas tree. No chance. He hardly ever went home, choosing to sleep in his office. CBS got its interview—but only after it the family and the tree to his office.
Bear Bryant, Take 2: We leave you on this note. Bryant was once asked to contribute $10 to help bury a sportswriter.
According to legend, he said, “Here’s a twenty, bury two.”
If I’m still above ground, I’ll see you in November.
Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com.
[Eric Mangini image credit: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer.]
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