Singler's listed 30 programs with openings and, in a separate column labeled BUBBLE, schools where changes were rumored or imminent. At the bottom of the page were columns for unsettled NFL teams. More important than the school names, he said, were the names of coaches and athletic directors that filled spaces between the columns. After 20 years Singler's network of contacts covers the country like an airline route map. "It's who you know," he said, reaching for the phone.
It's who you know. This is the mantra of college assistants, who recognize that most head coaches hire friends and colleagues they've worked with on the way up. ("You could be riding on the back of a garbage truck," says Craig Stump, recently let go by Southwest Texas State, "but he'll hire you if he knows you.") That's why Singler was encouraged by newspaper reports last week that had Oregon State hiring Riley to replace Pettibone. Riley, like Singler, is a native Oregonian; the two played for rival high school powers—Singler as a star receiver for 1969 state champion Med-ford High, Riley as quarterback of 1970 champion Corvallis High. The two were teammates at the 1971 Oregon Shrine All-Star Football Classic.
On the other hand, it was rumored that Riley already had six assistants in mind for his staff, and no one knew if he planned to retain any of Pettibone's men. "You're only as good as your last job," Singler fretted, aware that his best coaching credit—a three-year stint with the legendary Bill Walsh at Stanford—was two rungs down on his résumé. "When you're with a losing program, you're branded a bad coach. People don't come knocking on your door."
Unless, of course, they happen to be walking by. Oregon State athletic director Dutch Baughman leaned in and asked Singler if he had a minute. Singler stepped into the corridor. The two men whispered back and forth, and then Singler returned to his office and closed the door. "Yes!" he said under his breath, pumping his right arm. Good news? Singler cocked his head, hesitated and said...maybe. "That's the first time in 20 years I've had an AD come to me and say, 'Hang in there, it looks good.' "
He sat down behind his desk and rocked in his chair for a moment. Then he bent again over his job board, trying to quiet his mind. "Mike Price at Washington State was rumored for the Minnesota job, but he's taken his name out of consideration. And now Grambling might have openings."
Here's what they wonder, these assistants in limbo. They wonder if the know-it-alls on the sports talk shows ever consider the impact of their invective on coaches' wives and children. They wonder if the newspaper columnists, screaming for heads to roll, sleep well after tucking in their own kids at night. They wonder if the big-shot boosters ever have to deal with a distraught wife—as did Alabama line coach Danny Pearman, who came home recently to find his wife crying over an unconfirmed television report that he would not be retained by new coach Mike Dubose.
"I was depressed for about two or three weeks." says Auburn assistant Pete Jenkins, recalling his dismissal by Louisiana State in 1990 after an 11-year stint under three head coaches, three ADs and three school presidents. "I felt I'd let my family down." And just last month Craig Stump got the boot from Southwest Texas State only 11 days after his wife, Mary Beth, had open-heart surgery and four months after their newborn son, Taylor Joseph, was operated on to repair a skull fracture he suffered during birth.
"It's really hard," says UCLA assistant coach Gary Bernardi, one of eight coaches let go from the USC staff in 1992 when John Robinson took over after the Trojans' infamous Freedom Bowl loss to Fresno State. "When most people lose their jobs, it isn't reported in the newspaper or on the TV news," Bernardi says. "My daughter was ridiculed at school after USC fired us."
Some coaches have been helped by the American Football Coaches Association, whose executive director, Grant Teaff, persuaded many colleges to grant assistants contracts that run from June 1 to May 31. "Now you know you're going to keep getting a check," says assistant Ron West, who remains in limbo at Baylor. "The pressure at Christmas is not as bad. You don't have to jump at the first thing that comes along." Other coaches protect themselves by contributing to portable retirement programs, cognizant that they will never work anywhere long enough to qualify for a pension.
But nothing means as much to a coach as having an understanding wife. "I didn't marry until I was 35," said Singler, "and I knew it was true love because Leah agreed to marry me after I'd been let go at Kansas State." Actually, Leah was in the business herself, as an assistant sports information director at Kansas State. She's not thrilled with all the moving, but at least she understands her husband's passion for coaching. "I always tell Bill, As long as you still love football, it's O.K. We can get through it.' " Laughing, she adds, "I always look for the positive in a situation."