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The Desperate coach
John Underwood
August 25, 1969
Is the coach, as a psychiatrist has said, "the remaining stronghold of the archaic family structure" or is he, as one describes himself, "the last chance for the preservation of dignity on campus"? In a three-part series, of which this is the first part, the coaches—bewildered, angry and disillusioned, no longer certain of their mission or, in some cases, of their relevancy—wonder if they can relinquish authority and still win
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August 25, 1969

The Desperate Coach

Is the coach, as a psychiatrist has said, "the remaining stronghold of the archaic family structure" or is he, as one describes himself, "the last chance for the preservation of dignity on campus"? In a three-part series, of which this is the first part, the coaches—bewildered, angry and disillusioned, no longer certain of their mission or, in some cases, of their relevancy—wonder if they can relinquish authority and still win

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To Bear Bryant, it boils down to this: "What do you go to a school for? Why do you pick a school if you think you're going to have to change it or break its rules as soon as you get there? I told a boy the other day—a boy I was disappointed with, the way he'd been easing around, skipping classes, missing practice—I said, 'You could have gone to any school in the country, as good as you were. But you picked Alabama. You wanted to play here. You must have thought you liked the way we did things. Hell, you're not going to change me, I'm too old.'

"You see it day to day, the pride a boy takes in himself and the things he does. The changes in him. Football doesn't mean as much to a kid today. Sacrificing doesn't mean as much."

Stripped bare, it is the willingness to quit that the coach fears most. The rationale of the dropout, such as it is, challenges the coach's raison d'�tre. When athletic rivalries don't mean as much, when loyalty to race or a social cause is more demanding than loyalty to a school and a team, when the virtues of discipline and hard work are made to appear suspect (and a little foolish), then the coach is faced with the ultimate threat: that the game he teaches may not be relevant.

Such a conclusion may be valid, but it can never be accepted by a coach who must produce a winning team. Big-time college sport demands so much of the athlete he cannot become involved in other major activities. And for the most part coaches cannot reconcile themselves to their athletes' outside interests. They remember that in their day football was a way of life.

Nate Kirtman was a halfback for Coach John Ralston at Stanford in 1967. He seemed to have a bright future in football, but he found himself getting involved in the "social stream," "ghetto problems." Kirtman, a black, switched his studies from economics to sociology. He became a volunteer teacher of Negro high school students in the East Palo Alto slums.

In the spring of 1968 Kirtman told Coach Ralston he wouldn't be able to turn out because his "course work and obligation to the black community are more pressing." He wasn't bitter or mad at anybody. He said, " Coach Ralston and the team will decide if I play next fall."

That May, Kirtman was appointed to Stanford's Human Relations Commission, a student-faculty group that deals with allegations of discrimination. Fall came, and Kirtman was too busy to play football. He was now co-chairman of the BSU. "He's giving up a promising professional career," said Ralston, "but he feels deeply about his obligation. We had a long talk."

Ralston shrugged. He said it was "the trend" for students to concern themselves with worldly affairs and that more and more of his time as a coach was taken up by individual discussions, me-to-you straight-line stuff. "I talked with 100 boys, total concentration for more than 50 hours," Ralston said, "and that's not easy." He also said some of the things he learned were "astonishing."

Kirtman's conversion to a cause other than sport was relatively tranquil compared to that of Archie Chatman, who quit the San Fernando Valley State football team after he fractured his arm, and charged the athletic department with racism. Chatman organized the BSU at Valley and led the student revolt last year during which the then-head football coach, Sam Winningham, was held in the administration building at knife point. "We try to spread democracy," said Chatman once, addressing a rally. "What we are doing, we are spreading cancer. We are like leprous, syphilitic old men, and we are spreading our syphilis throughout the world."

Many coaches can rationalize away the Archie Chatmans and can sympathize with and sometimes even support the Nate Kirtmans. It is the sharp, talented, every-thing-going-for-him boy who suddenly veers completely away, as if to answer a call so high-pitched no one else can hear it, who really scares them. Coaches are combative people. They can cope with a situation when they know how to fight it. When there is no one to fight....

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