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College football is a sport that has nearly always belonged to the head coach, just as saloons have nearly always belonged to the bartender. The reason is simple. Players come and go, moving into the world of higher finance (the NFL), or into insurance companies, or into communes. The coach remains. At least most of them do. The coach stays behind to rebuild, to invent the quadruple option and the mushroom-T, to think, up humorous excuses for all of last season's fumbles, and to argue that his seven dozen returning lettermen do not mean so much since they are 1) not hungry enough, 2) undecided about how good they want to be, 3) actually untested against the type of powerhouses they'll have to play and 4) having trouble arranging their labs so they can get in enough practice time.
Still, over the years the college coach has produced a game that delights the multitudes. Onward and upward soars the collegiate spectacle in attendance and interest—indeed, on all fronts—even though it is thoroughly dominated by the psychological intensity, the technical genius and the offhanded wit of an elite society within the profession. If this somehow seems more true than ever as the 1971 season begins, it is perhaps because the problems of the sport are more complex than ever and the coach, by necessity, has been forced to become a better broken-field runner verbally than any immortal on his team feetwise.
Not terribly long ago the college coach only had to worry about a few untidy problems. He needed to find a quarterback, who could draw a play in the dirt with a stick and say "Hup." He needed to find a guard who could pull and not run over his quarterback. He needed to know a lenient English professor on the campus. He needed to know where he could get two seats on the 50 for his wife's friends. He needed to know where he could find a cushion for his chair in the office. And he needed to know a contented alumnus who would sell him four new tires at cost.
Things have changed for him. Some of the coach's players today have so much hair on their heads that if they dyed it green they could be mistaken for mimosa trees. Some of his players are better acquainted with pro scouts than with their own teammates. And the coach has other concerns, such as rising costs, dope, revolts, injuries on artificial turf, jets, domes, trustees, fathers, Walter Byers and columnists.
It has worked out that today's head coach at a major university has become more than he ever bargained for. To be successful he must be a public-relations dynamo, a headshrinker, a federal narcotics agent, a data computer expert, a politician, a salesman, a fund raiser, a boardroom executive, an after-dinner comedian, a CPA, a social-welfare worker, a labor-management consultant, a TV personality and a philosopher. In his spare time, probably during lunch at Harvey's Burger Shake, he can worry about a defense for the Veer T.
In one sense the football coaching fraternity is a massive one. When you consider all the men who are devoted to it on levels extending from the peewees to the pros, counting assistants as well, there are literally thousands, perhaps a hundred thousand. However, in quite another sense, it is a fairly select club. Throughout the realm of college football the NCAA says that only 119 teams are currently rated as major. In other words, there are only 119 major head coaching jobs in the country. If major is supposed to mean that these teams are all relatively equal, then the NCAA is having its little joke. Which it does in its weekly statistics during the season when somebody like South San Geronimo Tech is up there challenging Notre Dame for the total offense lead.
But aside from this minor annoyance, the number of major teams is extravagant because well over a third of them simply couldn't compete with the others any day of the week, much less on Saturday. The number of teams that are relatively equal is closer to 70 or so, and even this is a stretch. The number of teams that have a realistic chance of winning a mythical national championship is more like 50, which means that at the most there are only 50 first-rate head coaching jobs. And to be painfully honest there really aren't that many. The fact is, there are no more than 20 or 30 schools today where a man can be a consistent winner.
"It helps to be at a state school," says Bear Bryant, "where you've got all those lawyers and doctors and judges going for you as recruiters."
While the coaches continually change the rules to streamline the game, to give everybody a better chance, they say, they have only aided the most ambitious and aggressive institutions. The coaches wanted free substitution and got it, "so more kids can play." They wanted a two-point conversion rule and got it, to create upsets and drama. They wanted more automatic time-outs, to run more plays and score more, which the good teams do. They wanted more assistants to pay attention to detail, a further refinement of football's "educational process," and the good teams have them. They wanted artificial turf for speed, and the rich schools have it.
But what has happened? Well, in the past 10 years that all of this has been coming on—streamlining the game for everybody—only eight schools out of the 119 "major" teams have managed to capture any sort of cup, scroll or plaque significant of a national championship. Which is what it's all about, as far as the fans are concerned. Most 6-year-olds can name the elegant eight: Texas, Notre Dame, Ohio State, USC, Alab ma, Michigan State, Arkansas and Nebraska.