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NEW BOYS ON THE BLOCK
John Underwood
September 06, 1976
From the day he's hired, a college football coach has two things in common with his predecessor—a belief he can do the job, a good chance he won't. Meet four fresh optimists
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September 06, 1976

New Boys On The Block

From the day he's hired, a college football coach has two things in common with his predecessor—a belief he can do the job, a good chance he won't. Meet four fresh optimists

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Most head football coaches do not die on the job, except in the gradual sense, defeat by withering defeat. Neither do they usually retire, clutching an engraved watch and mumbling banalities to a wet-eyed audience at the downtown Ramada Inn. The vast majority do not even get the chance to withdraw from the job into a warm, safe athletic directorship. For every one who does, there are a hundred who wind up selling real estate. Starting out, a new head coach has two things in common with the head coach he has replaced: 1) an absolute belief that he can do the job, no matter how grave the odds (coaches laugh at odds; coaches are not realistic); and 2) the very good chance that he will not—and will get fired. In other words, it is a helluva way to make a living.

Here, then, is Craig Fertig. Age 34. Southern California-bred. Bright. Articulate. Been around. Hobnobbed in school with people named Frank Sinatra Jr. Quarterbacked USC to a national championship in 1962. Starred in the Rose Bowl. Learned coaching and stand-up comedy at the knee of John McKay. Went over the wall with Tony Curtis (Spartacus), walked Vivien Leigh's dog (Ship of Fools) and taught Charlton Heston everything he knows about quarterbacking (Number One) as a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild. Fertig means "ready" in the German of his father (his mother is Irish).

So, what is Craig Fertig about to do this fall? Why, to head-coach the Oregon State football team. Corvallis is his new town, that onetime Prohibition stronghold where the Elks Club is still big and everybody plays cards at the country club on Wednesday night, and where the citizenry doesn't mind if you visit as long as you don't try to live there. Oregon State has won one conference championship (in 1964) since the Pacific Eight was founded and hasn't been to the Rose Bowl in 11 years. It was locked out last year by having the bad luck to lose 10 of its 11 games. Say hello to the head coaching business, Craig Fertig.

Here, too, is Ron Meyer. Age 35. Handsome, outgoing and independently poor. But on his way, it would seem, to being rich. An Eagle Scout. A walk-on football player who made good at Purdue, where he was a rara avis: his grades were better than his football. Won the Big Ten Medal of Honor for scholarship and, eventually, a master's degree in history. Did time as an assistant coach at Purdue, was a scout for the Dallas Cowboys and served three years as a small-college coach in that hotbed of athletic fulfillment, Las Vegas. At Las Vegas, he was instructed not to make long distance calls without clearing them with the president's office. Meyer studied military history; he believes in predestination. He does not think it inconceivable that he will be Coach of the Year someday.

What Meyer is the coach of this year is the Southern Methodist University football team in Dallas. SMU won a national championship in 1935 and later gave the world Doak Walker, Kyle Rote and casts of thousands in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday afternoons, 1947-50. SMU has lived off those glories ever since, as if in a protracted opium dream, and fired coaches who did not bring them back. The latest, Dave Smith, lasted three years and was "let go" last January. Attendance at the Cotton Bowl got so bad the SMU publicity department quit putting the figures in the press book. The Mustangs were playing in the shadow of the professional Cowboys and, worse, in the leg-irons of an NCAA probation for having the brass to pay their players. The week Ron Meyer was signed to be the 11th SMU coach, the NCAA extended the probation until 1977. Step right up to the big time, Ron Meyer.

And here is Douglas N. Barfield. Age 40. Made it to middle age a teetotaler. Soft brown eyes, jug-handle ears, a self-deprecating manner. Barfield describes himself over the chicken and peas at banquets as a "warm speaker." Asked what he means by a warm speaker, Barfield says, "Not so hot." Bar-field's next-door neighbor and closest friend growing up in Grove Hill, Ala. (pop. 1,825) was David Mathews. David became president of the University of Alabama and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Barfield became a 160-pound quarterback at Mississippi Southern ("Auburn told me I was too small; they were probably right"), a high school coach for eight years ("I learned to line the field on Friday afternoons") and an assistant coach at Mississippi Southern, Clemson and—finally—Auburn.

The only head-coaching job Doug Bar-field ever applied for was at West Point in 1974. He did not get the job but said he did not expect to. "What would they do at West Point with a slow-talking Southern boy?" The opportunity of becoming a head coach had apparently passed when he was suddenly faced with the offer to succeed Ralph (Shug) Jordan, the resident legend at Auburn—25 years on the job, national and conference championships, bowl games, etc. Everybody who knew anything about coaching told Barfield what a fool he would be to follow a legend. "What you want," he was advised, time and time again, "is to be the coach who follows the coach who follows the legend." Barfield listened to the good advice—and accepted the job. Last fall, as a lame duck, Jordan had his worst season in 23 years: 3-6-2. Auburn football watchers said the talent he left behind was "the leanest in years." Take it away, Coach Barfield.

And here, finally, is John David Crow. At 41, the best known of the four. Big, blond, rugged good looks only slightly impaired by a paralysis (from childhood) of the left side of his face. Robert Mitchurn should have grown up to look like John David Crow. Louisiana-born and bred. Was an All-America and won the Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M under the young Bear Bryant, who said watching Crow on the football field was like watching a grown man play with children. A 1,000-yard rusher in pro football and an All-Pro with the Cardinals and 49ers. "The shiftiest big man" Otto Graham ever saw. Quit to be an assistant coach at Alabama, to catch Bryant's act from the other side ("I don't want Coach Bryant's job," said Crow, "I just want one like it"). Back to assist at Cleveland and San Diego, getting the pros out of his system.

Bryant once singled out John David Crow as one of the few men he would unqualifiedly endorse for any job. Crow's job as the first Heisman winner to become a head coach will be to keep the people of Monroe, La. from expecting him to take Northeast Louisiana University to the Orange Bowl this fall. Northeast hired Crow as athletic director and head coach, a bargain at $27,500 a year. With an athletic budget that would compare favorably with, say, McNeese State's, and a little old 8,340-seat stadium, Northeast climbed—tentatively—into Division I of the NCAA last fall, winning four games. Now, with Crow, it has raised its sights further. Monroe can scarcely believe its good fortune. "What do we call you?" new admirers ask Crow. "My mother always called me John David," Crow answers. "Well, I want you to know, John David, that I never told an Aggie joke in my life." Welcome home, John David.

Four coaches starting out—Fertig, Meyer, Barfield, Crow. Four ostensibly on the same mission. Four with the wind at their backs. They are the celebrities at every gathering, the beneficiaries of every glad hand. They have one thing in common: they have not lost a game.

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