In my whole
lifetime," says Bud Carson, the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive coordinator,
"I have not known three great offensive line coaches." Carson, 46, has
coached football 23 years, all but two of them at the college or professional
level. "You must be willing to stay involved with fundamentals, but for
most people fundamentals are boring. Rad does a helluva job." Rad is Dan
(Bad Rad) Radakovich, Carson's colleague on the Steeler staff. During stretches
of unsatisfactory Steeler performance, their boss, Head Coach Chuck Noll, has
been heard to say, "Well, it is time to go back to fundamentals." The
word carries a theological ring coming from the lips of coaches, few of them
willing to give it less than reverence.
At the risk of
simplicity, one can say that teaching fundamentals stands opposite to teaching
assignments—instead of instructing whom to hit and when, the coach teaches how.
National Football League players presumably know how, but the fundamentalists
insist the presumption is fatal. Which brings us to Bad Rad, the reputed ace of
believe in the word fundamentals," he bristles. "I've never in my life
used the word."
What is this?
Where are we headed?
Known as an
inventive iconoclast who at times seems to live on a planet all his own, Rad
once coached at the University of Colorado, where players were said to have
muttered under their breath, "Earth to Rad! Earth to Rad!" Now he says,
"If you're not teaching assignments, people say you're teaching
fundamentals, but I'm teaching assignments and how to accomplish them. And
that's all there is to it."
Never mind that
Rad and his colleagues seemingly cannot agree on what he is teaching; the
confusion is symptomatic of the gelatinous, hard-to-grasp nature of assistant
coaching, a profession whose second-banana stature makes it little understood
in the first place.
The very title,
assistant coach, is flunky-like. Stepping up to the cozy proximity of the head
coach's ear, an assistant these days becomes a coordinator, which as a
promotion euphemism fails to the point of suggesting a middle-management
functionary in a Soviet factory. Most club owners probably hold assistants to
be as easily replaceable as faucet washers. Indeed, assistants complain that
many head coaches—particularly those who lose—cast them as calisthenics
directors or bulletin distributors.
In the bargain,
impermanence is an assistant's way of life, as Carson recognizes with growing
introspection. "You say, 'Let's not remodel this house and put a lot of
money into it. There's no telling how long we'll be here.' You think too much
about how you're going to live tomorrow and not enough about how you're going
to live today. It's taken me a long time to learn that." Salaries often
fail to make sense. On the college level, assistants earn from $11,000 to
$30,000, many of them being paid less than high school head coaches, while in
the pros they earn from $20,000 to $60,000, some assistants doing much better
than alumni-harassed head coaches of well-known college teams.
occupation meanders—through income brackets, levels of skill, publicity
quotients and burdens of responsibility. So for purposes of at least drawing a
bead on the field, Noll's Steeler staff is here appointed. The Steelers have
made the playoffs the past five seasons and won the Super Bowl twice, largely
with the same assistants they still have. Remarkably, although Noll came up
through the pro ranks as both player and coach, only one member of his
staff—Backfield Coach Dick Hoak—played professionally, and none of his present
staff had coached in the NFL. Yet, because Noll leans heavily on assistants (to
the point of having them choose his starting lineup), there is no mistaking
that they demonstrate the reaches assistants can obtain. Says Carson,
"Chuck does not say his way is the only way."
midweek practice can be hateful to a professional lineman may be that he is
driven to bang his head against another's in a pit surrounded by 50,000 or more
empty seats. If, as is claimed, the ego of a racehorse comes to respond to the
roar of a crowd, certainly a pro lineman's must, too, but here the aching
effort plays eerily to empty seats. Reaction comes only in the form of a
coach's voice, approving or castigating, resounding off the dull thump of