"I always recognized the extent of my influence, coaching in high school," Young says. "As long as you know what you're doing, coaching in high school offers the greatest opportunity and the greatest influence. You're a molder! But, thank God, somewhere in my background I recognized that football is only part of the complete process."
The football coach possesses, perhaps, more responsibility than any other teacher or coach because the sport is harsh and brutal, and because the game—unlike baseball, and more so even than basketball—is a festival by nature, a social event that touches almost everyone in the school's extended family. "Football can set the tone for your whole school," Young says. "It's probably foremost just a matter of timing, that it comes at the beginning of the school year. But I'm convinced, for whatever the reasons, that if you have an unsuccessful football team, your whole school program for that year can be adversely affected—in other sports, in other activities, in the way the school feels about itself.
"But football is a dangerous game for those who play it," he points out. "Now I love the game. It's a good way to lose your aggressions, because it's healthy and it's controlled. But football's not easy. It's a Spartan sport, a game for men.
"There are many boys who should never play football. Sometimes I think I've spent my whole life worrying about other people's children or other people's husbands, but if I had a son myself I'd be very careful in helping him decide whether he should play football. And it should never be played by anyone without the best equipment, the best facilities...the best coaches."
A few years ago in Baltimore County, public forums were being held to discuss whether football should be played by the high schools at all. Typically, Young took it upon himself to attend. "They had all these mothers' clubs and elementary school teachers speaking out against football, and they had no idea what they were talking about. I just sat there listening. They simply didn't understand. It's not football they should be afraid of. It's the people who run it."
Young grew up street-smart in Baltimore's 10th Ward in a tough Irish neighborhood, living over a bakery that was run by his mother's side of the family, catty-corner from his father's bar. It was a quintessential Baltimore area, and, as might be expected from someone who is so consistent in life, Young remains hometown through and through. When the late Joe Thomas, the Colts' general manager, fired Young during a 1974 purge, "Well, now I have to leave Baltimore" was the first thing that went through Young's mind.
Then Shula hired him for Miami, whence he departed for New York seven years later. But the more agonizing decision was in '68 when Young chose to take the sabbatical from teaching and to work for Shula and the Colts.
For some time it had been gnawing at him that secondary public education had come to require "technicians" more than it did teachers. "It's something terribly sad," he says, "that high school coaches are more successful than their colleagues in the classrooms. And no one seems to be able to make the connection that coaches are still allowed to establish standards and demand performance, while teachers are not." Young had begun to talk to Lovey about how it might be time for him to seek a position in some local college's history department.
But by then Shula had met the other successful coach in Baltimore, the one who kept winning titles at City, had given him a temporary personnel assignment and had been so impressed at the way Young had handled that task that—out of the blue—he had offered him a full-time position. George and Lovey discussed the options carefully and decided on football. And that is how, in the prime of his life, George Young set off on a path that made him NFL Executive of the Year instead of a professor of European history.
"I never aspired to this position," he says. "Professional athletes are not always uplifting, and this is not a business of the well-adjusted." He shifts uneasily. "There are a lot of non-football types trying to get in on the act who never paid their dues. This is still a sport, and it's still a boy's game. But money, you see, is becoming the end-all. Oh, of course, I realize this is a business, and certainly it's show business—only not to the extent being claimed. It's these outside people who're telling the players—the holdups...I mean the holdouts—that money is that important, the end. But I don't care who says otherwise, I know that's not the true nature of the football player. The player seeks to play first. Listen, if you don't love to play the game, you're absolutely crazy to get on the field."