SI Vault
Kenny Moore
November 24, 1980
So Homer Smith felt when, dismissed as Army's football coach, he went to Harvard Divinity School. But now he's back to the game
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November 24, 1980

Heaven Can't Wait

So Homer Smith felt when, dismissed as Army's football coach, he went to Harvard Divinity School. But now he's back to the game

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Though this is essentially a conservative view, Smith quickly pointed out it's not one that acquiesces to a poor response to pressure, namely cheating.

"Pressure by itself is not an adequate explanation. It is augmented by coaches feeling that they have made no agreement among themselves. The rule-making is done by the college presidents and athletic directors and faculty representatives, and once institutionalized in the NCAA and its enforcement machinery, the rules and their keepers can come back to the coaches seeming almost like an alien police, an outside enemy, without moral force."

Seemingly the coaches' dilemma is easily drawn: Either the pressures are of irresistible weight, crushing even the best of them, or they are strong enough to resist, and so are culpable if they cheat. But it is always some of both, of course, which makes it impossible to judge without knowledge of each situation. Yet Smith's voice rings with assurance when he says, "Football coaches, head coaches, are, in the vast majority, honorable people, good people."

To permit the integrity of such men some influence in their world, Smith outlined the beginnings of a plan. "If honor is generated in groups," he said, "and it is, in schools, in the military, then our failures have not been caused by people so much as by institutions which have no structure whereby you get peer approval for honor." Whereupon, Smith suggested such a structure.

"If all major-college football coaches could get together, they could agree on a code that would give stability and identity and justice. You would have to have an amnesty for old violations because you couldn't possibly untangle the past. But coaches are starved for a chance to start fresh, where the honor of everyone there would be pledged to uphold rules that we adopt, not a remote police force."

The crucial work of such a convocation would be to take pressure off coaches. "Goodness, if everybody kept his promises, we'd still lose half our games each week," he says. "It's easy to accept losing games. It's the lost jobs, the disrupted lives that are hard to bear. And if the truth be known, stable programs are the way to win. Look at the Steelers, the Cowboys. So coaches should share the pressure. The team captains should be responsible for emotional readiness. The quarterbacks should call all the plays. Contracts for a coach's services should be honored to their ends by both parties. And a pledge should go out to all interested elements, the alumni, students, community business people—the components of the pressure—so that all could sign on as part of this moral rebirth."

His plan roughly presented, Smith sat back with the alert expresssion of a good teacher ready to defend it against an unconvinced student. "How would it be enforced?" he said, before he could be asked. "By simple peer pressure. We will have formed our own tribe. If 10 pledged and one defaulted, he could be squeezed out by the other nine."

Might not, it was suggested, the coaches' code quickly deteriorate into yet another level of institutional rule?

"It might, but only if I'm wrong about the moral quality of football coaches. I'm not naive. I've talked with other assistant coaches about what goes on in the real world. I've felt their moral helplessness. If some are cynical, most are not. The profession can cleanse itself."

Examples were given, of coaches floating from school to school, or in from the pros, with seemingly no regard for promises. "I think you ought to have to go through a gate," said Smith with some asperity. "Have an initiation where you are given the word on honor. You ought not get in without pledging yourself. I know you couldn't put me in that position without creating a huge obligation to live up to my promises."

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