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If only the college football coach in the ABC situation comedy Coach were a martinet, mean and implacable. Then at least he would be a little fun. Sure, blustery Hayden Fox can be as rigid as a goalpost, but he's really a vulnerable and caring guy, the Phil Donahue of X's and O's. He agonizes over his receding hairline. He worries that no one really likes him. He's terrified of growing old. "I don't know why time scares me," he blurts out, "but it does."
Fox is played by Craig T. Nelson, a journeyman character actor who has built his career portraying slow-on-the-uptake palookas. In Poltergeist he was a suburban dad who battled malevolent spirits that redecorated his home. In the sequel, he swallowed a "possessed" worm, vomited out a jam-covered ghoul and went another 15 rounds with the undead. Nelson's enemies in Coach are even more daunting: feelings, aesthetics and a son-in-law who's a mime.
Coach (Tuesdays, 9:30 EST) is set at Minnesota State, a mythical college outside Minneapolis. Like almost every other sitcom, the show is shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles. You know it's supposed to be Minnesota because the characters wear parkas, sit around the fireplace in Hayden's log cabin and say things like "Gee, it's chilly out there."
The program's principal sets depict the cabin and Hayden's office; the cameras stay out of the locker room and off the playing field. Perhaps the writers are afraid that we will switch channels if we're shown simulated game action (not an unreasonable fear, actually), so they push Hayden into his cabin, where they can dwell on his vanities and fussy insecurities. When his wimpy son-in-law tells him men are 49% female and 51% male, Hayden tightens his jaw and says, "I think I'm in the high 90's, babe."
A crestfallen Hayden hides out in his cabin after he unexpectedly fails to win the coveted Curley O'Brien Award—a prize given annually to the MSU coach who has had great success or a terrible illness—which goes to the women's basketball coach. "I threw away my marriage for coaching," he moans. "I threw away a home and friends for coaching. I have nothing." Hayden's wife skipped out of their marriage, presumably because there wasn't enough cotton in the world to muffle the drone of his whining. Now he suddenly has to pay attention to Kelly Fox Rosebrock, the college-age daughter he never got to know. Perky beyond human endurance, Kelly (played by Clare Carey) gives her old man the same sort of look Kitten used to give Jim Anderson in Father Knows Best—a dewy-eyed, adoring look that says "my hero."
The other female doting on Hayden is his girlfriend (Shelly Fabares), a Minneapolis anchorwoman named Christine, who encroaches on his life inch by inch and hopes he'll break down and make a commitment. Christine, too, is a bit of a mess: Whenever Hayden offers her less security than he does his offensive linemen, she has brief nervous breakdowns—crying jags. Their scenes together bog down in a gummy high-schoolish sensitivity. Hayden should be able to douse her with Gatorade whenever she becomes overheated.
But the real weakness of Coach is its special teams. As a vague, dawdling assistant coach, Jerry Van Dyke still seems to be communing with the 1928 Porter from his 1960s series, My Mother the Car. Running post patterns in the same zone of the zonked is Bill Fagerbakke as an astonishingly stupid student assistant coach who thinks Catcher in the Rye is a baseball book. This joke was barely funny when J.D. Salinger was still giving interviews. Hayden is also bedeviled by an assortment of prissy professors, who care about things like history, art and politics—and keep flunking his players off the team. His most formidable foil, however, is a Minneapolis sportscaster, a Bob Costas soundalike named—appropriately—Bob. He tells Christine that her steady is a lousy coach whose team will be awful next season. "He's losing his quarterback and half his defensive line," says Bob, "and he hasn't recruited anyone decent."
"Well," says Christine in a huff, "you don't know that."
"Christine! I'm a TV journalist! I read the papers!"
Unfortunately, that has been about the only inspired gag on Coach. More often we get a line like the one Hayden uttered after Christine made him eat baklava at a soiree: "No wonder Socrates killed himself!"