Generally speaking, baseball managers and basketball coaches are more interesting than football coaches, who tend to be valued more for their organizational skills than for their personalities. Incredibly, Billy Martin made me his confidant even though I had barely met him. The first game I watched him manage, he got mad at a rookie umpire named Rich Garcia (who would go on to become tops in his profession), and when I went into Martin's office before the game the next day, he greeted me with, "Whaddya think o' this? I go out to give the lineup card, I call that Garcia a spic."
"I don't know, Billy," I said tentatively.
"Why not? They called me a dago. Let's see what the sonovabitch is made of."
I don't know how much I influenced Martin, but he decided not to slur Garcia. I guess Billy's whole life was premised on finding out what the sonovabitch is made of—starting with himself.
Bear Bryant was the coach who got me into the most trouble, if inadvertently. He was going for the record for most victories by a college football coach. He was old, the Bear; he'd be dead in little more than a year. He was tired, and he didn't mind admitting to me that his assistants were doing most of the real coaching. He also had to pee all the time. Now, this is hardly a stop-the-presses revelation among old men. But when, in my article, I mentioned it (and just in passing), the entire state of Alabama came down on me. Petitions were mailed in demanding that I be fired. Worse, when another SI writer, John Papanek, went down to cover the game in which Bryant set the record, the good citizens in the Heart of Dixie cursed him and one actually spit on him.
The Bear himself thought the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot. And the truth was, he had to pee all the time, and he didn't make any bones about it. But as Paul Harvey would've intoned, there was the rest of the story too. Coaches, like sportswriters, are a tight fraternity. They always call each other Coach, as if it were a military rank or religious office. A few months after Alabama threw its hissy fit, I called up North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith and said I'd like to do a story on him. I'd known him for almost 20 years, and we'd always enjoyed cordial relations.
"I'm sorry, Frank, but I won't talk to you," he said.
Flabbergasted, I asked, "Why?"
"I didn't like the way you treated Coach Bryant."
Regardless, I knew Dean did not easily give himself away. Even if he had talked to me, he wouldn't have revealed the Real Dean Smith. Other subjects are quite the opposite. Indiana coach Bobby Knight despised SI because he felt, not without cause, that he had been portrayed harshly in the magazine. When I gingerly approached him—writing a letter first—he took his time getting back to me and then took more time before he finally agreed to cooperate. But once he did, he was remarkably obliging and forthcoming. The first day I was with him we stayed up till 2 a.m. discussing the Civil War, about which he knew a great deal more than I did. Don't forget, it's two people on a high school date, and it's not just the reporter who's doing the flirting.