How busy Chuck Fairbanks must have been. Under oath in a federal court, the New England coach admitted recruiting for the University of Colorado even as he prepared the Patriots for the NFL playoffs. We see him with a phone in one hand, describing the mountainous glories of Colorado, while with the other hand he draws Xs and Os designed to outwit the Houston Oilers.
No less than if struck by Too Tall Jones, the federal judge hearing Fairbanks' confession was set on his heels. The coach had four years left on a contract with the Patriots. How, the judge asked, could a man work for another employer before he was freed, if ever he would be, by the Patriots?
Welcome to the wonderful world of sports, Mr. Federal Judge. All that matters here is winning. If you win, you can get away with almost anything. You are no longer bound by the shackles of homor that inhibit ordinary people.
Now, maybe it is only a sign a sportswriter is growing old and crochety that he would take up his machine and fire rat-a-tat-tat at Chuck Fairbanks. The guy is only skipping out on New England before New England skips out on him. (Certainly, the Patriots like him now, but all coaches get fired if they hang around too long.) The really bothersome thing about Fairbanks is that he is only one of a debasing kind.
It was not Woody Hayes' mistake that he hit a man in the face; he'd done that defore. This time he hit a player on the other team. Even Ohio State University, Hayes' keeper/apologist, could not tolerate that, especially when the old coach compounded the crime by losing four games this season.
Fran Curci, the University of Kentucky football coach, has an engraved plaque in his office bearing Vince Lombardi's famous reminder: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." Curci had the plaque before the NCAA found Kentucky guilty of paying players according to their day's work. Through the resulting two-year probation, the plaque stayed in Curci's office.
Charley Pell signed a three-year contract with Clemson on a Saturday this winter. Two days later, he skedaddled to Florida, which had fired Doug Dickey with time left on his contract. That decvelopment sent Dickey looking for a certain lawyer in Oklahoma City who also is representing Jim Stanley in his firing hassle with Oklahome State.
George Allen told us losing was like dying, and Bill Musselman said, no, it wasn't. "Defeat is worse than death," Musselman said, and he had it written in his Minnesota locker room for the players to see, "because you have to live with defeat." Musselman, later run out of Minnesota by the NCAA cops, was to blame when a terrifying brawl broke out at Minnesota.
Lombardi has been all but canonized, Allen is a millionaire and Hayes has been offered a job by the college football Hall of Fame. To break his word, Fairhanks has said to have accepted part ownership of a golf course, and Pell, whatever contract he signed in Florida, probably would go to Alabama tomorrow if they offered him Bear Bryant's job.
Big-time sports is largely without honor. All that matters is winning, and by winning, great profits are reaped. Universities of academic distinction will accept any behavior from a coach, be it dehumanizing, neurotic or amoral, as long as he wins on Saturday. By sneaking around the Patriots' back to hire Fairbanks, Colorado vividly demonstrated that winning at all cost is not limited to ambitious coaches.
Or look at Kentucky. There, the university president allowed Joe Hall, the coach whose basketball team won the national championship last march, to collect private donations of $750,000 to build a veritable mansion for his basketball players.
The president, on hearin g of Hall's plan, should have screamed that any coach whose team is already on probation (yes, Hall and Curci were nailed together) is lucky to have a doghouse on campus, let alone a mansion.
If college athletics is supposed to be a part of a student's life but not the whole of it, there is no justification for a basketball palace. Already the players are special creatures on campus; with the mansion, their entire existence is filtered through their special status.
Hall defends the mansion on grounds he needs it to recruit and maintain discipline, which in turn helps him win games. Whether it was intended or not, college sports is now show business and enter-tainment. When your team plays in a in a 23,000-seat arena, as Hall's does, the customers are entertained only by victory. So he builds a mansion... to attract players... to win games... to keep his job.
And if the mansion is a towering symbol of everything that is wrong with big-time college sports -- all that matters is winning -- we should blame not Joe Hall but his university president, Otis Singletary, who betrayed his university's ideals.
James Michener, in his book "Sports in America," wrote of Ohio State's football hysteria. He illustrated it with a saddening reminder of Kent State, where in the spring of 1970, Ohio officials called out armed guardsmen to deal with some beer-drinking students who, in frustration over the war in Vietnam, had burned the ROTC building. Four students were shot and killed.
"In November of that year," Michener wrote, wrote, "Woody Hayes led Ohio State to a glorious 20-9 victory over Michigan, and the students fairly tore Columbus apart, causing substantial damage to property and considerable risk to life, but the same Ohio officials saw no need ot call out the guard, because to show such high spirited support of the football team was not only understandable; it was laudable proof of good citizenship."
As long as sports is big-time enterainment, and it always will be, Colorados will coachnap big names and Ohios will tolerate riot in the name of victory. All a crochety sportwriter can hope for is that for every Fairbanks and Hayes, every Allen and Musselman, there also will be a Joe Paterno, the Penn State coach who knows sports can be beautiful:
"If a bunch of kids playing football can live together when their noses bleed, when they ache, when they're dog-tired and when some coach is chewing them out and they can do things together and for each other, then there has to be some good in it."