In a winter when Woody Hayes and Chuck Fairbanks have given their profession a shabby name, perhaps it is time to return to a definition of basic terms.
Case in point: Al (Sleepy) Thompson, who is what we mean when we say, "That man is a football coach."
Seldom does a testimonial come at the perfect moment. People have a knack of withholding praise too long, or else giving it cheaply.
So, it is with particular pleasure that St. Stephen's School is throwing a bash -- a Sleepy Roast -- Saturday night at the Springfield (Va.) Hilton.
For once, an estimable community figure -- practically a one-man institution -- is going to be teased and toasted while he is in his prime and at the top of his world.
Few men find the perfect life calling. Thompson, 53, the dean of area football coaches and athletic directors, is one of them. He was born to teach young men what it means to play a tough game the right way.
This season, his 27th as the Saints' head man, was one of Thompson's best. His underfeated (9-0) team led the Washington area in points produced, outscoring its opponents by 202. His squads, have had only three losing seasons, and have been unbeaten three times. In 1978, St. Stephen's was ranked ninth and 19th by Washington's two major papers, and the Star chose him as its coach of the year.
All that, however, might not have precipitated a banquet. People at SSS, like folks everywhere, had to get a slap in the face before they completely woke up. They had to wonder whether Thompson was going to die a year ago before they realized how much he meant to them.
Even when it developed that Thompson "only" needed to have a disk removed from his back, it was not known when, or if, he could ever coach again.
"Might as well put Sleep in a pine box if he can't coach," said SSS dean Dick Babyak, organizer of the roast. "We held him down as long as we could."
"I don't know if the players ever knew how much pain Sleepy was in from standing up so long at a stretch," said assistant athletic director Herb Soles. "At the first game, I think we coaches spent as much time keeping an eye on him as we did watching the game."
To those who did not know his problem, Thompson looked like the same ambulatory volcano, except with a slight limp.
"Sleepy won't change," said Soles. "Jerry Ford in politics and Bear Bryant in football... those are his men. He still thinks soccer is a foreign conspiracy, and he still won't say a cuss word stronger than 'cheese an' crackers'."
Thompson, of course, had to cut down just a little. He reduced his golf swing -- and played better. And, in Babyak's words, "He can't take off and drive all night to hear a clinic on the veer offense in Tennessee, then drive back the same day."
But the essential Thompson remains unchanged, and probably will for years.
Thompson's coaching gifts stem from his almost charismatic presence. Even in middle age he still looks like what he was -- a graceful, soft-walking quarterback, pitcher and point guard at St. John's High and George Washington University.
He claims the nickname goes beyond memory to his early childhood. But the legends are legion from three decades of young athletes. Some claim he once fell asleep on a basketball bench, others that he was caught napping one day and was picked off in a long-ago baseball game.
There is no disagreement at all, however, that emotion and temper have always been Thompson's best coaching tools.
He transmits a sense of enormous internal pressure that is being held under an absolute, yet precarious, control. As a consequence, the idea of backtalking Sleepy occurs to about one Saint per decade. And that one is always sorry.
Only the most serious counseling problems find their way to Thompson's littered office -- the ones that go beyond the purview of a teacher's professional jargon. Thompson -- totally unpreppie with his Foggy Bottom background -- is the school's distenser of home truths. Man to man is the only way he knows how to tolk.
When it comes to paperwork or returning phone calls, Thompson is likely to try to keep everything in his head and get totally tangled up. But when it come to boys -- age 8 to 18 -- he rarely is confused.
"Kids come to him when they won't come to anyone else... they always have," says Babyak. "He just has tremendous repport.
"Even my own son, Billy -- a trpical 140-pound St. Stephen's football monster -- if Sleepy said, 'Go through that brick wall', Billy would still be pounding his head."
Thompson's teams are kniwn for banging heads. "Every year, Sleepy is complaining," says Babyak, "and I think, 'No way we'll win a game with this sorry bunch."
"But every year Sleepy wins the league (IAC), or darn near does. This year, we didn't think we had beans. But Sleep found a tough little competitor (Chris Meloni) to quarterback his veer, nobody got injured, and he went undefeated."
Among coaches, Thompson is known as a thief -- of ideas. Any technical clinic within 200 miles will find Thompson either lecturing or listening.
Thompson, however, will be remembered far longer for his values than his victories. Wich a gun at his head, he would not be able to remember the final won-lost record of half his teams, nor the exact ranking in the top 20 of a half-dozen football and basketball powers that he built.
Of course, if's a good thing that winning and building character can go hand in hand, at least in a small, private-school league. Otherwise, Sleepy Thompson would have a heck of a choice because, cheese an' crackers, he loathes losing.
"Sleepy can hardly bear to watch our basketball team since he stopped coaching it," said Babyak. "We accuse him of taking all the talent with him when he retired Our offense of the entire '70s has been, 'Whoever the hell has it, shoot'!"
Few who know Thompson question that he could have succeerded as either a college football or basketball coach. He passed up plenty of offers.
On the other hand, those same people are equally certain that he had left a more valuable legacy by staying at a school of 580 where his gentle, fatherly impact, his self-effacing yet totally confident character has been felt by practically every student.
"I'm not really coaching football players," volunteered Thompson with ptide. "These boys aren't gong to play after they leave here. They're going to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, mimisters, businessmen.
"I like to think we're offering a boy something special..."
The hundreds of former St. Stephen's athletes who are paying $15 a head to praise Al Thompson this week and tease him about his silly nickname, know exactly who that special someone is.