Four years after the University of Virginia fired him at the end of a 1-10 season, Sonny Randle is back in head football coaching job amid another swirl of controversy.
One Marshall University player has told The Washington Post, the team recently requested a private meeting with the team chaplain to discuss Randle's treatment of the players.
The account given by the player, who asked not to be identified, was corroborated by others.
"We take an awful lot of verbal abuse; we're called everything during practice. We're humiliated and it started getting to us. We started to believed it," the player said, adding that one teammate was reduced to tears.
But, worse than the verbal abuse, the player said, was Randle's habit of grabbing face masks to get attention. "A lot of coaches hit you on the head," he said. "That's pretty standard. But he grabs your face mask and whips your neck around . . .
"One guy with a face mask shook his head 'no' (when Randle approached him). The player pulled away from him and put his arms up a little, not really threatening, though. So the next day he had to run a mile after practice."
Some of the players are afraid that their necks may be broken, the player said, adding, "It's also very embarrassing when you've got 8,000 to 10,000 people watching it . . . He puts on a good sideshow, especially when we're losing."
Following the private meeting -- arranged by Randle -- with the team chaplain, Dr. R. F. Smith Jr., the team had a "week-long pleasant practice," the player said. "them we lost the next game and it was back to normal."
"I've never jerked anyone around. I'm not big enough or strong enough," Randle said. "The only thing I've ever done is get a face mask so i can get his attention . . . to make sure the youngster is looking in my eyes . . . But I don't do it anymore.
"But I've never hit a youngster, I may have tapped him on the head, but that hurts me more than him . . .
"As for verbal abuse, there's verbal abuse all over America and there will continue to be all over the country . . . If it's warranted to get something done, you have to do it. When they tell me I can no longer raise my voice and say what I want, I'll get out ot football."
The chaplain did not want to discuss the meeting, citing its confidential nature. Lynn J. Snyder, Marshall's athletic director, said, "There's no question any athletic director has to be concerned about any physical abuse, but we don't have any of that going on now."
University President Robert B. Hayes said, "There are some things about Sonny Randle I disagree with and he knows it, Sonny's changing."
Hayes added at another point that he is not in favor of "winning at all costs. The institution's reputation and image is more important than football."
Some of the players do rally to Randle's defense.
"When you come into a new situation," said senior Syl Drobney, an offensive guard, "you have to set new standards, set the minds in the right direction. You're always going to have some people who don't like the system . . .
"It's not that it's harsh out there, but he expects excellence out of you in everything you do."
Senior Mike Natale, a tight end, said, "It boils down to whether the guys are really trying to do their best and sometimes they really aren't.
"The ones who aren't coming along and doing better are the ones who dislike him most because they're getting the abuse. When he doesn't pay attention to you that's the time to start worrying."
Sonny Randle says Hayes, "is someone just a little different than the average coach, soneone out of the ordinary in terms of inensity, drive and charisma."
Chuck Inguartano, a freshman fullback who played for Randle in high school, says his coach "may scare a few people, but he'll do anything for anybody. All you have to do is ask."
Following his playing career with the Chicago Cardinals, St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Dalls Cowboys and Washington Redskins, Randle launched into the high school-college coaching sphere.
At East Carolina, he won two Southern Conference championships and compiled a 22-10 overall record, an achievement that conference-member Marshall hopes he can repeat with its team.
That impressive record for East Carolina led to the head coaching job at his alma mater, Virginia, perhaps the nadir of his career.
Randle's teams compiled a 5-17 record during the two years before his dismissal. There were also "philosophical difference" with the administration over the role of a football.
Randle departed Virginia for Massanutten Academy, where he led the team to a 19-3 record the two years he spent there before signing a four-year contract with Marshall at $35,000 annually.
"I've been three places and at two of them I got (the job) done," he says, "Two out of three isn't bad. Virginia was not a good experience. It probably wasn't for them, and it wasn't for me."
The basic Randle credo sounds wonderful.
"Football has a role," he says. The youngster who plays football has a role . . . You have to look at this academically, athletically and socially. rYou have to keep it in the right perspective to do right by the youngster.
"Academics has to be first. If thats not first, he doesn't do us any good.
He's coming for an education first. If he can't cut it in the classroom, he can't help us as a football player . . . Otherwise, we're cutting off our nose to spite our face."
Yet early in the season, Tim Williams, a junior tailback with a demanding science curriculum, quite the team, saying there was too little time for academics.
"Under Coach Randle's method of football, I felt I never had any chance to work on my academics," Williams said. "We were expected to give from six to 10 hours a day to football and that didn't leave any time for anything else."
Randle, as well as some of the players interviewed, said there is adequate time for studies. There were few complaints about the code of conduct or dress standards Randle imposes.
Todd Ellwood, a senior wide receiver who was forced off the team by injuries, sees a difference between Randle and his predecessor, Frank Ellwood, Tood's father.
"When Coach Randle came in here he stressed discipline and conditioning right from the start," said the younger Ellwood, who says he likes Randle. "He put in a few more disciplinary rules than my father had -- such as being well-groomed, no beards, hair reasonable length."
"This has been like night and day for all the kids," says Randle of the transition. I'm much more demanding. When he hired me, the president said, "Hey, I want you to shake up the program and that's why we hired you."
The record so far this season is 1-8, but Randle, Hayes and Snyder see vast improvement's not reflected in the scores or record.
"When I got here, my god, it was frightening," Randle said. "They just didn't care. I can't blame them after what they've been through . . .
"Attitude has a lot to do with it. It's not the fault of the kids. It's like being a fighter. You can get knocked down one or two times and you get up. What happens when you get knocked down eight or nine times? . . . There have been only three wins in four years for the Seniors."
Randle has 12 seniors and 42 freshmen on the 82-man squad "so it's understandable why we're struggling," he says. "but it keeps me alive and it's just a matter of time before things are going to swing 180 degrees."