The coach of the U.S. Olympic hockey team, Herb Brooks, had been dangling his feet in the pool for some time. It was 6:30 a.m. and he was operating on only two hours of sleep.He was pondering the job offers that had come his way since the spectacular win over the Soviets at Lake Placid in February.
No coach in recent memory has taken such quantum leaps in visibility as Herb Brooks. He glowered on our TV screens for 10 days as he paced back and forth behind the U.S. bench like an expectant father, pulling off the unexpected with the unexpected.
He felt quite pressed by a job offer from the Colorado Rockies of the National Hockey League. But it was common knowledge that he had a better financial offer from Switzerland. He'd been sorting out his priorities all night.
Brooks, "Mean" Joe Green and I planned to play golf that morning, but we realized that we would rather converse than try to break 90 on the nearby course.
Our conversation ranged from the education levels of NHL players to coaching styles and techniques, to how tennis players get away with outlandish court behavior. I wish I could have taped our conversation, for any comment from one of us brought torrents of augmentation and arguments from the other two.
We agreed on four things: Coaches make more of a difference than most people imagine -- even if you throw in the Red Auerbachs and the Chuck Nolls and the Walt Alstons. Russian hockey invincibility was a myth all along; NHL tactics may have been too conservative for too many years. The Steelers are a good bet to win the Super Bowl again next year; winning is a habit and the Steelers have it. And, sudden fame is not easy to handle. i
It has been Brooks' lifelong dream to coach in the NHL. As he told us, "There are no American coaches in the league -- haven't been since the '30s." He could be a first and the Colorado Rockies wanted him. But they wanted an answer sooner than he wanted to answer.
The offer from Switzerland sounded tempting, but Joe and I thought that, in the long run, an NHL spot was better. If he signed with the Rockies (even though over NHL teams had expressed interest) he'd be joining a last-place team and have no place to go but up. In any case, he would probably wind up back in the United States anyway. (Despite Joe and my advice, it was announced May 30 that Herb would accept the offer from Switzerland.)
Meanwhile, Joe stitched together, with pride, the finely woven pattern of how the Steelers drafted and murtured their four-time Super Bowl-winning team. "No Steeler now playing has played any place else," he remarked. I chimed in with the fact that Red Auerback did the same thing with the Celtics in the 1960s, relying almost exclusively on the draft. Herb had a chance to do the same thing in Denver.
Herb allowed that he, too, had drafted college kids for the Olympic team and had sewn them together. "But the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) officials in Lake Placid were all over my back for not allowing my team to attend press conferences after the games," he said. "I didn't want the press to contaminate our unity, which took weeks to build."
Joe said that, as a defensive lineman, "We long ago got used to the fact that Terry (Bradshaw), Franco (Harris), Lynn (Swann) and John (Stallworth) got most of the publicity. And Coach (Chuck) Noll doesn't even like publicity. Even my Coke and Swanson commercials don't put me in Lynn's or Franco's category."
Joe was being modest. He just hadn't fully realized what a catchy nickname, four Super Bowl rings and a syrupy commericial can do for a 6-foot-3, 260-pound football player. This was heavy stuff for a black kid from Texas. The night before, his wife Agnes told me that their three kids "just love the attention, but we have to get them to tone it down. We live in Dallas and we don't want to get those Cowboys all riled up."
Joe and Agnes have been married for 12 years, and all of the attention has more tickled than tainted them. Besides, he added, "I really like Coke and those TV dinners, too."
Slightly serious, Joe Green would never mug in front of a camera on the field. But he does admit that the urge to win an unprecedented fifth Super Bowl and truly mark this Steeler squad above every other NFL team is stronger now.
Neither Joe nor Herb was still quite used to sudden fame -- especially Herb. The lack of clarity had nothing to do with their personal self-confidence. Herb noted "that so many weighty decisions had to be made immediately."
My two friends were amazed at the shenanigans pro tennis players get away with, but I told them that these players live and work in an essentially undisciplined environment.No teammates, just individual coaches; no substitutes and no timeouts (except for arguments).
Two hours of conversation with Herb Brooks and "Mean" Joe Greene passed like a summer thunderstorm, an intense trialogue followed by Joe running to catch a plane. Even the American tourists watching us must have sensed our seriousness. No one asked for an autograph the entire time.