"NFL coaches are getting to be like those Datsun cars -- you can't tell 'em apart. Why don't I have a head coaching job? 'Cause they're afraid of me. If you're not a puppet, you're in trouble." -- George Allen, ex-Super Bowl coach
"We're in the era of the Charlie McCarthy coach. You're the dummy and somebody else pulls the strings. Vince Lombardi couldn't make it now. Some accountant would get the owner's ear and undermine him. The third man -- the guy between you and the owner -- is the franchise ruiner. The story's always the same. Just change the names from Stram to Allen to Bum Phillips to Jack Pardee." -- Hank Stram, ex-Super Bowl coach
"Hank said that? Well, is that any different than the rest of corporate America? It's executive-level politics. Our new NFL owners didn't grow up with the game like the old families -- the Halases and Rooneys -- so they frequently need advice. And, you know, the sources of that advice are sometimes unreliable. . . I don't like the trend. I see too many old friends and good coaches who are out of work without sufficient reason." -- Tom Landry, coach of Dallas Cowboys
"I can't think of any profession as insecure as being an NFL head coach. Your fate is never in your own hands. One injury, one bad call, one bad bounce and a year's work can be burned up. They say the breaks all even up in the long run. But how many of us last that long?" -- Chuck Knox, coach of Buffalo Bills
"They say, 'Nobody knows Bud Grant.' That's on purpose. In the NFL, visibility equals vulverability. You're best off if you either haven't got a personality, or know how to hide it. I admire Chuck Noll because he's won for Super Bowls and remained totally invisible. People like Stram and Allen can't get back in the game because they're too strong. As coaches, we have no union, no bargaining agent, no protection and no strength to deal from. We are purposely kept in that position by the league. We're resented because we have so much impact on the game; pro football is a coach's medium and always has been. So, the league sees us as a necessary evil. We're muzzled . . . can't say, 'Boo.' Everybody'd be happier if we were clones, like the officials. Everthing you say is supposed to be 'positive.'. . If I'd known 25 years ago what I know now, I don't know if I'd have gotten into this profession." -- Bud Grant, head coach of Minnesota Vikings Perhaps the only job as insecure as coaching in the NFL is capping oil-well fires.
Last week, Jack Pardee, the NFC coach of the year in '79, was fired by the Washington Redskins. Two weeks before that, Bum Phillips, a coach so flamboyant and successful that his name was synonymous with Houston and the Oilers, was fired. Only a year ago, 50,000 people gathered to greet his team -- after a loss.
These executions, so unthinkable before the '80 season, have made NFL insiders think long and hard about the nature of their profession and the directions in which it might be headed.
As Pardee sat dejectedly in his home in Unison, Va., Monday, he seemed dazed.
"The coach should be allowed to coach and not be shot down from other angles," Pardee said, after losing an internal power struggle with the team's general manager, Bobby Beathard, for the support of their liege-lord Jack Kent Cooke. "Let me do my job, not worry about jockeying for position. . . I can't be a figurehead. Don't tell me to win, then say, 'But do it this way.'
"Without authority, I don't want the job."
Then, rather sadly, Pardee said: "It wasn't this way when I took the job."
Pardee is just the latest of many old-school coaches -- men who took as their models the Vince Lombardis, Paul Browns and George Allens -- who are discovering that their jobs, and, consequently, their entire sport, may be undergoing a fundamental shift.
The day of the colorful, all-powerful coach is apparently in full wane. The exceptions to the rule, ironically, are the few coaches who, at present, are the most successful in the NFL -- Landry, Noll, Knox, Dick Vermeil, Don Shula. Even they worry that what has happened to others will befall them.
Knox, who this year rebuilt the Bills into an 11-5 playoff team, is one of that successful, but perhaps endangered, species.
"This is a very insecure, very fickle profession," says Knox, who was forced out by the Rams after the '77 season, despite winning five consecutive division titles. "If you win, you're asked to 'win bigger' or 'win it all.' You create your own great expectations, then you are judged by them. You can lose your job because you haven't satisfied the fans, or the owner or the players. The last time I saw a figure, the average tenure of an NFL coach was 24 years. We make a running back's life expectancy look great by comparison. Usually, if you're fired once, that's it. No second chance. If you get fired twice, forget it.
"After 27 years of coaching, 18 in the pros, I've decided one thing: You have to have control over the acquisition of talent or your fate is almost entirely out of your own hands. You have to establish command. That's why I'm everything," says Knox, whose title is vice president in charge of football operations.
"Unfortunately, it takes unusually smart ownership to resist all the pressures to change coaches every time there's a problem. They know the devil they've got, but they forget to think about the devil they're going to bring in next. Buffalo is a perfect example. For 20 years, they had the worst record in the NFL under one owner. The reason was the constant changes of head coaches. They kept the people (executives) who were supplying the bad talent, but fired the poor guys who got stuck with it."
Several factors now work simultaneously against those charismatic figures who demand primary control over their team's destiny, and, thus, their own.
"When every team in the NFL gets $6 million (in network TV money) before they even pump up the balls for preseason camp, it changes people's priorities," says Stram, who, for his 15 seasons with the Chiefs, had only four fewer victories than the top team in pro ball. "Once, the owner wanted a strong coach who could win, because it might mean the difference between profit and loss. Now, he knows the bottom line will be black, so he wants to be part of the fun so he can also get part of the credit. The issue comes down to pride of authorship.
"Then the problems start. Watch out for the guy who sits next to the boss at the game. He's the one 'explaining' it all to the owner -- or his version of it. Time after time, that guy's the organization ruiner. He becomes the middleman. Here's how it goes:
"If you're the coach, you ask this guy -- whether he's called the GM or a vice president -- for the things you need. As a simplified example, let's say I ask him for a blocking sled. So, he says, 'Buddy, I'll get you that sled if I have to go to the wall for you.'
"Then he goes to the owner and says, 'That coach wants another sled.'
"Of course, the owner says, 'Well, does he need it?'
"'Hell, no,' says the middleman, 'that guy's got more sleds than Spalding.'
"And that," Concludes Stram, Is how you get fired. You feel like you're surrounded by machine guns and piranha fish, but it's just memos and meetings. Before I left the Chiefs, I said to (owner) Lamar Hunt, 'Sir, why don't you just change the name of this team to the Kansas City Memos?'"
The emergence of this whole cult of middle-echelon executives is no accident.
"It had to happen," says Grant, who has taken the Vikings to four Super Bowls. "Years ago, I felt that we beat many teams before we ever took the field, just because they were so poorly run in the front office. They had bad judgment on trades, drafts, who to cut or keep. Their executives beat them before their coach even drew up his game plan.
"It was inevitable that executives would get vastly better, and they have. Dallas is a perfect example with their innovations in scouting and use of computers. But Dallas is entirely atypical because nobody else has the harmony that they do between Tome (Landry), Gil Brandt (personnel vice president), Tex Schramn (president-GM) and (owner) Clint Murchison."
So, other teams copied the Cowboy's methods, but didn't have the good fortune of ideal camaraderie. Start discussing the Cowboy's success with any of those four executives, and they immediately start praising the other three. "It's not entirely accidental," says Landry. "We suggest to each other, but we don't encroach. They all have opinions about me, I'm sure . . . not all flattering. I appreciate the fact that they never mention them."
"Well," Landry says, "not in the last 21 years."
In this era, then, of compulsively "involved" owners, such as St. Louis' Bill Bidwill, New Orleans' John Mecom, Houston's Bud Adams and Washington's Cooke, plus the arrival of a generation of bright, ambitious, front-office politicians, the NFL coach often finds it necessary to develop personal rules for survival, tricks of the trade that have nothing to do with a blitz or a man in motion.
The two most prevalent types are the absolute opposite. The coaches in one school -- led by Vermeil and the Cardinals' Jim Hanifan (who follow the traditional example of men such as Sid Gillman and George Allen) -- make a public relations show of letting the world know how hard they work. They sleep in their offices, make their wives into true football widows and are tough on their staffs. In the other school, exemplified by Grant, Landry and Noll, coaches try to efface themselves completely so that, if possible, no one will know what they do, or, if that is not feasible, at least won't know who they are.
Members of the former group are so transparent that they are amusing."Most of 'em are just carrying over immature habits from college coaching days," says Knox. "You know, the head coach tells a couple of assistants to leave their cars parked by the gym and leave a light on in the office all night so it will look like somebody is working on beating State U. 24 hours a day.
"I've been in those (college) programs where the head coach says, 'You get four weeks vacation, but you're not actually going to take it all, are you?' If you take three weeks off a year, they make you feel guilty. a
"I believe that the law of diminishing returns applies to work, too. You can work your assistants so hard that they just surrender to you so they can go home and have dinner. We have a rule that we never implement a decision that we make after the sun goes down. I just say, 'If it still looks this smart at 8 a.m. tomorrow, then we'll do it.'"
"I think that the people in this league that I resent as much as anybody are the ones who try so hard to give the appearance that nobody ever really cared enough about football until they came along," says Schramm, whose Cowboys keep sane hours and a regular schedule. "This is a terribly stress-filled business and you don't have to make it worse."
Now that Phillips is temporarily gone, the NFL's only conspicuous nose-thumber at the workaholics is Grant, who has won 11 division titles in the last 13 years. "Oh, I believe in the work ethic," says Grant, "I just don't believe in the work-work-work ethic."
To that end, the Vikings come to preseason camp at least two weeks later than any other team. Practice sessions get progressively shorter until they are only 90 minutes long in December. Occasionally, Grant gives a surprise day off, saying cryptically that he feels like going hunting. "Time does not represent work," Grant says. "People who think it does just show their insecurity."
Just as dangerous as the problem of emotional burnout is the less often mentioned danger of personality stultification. "It's very easy for an NFL coach to stop growing personally," Grant says. "It can stunt you. I would have no trouble thinking of names. I sometimes wonder what other work I would be prepared to do. We NFL coaches might have the temperament of the old-time military, you know, the first lieutenants in World War I going over the top. Our mortality rate is similar . . . We're the one dispensable item on the team."
How does Grant insulate his psyche from the peculiarities of his job?
"I go duck hunting every morning, even during the season. I'm out there before daylight, usually for about an hour and a half. I'm back in the office by 9 a.m."
What does this illustrate?
"First things first," says Grant mischievously.
"I sometimes feel sorry for NFL coaches," says one NFL front-office executive. "They seem so reined in. Just look at how much happier and more outgoing John Madden is now that he's quit coaching. Every time you see him on TV, you think, 'What a delightful person.' What makes you sad is thinking about all the guys who never break free."
Often, that dour exterior is a defense mechanism.
"The worst thing you can do is talk yourself into a visible position," says Landry, one of the NFL's three stonefaces, along with Grant and Noll. "The fans hang on your statements, and remember them. We all live to eat our words. If you say enough of them, they can kill you."
Case in point: Phillips, who said last year, "We've knocked on the door to the Super Bowl, and now we've banged on it. Next year, we'll kick the damn thing down."
"Visibility killed Hank Stram," says Grant, flatly.
"I've heard it said that, in Houston, Bum just became too much," says Landry. "I wouldn't know, but people say he sort of became what the Oilers were. Maybe Bud (Adams) didn't like that."
Certainly, the rule of thumb for survival is now simple: Keep your head down. "I don't do commercials," says Grant, referring to Phillips' larger-than-life size in Houston. "No billboards and no Bummerooski plays. There's enough credit to go around, but only if the coach makes sure of it."
To that end, the never-been-fired Grant has perfected a whole repertoire of self-deprecating one-liners, his favorite being: "To survive as a coach in this league, you have to have an understanding wife, a loyal dog and a great quarterback. Not necessarily in that order."
As an added filip, Grant occasionally picks his spots to fire off a salvo or two, dropping remarks about, "When I write my book." What's the good of keeping your mouth shut for years on end if you don't every so often, show the teeth inside?
Of all the coach's worries, perhaps the most insidious is the vicious cycle of success. "What the NFL has now," says Stram, "is a system that punishes excellence. All the rule changes, the drafting procedures, the new scheduling formula are directed toward helping the weak and defeating the strong. The more brillliant the coach, the more wins he gets out of the least talent, the worse it can catch up with him in the end."
In the NFL, this is called the cocach of the year curse. Schramm gives this illustration: "In '78, Atlanta used a lot of gimmicks, like the so-called 'grits blitz' and went 10-6. It was a fluke and Atlanta was smart enough to know it. In '79, they were 6-10. The Falcons (led by ex-Cowboy Eddie LeBaron as GM) didn't panic. They just kept building along the same lines. This year they were 12-4, and I think it's a solid 12-4, built on rock, not on sand.
"In '79, the Redskins went through the same progression. Pardee did some bright, innovative new things and went 10-6. It was a nice fluke. This year, their luck was bad; they were 6-10. But if they stick with Pardee's program, they may yet come out like the Falcons."
Schramm said this the day before Pardee was fired.
"Whenever a team jumps up suddenly, everybody studies them in the offseason," Schramm says. "Once you get everybody's attention, life's a lot tougher. Next year, Buffalo and Oakland will get a truer test. They've made some smart changes."
That's where the jinx comes in.
"The prerequisite for winning coach of the year seems to be that you do something brilliant with a bad team," Schramm says. "That lays you open the next year to being a big flop. You'll notice that neither Landry nor Noll has ever been coach of the year."
The reason is that both franchises built slowly, unspectacularly, patiently, then became long-running powers. The Cowboys, who shocked the NFL by giving Landry a 10-year contract in the midst of six consecutive losing seasons, and the Steelers, who stuck with Noll when he lost 16 games in a row, have reaped the reward of nine Super Bowl appearances.
"The one key to success in the NFL is stability," says Landry without qualification. "Get somebody good and stick with him.Of course, that seems to be the opposite of what's happening now."
All the superficial motives lead franchises toward dramatic changes.
"Because coaches are suprememly important in football, there's a temptation to change them," Schramm says. "In baseball, the best artists win. In football, the coach is the top artist, the No. 1 creator."
Ted Marchibroda, who won three straight division titles with Baltimore, then was fired two years later, explains why those supreme football artists can suddenly become so expendable.
"A coach's most important responsibility is the emotional level of his team," says Marchibroda, who still has not found another job. "After material (raw talent), that's what wins the most games. But, if your material is weak, whether through injury or whatever, then emotion isn't enough. What happens then is that, since nobody wants to face the weaknesses of his players, they blame the bad motivation on the coach. And the less secure the coach's job becomes, the less confidence the players have in him and the less able he is to motivate them. It's a vicious cycle."
Or, as Pardee put it this week, after being reminded that Cooke had criticized him publicly at mid-season for the Redskins' lack of emotion: "That's just a coverall, scapegoat excuse made by every team that has deficiencies in material."
The familiar progression is inexorable. Often, as with Pardee, the downward vortex of poor material, dying morale and insufficient authority vested in the coach leads to a bitter firing.
It shocks the NFL's most consistent winning teams that so few franchises discover the escape hatch in this predicament. As Stram says, "Every good team cheers every time another team fires its coach and has to star over again."
"If your players aren't certain that the coach is making decisions for two or three years down the line, then you ain't got nothin'," Schramm says.
Landry takes the argument one step further, and perhaps gets to the crux of the issue.
"Football is still primarily emotional. Hitting comes first. Thinking comes second," says the supposedly emotionless coach. "So, my job is to get men to do what they don't want to do -- punish themselves. If you give them an out, a way to avoid the pain and not pay the price, they'll take it. Not consciously. But subconsciously, they'll take the 'out.' How do you get them to pay that price in punishment to themselves?
"Well," says Landry, "one of the best ways is to make sure that they are concerned about keeping their jobs. And, they won't be, if they think that the coach may not keep his job."
Marchibroda embellishes the same idea: "Football is the ultimate team game. All 11 men are linked. If one lets down, he can sink the other 10. But it's also the game where it's hardest to tell -- impossible, really -- which men are only giving 80 or 90 percent. As a coach, you have to inspire them, make them willing to play like wild men. And as soon as they lose confidence in either your ability or your authority, how long do you think they're going to play for you with reckless abandon?"
These are bad days for coaches drawn larger than life, for those who see the football world as a canvas on which they will paint a grand mural and leave their signiature -- clear and solitary -- in the corner.
"The life is draining out of the game," Stram grumbles. "Some super rich guy buys the team and meddles in it. Some jock sniffer, who's not even a football guy, runs the front office. The assistant coaches are technicians who divide the team up into offense, defense, special teams and kicking game. They're the theorists. And the players are big, strong, weight-trained mechanics who do exactly what they're told. The coach is just the guy standing in the middle holding a clipboard, with nothing to do.
"Where the hell is the humanity in the game? I remember when guys got into the game so they could express themselves. It was heroic."
For all his outward stoicism, those familiar inward fires burned in Pardee. Just hours after his firing, he was still stunned by the way reality was interferring with his coaching dream. "If I'm going to take the credit or the blame when we win or lose," he said plaintively, "then I want to control my own destiny."
That's not the way it works these days.
"The trend," Grant says, "is toward hiring pro assistants for the head jobs. They tend to be, let's say, more malleable."
When Bum Phillips, with his rattlesnake-skin boots, his 10-gallon hat, his cracker-barrel humor and his anacronistic crew cut, got the real boot, he told his friends: "Don't act so sad. I didn't die. I just got fired."
The sadness was not so much for Phillips, but for the fascinating type of give-'em-hell NFL leader that he epitomized. Bum may not have died, but his stalwart breed looks far from healthy.