The woods are full of folks who go wacky over a college football team that wins a lot. In Oklahoma, a fellow's game-day false teeth spell out "Sooners." Getting married in Baton Rouge, the groom painted "Go Tigers" on the soles of his shoes, so that when he knelt at the altar his true love would be announced. Giddy infatuation knows no bounds. Everyone wants in on the fun.
By and by today, we'll talk about how it's no fun at all in some places. We'll get heated up about Gary Cramer, the Charlottesville sports editor who was fired the day he wrote a column critical of the Virginia football coach, Dick Bestwick. Doing calisthentics first, let's talk about the wistfulness in Jerry Claiborne's mutterings about College Park.
Jerry loves Clemson, S.C., where cars have tiger tails hanging out of the gas tank and people wear orange shoes. "This is what college football is all about," Claiborne said of a Saturday in Clemson, where 60,000 wackos cheered their Tigers. One shaved tiger paws into his hair.
No such devotion exists at College Park, for reasons beyond the current decline of Maryland's fortunes. This is a metropolis, with the full range of human endeavor competing for hearts. Try as he might, Jerry Claiborne will never create here the small-town frenzy that causes grown-ups to tell the dentist, "In my uppers, engrave red letters spelling out 'Terrapins.' "
More than basketball coaches, football coaches want to control everything around their programs. Their detail mentality plans every move of players with military precision. Scratch Bear Bryant, you find George Patton.
This attention to detail reaches beyond the campus, too. As students of human nature, coaches know that any businessman who puts a tiger's tail in his gas tank wants to be part of the grand and gloriously exciting enterprise that is college football.
When the businessman asks if he can do anything, the coach has a hundred answers. Maybe the fellow is a car dealer; coaches need cars. Maybe he is a soft-drink distributor; coaches need TV sponsors. If the businessman has an airplane, he can give the coach a lift recruiting someday. Oh, what a grand and gloriously exciting day that will be.
Because coaches hear people begging to help, they don't understand when someone refuses. And how could they understand? They see people who would mortgage the house to recruit a top quarterback. They control people who submit to any indignity that puts them in touch, however remotely, with Coach Legend and his Tigers.
What the militaristic commander naturally fears is the loose cannon on deck. Anything less than total control unsettles the master of detail, who believes omnipotence is the only way to do the job. Coach Legend is all-seeing, all-knowing. All hail the coach. Any who fail the test of obeisance are seen not as rational dissenters but as traitors to whom you give a last cigarette before tying the blindfold.
Gary Cramer's last cigarette came before noon on Tuesday, Nov. 10. As the conclusion of a series on Virginia football, Cramer, sports editor of the hometown Progress, wrote a commentary on the coach, Dick Bestwick. The commentary listed "Pros" and "Cons" as to whether Bestwick should be fired. Beefed up with critical quotes from unnamed sources, the "Cons" were dominant -- yet in his conclusion, Cramer said Bestwick should keep the job unless Virginia could hire a superstar coach.
The Progress' managing editor, Kerry Sipe, rewrote Cramer's commentary, removing the critical quotes and Cramer's conclusion. Cramer said the work was no longer his and demanded his byline be removed. He was fired that afternoon.
Sipe says he fired Cramer for a violation of company policy dealing with "running the sports department" -- and not because of his series. "There was no connection whatsoever," Sipe said. "The reasons for Gary's problem had nothing to do with freedom of expression . . . I can't say anything else because it is a private personnel matter."
In the last three years, sources say, The Progress has fired, or chased off, at least six reporters and editors. Most of the fired reporters had complained of low salaries (Cramer says the top salary is $270 a week) and talked of forming a union. Cramer won't discuss it, but another Progress reporter believes Cramer's troubles began when he defended a friend suspected by management of favoring a union.
"They didn't like that," the reporter said, "and then they heard Dick Bestwick complain about Gary all the time. Bestwick's complaining gave them the excuse they needed to fire Gary."
Sipe said it is "absolutely false" that there was any connection between Cramer's firing and defense of a friend or Bestwick's complaints. Bestwick, for his part, denies influence in the firing, but admits asking Progress publisher Bill Kirkland "what I could do to improve relations with Gary Cramer." Other than that, Bestwick said, he did nothing. An anti-Bestwick businessman in Charlottesville, Mike Brown, says the coach complained daily to J.D. Swartz, president of the newspaper chain that owns The Progress.
Whatever happened, it did no one any credit. Far from Coach Legend, Dick Bestwick is a sixth-year coach with a miserable won-lost record at a school whose academic standards historically have helped keep football miserable. Yet Bestwick is afflicted by the football coach's natural urge for omnipotence. During the 1978 season, he compared one of Cramer's stories point by point with others reporting Virginia's 30-14 loss to Clemson.
"The other stories all reflected the positive things out of the game," Bestwick said. "It was the first time anybody had scored twice against Clemson, and Clemson's players said it was the best Virginia team they'd ever seen. Gary's story didn't have any of that. He wrote only negative things."
Well, now. "Negative" is in the eye of the beholder. We could argue into the night. Cramer's commentary, including anonymous quotes, was critical, even sarcastic. But it was an honest search for answers to hard questions about the football program.
The Progress should have given Cramer another $20 raise -- he'd gotten a raise the week he was fired -- for practicing journalism instead of cheerleading.
One thing more. At his door the other day, Cramer picked up a flier seeking subscriptions to The Progress. So important is football in a university town that the flier reproduced The Progress' sports page from the day Virginia beat Tennessee, 16-13, last year. Right there is Gary Cramer's column.