Journalists are always on the lookout for trends, and hardly anything makes a guy feel lower than falling asleep at the moment a trend sneaks over the ramparts. So when the boss called from his igloo the other day, asking what was going on with these NFL coaches (eight have recently quit or been fired), your sentry snapped awake. A trend column coming up.
Except there is no pretty ribbon that ties the fate of these eight men into a single package. Had eight of the NFL's 28 teams changed coaches out of savage obeisance to the gods of victory, we would have something. Or had eight men hied themselves to a seminary, "60 Minutes" would put Mike Wallace on the case.
We have, instead, eight separate stories with familiar themes that, (guessing here) because of the emotional tangles of this strike-disrupted season, came together at practically the same time.
Four coaches were fired ostensibly for failure (Ray Malavasi, Leeman Bennett, Marv Levy, Jack Patera). They argued with some justification that management's impatience more than their incompetence put them out.
Two coaches resigned (Dick Vermeil, Mike McCormack). Vermeil turned his job into a hellish fire and rather than hold his palm to it any longer, he wept goodbye. "Burned out," he said. McCormack, once fired as coach of the Colts and only an interim successor to Patera, quickly returned to the safety of a president's job.
One coach left to take a college job (Ray Perkins).
The eighth coach (Walt Michaels) apparently was told to resign or be fired by a team he took within one game of the Super Bowl. The newspapers in his town were full of drinking-problem allusions, but a wide-awake sentry saw no hint that the Jets offered Michaels a chance at rehabilitation with his job waiting in July.
There are other stories. Bill Walsh talked of quitting but didn't. Chuck Knox left an owner he didn't like for one he did. Ed Biles about got fired but then, strangely, kept his job after saying his team has drug problems. Bart Starr, Monte Clark, Jim Hanifan and Sam Rutigliano are hanging on by fingernails that might last only one more season.
The best a trend-spotter can say, then, is that coaching in the NFL is one helluva tough job, and anyone brave enough (foolish enough?) to ride that tiger ought to know what happens when he falls off. The tiger stops for lunch.
Joe Gibbs not only knows that, he's worried only two weeks after winning the Super Bowl that he'll be on the tiger's menu someday.
"The thing that scares me, the biggest thing I have to confront, is that now everybody is saying, 'They won the Super Bowl, now they ought to win it again.' It doesn't matter what happens. Say John Riggins gets hurt instead of Art Monk, and we can't replace John. It won't matter to those people saying, 'They ought to win the Super Bowl again.'
"If your team owner is intelligent and knows how important stability is in an organization and has an objective idea of how good the team is--and I think Jack Kent Cooke does--then I'm okay. But if not, I'll be in trouble."
The day after his Redskins won the Super Bowl, Gibbs told a press conference that such success is soon forgotten.
"We're two games away from disaster," he said, meaning that if the Redskins lose two straight games in 1983 disaster will have arrived.
If that seems a touch hyperbolic, it also is symptomatic of what Gibbs sees as a discomfiting trend (stop the presses) that moves through society and right into the NFL.
"People want things and they want them now," Gibbs said. "They don't want to wait five years. How can you get rid of Walt Michaels? Or Leeman Bennett? Seattle went a long way with Patera, and Kansas City gave Levy long enough, too.
"But it's obvious, with eight different coaches, that all organizations don't have the stability and knowledge you need to win. So many are run by people with limited knowledge. Like public relations guys who don't know the difference between a blocked punt and a helmet.
"But because of the demands of the game today, the interest in the game, they want to win quickly. If a coach goes two years poorly, you're out."
The boss cowpoke, Tom Landry, needed five seasons to make Dallas a winner. That was before the NFL's multibillion-dollar TV contracts, before "America's Team," long before Landry hung around dusty American Express saloons. No one wants to wait that long nowadays, and so some coaches, nervous, will turn a job into a jail sentence.
"Vermeil," said Gibbs, "would work to 4 or 5 every morning and sleep in his office a couple hours. Then he'd go running. Then working to 4 or 5 again. He became convinced that was the winning way for him. Eventually the things that he was convinced allowed him to win--well, they were eating at him."
Gibbs casts no stones Vermeil's way, because his coaching house has a lot of glass itself. Gibbs and his staff work until midnight on easy days, a couple hours later most days. Their conference room is nicknamed "The Sub," because, as line coach Joe Bugel explains, "We go in there, lock the hatches and don't surface for hours."
From July through January, Gibbs' life is an 18- to 20-hour grind every day. "I change in six months. My blood pressure goes up, my heart rate goes up. In July, I've been running and playing racquetball. I feel good. But then I can't do any of that. Six months later, I'm down."
Emotionally, too. "There's no breath of fresh air. Say you win on Sunday. The day you have to work hardest is Monday, when you're at your emotional low. When you go to bed, you don't want to go to bed. You have to drive yourself Mondays to get ready for the next Sunday so you can drive yourself again on Monday."
A coach drives, Gibbs said, because he can't not drive. Mencken said, "I go on working for the same reason a hen goes on laying eggs." The way Gibbs talks, it's plain a coach goes on driving because by nature he wants to win on Sunday. "You're a competitive person with pride. When you lose, Monday is worse."
Don Shula, at this Super Bowl, said it took him 20 years to enjoy his work while he works. Now he recognizes his son on sight. The long-term successes--Shula, Landry, Bud Grant, Chuck Noll--are secure enough, having won so many ways, that 20-hour days are behind them.
Vermeil's "brutal work week," to use Gibbs' phrase, didn't prevent the Eagles' descent from Super Bowl to mediocrity. "You can sustain that kind of crushing experience when you're young. What happened with Dick was the worst kind of thing. Going to the Super Bowl two years ago, then having this crushing year."
Why, pray tell, does any man mount this hungry tiger?
"You have to remember the pluses," Gibbs said. "For six months, I'm my own boss. I can slip the kids out of school and go skiing. I can slip away with my wife. This job is the chance in my profession to win the ultimate game and make money. When you get mired in the negatives and forget the positives, that's when you're in trouble."
Joe Gibbs has coached the Redskins two years.
He began 28th in seniority.
Now he's 16th.
There's a trend there somewhere.