Coaches often blindsided by that last hurrah

Why is it that some legendary football coaches take one job too many at the conclusion of their extraordinary careers, ending up besmirched, bedraggled, and beaten?

It's partly ego, of course. And that's not said in derision. Nobody can be a coach who goes before his team the first day and says: "I don't know if I'm up to this job. Frankly, I've failed an awful lot in the past, which gives me cause to doubt myself."

But the main reason a highly successful coach takes one job too many is because when he looks in the mirror, he sees himself as one thing: a coach. And it's not so much his love of coaching but his unhappiness when he's not coaching.

He looks in that mirror and he always sees himself with a whistle around his neck. For the most part, he takes that ill-fated last job not for the money, which he seldom needs, but for one final star turn in front of an adoring public. How sad that it routinely turns out to be a pratfall in front of a glowering public.

To wit:

* Bud Wilkinson was and still is a towering legend in Oklahoma, where he coached the Sooners for 17 years, winning way more than 8 out of every 10 games and three national championships. Between 1953 and 1957, his teams won 47 straight, a monumental and still-standing NCAA record.

Sixteen years later, he took the job as head coach of the then-St. Louis Cardinals in the NFL because he looked in the mirror and couldn't help himself. The decision and his performance were disastrous. His less-than-two-year record was 9-20, and Cardinal fans figured he was an impostor.

* Howard Schnellenberger was hired by the University of Miami in 1979, given a five-year contract and told to win a national championship within that time frame. In 1983, he did. Later on, he went to Louisville and did fine, winding down in a dignified manner. But in 1994, Oklahoma came calling.

Schnellenberger took a quick look in the mirror and concluded he was, indeed, the perfect choice to get OU back on the trail. He was abysmal, managing a 5-5-1 mark in 1995. He barely avoided the hanging tree when he escaped Norman, Okla., just ahead of the posse.

* George Allen was one of the NFL's giants, building the balsa-like Redskins into an oak-like group that went to the Super Bowl after the 1972 season.

Then, seemingly retired and gone, he took the job in 1990 at California State University, Long Beach, one of the most downtrodden programs in the country. The task was far harder than he imagined. In his first year, he willed his team to a 6-5 mark and confided to friends he didn't know how long he'd stay around. Sadly, he died shortly after the end of the season. A year later, Long Beach dropped the sport.

Dick Vermeil resurrected the moribund Philadelphia Eagles, and in 1980 led them to the Super Bowl. His work ethic and intensity are the stuff of legend.

After a long hiatus, Vermeil last year returned to the NFL, taking over the St. Louis Rams. He looked in the mirror and saw no problem. Alas, it has been nothing but problems. This season, his team is 3-10 and sinking, and so is Vermeil.

Against this backdrop, the two newest coaches in search of a reprise can't be too optimistic: John Robinson, former boss of the University of Southern California and the L.A. Rams, who just took the job at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas; and Lou Holtz, once the controversial but successful coach at Notre Dame, who takes over at South Carolina.

If history is a decent guide, their reigns could be short and troubled. Both schools figure that if they throw money at their many problems (Robinson will get $375,000 a year for three years; Holtz $600,000 a year for five years), their football ineptitude will go away.

Would that it were that simple. Both are coaching again only because the pain of not doing it is too great; both love the roar of the crowd; both love the sight of people falling on their knees as they approach.

And so both very likely have taken one job too many. Pity.

* Send comments to looneyd@csps.com

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