Singling out a senior coach

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For some sports fans, the best part in this year's exciting baseball season didn't come on the field. It came from the dugout.

That's where Jack McKeon, perhaps the nation's most celebrated senior citizen, guided a young and largely unknown Florida Marlins team through two dramatic playoff series and on to win the World Series in six games over the vaunted New York Yankees. For many senior citizens, the final score mattered less than the record book.

Though World Series managers always get some of the national spotlight, Mr. McKeon has won special attention because, at 72, he's the oldest man to have managed a team to victory in this high-profile event. To add more poignancy, the former National League manager of the year had been fired by Cincinnati and out of baseball for several years before being hired in May to take over a team with a 16-22 record.

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The media have pounced all over the story line: Oldster wins one for all the other oldsters.

But all the extra attention raises a serious question: Why should McKeon's age be mentioned at all? In an age when people are working well past retirement age and a raft of baby boomers are poised to redefine the golden years, age bias should be disappearing. In sports, at least, it's not.

"In our society, we have a tendency to idolize youth," says Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. But "you have CEOs of companies well into their 70s, and nobody seems to worry much about that. So I don't think that sports should be any different."

Part of the reason may stem from a sports culture preoccupied with age, using it as a way to judge how much longer an athlete can perform at a high level. Even during the World Series, for instance, much was made of the fact that Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens is 41 years old, an age considered to be ancient for a ballplayer.

In society in general, older workers have a great track record, says Marvin Karlins, a professor of management at the University of South Florida in Tampa and author of "The Grey Avengers," a novel about age discrimination. Along with offering the wisdom of their years, they usually have low absenteeism and high productivity. Despite the common connection of illness with age, a MacArthur Foundation Study found that 89 percent of people 65 to 74 years old reported having no physical disabilities.

Undoubtedly, coaching in sports requires extra mental toughness and physical stamina. The hours can be long and the travel wearing, says Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, who for 21 years was the football coach at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. But age alone "is not relevant to the ability to coach," he says.

In fact, all that experience helps.

A tongue-in-cheek article in Sports Illustrated recently suggested that given the successes of McKeon and others, all coaches should be required to be at least 60 years old.

Elsewhere in baseball, for example, Felipe Alou of the San Francisco Giants is 68 and Frank Robinson of the Montreal Expos is 67, making both eligible for Social Security checks. But both had winning records last season, and the Giants made the playoffs. Even McKeon's opponent in the World Series, Yankees manager Joe Torre, is 63.

In hockey, Scotty Bowman was 68 in 2002 when he won the Stanley Cup as coach of the Detroit Red Wings.

Then there are pro football's 2003 comeback kids: Dick Vermeil, about to turn 67, and Bill Parcells, a relative whippersnapper at 62.

Mr. Vermeil first led Philadelphia to the Super Bowl in 1981 and St. Louis to Super Bowl victory in 2000. Now, he has the Kansas City Chiefs sitting at the top of the league.

Mr. Parcells won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants and took the New England Patriots to another. Now he has taken a bad Dallas team to the top of its division in his first season. Both he and Vermeil "retired" to broadcasting after earlier coaching jobs, but have decided to come back to the sidelines.

Nevertheless, most coaches bow out by the time they reach 70, which makes McKeon stand out.

He has a few compatriots. In football, Mr. Teaff offers two current examples: John Gagliardi, age 76, is head coach at Division III St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. He has rung up 406 wins in 55 years of coaching, putting him just three wins away from the most wins at any level of college coaching. John McKissick tops him. The coach at Summerville High School in Summerville, S.C., has won more than 500 games. He's 77 years old, and his 52 years at the school have included 10 state championships. His victory total is more than any high school, college, or professional coach in the United States. "He just beats the tar out of everybody," Teaff says.

One unavoidable factor hanging over an older coach - or any executive, for that matter - is the issue of when to step down and the impact on his or her organization. High schoolers recruited to play college football, for example, may wonder if the head coach will still be there throughout their college careers. Older coaches, even hugely successful ones such as Penn State's Joe Paterno or Florida State's Bobby Bowden, who are vying for the most career wins by a major college coach, "have to deal with that every year," Teaff says.

With Mr. Paterno's team having an off year, some Penn State fans are saying it's time for the legendary coach to retire.

Teaff says that's really not an issue of age, but performance. "That goes with the territory," he says. "Anybody, I don't care what age you are, if you have one or two bad seasons, nowadays they say you have to go."

Of course, no one is saying that about McKeon, who was given a new car last week in gratitude by the Marlins' owner and undoubtedly will be invited back to manage the team next year.

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