One coach vs. football factories
Williamstown, Mass. — As a "Saturday hero" himself in the 1940s and a coach at various levels for more than three decades, Bob Odell has experienced college football from just about every possible vantage point -- and he doesn't like what he sees today when he looks at the way the major powers run their programs.
"It's much worse than it used to be," says the former All-America halfback from the University of Pennsylvania, who left big-time coaching 10 years ago and has remained happily at Williams College ever since."
"The major schools keep reaching out more and more for kids who aren't academically qualified," he added. "It's the TV, the ratings, the bowl games -- all the pressures."
"This profession has been great to me, and I hate to see anything hurt it," Odell said. "Coaches as a group are real fine people, men of integrity. But the pressures put them in a position of temptation -- they get caught fighting for their professional lives -- and sometimes they just don't act rationally."
Odell's comments address an issue that is getting a great deal of attention as more disclosures come out about the widespread fraud and hypocrisy in many big-time programs. But can anything really be done to correct the situation? And if so, what?
"I really think it can," Odell said. "The coaches, athletic directors, and universities themselves just have to make a strong stand. We have to do things like take coaches off the road [for recruiting] and make freshmen ineligible again. We have to put some teeth into the rules. In other words, we have to clean up our own backyard. If we don't, somebody will do it for us, and that will be trouble."
In his own playing heyday of the early '40s, Bob Odell was as big a name among the nation's football fans as Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett, Billy Sims, or any of today's superstars are among modern enthusiasts. His game -- college football -- was the No. 1 autumn sporting attraction back then; his school -- Penn -- was a major power; and Odell was a swift, explosive ballcarrier as well as a tremendous all-around player.
Those were the days of two-way football, and Odell could do it all. He called signals, ran with the ball, blocked, passed, caught passes, punted, tackled, intercepted passes, ran back kicks -- the works. For two years he played tailback in Penn's single-wing offense -- the normal position for a big star -- but as a senior he selflessly moved to the less visible post of blocking back when that was where he could help the team most. Then, ironically, in pure Frank Merriwell tradition, he achieved his greatest glory.
It was the Penn-Army game -- a major event in those days -- and the nation's No. 1 sportswriter, Grantland Rice, was in the press box for one of Odell's super performances. Rice wrote that the Quaker star was "as fine an all-aroung athlete as I have ever seen," and that was all the rest of the nation's sporting press needed. Odell wound up on all major All-America teams, including Rice's own most prestigious one, of course, and won what was then deemed the country's highest individual football honor -- the Maxwell Trophy as the best college player in the land.
After Navy service in World War II, Odell was an assistant coach at Yale, Temple, and Wisconsin. He was backfield coach at the latter university for nine years, including the 1953 Rose Bowl team, and helped develop such stars as Alan (the Horse) Ameche.
Bob's first head coaching job was a successful seven-year stint at Bucknell, climaxed by two Lambert Cups (1960 and 1964) emblematic of Eastern small-college supremacy. From there he moved up to Penn, but the old alma mater didn't treat its one-time hero quite so well in his reappearance as a coach. The Quakers' football program had descended from its former glory to the point where the team was becoming a perennial Ivy League doormat. Odell tried to reverse the trend, and had one big season (7-2 in 1968), but there was sniping at him in the press and by certain college officials and alumni, and eventually he was forced out in an unpleasant situation which still rankles him.
"Being human, I was kind of glad when I saw them not do well at first after I left," he recalls. "At this point, I fell king of sorry for them. but the bad memories are still there. Many members of my family went to Penn. It's hard to reconcile ourselves to all that happened -- especially with certain people who we kind of thought were responsible."
Anyway, in 1971 Odell took the Williams job. Many people thought that, with his background, Bob would probably stay only a couple of years, then head back toward the bigtime pastures. But he quickly learned that this was the sort of coaching position he had really wanted all along.
"This is football as it's meant to be," he told me. "I like the whole small-college atmosphere. Kids play because they want to play. And they play just as hard. We want to win just as much as anybody does. We get nervous and excited the same way."
Some things, though, are not the same -- and that's what Odell likes about it.
"The pressures on coaches at big schools are unbelievable," he said. "I wouldn't want to go back to that rat race again.
"I'll admit I wondered a little bit for a while.I have confidence that with my experience and background I could handle anything. But at that level you don't really coach. You're a PR guy -- a head mogul. I had eight or nine assistants. I don't miss that at all."
"This is an ideal situation," he added. "You get a chance to do more real coaching. We usually have a few kids who could play for anybody, but one of the things I like is that we also have some kids who are really good football players but maybe not big enough to play at the larger schools. And there are a lot of kids with average ability -- so it's your job to convince them that they're good."
Odell obviously has been a good convincer, as his record for what is now exactly one full decade shows. His 1980 team compiled a 5-2-1 record, giving Bob a 60-26-2 overall mark. The Ephmen also beat archrivals Wesleyan and Amherst as usual, making it eight outright Little Three championships and two ties in the 10-year span.
How much longer Odell wants to keep at it is anybody's guess, but he's obviously still enthusiastic about his job.
"We've had some success, yes," he says. "More than our share, I guess. And we're going to try to keep it up."