Harvard coach Joe Restic believes in keeping football in perspective
Cambridge, Mass. — After playing in the National Football League and coaching successfully in Canada, Joe Restic appeared on his way to a glamorous job at either the major college or pro level. Instead, he opted for Harvard, where he has spent the past 18 seasons running a program based on the assumption that people attend college primarily to get an education. Everyone gives lip service to this idea, of course, but all one has to do is look at the big-time football powers with their excessive recruiting, pampering of players, and winking at academic deficiencies, to see that few of them practice what they preach.
``It's gotten out of hand, for sure,'' Restic said in an interview with the Monitor. ``It comes down to one word: money. People want to get their piece, their cut.
``It's a never-ending cycle,'' he added. ``You recruit, get the players, and bring in the money. Then you want new facilities, then it costs money to keep them up, and you want to fill them, so you go for more players. You get caught on a roller-coaster, and you can't get off.''
So back in 1971, when he got the Harvard opportunity, Restic decided to sidestep that roller-coaster and go for the saner approach that views football as just one part of the overall college experience - not the be-all and end-all of existence that it becomes in some big-time programs.
Joe was a hot property at the time. In eight years with the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the Canadian Football League (five as the top assistant and offensive coordinator, followed by three as head coach) he coached in six Grey Cup championship games, including four victories. It goes without saying that he had plenty of more lucrative opportunities.
``As far as money was concerned, there was nothing to decide,'' he recalled. ``But some things are much more important to me than money - and they should be to institutions, too! That's how I made my choice, and that's how they should make theirs.''
One thing that would make it easier for this to happen, Restic believes, is the creation of some sort of ``farm system'' for aspiring professional players who may not really belong in college or even want to be there, but who currently have no other viable way to showcase their talents.
``Players like that should be able to say, `Maybe college isn't for me,' but still have a way to develop for the pros,'' he said. ``And such a system should be supported by the NFL.
``People in college should be working for an education and a degree - not giving their total being to football.''
``Understand, I'm not criticizing anybody's program or philosophy,'' he quickly added. ``I don't want to be critical of big-time college football or the sport in general. I'm not. I just want to help young people - give them other options.''
In advocating the ``farm system'' alternative, Restic points to the success baseball has had offering such a choice - with college scholarships and the full experience for those who want it, but with another avenue to the pros also open. And he doesn't buy the objection that such a setup would make the game less attractive.
``I honestly feel that if you took these athletes out, college football wouldn't suffer,'' he insisted. ``People would still come out to see the top teams play, and the games would still have all the same glamor and excitement.''
Harvard coaches don't take their teams to bowl games or bask in the glory of Top 20 ratings, but they do earn the respect of their peers - as indicated by Restic's current position as president of the American Football Coaches Association. In this role, he has a first-hand view of many of the game's problems - and he is realistic enough to know that there are no overnight solutions. Indeed, he likes to refer a survey done by the Carnegie Foundation lamenting such things as player scandals and excessive media coverage - then to point out that it was published in 1929.
``I couldn't believe it when I first read the article and saw all those parallels,'' he said. ``It's discouraging to think that here it is 1988 and we're still dealing with the same problems, only they've escalated. So the question is: Do the people involved really want to solve the problems? You can't stop the thing unless people decide they're going to do it. And again we come back to money - and greed. You get those two elements, and it's hard to stop.''
Meanwhile, Restic will stick to the game the way he believes it should be played in college - by bona fide students. He's quick to point out, though, that this can still be football at a high level of skill and training; many Ivy Leaguers, including some of his players, have gone on to the pros - and others might have had a shot had they not opted for graduate school instead. The excitement and desire are just as evident here, too.
``We still want to win just as much as anyone else out there on that field,'' he said. ``It's just not our whole being.''
This was a lean year for Harvard, which had managed only a 2-7 record heading into last weekend's traditional finale against Yale. Overall, though, Restic ranks as the school's all-time winningest coach, with 97 victories, and has led the Crimson to two outright Ivy League championships (including last year's) and shares of three others.
``Yes, I'm proud of my record, because the whole thing was done the right way,'' he said, when asked about his feelings. ``I want to win as much as anybody, and I try as hard, but you have to win and lose the right way. I often tell my players you can win and end up losing, or you can lose and still be a winner. It's all in how you handle the situation.
``I hope to continue to run a successful program,'' he added. ``There are many ways to judge that beyond wins and losses. If that's the only criterion, then I'm in it for the wrong reasons.''
Asked to elaborate, Restic pulled out a bulging file folder.
``These are recommendations for graduate school,'' he said. ``The way I look at it, if I don't do a good job in that area, I'm doing a disservice to the institution.
``Football is just a part of things here, and it's up to me to make it interesting. I have to make sure they enjoy this course as much as any other course. Because I consider this a course - and not just in the game of football. It's a course in character building, in ethics, in building strength as an individual, in learning to handle a variety of experiences. If I can teach them to win gracefully, to lose without bitterness, and to rise above anything that happens, I'll have done my job.''