WITHOUT a moment's hesitation, Joe Restic says he's enjoyed ``a very good run'' as Harvard University's head football coach for the past 23 years. His assessment is not based on Saturday-afternoon game results, which are mostly good, but on his innermost feelings as he prepares to retire after a career spent in coaching at the high school, college, and pro levels.
Restic leaves after the Harvard-Yale game Nov. 20 with his head held high.
``Football is not a religion,'' he says, ``it's just a game. It has a place in our society, no question, and the benefits are great - if it's approached in the right way.''
Restic is no professor, but he approaches his job as if charged with teaching the most important subject on campus - life.
``The game is really an instrument that should be used in a very positive, constructive way,'' he says, sitting in his modest office, which faces out onto ivy-covered Harvard Stadium. Student players who ``stay the course will come out of here stronger, better, more ethical, because we play by the rules.''
This strict adherence, he says, is a form of consideration for one's opponents, who are entitled to one thing: a fair chance to win.
``Joe is a very honorable person,'' says Carmen Cozza, coach of arch-rival Yale and a friendly adversary for more than two decades. ``Everything he does is above board. I don't even think of questioning it. He's a very good role model for other coaches.''
Restic, who once struck out Mickey Mantle while playing minor-league summer baseball, seems a perfect fit for his Ivy-League surroundings.
He is neatly attired in button-down shirt and tie when a reporter arrives for an interview. He answers questions in a measured, thoughtful, philosophical manner. A copy of Rodin's ``Thinker'' and a film projector keep him company, along with a desk laden with paperwork and three apples and a pear (his catch-as-catch-can lunch).
Restic has enjoyed the longest tenure of any coach in Harvard's 119-year football history. Although he will leave with a winning record (117-94-6, with three games left in the season) and five Ivy League championships, victories have been harder to come by in recent years. Harvard's last winning season was in 1987.
Through thick and thin, Restic has remained a leader among his peers. In 1988 he served as president of the American Football Coaches Association. An even-keeled approach
The native of Hastings, Penn., has consciously worked at projecting an air of consistency. ``When you have a successful year, with a 7-3 or 8-2 record, I think you should try to act like you're 3-7 or 2-8,'' he says. ``And when you're 2-8, then you have to try to act like you're 8-2.''
Whether winning or losing, Restic's teams are invariably interesting to watch. They use the Multiflex offense, a carry-over from Restic's nine years coaching in the wide-open Canadian Football League.
A considerable time commitment is required to play football - 186 hours per season, Restic says. Because of this, he says a coach must ask how well he serves his players - and not just those who earn a letter, but the third- and fourth-teamers, too.
``You have to get to know those people, because they are the ones who can be pushed aside, shunned,'' Restic says. They are too apt to become ``numbers and names on a computer printout. As a coach, you ... can allow that person to enter in or always be at the fringe. When he becomes a full part of things, he gains an identity, and then he reaps the benefits.''
One of Restic's fondest coaching recollections is of George Hodakowski, a backup quarterback in the late 1970s who stayed with the program despite not getting any playing time. Before his senior year, Hodakowski came in for a heart-to-heart talk with Restic and explained that he felt it was time to quit football.
After leaving Restic's office, Hodakowski sat on a step outside for several minutes. Then he returned to say football had been worth all the time he'd put into it and that despite the academic demands he was under, he was going to suit up again.
Today Hodakowski is a surgeon, but in 1979 he shared the Lamar Award, presented to the senior who has made a unique contribution to Harvard football through his dedication to the program and his teammates.
Restic has four grown children, all of whom make it a point to attend Harvard games. It is the attendance this year of Joe Jr., however, that speaks volumes about their collective loyalty to their dad. Young Joe flies in from Oregon, where he is an orthodontist.
He was a football standout at Notre Dame in the late 1970s as a defensive back and punter. In looking back, Joe Sr. wishes he had taken a year off from coaching to watch his oldest son play.
Would Harvard have permitted such a sabbatical? ``That wouldn't have been the important thing to me,'' Restic replies. He sees higher priorities
Acknowledging that there are higher priorities than football is part of the job in the Ivy League, where athletic scholarships and postseason bowl appearances are banned.
Academics take precedence, and Restic, who holds a master's degree in educational administration and supervision from Seton Hall University, works to accommodate the classroom demands made on his players.
``Joe is a perfect blend for a school like Harvard,'' says Pat McInally, a Crimson receiver and punter during the 1970s who went on to play pro football with the Cincinnati Bengals. ``He's the embodiment of the coach who can win championships but is also right at home in an academic setting.''
It comes back to service, the coach says, to providing athletes with what they attend college for. ``If that does not happen,'' he says, ``that person has been abused'' by the system.