The Legends and the Fall: Following an Icon
BOSTON — The best aspect of being a legend is that no matter how extraordinary the accomplishments, they become even more magnificent in our minds as the facts of achievement become the fantasies of myth over the years.
Regrettably, this whole legend thing is very tough on nonlegends, especially in the world of college football. Indeed, while almost any serious football coach aspires to coaching a big-time college team, what any coach should truly aspire to is not following a legend.
Such a career path invariably leads to ridicule, criticism, abuse, second-guessing, and unemployment.
Nobody knows better than Frank Solich, the mere mortal who replaced Tom Osborne as Nebraska's head coach this year. Solich already is putting new meaning into "mere" as the Cornhuskers, for decades the elite of the college game, decline before our eyes. They have lost twice (to Texas A&M and, last weekend, to Texas), should have lost a third (to Oklahoma State), and easily could lose at least once more (to Kansas State) by season end. Factor in a bowl loss, and you've got despondent fans pining for Legend Tom.
The way Nebraskans count, they've already suffered two to three years' worth of normal losing this season with four games left. By contrast, in 25 years Osborne won three national championships by losing only three games in the last five years and an average of just 1.96 games a year for his career.
We knew it would happen. Coaches who follow legends have less chance than a tumbleweed does of standing up to a north wind.
For example, Darrell Royal last coached at Texas in 1976, and fans still yearn for him. Successors Fred Akers, David McWilliams, and John Mackovic didn't come close to taking the Royal name off the door. Current Texas coach Mack Brown now stands in the gallows. Slapping the Huskers 20-16 in Lincoln helps Brown, but he's still light-years from royalty status.
Bear Bryant, the winningest major-college coach in history (323 victories), was at Alabama for 25 years, between 1958-82. He won better than 8 out of every 10 games. Ray Perkins followed and lasted four miserable years before he was told to put Tuscaloosa in his rearview mirror. Next was Bill Curry, equally vilified. Gene Stallings is an extraordinary human being, but he is not Bear Bryant and so folks were glad to see him depart after seven years. Now, Mike DuBose is there, was 4-7 last season, is a struggling 5-3 this year, and nobody sees any resemblance to Bryant.
In sum, Alabama still is trying desperately to replace The Bear.
At Ohio State, Woody Hayes remains the password. For 28 years, until 1978, he ranted and raved and quoted Patton and directed the Buckeyes to 12 Big Ten championships and five national titles. Earle Bruce followed and from the get-go he was despised because he wasn't Hayes. Current coach John Cooper has several times been within a game of being fired. He has his team undefeated and competing for No. 1 this fall, but only a No. 1 outcome will silence pretty much vituperative tongues. Cooper's problem? He's not Woody.
Basically, fans are mad when the legend takes his leave. So they take it out on the replacement. Michigan still prefers Bo Schembechler, Georgia prefers Vince Dooley, Arkansas prefers Frank Broyles. Frankly, Notre Dame still wishes Knute Rockne (1918-30) would reappear, although fans did develop an affection if not a legendary love for Ara Parseghian. Nobody since 1974, however, has warmed cockles in South Bend.
And pity the poor blokes who try to replace Joe Paterno at Penn State and Bobby Bowden at Florida State. Both are legends awaiting coronation and are deep into career sunsets.
There is only a tiny handful of schools that somehow have ended with double legends, in violation of the norm. Nebraska is one. Osborne followed his excessively legendary boss Bob Devaney, so the Huskers have been legendarily coached for 36 years. Those two never will be eclipsed. Meanwhile, poor Frank Solich looks like a deer in headlights. Oklahoma, with Bud Wilkinson and later Barry Switzer, is another legend-legend.
Yet, almost always, there's room for just one legend, and everyone else gets to live in comparison. Osborne said when he left that "not much is going to change." Alas, we knew it would.
But isn't it wonderful to remember how Bear Bryant never lost a game at Alabama in 25 years?
* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org