Letter to a Coach
I'm not going to insult you with any congratulations about beating Kansas, or waste your already thinly stretched time with any pep talks concerning the trip to Lubbock this Saturday. What I want to discuss is the Longhorn Network.1 Last week, you lamented the network's demands and intrusions, and predictably you received a good deal of flack for your comments — a lot of people wondering what the connection was between being on TV during the week and sound tackling on the weekend. The fan base is restless, Coach, and I know you don't expect any sympathy from them right now. Well, being unaffiliated with the University of Texas or its rivals, I wield a disinterested eye, and I see validity in your complaints.
One admission we must make is that before LHN got running, things were already going south. Nonetheless, when you claim that opponents gain an advantage by having access to some of your in-season practices, I believe there's something to that. Either there's something to it, or having to worry that there's something to it causes there to be something to it. It's not an excuse for losing, of course, but it stands to reason that if the opponent's coaching staff has more access to your team than your staff does to theirs — well, that ain't a positive. The practices on the network are supposed to show minimal scheme, mostly drills and such, but what if on a particular week, Coach, you want to shitcan some drills and work more on scheme? What if there's a psychological ploy you want to implement a certain week, something that refers to a perceived weakness of the other team? You do that and you're making bulletin-board material. I'm throwing out random hypotheticals here, but you and I both know, Coach Brown, that if we asked every head coach at every major program if they'd like to have a bunch of their practices on TV while everyone else practices in secret, they'd gladly pass on that.
You've also complained, Coach, about not being able to keep the severity of injuries private. Is this a big deal? Probably not. Is it something other coaches wouldn't want to deal with? Yes. Coaches like to keep certain information regarding game-time decisions under wraps, or at least they like to have the option.
Something I didn't hear you mention, Coach, so I'll mention it for you, and I think this is by far the most significant negative to the Longhorn Network, is the general distraction and drag that comes along with knowing that your every move is being documented. Camaraderie, us-against-the-world, getting mean and organized in the dark corners of the hive and then busting into the daylight and stinging everything in sight — these have always been necessary in football. For the players as well as the coaches, there has to be a home place of the spirit where regrouping and rallying can take place, where all can concentrate wholly on their assignments, on their teammates, where 100 percent of mind and heart can be laid bare in preparation. For your team, Coach, all this is compromised. Chemistry is all but impossible. Human beings act differently when cameras are on them than when cameras are not on them, and stiltedness of behavior does not lead to camaraderie. Your players, Coach, are less likely to find that intense closeness that is present in successful teams. Having ESPN come around and film a day of spring camp is one thing; being a football player/Big Brother contestant is another. If I haven't made it clear yet, I will now. I'm not blaming the struggles of the Texas football program on the Longhorn Network. What I am doing is identifying the Network as a detriment to the program, a factor no head coach would want to deal with.
That brings me, Coach, to another of your complaints, and my reason for writing this letter. They force you to tape three shows a week, you told the media, and each taping steals about two hours. That's six hours that you could be game planning or recruiting or watching film or whatever. You tell us that you don't work for the Longhorn Network, that you work for University of Texas. Well, Coach, my suggestion is simple: Stop working for the Longhorn Network. What I mean, specifically, is stop going to the tapings of those idiot shows. Just don't attend. I'm sure it would be too complicated and probably out of your hands to try to lock the LHN people out of the facility — I'm not asking you to do that — but you do have control over your own person. You have control of your legs and arms. Quit the shows. What I'm saying, Coach, is that along with whatever other furniture-moving you feel you need to do, like firing Manny Diaz or whatever, also do something brave. Put the ball in the suits' court. Let university officials own their preference for $300 million over victories on the football field. If they punish you, Coach, you'll be a hero. You'll be a guy putting football scheming above financial scheming. And how are they going to punish you? Are they going to fire you for putting your duties as coach above your duties as talk-show guest? The PR for them would be unspeakable and you'd be a martyr. Maybe they'll fine you? Unless you've purchased a 20-square-mile tropical island full of Bentleys, you can afford a fine. The point is, let the lawyers and directors and vice presidents in charge of God-knows-what worry about what to do with you. And you worry about coaching your team. They've been calling you a CEO for years, Coach Brown, and here's where you hop out of the limo and toss that quarterly report in the gutter. Texas football may be a corporation to some people, but to you, right now, Texas football is a few dozen young men who need something to be inspired about.
And what is the Longhorn Network doing for the program? Was Texas's athletic program about to go broke? Did Texas football need a bump in recruiting? You brought in a Rivals top-five class, Coach, in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010. This year's class is ranked 12th right now. I'm not saying the Network is hurting recruiting. What I'm saying is that in order to improve recruiting, Texas would have to haul in the no. 1 class each and every year.
And what of the fans? They'll all be behind you, Coach. There isn't a college football fan worth his/her salt that would trade more television access to their team for success on the field. Not a one.
I don't know what's on your mind, Coach. Maybe there's already a graceful agreement in place that will facilitate your departure from Austin, and you don't want to rock the boat. If so, ignore my plea. I write this letter in the belief that you plan to stay at Texas until they kick you out and change the locks. I write this under the assumption that you have no greater career concern than to lead your players to the best of your ability.
Oklahoma State at Kansas State — November is going to be tricky for the Wildcats. They play OSU, TCU, Baylor, and Texas (the latter on December 1). They can beat all these teams, but beating them all in a row will be tricky. If they win out, the computers will prefer them to Notre Dame and probably to Oregon. Long way to go for the Fighting Snyders. We will continue to root for them.
Alabama at LSU — Despite what I've seen of LSU's offense this year, I have high hopes for this game. One can't help but think back to the game last year in Tuscaloosa, the hardest-hitting football game in recent memory. Les Miles and his staff had an extra week to prepare, and they've got the best home-field advantage in the country.
Oregon at USC — There's a long way to go, and in the end the voters will have their way over the computers, but Oregon's prospects for a signature win have dwindled with USC's losses. This is the point in the season when fans must root against other teams as hard as they root for their own. Irish alums will be Trojan fans this weekend?! Yes, they will. It's likely that two of the three undefeated teams vying to dance with the SEC champ — Kansas State or Notre Dame2 or Oregon — will lose a game, but if they don't: Muy interesante. Schedule strength. Style points. Common opponents.
The Book: Paper Lion
The Author: George Plimpton
The Sport: Old-time pro football
The Dope: If nostalgia were a drug, I'd have my face buried in a bowl of it. I'd pawn my grandmother's china and you'd find me in the cheapest hotel in Miami, with the ugliest stripper in town, high as a kite on memories of idealized bygone eras. This book chronicles the Detroit Lions training camp of 1963, the Lions of Wayne Walker and Night Train Lane. Back then the hazing ritual, rather than beating someone to death or having him elephant walk, was to have the rookies stand on their chairs during dinner and sing their college fight songs. Their college fight songs! This sort of reading is bad for people like me. I already think everything in our country is getting worse and worse, and I don't need this sort of proof. When Plimpton was trying to convince a team to let him participate in training camp (these efforts are detailed in the book), he spoke directly to the team owners. He'd call the teams and they'd patch him through to the owner's secretary and she'd patch him through to the owner. Just like that. Perhaps this had something to do with the blue-blooded society Plimpton had access to, but I think it also speaks to the general worsening of things from then to now. Even the vice was wholesome — a game called liar's poker that was played with dollar bills. Each squad had a team tailor. OK? If you were a rookie trying to make the team and the tailor came into your room and measured your arms, that was a good sign. That meant you were getting a team blazer.
Plimpton enters the camp under the ruse that he'd played several seasons of quarterback in the Canadian league's Newfoundland outfit. He doesn't want too much in the way of special treatment, or at least not right away. The coaches know from the start, of course, but the players have to figure out on their own that he's a writer. Plimpton's cover is fully blown when he finally lines up to run a play and doesn't know how to position his hands to receive the snap. His fingers get crunched and he winds up hopping around and yelping.
The book doesn't always stick to the '63 Lions. You'll find Buddy Parker, out of superstition, throwing his suits out train windows after losses. An account of Joe Schmidt, when he played for Pitt, clearing the coaches out of the locker room and warning his teammates that if they didn't whip Notre Dame he was going to whip them. Tales of the high regard in which Johnny Unitas was held; every team had a star, a main man, but when those guys all got together at the Pro Bowl, Unitas was the star of stars. There's even a mention of Plimpton reading Paris Review manuscripts in his dorm room. There's a scene where Earl Morrall, who'd come into camp as the backup quarterback, stays after practice to throw to the ball boys and whatever straggling fans wanted to run routes. Morrall's comment to Plimpton, and I'll apply it to the reading of this book: "There are not so many better ways of fooling around."
The Longhorn Network, like Grantland, is owned by ESPN/Disney.
Mark May and I were wrong. Lou Holtz, who looks more and more like an old-timey child star the older he gets, was right. Notre Dame beat Oklahoma. Congrats to the Irish.