Why the era of iconic coaches is over

Nov 14, 2011

Chat with John Feinstein about how the pressure to win and the inevitable scandals that erupt are ending the era of the coaching dynasty. Related: Joe Paterno and the end of the iconic, eternal college coach

    Hi, it's John. Sorry I'm a little late--as usual I had computer problems.

Although I agree with the premise of your article, doesn't Frank Beamer still remain as an iconic coach? At least in the town of Blacksburg, he's a figurehead unlike any other in town. I guess he doesn't wield the same all-encompassing power at Virginia Tech that Paterno did at Penn State, but he's still a long-time establishment. Other than Beamer (in my opinion at least), are there any examples of still-standing iconic coaches?

        I'd call Beamer semi-iconic. Certainly as the longest standing football coach out there now that Paterno's gone and certainly at Virginia Tech he has that status. But I'm pretty sure most fans west of the Mississippi only vaguely know who he is or what he's done at Tech. A true icon is someone who even a non-sports fan can identify: Paterno at Penn State; Krzyzewski at Duke; Boeheim at Syracuse (maybe); Calhoun at U-Conn--for both good and bad. Beamer's hihgly respected but not in that category....

Dear Mr. Feinstein, yesterday I was googling the economics of college football. It seems that many college football teams make significant profits, but in most cases the academic part of a university sees a net loss. According to what I read, even when alumni donations go up when a football team has a winning year, these donations go to the athletic department, not the rest of the university. So, it seems to me that big-time football really doesn't do too much for a university. What is your opinion? Personally (and I teach at a university), I'd love to see universities and colleges license their names to professional teams, so we could quite the charade of student-athletics, at least in basketball and football.

     You make a lot of really good points here. One of the great myths of American life is the notion that football makes money at all the big-time schools. Most LOSE money on football because the scholarship bill--85 players--is so high and the expenses of funding a football team are so high. Men's basketball is the real money-maker most places because no one has more than 13 scholarships (most schools have less than 13 which is why it is such a joke when the NCAA 'strips,' scholarships as a punishment) and the costs are much lower. Still, schools are desperate for the TV dollars from football and chase the POTENTIAL profits which at schools like Alabama, Florida, Nebraska and, yes, Penn State among a few others, are huge. And yes, you're right, the money almost always goes into bigger locker rooms, stadium expansion, higher coaches salaries. It almost never goes to the academic side of the school. One of the few exceptions was, in fact, Paterno, who put big dollars into Penn State's library.

This whole disaster has me hoping that PSU never wins another game again, ever. Am I overreacting?

    I think you're overreacting although your overreaction is understandable in such an emotional situation. Penn State has done a lot of things right for a long time. So, in fact, did Paterno. That said the outside world's view of the place will never be the same. As I wrote this morning I couldn't help but feel sorry for the players as they walked onto the field on Saturday. I know there is absolutely no comparing their football careers being affected to what happened to Sandusky's victims but they did nothing wrong. So, are you overreacting? Yes. Are you entitled at this moment in time? Yes.

Mr. F: I would guess the "information explosion" is one reason coaches can't go on forever. Stuff that could have been swept under the rug before email/twitter/facebook, etc., can't be hidden. By the way, when is your next book coming out?

        No doubt when guys like Boeheim talk about the world changing they're refererncing the fact that EVERYTHING is news nowadays. There's no down time and there are very few secrets. That definitely makes staying in the same place more difficult. Plus, every loss is broken down in a thousand different ways. Last January I was in Raleigh for a speech the day after Duke had been blown out by St. John's. Listening to a sportstalk show on my way out of town I heard a caller say, "I'm willing to give Coach K one more year to try and right this ship." Duke was, I think 21-2 at that point and the defending national champions.

       Thanks for asking about the new book. It is officially published December 5 but should be in bookstores Thanksgiving weekend (and can be ordered right now on Amazon and B+N.com. It is called, 'One-on-One--Behind The Scenes With the Greats In The Game." I guess I'd describe it as a professional memoir that dates to my first book, 'Season on the Brink,' which came out 25 years ago tomorrow. It's inside stories about my relationships with everyone from Knight to Dean Smith to Jim Valvano to John McEnroe to Tiger Woods to Joe Torre--and a lot of others. I tracked a lot of them down--including Damon Bailey--who I hadn't seen in years. Lot of fun. There's also quite a bit about the kids I wrote about in 'Civil War,' and 'Last Amateurs.'

What about coach K at Duke, isn't he bulletproof?

     If Joe Paterno's not bulletproof, no one is bulletproof. Of course at this point I think it would take a god-awful scandal like what happened at Penn State to bring K down. That said, as Boeheim pointed out, a few years back when Duke when (gasp!) five straight seasons without a Final Four trip there were some unhappy rumblings in Durham.

Another overreaction, but just throwing this out there to get your take. What actions will the NCAA take regarding this whole ugly affair? When you use other infractions as a measuring stick, how does this one not at least bring up the conversation of the so-called "death penalty" to the program? If this incident doesn't warrant that discussion, what actually would? Are we not talking about this simply because this is a program the size of Penn State?

      I honestly don't see where the NCAA could get involved at Penn State. There' s no clause for 'conduct unbecoming,' (maybe there should be) in the 9,000 page NCAA rule book. (free T-shirts very bad; allowing a predator to stay free, apparently okay). 

One of the things that has annoyed me most about those defending Paterno in this debacle is that they say, "He did what he was supposed to do--he told his superior." I am sure these people know Paterno had no real superior at Penn State. Five years ago when Paterno was asked to retire, he got angry and told the AD to get out of his house. What other coach would have kept his job after that?

   actually it was the president he threw out of his house in 2004. Of course Paterno had no superiors, other than in title, at Penn State. I don't see any statues of Graham Spanier on the campus there. You could almost excuse him dumping it in the AD's lap IF he followed up. As in, 'Tim what the hell is going on here, why haven't I heard from the police on this yet.' He didn't do it. That's where he completely ran out of excuses...

At the time of the game, you could buy Sandusky's book 'Touched" (you can't make that up - is it active or passive?) at the campus bookstore. Also the judge who presided over Sandusky's arraignment ordered that he be freed on $100,000 unsecured bail - even the the AG want $500,000 and an ankle bracelet. The judge is also a volunteer for Sandusky's group - The Second Mile.

      Just read about the judge this morning. You're right: you can't make ANY of this stuff up--including the prosecutor who refused to press charges in 1998 literally disappearing off the face of the earth in 2005. I wonder if the guy remember to take the cannoli.

Looking back on my college years, I have no idea how a real student-athlete could ever pass any classes. Players on the basketball team might be missing 2 days a week of classes because ESPN wants to show games every night of the week. You really have to go somewhere like Northwestern where academics are valued above athletics. I remember a Dennis Green quote from a long time ago when a NW football player explained that he had to miss a practice because of a chemistry lab. He rolled his eyes and said, "only at Northwestern." Of course, Northwestern generally stinks in football, but that is the cost of having real student-athletes.

     I'll try this one more time since it got lost when I first answered it: Northwestern has actually been pretty good in football the last 16 years or so. Just beat Nebraska at Nebraska. But your point is well-taken. The only reason football and basketball players graduate at all is they have full-time tutors; access to all the summer school they want and are steered to sympathetic profs. (I looked for them myself when I was in college). I don't have a problem with this as long as they do their own work because they DO put in so much time and have to travel so much. (What a joke when the self-righteous president say they can't have a football playoff because of academics but fly the bball player all over creation for the month of March during the bball tournament). 'Student-athlete,' is not only hypocritical in most cases it is also a redundancy: By RULE you have to be a college student to be a college athlete, right?

The premise of the statement for this Q&A means that there was an era of iconic coaches and somehow that has changed with the firing of coach Paterno, among other reasons of course. As a PSU Alum and current graduate student, I have to begin by saying that the major of our institution is not mourning the loss of coach Paterno. Rather our anger is directed to the fact that we were betrayed by a system that told us 'success with honor.' With that said, my question is what has changed concerning iconic coaches? Strictly speaking of NCAA football, there are so many that we can name. There are so many more that are filling their shoes and the role of leaders. I can name a few off hand like Urban Meyer (upon return), Chris Ault, and Nick Saban, among others. I feel that not much has changed in the big picture. We have notables, we have men moving up in the ranks, and we have those that won't. If the structure of collegiate athletics remains, barring any change in scholarship for play, how can you say that the era of iconic coaches is over? There undoubtably will be those that take pay cuts for the glory of old state.

     Nick Saban has left three jobs: Michigan State, LSU and the Dolphins. Urban Meyer left Florida, 'exhausted,'--maybe from bailing 32 arrested players out of jail--after six years. Chris Ault has coached Nevada on three separate occasions. The point is that people who stay in one place for years and years is becoming a thing of the past. Just looked at the numbers.

John, you are right in saying the era of iconic coaches with the power that Joe Pa wielded, is OVER. What arrogance Paterno had right up to the end as evidenced with his press release saying that the Board of Trustees 'shouldn't give one second to his status.... or something to that effect. Even then he was thinking about anyone, incl. the university, but himself and his legacy and desire to have a 'farewell tour' the last three games or more. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. He should have resigned and saved a small amount of face but it was obvious that thought never crossed his mind. Sad.

         This will have to be my last answer for today.


      Agree completely. Paterno still believed--somehow--he could give the board of trustees orders on Wednesday. "I'll retire when I say I'll retire," was what his statement said. If he had just stepped down that day and urged students to show support for him by cheering the team Ssturday he could have saved some shreds of dignity and avoided the ugly scene on Wednesday. Announcing he was going to make a major contribution and urging other Penn Staters to do the same to a group that works with those who have been sexually abused would have been very nice too...



In This Chat
John Feinstein
John Feinstein is the bestselling author of Are You Kidding Me? (with Rocco Mediate), Living on the Black, Tales from Q School, Last Dance, Next Man Up, Let Me Tell You a Story (with Red Auerbach), Caddy for Life, Open, The Punch, The Last Amateurs, The Majors, A March to Madness, A Civil War, A Good Walk Spoiled, A Season on the Brink, Play Ball, Hard Courts, and four sports mystery novels for young readers. He writes for the Washington Post, Washingtonpost.com, and Golf Digest, and is a regular commentator on National Public Radio?s Morning Edition.
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