weak in review

A Coach To Build A Dream On: David Roth's Weak In Review

In a world without institutions or leaders that inspire much excitement or faith, what's a college football coach worth? In some cases, entirely too much.
December 2, 2016, 10:42pm
Photo by Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

You would not enjoy working for Brian Kelly, who is as I write this still the head football coach at Notre Dame. I say this although I do not know you, or anything about you. If you have ears to hear and eyes to see and a nose to smell Brian Kelly's hot and tangy breath as he pressure-washes you with profanities for something you did on a mildly botched punt return—if you are a human being, I'm saying—you would not enjoy working for Brian Kelly. He's a harsh and intractable man, an avowed disciplinarian who is himself hilariously prone to hair-trigger rage-outs; he is a responsibility fetishist who is, in a tragic irony, himself afflicted with a severe responsibility allergy. You knew much of this back when you read that Brian Kelly was a college football coach just a few sentences ago.

But Brian Kelly is also a specific type of college football coach. It's a happy accident that Kelly's rage incidents tend to be directed towards people with less power than Kelly, but wow are they ever little molten miracles of authoritarian theatricality. Kelly's ashen coach complexion blooms and brightens into a shade of high cranberry, and suddenly he is physically assaulting his strength and conditioning coach or blasting profanities at a 19-year-old from a distance of three spittle-strewn inches. When Notre Dame is playing badly, as they have been for this whole season, Kelly simply spins the dial to the right, by demanding and disclaiming responsibility more vigorously as needed, by undertaking new epics in disciplinary theater like dressing down his entire team at halftime on the sideline, and by generally behaving in the most Brian Kelly manner possible.

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If Kelly gets fired, it will be for losing games, and not for any of the aforementioned above. To the extent that Kelly has an appeal beyond his more-successful-than-not track record as a college football coach, the aforementioned above is it. Whether this is heralded as uncompromising leadership or roundly goofed on as the stagiest possible bluster largely depends, for Kelly as for most of his peers, on what his record is at the time. Circumstances change, but Brian Kelly does not; it's one of the signature attributes of college football that this simple statement will be read as profound tribute when his team is winning and something approaching a fireable offense when it isn't. But there's something else going on here, with this particular fuming windbreaker aficionado and also with his peers.

Beyond or beneath the blank pragmatism that generally governs this sort of sports conversation, there is a simpler truth at work where coaches are concerned than Bill Parcells' deathless axiom of football hardassery that You Are What Your Record Says You Are. A college football coach's job is more complicated than that, and simpler. For all the salesmanship and managerial delegation that comes with the job, college football coaches are also aspirational figures and political avatars in communities that have otherwise traded aspiration for resentment and politics for its seething opposite. There is nothing democratic about college football, really, which is both part of its appeal and precisely how people like Brian Kelly get and especially keep their jobs. The best college football coaches will get statues outside their stadiums, and they'll stand there, scowling in bronze, sternly pointing the way forward; the rest are at the mercy of their restive subjects. But the job is, at least in its contemporary incarnation, outsized by design. Everything else about it is, in ways that are subtle but difficult to deny, decidedly secondary.

When you disagree with the thesis, tbh. Photo by Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

At the highest levels of the sport, in states where coaches are paid and revered exponentially more than any other state employee or at schools like Notre Dame where the football program functions as a sort of missionary branding exercise, college football coaches are hired to play a public part that goes far beyond the demands of their jobs. They are strongmen, and are hired—by administrators who serve cabals of extremely demanding and utterly unaccountable billionaire boosters—to do the things that strongmen do. To say that they are hired to lead is not wrong, exactly, but it's also not remotely close to the whole answer. Strongmen are performers, and what they do works only as long as it rhymes with and speaks to the aspirations and ambitions of the people who elevated them. They are there to put on a show, and if it's a show that the audience enjoys it can weather defeats that would get another canceled with a vengeance.

More specifically, strongmen are hired to stomp and shout, to make big promises of victories ahead and promise great consequences for failure, to make complicated things simple and make unspoken or unspeakable inner ambitions outward. It's true to say that Notre Dame pays Brian Kelly to win football games, but it is probably truer to say that the school pays Kelly to be Brian Kelly, an overstated and hyper-aggressive version of the person a certain type of Notre Dame fan might be if they did not have bosses of their own. There are a bunch of obvious cultural and racial affinities at work in this equation, all of which are so obvious and so depressing in their obviousness that I'll just leave them here. But there's more to the difference between true strongman coaches and mere college football coaches than those impacted and infected affinities.

A good college football coach can win a lot of games, and will be fired when he stops; that coach runs a system and hires a staff, and a good one can keep his job for a long time, at least until he gets hired for bigger ones. The kind of coaches that truly resonate do more than that, and because of that, they can lose a great many more games than a coach whose system or leadership has simply stopped working. They mean more than the average coach, which has the paradoxical and peculiar effect of making them less accountable. The ways that Pete Carroll spoke to some deeper ideal and aspirational self-concept in USC fans made him, in a way that years of retroactively vacated wins cannot erase, immortal.

When it's time to get going. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Or less dramatically, what Carroll represented to the community of faith that elevated and lionized him—or what Mike Leach represented at Texas Tech or Steve Spurrier represented at Florida or Chip Kelly represented at Oregon, or what Jim Harbaugh represents at Michigan and Urban Meyer represents at Ohio State—was bigger than the sum of Carroll's great and small failings or failures. The failures are not immaterial, of course, but if the belief in the coach-as-hero is deep enough, those setbacks or scandals simply add some patina and drama to the broader story of the hero's journey. Which, as much as anything having to do with a promising redshirt quarterback or the latest faceless and transcendent 20-year-old linebacker, is the journey some significant portion of older college football fans care about most.

It could further be said that Texas and Oregon have recently fired coaches Charlie Strong and Mark Helfrich, respectively if in ways seemingly custom-designed to humiliate both, for not effectively filling that last, vague job description. Whatever their failings as college football coaches—in both Strong's case and Helfrich's, this is largely synonymous with offending super-boosters whose patience proved even shorter than expected—the signature failure of each seems to be that they were football coaches, instead of effective embodiments of whatever it was that their restive fan communities wanted them to be.

It's hard to fault either coach for this, at some level. Strong succeeded, in his three years, in creating a culture of personal accountability at a program that had notably slackened on that front; Helfrich won a lot of games, right up until he didn't. In both cases, avowed interest in fixing cultural problems or sustaining a historic dedication to continuity proved less important to their institutions' decision-makers than advertised. Where iconic coaches get to speak to the aspirations of the people looking up to them, whether by representing some idealized version of how those acolytes imagine themselves—Harbaugh as the driven, brilliant, quirky Michigan Man ideal, say, or Meyer as the devout and dedicated and steadfast counterpart—or simply by filling the vacuum created by the absence of institutions or political leaders offering similar inspiration, regular coaches just have to coach. Neither job is easy, but the second one comes with a lot more accountability than the first.

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