Academe, n. An Ancient school
where morality and philosophy were taught.

Academy, n. (from academe). A
modern school where football is taught.

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1906)

In the spring a young man’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of love. What happens in the rest of the year is uncertain, but in the southwestern part of the United States that young man’s fancy, in the first chill of autumn, turns to thoughts of football. By October this year, the madness so gripped the region that tickets to the annual clash between Texas and Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl were being scalped for $200 for end-zone seats and $800 for seats on the 50-yard line—this despite widespread recognition that the University of Texas’ team was going to take a severe drubbing.

This mania is not confined to college sports. Boys at the tender age of eight and nine are encouraged by their fellows and their fathers to join in organized athletics. No youngster escapes the pressure. In the summer there is recreational league competition, and in the fall they can represent their elementary school in interscholastic games. Recent elementary schoolboys have been deliberately repeating the fifth or sixth grade to increase their chances of making a team in junior and senior high.

Fat, unathletic boys are made to feel they are second-class citizens—failures for life even before they reach puberty—if they do not make a team. Second-rate athletes virtually kill themselves trying to excel, while the natural talents or those who develop mediocre talents through long hours of hard work become kings in their society.

And it is drilled into them from the days of peewee football that the only true glory is in victory. Oft-quoted to them is the wisdom of that great coach who said that winning may not be everything, but it certainly beats anything connected with coming in second.

Twenty-five years ago the Associated Press’ sportswriter for the Southwest Conference wrote a book about high school football in Texas, Autumn’s Mightiest Legions. In the small-town Southwest, Friday nights are reserved for watching the local team battle it out with the gladiators from some neighboring city. The spectators get so overwrought that fights—and even killings—have been known to occur.

After the game, participants and spectators relive the spectacle from late Friday night until Tuesday of the next week. There is not a man—or woman—who cannot Monday-Morning-Quarterback the team to a better performance. Then from Tuesday to Friday afternoon the coming game serves as a topic of conversation. The ability to discuss local football prospects intelligently is instant cachet in male society. Inability to talk about football raises questions of sexual preference.

If football intensely matters at the local level, the stakes are infinitely higher at the university. Everyone in the Southwest is expected to have a favorite college team. In Oklahoma it is taken for granted that you will support either the University of Oklahoma or else its cross-state rival, Oklahoma State. Most Sooners choose OU because it wins consistently. In Texas the situation is confused, because there are seven institutions with pretensions to big-time football.

This public attitude creates an extraordinary amount of public pressure on regional university coaches to produce winning teams. While alumni and friends of the institution are using their considerable influence to demand a bowl-bound team, the athletes add their clamor. They have seen professional football make instant millionaires of draftees who have completed four years of college eligibility (notice I did not say “after graduation”). Much-recruited high school football players, known in the parlance of coaching as “blue-chippers,” refuse to go to a college if its teams do not win enough to appear often on national television—losers do not attract scouts from the NFL.

Businessmen in college towns join in demanding the head of a losing coach: winning teams attract big crowds. It takes victory after victory week after week to fill stadiums that seat 75,000 and more—fans who spend at motels and restaurants, who buy gasoline and souvenirs.

Legislators likewise add to the pressure, for they have a way of being more generous to a university with a winning team than to less fortunate schools. Moreover, old grads are more openhanded to the alma mater when it is ranked in the top 20 teams in the nation. According to a recent estimate, one university football team—in one winning season—brought in $7 million. Even absentminded professors of philosophy seem to have deduced that it is more to their economic benefit for the local warriors to win on the gridiron than to lose. Those same professors find that they are treated with greater respect at academic conferences and conventions if their university is nationally ranked. There is constant faculty pressure on the coach to win.

For the coach who does make it to the top in the university world, that is, who becomes head coach in a major football conference, the pressure is unrelenting. He must win big in order to recruit big, and he must recruit big in order to win big. He must fly around the country signing blue-chip high school athletes, and he must spend large amounts of time in company with old grads who contribute the slush funds needed for such recruiting.

Unfortunately, this leaves the head coach little time for coaching. Therefore he must recruit and retain good assistants. One assistant coach works with the backfield, another for the offensive line, yet a third for the defensive line, another for kicking, another for the quarterback, and yet another for linebackers. Naturally an assistant coach on a winning team is soon recruited away to become head coach at some school aspiring to more victories, leaving his former boss with one more headache.

The end result of all this is that coaching today has become one of the hardest jobs in the world. University coaches are running minor league professional football, but they must do so in the world of academe—where many professors on the athletic council do not realize the direct connection between money invested and victory or defeat. Coaches too often are expected to produce a bowl-bound team on an athletic budget of only $2 or $3 million a year.

Moreover, coaches live in a cutthroat world where fans have an extremely short memory. I watched as one university coach was hanged in effigy by students and alumni when his team went only 7-4 for the season. For the three preceding years he had been in the hunt for the national title, which he won once. Seven victories and four losses—and no bowl bid—no longer was good enough for students and alumni. The coach had to go.

For the successful few, the rewards are great. Texas A&M recently gained national notoriety for paying its head coach a quarter of a million dollars a year. Others must make do on a salary of only $100,000 or so.

But salary is only part of it. Another source of income, sometimes even larger than salary, is what a winning coach receives from doing his own weekly television show during the season. Additional revenue comes from commercials or even a radio show. And there are paid appearances to speak to this gathering or that. One nationally prominent coach now receives $15,000 for a public speech. Moreover, a winning coach gets quiet tips about good investments, and he may be invited to sit on boards of directors, for which he will be well paid.

But for each good job, there are hundreds of coaches not doing so well. In fact, there are few top jobs in coaching. Oklahoma only has two or three and Texas five or six good jobs—but there are literally thousands of aspiring high school coaches in the region. The competition for one of the best jobs, when at last one comes open, is intense, especially when you consider that there are hundreds of out-of-state applicants.

For 40 years and more I have seen this spectacle unfold each autumn in the Southwest. I have watched with compassionate sorrow as elementary school youngsters of little talent are ostracized. I have observed with fascination as otherwise sane adults go berserk at high school games. And I have been at endless faculty gatherings where the entire world of athletics was treated with contempt.

Yet on an autumn afternoon, as cool winds blow from the north, turning leaves golden, please. Lord, let me have seats on the 50-yard line when they tee up the football for the Texas- Oklahoma game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.