BOLTS OUT OF THE BLUE

When last we checked, Fisher DeBerry was tucked safely in his bunk at the Air Force Academy with two armed sentries standing over him, and Don Baylor was hitting fungoes to a group of outpatients in Tucson, whipping them into shape for Opening Day.

Of course, things may have changed. Lately, it's been Chechnya for coaches and other leaders of men around here, so while you weren't paying attention, DeBerry may have defected to West Point, and Baylor could have signed as a DH for the Kobe Earthquakes.

A few things are certain, however. McCartney has quit, Wade's been canned, the Horse is gonna watch his thoroughbreds run in peace this year and Sonny is staying--and not just because he doesn't like humidity, or pork on a stick.

Meanwhile, the rumor mill is heating up. Word on the street is that Newt Gingrich will be the Donkeys' new offensive coordinator. Michael Jordan is laying down his Louisville Slugger to become the Nuggets' player/ coach. And the sports-radio blabbers are speculating that Lou Saban is coming out of retirement to play goal for Denver's new NHL franchise.

When O.J. walks, he wants the job in Fort Collins.
Turmoil. That's the name of the game in coaching. Disregard the fact that Don Shula has overseen the Miami Dolphins since the Coolidge administration, or that Tommy Lasorda really does bleed Dodger blue, and you're left with the wisdom of the man who used to bounce Wade Phillips on his knee:

"There are two types of coaches," Bum Phillips once said. "Them that have just been fired and them that are going to be fired."

And them who've had it up to here.
The admirable Dan Issel falls into this category. The Denver Nuggets' third-year coach suddenly quit his job last week, and four days later his former players officially stopped talking about him. Of course, they'd just inaugurated the Gene Littles mini-era by scoring a franchise-low 73 points in a loss to Golden State, then got hammered 129-113 in Phoenix. You wouldn't talk, either.

Now Issel doesn't have to. Not anymore. His face will no longer flush bright crimson when the Pack-Man hurtles through two guards and a power forward and on into the third row, or when the refs rag on Dikembe Mutombo for trash-talking in various languages. Issel won't have to put up with all those irritating questions from the beat writers, or bad laundry service at the hotel, or the suspicion that his unruly young Nuggets might not have another miracle inside them this year.

Truth be told, Issel was all set to quit in the middle of last season--hinted at it, even--before leading his team to the most mind-boggling upset in NBA playoff history. The Seattle Supersonics are still reeling from that little David-and-Goliath number, and, not surprisingly, so are the Nuggets. Behind the loss of spiritual force LaPhonso Ellis, the Nuggets have not only floundered this year, they've looked back. And if that wasn't enough to deflate a head coach who already had grave questions about his role in life, the prospect of his team, now marked men, getting blown out of arenas from Oakland to Houston was.

Good for Issel. Rather than run on seven cylinders, or on empty, he did the tough thing--he quit. Because his heart wasn't in his job. On Kentucky Derby Day last year, Issel's team was giving this city the thrill of its lifetime by beating Seattle in Game Seven. We have a pretty good idea where the man will be this coming May 6--under the twin spires at Churchill Downs, amid the mingled scents of the barn and the bluegrass, watching a field of lean three-year-olds try to do something like he did. One word: Godspeed.

The other hero of our story is, of course, Sonny Lubick.
With the departure of Miami Hurricanes head football coach Dennis Erickson for Seattle (don't pass through Wyoming, pal: Every thirty-ought-six in the state will be aimed at you), Lubick quickly became the people's--and the players' choice--to replace him.

So long, coach. Nice knowing you. Even the cows in Fort Collins understand. And thanks.

But an astonishing thing happened on the way to the bank. Sonny said no.
Talk about classy moves. Talk about having your head screwed on right. After discussing the issue with his family, after looking into the eyes of his players, after perusing the recruitment lists, Lubick decided to stay on at Colorado State University--where football used to be something frat boys played in shorts out on the lawn. Now, instead of stopping a program's major momentum, he's renewed it. Those road wins last season against Brigham Young and Arizona were just the beginning: The next time the Rams meet a Big Ten opponent in a bowl game, they'll kick serious butt.

But that's not really the point, is it? What Sonny Lubick has shown by staying at CSU is the depth of his character and the size of his heart. The-- how to say it?--portability of loyalty in guys like Dennis Erickson says one thing about college sports. The steadfastness and honor of Sonny Lubick say another.

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