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.
In Fort Collins, the ecstatic throngs drinking beer over at C.B. and Potts must feel like tearing the goalposts down all over again--even without a game-day excuse. Go ahead. We'll keep the cops busy while you're out at the stadium. Maybe you can even get Sonny to tag along with you.
All of which brings us, somehow, to Paul "Bear" Bryant, the man in the checkerboard hat. He knew better than most the peaks and valleys of the coaching life--knew, like Bill McCartney, the demons of the night; knew, like Wade Phillips, the nightmares of porous defense. But Bryant had a greater gift for explaining it all. One story is especially telling. When Bear was head coach at Kentucky (Dan Issel's alma mater), his football program was always overshadowed by basketball--and by legendary hoops coach Adolph Rupp.
"I knew it was time to leave," Bryant said, "when they had a banquet and they gave Adolph a Cadillac and they gave me a cigarette lighter."
So it has always been.
Does it look to you as if the 49ers are playing La Jolla High School this Sunday?
Barring the assassination of Steve Young in front of the Fontainebleau, Neon Deion's arrest on bad dancing charges and George Siefert's entire offensive line eating tainted fish, San Francisco is bound to do to the San Diego Chargers what they did to a certain other AFC West team in the Super Bowl--which was beat 'em by 45 points.
Now, Stan Humphries seems like a very nice young man, and Junior Seau is a very talented young beast, but if the two of them don't leave Joe Robbie Stadium in the prone position with their tongues lolling out of their mouths, a lot of Americans will be surprised. Say all you want about San Francisco's heralded Montana-Clark and Montana-Rice teams, or the absent genius of Bill Walsh. This year's edition is the best 49ers club ever--probably one of the most talented NFL teams of all time--while their opponents would likely be in tough against UCLA. Hey, the Donks beat 'em, didn't they?
Take a look at that point spread. What is it? Nineteen? Twenty? Twenty-eight? Who cares. There hasn't been a mismatch like this since Hitler took out Poland. You can bet the Buffalo Bills are happy to be reheating chili on the stove this year--Loss Five wouldn't just be a humiliation, it would be mass murder.
Instead, the hapless Chargers are doomed to the long walk. Not to worry. They're so frigging happy just to have upset Pittsburgh that they'll love putting a field goal on the board in Miami. By halftime, we could be tuning in old Danny Kaye movies and wandering outside to rotate the tires on the car.
Meanwhile, Steve Young will finally get his due, as the conventional wisdom holds up: San Francisco 49. San Diego 10.
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