He’s a football coach who keeps not a film projector but a tape deck in his office. He likes to listen to country and western music. He speaks in a drawl, slumps deep in his easy chair while smoking a pipe--looking awfully relaxed for a coach, more like a cowpoke from far out on the range.
He wears jeans and cowboy boots, plays guitar, drives a truck and owns a horse called Face. He comes from just west of Manhattan, all right. But not Manhattan, Kan., Manhattan as in New York. He’s, of all things, a north Jersey, city-streets cowboy.
Cowboy Jack Bicknell is no run-of-the-mill big-time college football coach, but then Boston College is no ordinary big-time football operation. He’s a hot coaching property who, before last season, reportedly turned down the opportunity to pack up his Louis L’Amour novels--he’s got them all, having acquired the western taste from his father--and take a University of Miami job that, with radio and television contracts, would have earned for him about $200,000 a year. At Boston College, where his 33-15-1 record since 1981 includes several startling upsets, he is said to have made about $75,000 last year while producing a 10-2 team that ranked No. 4 nationally.
He has achieved a noted success in a college football setting that, like his cowboy clothes on an Eastern campus, might be described as quaint: outside his office is a little steel and aluminum stadium (too small for Saturday’s game with Maryland, instead to be held at 60,000-seat Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro) with a tiny red scoreboard and a bronzed eagle perched above it, ready to fly. “We don’t have a great weight room,” Bicknell says. “The offices are small. The offensive coaches don’t have windows. But the things we don’t have aren’t all that critical.”
What Bicknell has, what anyone would want, he supposes, is “a comfortable feeling” where he is--not in some more familiar college football hotbed, like Lincoln, Neb., or Norman, Okla., but on the edge of Boston with what he calls “the kids,” his players. They’re big; the linemen, especially, look like they’ve pumped iron since the cradle, and they have shoulders that bulge their T-shirts and slope like mountainsides. But some Boston College players have been noticed carrying the classics under their beefy arms, and a conversation among them about something other than Xs and Os should not be surprising--John Updike once reported coming upon two BC students cracking a joke about God’s five proofs that Thomas Aquinas exists.
“We don’t have all choirboys,” says Bicknell. “We’ve got some kids who have to be pushed in the right direction.” He’s yet to produce a Rhodes Scholar, though Doug Flutie thought he might like to be one. “But we’ve got to have the kind of kid who wants to play and go to school. Academics have to be first, or at least close to first.
“When I go into a home, recruiting, I’m trying to make a good impression. But I’m also looking, to see how the kid acts toward his parents. If a high school coach says a kid is a great player but I just can’t get him to do this or that, I’ll back off. Because if he’s shaky in high school, what’s he going to be like here? He’ll be out of my control. All the freedom, the social life . . . " Bicknell waves toward his office window, facing the hillside campus. “We don’t have an athletic dorm.”
What’s important, he continues, is “not how many Parade all-Americas you get, but what kind of kid fits in. In the beginning, we got players who maybe weren’t heavily recruited. My first recruiting year was the class nobody wanted--Flutie, Gerard Phelan, right down the list. We’d get kids who visited maybe one other school, or no schools. Now with the whole Doug Flutie thing, the TV exposure, we’re getting some heavily recruited kids.
“But the big satisfaction for me here is that we’ve gotten to the point where a team really has to be ready to play when they play us. We can beat anybody on our schedule. We play hard every week; when I came here I couldn’t guarantee that. Now I can. I worry about execution. I worry whether we’re good enough. But I don’t have to worry about us playing every week. We look forward to a big game, like Maryland. Win or lose, that’ll take care of itself, but we’ll play hard.”
What is it about Bicknell, 47, his black wavy hair just beginning to gray, that makes him seem unalterably sincere? Gives him credibility even when he eschews such coaching creeds as, “Winning is the only thing,” in favor of, “I don’t think you can look at football like it’s life or death. We’re not curing cancer.”
Says 5-foot-8 senior running back Troy Stradford, the team’s No. 1 offensive threat whose lateral step makes it seem he stepped on something hot (but whose pulled hamstring leaves him doubtful for Saturday’s game with Maryland): “Coach Bicknell has taught me how to relax and talk to people. He’s showed me when things go wrong, you can’t yell or scream. There’s no sign of military action at all.”
And Jack Bicknell Jr., the team’s center: “Obviously, nobody’s going to tell me they don’t like my father. But there’s a good feeling on this team. It’s hard to tell what it is. He’s very honest.”
Honesty paid for Bicknell when he took Flutie among his last picks his first recruiting year. “We didn’t know what we had,” Bicknell says, smiling at his unexpected good fortune. “We wanted two other quarterbacks--desperately. I figured Flutie was a good athlete, he might play free safety or wide receiver. But I promised him a shot at quarterback.”
The promise fulfilled produced a Heisman Trophy winner. As a result, one of Bicknell’s problems now is getting Flutie’s successor, Shawn Halloran, to relax. No matter the sport, followers of legends tend to snuff the spotlight they step into.
Halloran “feels the weight of the world on his shoulders,” says Bicknell. In the wake of Boston College’s opening defeat by Robbie Bosco-led Brigham Young, during which Halloran seemed at times unsure, Bicknell says he told his new quarterback, “ ‘Don’t read the papers. Don’t torture yourself. I’ll tell you when you’re doing good and when you’re not.’ I’ve got to get the quarterback to realize he has my complete confidence. I don’t care if he throws an interception. I’m not going to hold it against him. That’s hard to convey.”
Settling down, or settling on, Flutie’s successor may be Bicknell’s biggest coaching challenge, one that before the season ends could leave him talking to his horse. But at least he’d be familiar with the game’s downside. His record in five years at the University of Maine was 18-35-1. That, at least in part, and to the utter amazement of some Boston College alumni with football ambition, and to Bicknell’s own astonishment, got him the BC job. “I wouldn’t have hired me,” he says, puffing his pipe.
Somebody knew something: that Bicknell was an offensive strategist who fit into the school’s coaching history, which includes Frank Leahy. Having played quarterback for North Plainfield High School in New Jersey, Bicknell received a scholarship to Rutgers.
A neck injury ended his career, but he studied the game when he wasn’t reading cowboy books or going to Gene Autry films or hanging around horse auctions in the Jersey countryside. He liked Bud Wilkinson. “He appeared to be a classy guy, very much in control,” Bicknell says. “He wasn’t impressed with himself, wasn’t an ‘I’ kind of guy. He seemed like a decent man.”
While coaching high school in New Jersey, Bicknell patterned himself a bit after coaching masters Frank Broyles and Darrell Royal, and attended lectures and clinics given by Sid Gillman, professional coach and original thinker in pro offense. Bicknell says he’s always thought offense, and he’s become known for taking an occasional gamble when on attack. “I don’t want our kids to play tight or scared,” he says.
In 1968, Boston College hired him as its offensive backfield coach, and here he stayed until going to Maine in 1975. One of his offense-minded ideas is to “keep in the game strategically, not emotionally,” which is why he can be seen on the sidelines with earphones in place, continuously sending arm signals that make him seem like a rush-hour traffic director.
Bicknell often is asked if shortly he might like to get his horse and head on off to the wide open spaces--someplace like, say, South Bend, Ind., should a coaching vacancy occur there. Of possibly quitting Boston College, he says: “I’ve never been a guy looking to leave. I’ve just been a guy looking to get it done. I’ve been living in New England for 17 years, and you only play 11 games. You better like where you live. . . .
“I don’t feel driven to coach the pros,” or jump for “career” purposes to some college better known than Boston College for football. “If a challenge appealed to me,” he’d consider it. “But I wouldn’t go for money, for $100,000 more than I’m making, just because of the money. I’ve never had a lot of money. I’ve got more now than I ever had.”
When Bicknell had the opportunity to go to Miami for much bigger money, the story goes that his family gathered at the dining table of their modest home in Holliston, west of Boston: wife Lois, two sons, daughter.
“You can’t leave Doug Flutie,” his wife said.
“Never mind Doug Flutie, what about me?” said son Jack.
“Jackie, we’re going to have you our whole lives,” Lois Bicknell said. “We’re only going to have Doug Flutie once.”
Bicknell knew the answer, anyway. This cowboy was staying home.
‘The big satisfaction for me here is that we’ve gotten to the point where a team really has to be ready to play when they play us. We can beat anybody on our schedule. We play hard every week; when I came here I couldn’t guarantee that. Now I can. I worry about execution. I worry whether we’re good enough’