Into each thick skull, a coach attempts to knock some sense. He teaches. He preaches. He advocates sportsmanship. And above all else, there are two goals he, or she, recommends emphatically to every athlete who walks into practice: Winning and trying.
Excuse us, then, if we cannot for one second understand what happened in Friday's Sugar Bowl football game at the Louisiana Superdome, where Auburn Coach Pat Dye, in one of the most chicken-hearted, lily-livered acts it has ever been our misfortune to encounter on a field of play, refused to allow his players to either win or try.
To re-set the scene, there were four seconds remaining, and Auburn was trailing Syracuse by three points. Syracuse was trying desperately to preserve an undefeated record. Auburn, though, was 13 yards from the end zone, with nothing in particular to risk by going for the touchdown.
Remember now, Auburn had no shot at a national championship. It already had lost one game this season, and been tied in another. The satisfaction of winning the Sugar Bowl, and in so doing become the only team able to vanquish Syracuse, was the principal reward Auburn's Tigers and student body could hope to expect from their journey to New Orleans.
But, what did Pat (Better Tie Than) Dye order his football players to do, after several months of hard practice, 11 arduous games, and 59 minutes 56 seconds of a holiday bowl game?
He ordered them to kick a field goal.
He ordered them to kick a lousy, measly, stupid little 30-yard field goal--the approximate length of an extra point--and be satisfied with a sister-smooching, decidedly bittersweet, 16-16 no-decision, while the Syracuse coaches and players spread out their palms across the way and wondered what they had ever done to Pat Dye to deserve this.
"My decision was not to get beat," Dye said later, while some of his players in the locker room slapped wet clothes against the walls and gritted their teeth.
Pat Dye played the Sugar Bowl the way we fought Vietnam. He wasn't there to win. He was there not to lose. His troop was 13 yards away from its destination, at the end of a hike that already had covered 62 yards in two minutes, when betrayal came from the coach, a man who undoubtedly would have counseled Patrick Henry to accept neither liberty nor death, but to go home to Virginia and get a good night's sleep.
Auburn's kicker, a kid whose last name was Lyle, went into the game and took care of the game-tying field goal, officially making his coach the biggest chicken since that one from San Diego.
Historians, as well as Syracuse fans, will be happy to note one last bit of irony: The Lyle kid's first name is Win.
Well, quite a season it was for the Auburn team, from start to finish. The quarterback, Jeff Burger, a good player to be sure, undistinguished himself off the field by being accused of plagiarism in school, accepting an illegal airplane ride from a booster, and getting busted by the cops for carrying a concealed weapon, a gun that was discovered under the seat of his car. The faculty's academic honesty committee proposed that he be suspended. Pat Dye bravely reacted by keeping him out of the lineup for one play.
They say coaches, particularly college coaches, have much to do about the molding of character in young men and women. Former students invariably look back upon their coaches with a mixture of fondness and reverence, probably because no adult, outside of a parent or guardian, ever devoted so much time, encouragement and advice to them.
We always hear so much about a coach's influence, but rarely wonder how many coaches provide the wrong kind of influence. The same men and women who demand decency and good manners in their athletes can be found screaming profanely at referees, costing their teams valuable points with technical fouls, kicking sideline markers, throwing caps, throwing chairs, throwing gum, punching opposing players, kicking dirt on umpires, pulling their teams off the floor, and expecting their players to do what they say, not what they do.
Bob Knight, the Indiana basketball coach, has many fine qualities, but he also can be a bully and a boor, and yet he would be offended by any Hoosier player who behaved similarly in front of him. This man who got so much mileage out of remark that "we all learn to write in second grade, and then we move on to something else," is the same man who has spent much of his adulthood teaching young adults how to bounce a ball.
We hear that coaches tap the maturity in their athletes, but then we see Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown of Notre Dame chase an opponent halfway across the field and blind-side him, just to retrieve a towel, and we see running back Dexter Carter of Florida State risk a Fiesta Bowl victory at the Nebraska three-yard line, with his team trailing by four points and only four minutes remaining, by trying to kick the player who tackled him.
We see an Alabama player in the Hall of Fame Bowl drop to one knee and thrust his index finger in the air after catching a pass at mid-field--with his team behind by a dozen points. We see the stuff Miami's players pull, year after year, and wonder if their coaches have any control over these young people at all.
A coach is supposed to command respect, not demand it, but of course part of a coach's responsibility is to make the decisions, represent authority, have the final say-so on any subject. A head coach is a five-star general, a commander-in-chief. A coach is God. A coach is king.
When Florida State had a chance to beat Miami, trailing by one point with seconds to play, Coach Bobby Bowden sent his kicking team onto the field to tie the score. His players pleaded with him to change his mind. Bowden thought about it, considered their feelings, then went for two points instead of one. The play failed, Florida State lost, and it turned out to be the team's only loss of the season.
When Auburn had a chance to hand Syracuse its only loss, and at the same time achieve a glorious victory, Coach Pat Dye took no opinion polls. Dye went for the tie. He got it, too.
In some minds, maybe Bowden was a loser.
But not in his players' minds, he wasn't. And isn't.
What Pat Dye is, we don't know.
All we know is that a coach should not just be someone a player looks to, at the end of the day. A coach should be someone a player looks up to.
Someone who led us in victory. Someone who shared our defeats.
Not someone who got us a tie.