Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer New-Breed Coaches

By Dennis Freeland

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  Notre Dame offensive lineman Chris Clevenger had just missed a block in a nationally televised game against Florida State. When he came off the field, his position coach, Joe Moore, punched Clevenger in the face.

“I was shocked,” Clevenger says. “I’d never seen anyone do that on the sideline before.”

Clevenger testified this summer in a federal age-discrimination lawsuit brought by Moore against Notre Dame, college football’s most hallowed icon. After Notre Dame promoted assistant coach Bob Davie to replace Lou Holtz following the 1996 season, Davie fired Moore, who then filed the lawsuit. Notre Dame claimed Moore was fired because he was abusive. The school called Clevenger and other players to testify that Moore had slapped them around.

Clevenger testified that Moore punched him again less than a year after the Florida State game. It happened during the Notre Dame spring intra-squad game in 1995.

“I knew by that point to keep my helmet on on the sideline,” Clevenger told the jury.

Indefensible Positions

Coaches who hit players don’t last long in the Nineties. Joe Moore is a fossil, a reminder of an earlier time when football coaches were brutal and sometimes sadistic as they taught tough young men to play a violent game.

“Joe was a tough guy to get along with,” says Memphian Pete Cordelli, who served on the Notre Dame staff with Moore. “He had some different ideas on how to do things. Joe believed in grabbing guys.”

University of Memphis director of football operations John Flowers remembers the days when coaches routinely grabbed players. “I’ve still got fingerprints around my neck from where I got a 15-yard penalty on a punt return one time. But coaches don’t do that anymore. If they do, they’ll end up with lawsuits,” he says.

Murray Armstrong served under eight different football coaches during a 35-year career at the University of Memphis. Armstrong says the coaches from his era brought a different sensibility to the profession.

“Most of them were World War II veterans,” Armstrong said one day last week as he watched Memphis practice at the South Campus, where he serves as facilities coordinator. “They carried over their boot-camp experience onto the football field.”

When Flowers reported for football practice at Southern Illinois University in 1973, it was the last year the NCAA allowed unlimited football scholarships. Flowers was one of 140 freshman who reported to SIU that year. He vividly remembers the first day of practice. A coach ordered all the freshman linebackers into a circle for a drill called “Bull in a Ring.”

“The linebacker coach was kicking guys in the rear end, and screaming and yelling and cursing,” Flowers recalls. “I’ll be honest with you. I thought I was in the wrong place. Forty guys left the first night. Of the 140 in that freshman class, 17 of us made it through four years of college. It was tough.”

It can be hard to turn an old-school coach around. Armstrong says as a player he accepted the hands-on style of coaching as a form of physical motivation, and he admits coaching has changed. Still, even in the process of discussing the subject, he vacillates.

“I agree with the hands-off policy in today’s football,” he says. “Although sometimes you feel like going the other way and probably should go the other way sometimes. But it is just not acceptable today.”

Bob Rush, the former Tiger center who played nine years in the National Football League, says he was never hit by a coach. “I’ve only had one coach who I physically feared,” Rush says, “and that was Richard Trail here [at the U of M]. He told us, ‘We’re going to work hard and we’ll play hard. If we have problems we’ll work them out like men. If we can’t work them out, then we’ll take it outside.’ I promise you he could have whipped every ass out there. I never doubted it for a minute.”

But that old style of coaching is fading fast. “The old coach-by-fear tactic is not as popular or successful as it used to be,” Cordelli says. “Joe Moore’s method was to instill fear into people.”

Memphis head coach Rip Scherer says he has never hit a player, never even been on a coaching staff where he saw a player hit. “You put yourself in an indefensible situation if you hit a kid,” Scherer says. “You teach him when he’s hit on the field to react.”

Cordelli agrees. “Lou [Holtz] always said, ‘If you grab one, be ready to defend yourself.’”

Tim Pendergast, 39, is a Scherer protege. He coached on Scherer’s staff at James Madison University and today coaches the U of M secondary. “I would never touch a player,” he says. “I wouldn’t want a coach to touch my son and I don’t want to touch someone else’s son.”

Nintendo, Air Conditioning, and the Single-Parent Home

David Lockwood, 32, coaches wide receivers at Memphis. Because he is only a decade removed from his own playing days at the University of West Virginia, he finds it easy to relate to his players. Still, he thinks they are soft.

“I think this generation is spoiled,” he says. “We want, want, want, but some of us are not willing to pay the price to get what we want.”

“It used to be that you never had to explain why,” Scherer says. “It used to be, ‘Because I said so.’ But kids are so much more informed now. They know so much more about the world at such an earlier age.”

Flowers agrees with Lockwood that kids today are softer. They’ve grown up playing Nintendo and having their parents drive them everywhere they go. “When I was growing up we played outside, in a park or an open field,” he recalls. “And when we wanted to go somewhere we rode our bikes.”

Scherer adds air conditioning and the distractions of modern life to the list of reasons the players have changed so much.

But ask anyone associated with football today what has changed players the most in the past 15 to 20 years and you get the same answer: the single-parent home.

“It’s hard to convince kids that you really care about them. I think they are more cynical,” Scherer says. “I think more of them hurt. More of them come from single-parent families. I think that crosses racial lines. That is black, white, it’s middle income to lower income.”

Approximately one-third of the players on the 1998 Memphis team come from single-parent homes, according to information gathered from the team media guide. It was a player raised by both parents in a traditional family who clued Scherer into what could be called the male-authority-figure gap. Chris Reeves, who played both fullback and linebacker and was elected team captain as a senior last year, explained to his coach why some players were resisting him.

“A lot of players don’t even realize they have resentment toward male authority figures,” Scherer recalls Reeves telling him. “They just know that their life has been more difficult because their father left their mother in a lurch.”

Reeves’ insight proved valuable to Scherer. “I think that is why it has been tough to win some of the players over,” he says. “In some ways coaching is more challenging personally these days. You have to take more time to build relationships. So when you demand something of them or discipline them, they accept it in the manner that it is meant.”

Mutiny in the Ranks

With its rules and regimentation, football is not unlike the military. Pre-season practice conducted in the humid August sun is often compared to boot camp, with the coaches playing the role of the tough drill instructor.

The modern player may not accept the military atmosphere. Coaches today face the possibility of the team quitting. Sometimes a team will just go through the motions, give up the will to win. Sometimes bickering and in-fighting erupts among the players and staff. But in 1992, at the University of Memphis, the team called a boycott.

It was the fourth season under head coach Chuck Stobart, an old-school coach cut from the Bo Schembechler-Woody Hayes mold. Stobart didn’t get close to his players. He was a tough man who liked rugged, smash-mouth football. He wanted his team to be tougher than the other team. Sometimes he succeeded. He beat Southern Cal on the road. And he is the only Memphis coach to win a game in Oxford, Mississippi, on the Ole Miss campus.

Stobart brought high expectations into the ’92 season. He had stocked his team with talented junior-college transfers like quarterback Steve Matthews and wide receiver Isaac Bruce, both of whom would later play in the NFL.

The season started badly. A last-second field goal beat the Tigers in a game at Southern Miss. In the second game, Memphis was ahead late at Louisville when a series of events, including a bad snap on a punt, contributed to a come-from-behind 16-15 win for the Cardinals. After the Tigers lost a third heartbreaker to Mississippi State the following week, the players called a boycott.

“We were supposed to have a crackerjack football team in 1992,” recalls Armstrong, an assistant on that coaching staff. “We dropped the first three games and the players became disillusioned. They couldn’t understand why. It was mostly frustration and displaced aggression. They wanted to take the losses out on somebody, so they took it out on Coach Stobart and his staff.”

The boycott, which drew national attention to the Tiger program, was just another example of how football players have changed. “They knew how to organize themselves into a governing body and they actually had the guts to walk out,” Armstrong says. “Now I don’t agree with it, but it happened. I don’t believe a boycott would have happened many years ago, but it has happened today and it may happen again. Maybe not here, but at other places.”

Scherer says he didn’t know much about the ’92 boycott before he took the Memphis job, but he’s heard a lot about it since arriving here in 1995.

“It goes back to believing in what you do,” Scherer says. “I tell our players what’s popular is not always right and what’s right is not always popular. I try to be right. I’m not perfect, but I try to do what is best for our team and our program.”

The Memphis coach says you have to be aware of the players’ psyche, without taking it too far. “You can’t walk on eggshells,” he says. “You’ve got to do what you believe in.”

Lockwood says he has never played on or coached a team that even came close to a boycott. “I can’t imagine that at all,” he says. “It goes back to being spoiled. They have an opportunity to get a free education. It cost a whole heck of a lot of money to get an education today. I just can’t imagine that happening.”

The Coach as Nurturer

John Flowers is standing in the shade, on a landing halfway up the new coaching tower at the U of M practice facility. Below him more than 100 college football players are practicing in full gear. The relative cool of early morning has slipped away and the thermometer is racing toward a high near 100 degrees. The sound of popping pads, human collisions, punctuates his sentences.

“This is my 28th camp as a player or a coach,” Flowers says. “Camps don’t get any easier, they just get harder. It is a tough, physical game played by tough, physical people. But they don’t have to be bad guys to do it; there’s lots of good guys who play this game.”

To Flowers this is more than just another job. “To be a successful football coach, you’ve got to have a passion about what you do. You’ve got to really want to help kids,” he says. “All those negative coaching techniques don’t help at all. You have to be disciplined, but you have to care about them.”

He says the rewards of coaching comes from the relationships. “I still get Christmas cards from players I coached in high school 14, 15 years ago. Those are the things that make coaching worth it.”

Rip Scherer contemplates the ways players have changed since he first entered the coaching profession as a graduate assistant at Penn State in 1974. “We say kids are different, but in a lot of ways they still need the same things,” he says slowly. “Maybe they’ve been brought up differently, but I think kids still value discipline, if it’s handled the right way. But I do think there has to be more of a trust level involved.”

For the new-breed coach, trust is not a birthright. “I think you have to earn their trust now, where in the past there was trust because you had ‘Coach’ on your shirt,” Scherer says. “I don’t know why it’s changed – a function of society? The way kids are raised? I have no idea. But there has been a dramatic change since I got into coaching.”

Scherer’s conversation is sprinkled with references to family and trust. He was hired at the University of Memphis in 1995 to replace Stobart, who had just completed three consecutive seasons in which his team won six games and lost five. Those seasons would be unacceptable at some schools, but at Memphis, where no team has won seven games in a single season since 1976, it looked like success.

Stobart wasn’t fired for losing games and Scherer wasn’t hired just to win games, but winning is the determining factor for any coach. Scherer’s mission, given to him by school president V. Lane Rawlins, is to build a football team the school and the city can be proud of. One that recruits high-school players who can compete on the field and in the classroom.

It was a tall order, and Scherer, who was happy at James Madison in his first head coaching job, did not take the job without checking around. He knew that no Memphis coach had left the program to take a better job at another school. He knew that since 1976, the school had employed five different coaches. Four of them were fired, the other died in a plane crash.

Making the task more difficult was the extent of the construction job facing the new coach at Memphis. Stobart had built his team by recruiting junior college stars to play key positions such as quarterback, wide receiver, running back, and defensive back. To rebuild the program the way Rawlins wanted it done would require time, maybe five or six years. Not only would Scherer have to recruit high-school players, he’d have to redshirt most of them, meaning they wouldn’t play their first season.

But Scherer accepted the job and has steadfastly stuck to his map, recruiting players who fit his system, players who will not buckle under his strict rules and guidelines. Scherer is a disciple of legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno, not because of the one year he spent on Paterno’s staff as a graduate assistant, but because Scherer’s father is a coach in the Paterno mold. The elder Scherer has assisted Paterno in every summer camp for high-school players that Penn State has conducted.

Rip Scherer prefers plain uniforms without names, the kind they wear at Penn State. He can be a real hard ass, too. He has strict rules regarding facial hair and will not allow players to wear gold chains and earrings in team pictures or at official team functions. The team has a dress code on the road. Even the radio and TV announcers must wear ties on the team plane.

And, despite all that, Scherer is definitely a new-breed coach. He listens to his players, sometimes even changes his mind. The team will wear new uniforms this season with names on the jerseys. (“I lost,” Scherer said simply when he made the announcement last month at Fan Day.)

Compromise, after all, is a key ingredient to a successful family. “We always have to think of ourselves as surrogate fathers. Whether there is a father at home or not,” Scherer explains. “Parents are entrusting their son to our care at a very critical stage of his social and moral development.”

One of his goals this year, Scherer says, is to spend at least one hour individually with each player on his team. Accomplishing that goal will take the equivalent of more than two full 40-hour work weeks, an indication perhaps of how seriously the new-breed coach takes communication.

Part of Scherer’s battle at the U of M has been to convince his players that his way is correct, that it will lead to success. That job seems close to completion as Memphis heads into its season this weekend at Ole Miss. Pre-season practice went much more smoothly this year. The final hurdle for Scherer now is winning (in his first three seasons, Scherer has won 11 and lost 22).

“It is very important to me that this particular team have success, because they have done everything we’ve asked and done it, for the most part, with great attitude,” Scherer says.

He knows that trust cuts both ways. If he wants his kids to trust him, he has to trust them. And so every night he turns loose 85 adolescents in a community with more than its share of casinos, strip clubs, and honky-tonks. That’s a lot for Papa Scherer to worry about.

“There’s a big block party Friday night here on campus,” Scherer said last week. “But at some point you’ve just got to trust them.”

And give them a break. As a reward for their effort during pre-season training camp, Scherer surprised his team last week by giving them both Friday and Saturday nights off, essentially breaking camp on Friday afternoon instead of Saturday as planned.

“For a long time I’ve had to be the hammer, and still will be, but if you don’t reward them when they do what you want them to do, then they’ll roll over and die on you,” Scherer explains. “It goes back to one of the changes in coaching. You used to be able to pound and pound and pound. But even a guy like Coach Paterno has changed over the years.

“We’ve pushed here about as far as you can.”

He walks the line. Every day. A new-breed coach whose heart and soul belongs to the old-school philosophy. If his mentor, Paterno, can change, so can Rip Scherer. Maybe it’s only because his players have responded so well, but the Memphis coach seems a little more mellow this year.

And if any linemen at the University of Memphis get bloody noses, it won’t be because an old-school coach got carried away. You can count on that.

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