September 15, 02012
In the hours before Super Bowl XXXI, Mike Holmgren stood before the Green Bay Packers and told them how he really felt about their impending appointment with Bill Parcells and the Patriots. Holmgren was tired of all the hoopla. There had been enough speculation and story-telling, yarn-spinning. He was full from the luncheons and dinners and appearances that accompany the game. He was tired of talking.
There really is a lot of talking in football. In the days leading up to the game, there’s talk in meetings. After practice there’s talk about what happened at practice. On Saturday night, there’s one last talk to make sure what’s been discussed has been sufficiently retained, and on Sunday, there’s even talk in between series.
That night, Holmgren told his team he wanted to do some things. “I’m ready to kick Bill’s ass,” Holmgren said. He didn’t mean it, of course. His team had made it to the Super Bowl and the Green Bay Packers occupied a place of esteem. It’s not like he had anything to gain by actually fighting Parcells. He could afford to just talk about it.
Schwartz and Harbaugh have done more than just talk.
Not all coaches are afforded that luxury. Like the fifty-year old man who took the job as the head basketball coach at Temple University back in 1982. The coach was a grizzled, diminutive, raspy-voiced, straight-shooting man who even when nattily attired in coat and tie, had the look of a guy just having finished a double shift and was on his way to get in some overtime. He looked like someone who was working. So when this coach promised to make the Temple basketball program worth something, the athletic director had to know he wasn’t just talking.
The first thing the coach did was to get kids for his program. The kids were like him—poor, hungry, smart, tough. They were good kids, but even those folks at renowned institutions of higher learning require a certain edginess if they wish to be successful. See, this coach, John Chaney was his name, wanted to change his environment. These days it’s called “changing the culture.” This is a tricky process, and it’s hardly ever a pleasant one.
Chaney confronted people, got up in their faces. That was his way. He took his team to all the venues committed to elite ball—to North Carolina, to Louisville, to Indiana, to Duke. They lost at first, lost bad. Didn’t matter, though.
The culture war is established by making folks notice you.
In 1984, Temple beat St. Johns in the first round of the tournament. In 1987, they entered the tournament the top ranked team in the country. In 1988, 91, and ‘93, they made it to the regional final. In that final one they fell to the Fab Five from Michigan.
Then, in 1994, John Chaney decided he was done talking. He was specifically done talking to Massachusetts coach John Calipari. After the game, while Calipari was at the podium, Chaney queried Calipari about his poor treatment of the referees. Before Calipari could offer his retort, Chaney took several steps toward him, fully intent on trading blows with his taller, much younger, presumably more agile adversary. He told Calipari he would “kill him.”
After that, you paid a little more attention to what was happening at Temple. You may not have cared for Temple basketball and you may have been repulsed by John Chaney. He couldn’t have cared less. They were to be taken seriously, to be dealt with.
The culture war is sustained by raising the stakes.
The stakes are high at Candlestick. A 2-0 start was great for both the Niners and the Lions last year as both teams were shedding the husk of losing and coaches Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz were in the early days of culture building. Now, it’s just another step towards that coveted place of esteem.
Schwartz has gotten this far by giving in to some basic laws of defiance. His method is to take on opposing players who, if they chose, could snap his limbs like a matchstick. In week four, while Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant taunted the Lions defense after a catch that wasn’t really a catch, Schwartz challenged both Bryant and the call. Schwartz ran downfield in and threw the red hanky in Bryant’s direction, then started at Bryant while making an exaggerated incomplete signal. Petty? Oh, for sure. Corny? Even more so. But Schwartz was right. The Lions won and everybody noticed.
By then we had already noticed Jim Harbaugh. He liked to confront everything and everyone. It was his way. But there was that one time Harbaugh did this through non-verbal means. There is some genius in his method. How else to describe a man who can so successfully convey his disdain for another coach through a hearty handshake and slap on the back?
For all of his bluster, Harbaugh has a sincere quality—an earnest meatheadedness that speaks to those who subscribe to all the tenants of sports culture, even the most crude. Harbaugh first proved this at an institution of higher learning.
Back in the winter of 2006, around the time Harbaugh sat down at the podium at Stanford University to assume his duties as head football coach, John Chaney was announcing his retirement from Temple.
Chaney was asked if he had any regrets. He said yes, that he did have one regret. He said wished he hadn’t used the “rhetoric” he had with Calipari on that infamous night. “I should have just waited,” said Chaney. “And taken him outside and kicked his ass.”
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