by Terry Hargrove
I graduated from college in August, 1981 and took a job as an English teacher/assistant football coach at a junior high school in Columbia, Tennessee. You may ask why an English teacher would think he could coach football? I had a plan. I was a fairly decent high school football player in the early 70s, First Team, All Mid-state, a three year letterman, a genuine football fanatic. So, using another English major football coach (Joe Paterno) as my inspiration, I boldly took my place along the sidelines. True, as a player I tended to be more cerebral than reactive. Many times my high school coach would stare at me when I asked to deploy my famous symbolic blitz or offered to confuse the opposing quarterback with a barrage of metaphor. Coach Crabtree just didn’t understand.
But now it was my time. I believed football could be taught using the Shakespeare method of coaching. I would tell my team what to do, they would look at me with a complete lack of understanding and request another play, one not stated in iambic pentameter.
During our first game, I noticed the right defensive tackle on the opposing team was moving backwards after the snap, creating a natural hole for a quick hitter. I sent in the following play: “Once more unto the breech dear friends, once more. With the fullback!” My quarterback gave me a confused glance and passed instead. It was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
“Why didn’t you run the fullback like I said?” I asked him.
“Why didn’t you tell me what a breech was?” he replied.
We lost 56-0.
“Sorry, coach,” said my quarterback. “We’ll do better next week.”
I couldn’t be mad. “Hey, boys, the quality of mercy is not strained. It dropeth as the gentle rain from Heaven upon the place beneath. Like our 8 fumbles tonight. Just dropething everywhere.”
Everything exists for a reason. The junior high football B-team had two functions: A. to get small, slow, gentle players ready to play on the varsity someday, or B. drive these kids back into marching band where they belonged. If an 8th grader had any talent at all, he was promoted to the varsity and replaced by a kid who often had no idea that football involved running, sometimes for your life. There wasn’t a lot of soccer out there in 1981, so if parents wanted their sons to be active in a fall sport, it was football or scouring the backwoods looking for Christmas trees to cut and sell illegally.
We weren’t very good. I know that was mostly my fault, because I didn’t have the type of analytical mind needed to coach successfully. To me, coaching was like watching a game with a really good seat. My team was getting slaughtered every week. I wasn’t making men, I was teaching young guys how to move efficiently on crutches. Wins? We didn’t score until the fourth game, and that was when our opponents fired a snap over their punter’s head and out of the end zone. I actually had two players hurt on that play, so it was a Pyrrhic victory, a phrase I had to define for the team on the long bus ride home.
But gradually, we improved. During our second season, we scored in almost every game. We even had a few intense practice sessions, like the time Crazy Bobby Merrill sacked our quarterback four plays in a row! I’d never seen our defense so fired up. Bobby was beside himself with joy. True, he was lining up as a split end and coming back to tackle his own quarterback, but that did little to diminish his enthusiasm.
We just couldn’t get a win. We got close. Against Lebanon, we were ahead 22-0 in the third quarter, before we crashed like the Hindenburg. That was my fault. After they closed to 22-16, I called a time out and told my team “He that hath no stomach for this fight, let him depart.” I didn’t know my linebackers would take that as an invitation to go home early. They did, and we were beaten 24-22.
After two seasons, my coaching record was 0-8. The school administration rewarded this by adding two more games to our schedule the next year. We lost the first 5 and seemed to be getting worse. Instead of practicing, I spent a lot of afternoons on the blasted heath, screaming things only my team could understand. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” My offensive linemen would nod and weep. That was the strange thing. As my team got worse at football, they were getting better at Shakespeare.
Then we came to our last game. Mt. Pleasant, a small community in our county, decided to form a football team for their 8th graders because they thought they could get in a quick victory against us. Everybody else had, but we took offense at this. The kids were fired up. This was Mt. Pleasant, after all, a town just down the road. Losing to them would be an embarrassment they would live with forever.
If this were ever made into a Hollywood movie, it would all come down to the last play. In reality, there was little drama to it. We scored on our first drive and were never behind. Mt. Pleasant had a decent middle linebacker, but when he looked across the line and said to our quarterback “I know which way you’re going. You look at the place where the ball is going.” Sidney replied calmly, “There is no art to tell the mind’s construction in the face.” Then he glanced right, swept left, and scored without being touched.
I stopped coaching after that year. My overall record was 1-13, but I like to think I had a positive effect on the kids. I guess football isn’t ready for the Shakespeare method of coaching, or maybe Shakespeare and football, like water and gasoline, are beautiful to look at even as they don’t mix. But I still hope that a wiser coach than I am will further investigate the possibilities. I know someone can make it work. True, there is no I in team, but there was a bard in Lombardi.