History says Moeller dreams impossible dream

John Eisenberg

September 29, 1990|By John Eisenberg

Gary Moeller is a competent,enthusiastic football coach who has taken on a task in the vicinity of impossible, When he agreed to replace Bo Schembechler at Michigan,he jumped headlong into a river of history that has a current running powefully against him.

Rare, very rare, is the college coach who replaces an icon without suffering in the end. In fact, at the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra, it is possible that Moeller will succeed, but still fail. The stick against which he will be measured soars out of sight.

Moeller can beat Maryland today, win the rest of his games this year, go to the Rose Bowl, win and end the season ranked in the top three in the nation, and the people at home will say: "Hey, a decent start. Let's see if he can do it again."

Schembechler gave them winners for so long that they accept nothing else. The same was true at Ohio State under Woody Hayes, Alabama under Bear Bryant, Texas under Darrell Royal, Oklahoma under Bud Wilkinson, Army under Earl "Red" Blaik, Notre Dame under Knute Rockne and Ara Parseghian.

Those are the legends of college football, a group of which Schembechler is a member, and what happened to their successors illuminates the daunting assignment Moeller has accepted.

Rockne won 105 of 131 games at Notre Dame from 1918-30. When he died in a plane crash, he was replaced by one of his old players, a lineman named Heartly "Hunk" Anderson. The Hunk got off to a credible start, winning 13 games and losing four in his first two seasons, but he resigned after his third Irish team went 3-5-1. That simply wasn't good enough.

Dale Hall also lasted only three years as Blaik's successor, and although he was a West Point graduate and did not have a losing season, he went 0-3 against Navy and was subjected to a spate of damning comparisons. Gen. William Westmoreland, then the superintendent of the academy, wanted better. He hired away LSU's Paul Dietzel, the hot name of the day.

Two years later, Wilkinson retired to go into politics after winning 145 games and three national championships between 1947-63. He was replaced by his top assistant, Gomer Jones, who lasted only two seasons, lost twice to Texas and resigned to become athletic director. Jones was esteemed as a sharp football man, but he couldn't stand the pressure.

The Texas coach to whom Jones lost was Royal, who won two national titles and cultivated a chicken-fried personality that made him a hero. Fred Akers replaced him in 1977, lasted a decade and won 72 percent of his games, but he was colorless, the opposite of Royal, just not Darrell. He went 2-7 in bowls and was fired after his first losing season.

Earle Bruce had a similar experience at Ohio State. After Woody Hayes punched a player, ending his career, Bruce took over and won 81 games in nine years. He never won a national championship, though -- Hayes won three -- and also never won the Rose Bowl. The fans never accepted him as their own, and he was fired in 1987.

Down in Alabama, they are still trying to replace Bear Bryant. Ray Perkins was the first coach to try, and although he won 32 games in four years, he quit to go to the NFL when he realized he would always be compared and could never measure up. As with Akers and Bruce, he managed to succeed and still fail.

There is no more striking example of such irony, though, than Dan Devine, who replaced Parseghian at Notre Dame in 1975. Devine was a roaring success by any measure, winning a national title and 76 percent of his games, but he was a contrary personality and, compared to the ebullient Parseghian, not nearly as popular. He quit after six years.

The difference between Schembechler and these other icons is that Schembechler never won a national title, giving Moeller an opening to shine by comparison. Even if he wins a national title, though, he still won't be reviewed favorably enough unless he sustains a hugely successful program for two decades, as Bo did. It isn't a no-win proposition, but it's close.

See, Moeller, like all the other post-icon coaches, is competing with a mythic figure. Years and years of winning creates a compelling aura, and as time passes and memories grow fonder, as they always do, people come to believe that their team never lost a game, even if it wasn't true. You almost need to be perfect. At best, you're Roger Maris to Babe Ruth.

Plus, let's face it, these icons made their names because they were indeed the game's greatest coaches, men of rare ability. Their replacements may have been adequate, some even exceptional, but they still have not been of the same mettle.

Look what has happened to their schools. Ohio State, Texas and Army are faded powers. Alabama is headed that way. Only Notre Dame and Oklahoma have remained prominent.

The advent of scholarship limits played a part in it, helping bring about parity, but that hasn't prevented other schools from staying on top. The fact is that a coach who replaces a legend does not have a name that compares as a recruiting tool. Talent drops off.

There is one notable exception in this sweep of history. Nebraska's Tom Osborne replaced Bob Devaney, who won 101 games and two national titles in 11 years, and Osborne is still there almost 20 years later, having won or shared seven Big Eight titles.

He hasn't won a national title, an asterisk in the minds of many, but he has emerged from Devaney's shadow, become his own man. He is very much the exception, though. Moeller is better off not opening a history book.

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