In Jerry Byrd's book Football Country -- on the sport in North Louisiana specifically and the state in general -- the chapter on coaches carries the title "Biggest Men in the World."
That was certainly true for me. Coaches were the biggest men in my world for a long time.
The coaches I grew up with -- at Oak Terrace Junior High, Woodlawn High and Louisiana Tech -- were among the best coaches I ever encountered. I learned so much from each of them. In fact, they spoiled me.
Came out in the real world and found out that things weren't as ideal as they had been in school, that not all coaches -- or journalists -- were as dedicated, as caring, or as efficient as my coaches had been.
Can't say that they were role models; journalists fit that description more readily. Can't say they were a bigger influence than my dad, but it's close. They were -- are -- among my heroes. Sometimes, thankfully, I can still seek their advice. So, in a way, they're still coaching.
What I found early in my journalism career was how much we needed coaches, how much we depended on them for quotes, story ideas, statistics, direction on possible all-city, all-district and all-state selections, how much we needed them for guidance.
What I also found in North Louisiana was a bunch of outstanding coaches, and people, beyond Woodlawn and Louisiana Tech. There were, for instance, enough talented basketball coaches that if I listed them on this blog, I would run out of room.
Found coaches who were media-savvy, who enjoyed being interviewed and quoted. Others not quite as open knew exactly what you were looking for, knew what the media's role was and were always cooperative. Some were media-shy, not very quotable, not very trusting. Some, but not many, were downright uncooperative; they could rarely be reached; never returned phone calls.
I have been praised by coaches for pieces I wrote, sometimes unduly so. I have been scolded by coaches, yelled at face-to-face, had the phone slammed down on me, ordered out of the locker room or out of a gym (that's another blog), saw a coach or two simply turn and walk away without a word. And once, I was saved from players throwing me into the showers (thank you, John Thompson at Bossier High).
I knew coaches that played strictly by the rules; I knew some -- and I considered them friends -- who broke the rules, and got caught. I knew at times that coaches weren't telling me the truth, and I knew some who didn't let the facts stand in the way of their argument.
Knew one football coach who every week before his team's game -- every week -- would say, "We're ready to play." And sometimes after his team would get beat, he'd say, "We weren't ready to play." Not making that up (and not naming him).
And, no matter what, coaches had my respect. It's the way I was brought up.
I appreciated how much work coaching required, how much time and dedication, how difficult it can be to be in charge of a group of kids, to have your success depend on kids' whims or flaws.
Today's coaches perhaps face greater demands than ever. Our world has changed so much; kids have so much more access to information, so much more to take their focus off their sport. The use of drugs, as evidenced recently right here at TCU, can be a big problem. Academics -- as always -- should always be a first priority (and you wonder just if they really are).
(Of course, in this changing world, coaches are not just the biggest men in the world. There now are many outstanding women coaches.)
Whether it's the pros or the colleges, or even in Texas high schools, coaching salaries have grown proportionally out of sight with much of the rest of the world. And perhaps that leads to a sense of entitlement -- Nick Saban lecturing the media and the world, Joe Paterno (rest his soul) skirting the reports of his defensive coordinator involved with young boys, Les Miles -- if you read what Glenn Guilbeau writes -- not being exactly truthful at times, the Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick-Tom Coughlin-Charlie Weis-Saban school of haughtiness (I'll control everything I can -- media included).
Gary Patterson, our Star-Telegram writers have told us, has yelled at most of the TCU beat writers in the past decade. When he was at Florida, I recall Steve Spurrier calling the Florida Times-Union beat writers at 7 a.m. if he read something he didn't like or thought he was misquoted. Jason Garrett often rambles on at Cowboys' news conferences, with boring cliches, saying absolutely nothing of substances. When he screwed up and cost the Cowboys a chance to win at Arizona, he never owned up to it publicly.
(To be fair, I never remember Tom Landry, my alltime favorite coach, ever saying in public: "That [loss] was my fault. Not even when he alternated Roger Staubach and Craig Morton on every other play in Chicago one day.)
I don't like the paranoia of today's pro and college coaches who shut out the local media -- the guys they deal with every day -- from practice sessions, except for the first 15 minutes of warmup. So, so afraid that a piece of information -- perhaps injury info -- might get in the paper and help the opponent. Don't like the way they limit access to their players (Patterson, at TCU, is a serial offender here). Don't like the lack of access to assistant coaches.
But this is the way these coaches operate. It works for them, the media be damned. The coaches have to do what's best for them, for their program, for their student-athletes. So be it.
I've had this piece in mind a long time. The timing had nothing to do with the news out of Arkansas this week. That story isn't one anyone can enjoy reading, no matter what you think of the coach (he's a terrific coach, but he's not a guy I like from a distance).
It brings to mind what my wife so often reminds me. Coaches are just people. Don't put them on a pedestal. Don't glorify them out of proportion.
But they do deserve our respect ... until they don't deserve it.