Discover more from Contrarian's Notebook, by Dan Rottenberg
Vol. 36: In praise of grownup coaches
Can introverts win football games?
This column is scheduled to go live after sundown on Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, when observant Jews atone for a year’s worth of sins by fasting for 24 hours and seeking forgiveness from their fellow humans. So, what better occasion to tell you about an Episcopalian college football coach who confronted his own Yom Kippur challenge?
I refer to George Munger, Penn’s legendary head football coach from 1938 through 1953. Those were the glory years when Penn teams ranked among the best in the nation, routinely drawing crowds of 70,000 and more to Franklin Field at a time when the Philadelphia Eagles rarely attracted more than 12,000. Munger’s Penn teams beat Army four times and Navy nine times, and they administered sound thrashings to teams like Wisconsin and North Carolina.
Yet for all the arrogance of his football squads, Munger himself was a shy introvert whose Main Line Philadelphia background (as a student and teacher at Episcopal Academy) had marinated him in the concept of a coach as a mentor and adviser rather than a drill sergeant. By devoting himself to his Penn players and treating them as adults, Munger generated a loyalty and commitment from them that few other coaches enjoyed anywhere. He produced awesome football teams at Penn simply by developing an exemplary football program.
But midway through the 20th Century, Penn stunned the sports world by voluntarily downgrading its big-time football program in order to join the newly organized Ivy League, a consortium of America’s eight oldest and most distinguished universities. In the long run, this was a prescient decision: Thanks to the prestige of its Ivy League affiliation, Penn today enjoys higher academic ratings than its celebrated football teams ever knew. But in the short run, many Penn players, coaches, and administrators—Munger among them— were caught in the gears of Penn’s painful but necessary transition from big-time football to the Ivy League.
For a forthcoming oral history, I’ve spent the past four years interviewing survivors of that ordeal. As a by-product of this research, I’ve accumulated a wealth of stories in which Munger dealt with situations that coaching schools never teach. Let me offer two here.
‘A rule is a rule’
In 1940, Penn’s football team traveled by train to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a much-anticipated showdown between Penn’s All-America halfback Frank Reagan and Michigan’s All-America halfback Tom Harmon. The night before the game, Reagan apparently violated one of the team’s rules: breaking curfew, or consuming alcohol, or both. Word quickly got back to Munger, and there was much apprehension among the players that Reagan might be suspended for the game or thrown off the team altogether, as many another coach might have responded.
At that point, Munger was only 31, and in just his third year as Penn’s head coach. What to do?
The next morning, just hours before the big game, Munger assembled his players. “We all know by now that Frank violated one of our team’s rules,” he told them. “A rule is a rule— we know that.” Then he added: “After some thought, I have made a decision.” With great trepidation, the players waited to hear what fate awaited their star player.
Instead, Munger surprised them: “If this were a third-string halfback, I’d make an example of him,” he said. “But it’s not. This is Frank. We need him. If Frank doesn’t play, that changes our hopes for an outcome. So, I’m just going to walk by this. But Frank— please don’t do this again.”
As the story was related to me, Munger’s grownup solution cemented the players’ support for him. And Reagan didn’t do it again.
A pregnant moment
Something similar occurred on my high school team at the Fieldston School in New York. Our head football coach, George Martens, was a tough-talking ex-Marine lineman from a blue-collar background. But if you probed beneath his gruff exterior you’d find the good sense not to take himself too seriously.
In my junior season, we lost our first two games. The following Monday, George opened practice by assembling the team at midfield and administering a tongue-lashing along the lines of, “You guys are going to get together and play like a team, or you’re going to lose every game for the rest of the season!”
He was perhaps 15 seconds into this harangue when the doors of the gym building at the end of the field clanged open and two or three late players trotted onto the field. George scowled at them and resumed his diatribe, only to be interrupted seconds later by another latecomer emerging from the gym building.
This time, George pointed dramatically toward the gym building. “The next player who comes through that door— I don’t care who he is— is off the team for the rest of the season,” he barked.
You can guess what happened next. A few seconds later, the door to the gym building did indeed clang open again, this time disgorging one of our starting halfbacks, who by most definitions was one of our best players. As this unsuspecting halfback ran toward us, we players experienced what I think you would call a “pregnant moment.” I can still see my teammates’ faces as we all looked back and forth from the straggler to George while wondering how George would dig himself out of this hole.
George, bless his bellicose soul, did not hesitate or equivocate. Instead, he pointed dramatically to the gym building once again. “All right,” he growled, “the next player who comes through that door….”
‘Find me a rabbi’
But you were wondering what any of this has to do with Yom Kippur, yes? Thanks for your patience. Here we go:
In the early 1940s, the mainstay of Penn’s line was a mighty guard from upstate New York named Irv Mendelson. One week, Mendelson informed Coach Munger that he’d be unable to play that Saturday because the game day fell on Yom Kippur. In those days when substitution was limited and most players played both offense and defense, Mendelson’s absence would leave a major hole in Penn’s line.
Confronted with such a challenge, most coaches would bow to the player’s religious priorities or, at the other extreme, cut him from the team as an example to any player harboring individualistic ideas. Munger did neither. Instead, he telephoned a Jewish friend in New York with this request: “Find me a rabbi who will tell Irving that it’s OK to play on Yom Kippur.” The friend complied, and Mendelson did indeed play for Penn that Saturday.
(Presumably Munger’s friend located a Reform rabbi, as opposed to an Orthodox or Conservative one. That’s just a wild guess on my part.)
For the ingenuity and reasonableness of football coaches, o Lord, make us truly grateful. Especially on sacred holidays.
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Enjoy Dan Rottenberg’s new memoir, The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Frontiers of Free Speech. You can also visit his website at www.danrottenberg.com
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