Attorney General William Barr’s campaign to expand the powers of the presidency to unprecedented imperial levels has been misinterpreted as an attempt to raise Donald Trump to the level of his strongman heroes like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Jair Bolsonaro. Fake news! It’s really been an attempt to boost him into the same league with the strongman heroes of far too many American men: the head coaches of our major sports, especially football. As a gang of antidemocratic, anti-intellectual, authoritarian bullies dedicated to winning at any cost, they have paved the way for Donald Trump and his “base.”
If the American political class were interested in electing a decent president, perhaps even one with moral courage, personal dignity, and an inspirational vision, they would be concentrating on the character, philosophy, and background of the candidates, right? But since those in the political arena, at least brand Republican, are mostly concerned with donor dollars, expanding that base, and the charisma of their macho leader, many of them are all too ready to follow a big, loud, glad-handing figure eager to lead us deep into crises that he—and yes, it is a “he”—will claim only he can bulldoze through.
We’re talking, in other words, about the presidential version of a football head coach, as sports leads the way into… maybe not just the end zone, but The End. Examples of such men are abundantly in the news right now, since the college football season has ended and pro football has reached its orgiastic holy day, the Super Bowl, this Sunday. College and pro teams are scrambling to hire new head coaches, predominantly white men, of course, who score high (as does Donald Trump) in the five main criteria for the job.
1. The Head Coach must offer purpose and meaning to people who feel powerless by offering them membership in something bigger than themselves: the tribe of a team that will be “great again.” To wear the orange or crimson or purple, to be part of a crowd screaming for the Tigers or Raiders or Redskins (or The Donald), is to dream that tomorrow will be so much better because the new head coach, manager, skipper, top dog can deliver. The aura that he brings is invariably short-lived, but it can linger as hope, before it dwindles into immortal nostalgia.
In football, there have been plenty of incredible shrinking coaches. In politics, think John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama, all of whom still make their fans breathless with possibilities unrealized.
The prototype head coach was undoubtedly the Norwegian-born Knute Rockne, who actually delivered on many of the possibilities he promised. A showman as well as a football savant—he popularized the forward pass in the 1920s—he leveraged publicity from winning games to turn Notre Dame into a nationally recognized university with a cultish following. In the process, he became rich and famous before dying in 1931, at age 43, in a plane crash en route to Hollywood to appear as himself in a movie.
Among the myths he invented along the way was winning “one for the Gipper”—George Gipp, one of his young stars who died of pneumonia in his senior year in college. In 1940, actor Ronald Reagan played the Gipper onscreen, creating the basis for his own future head-coach presidency.
The most iconic National Football League head coach was Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, who came to fame in the early days of the pro football boom. He’s best known for the quote, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Lombardi was too smart to have said that and too smart to deny it once it burnished his legend. Too bad, since that sentiment is so often the defense of bad behavior in political life—from future president Lyndon Johnson stealing his first election to the Senate to President Trump betraying the Kurds, among other crimes and misdemeanors.
What Lombardi probably said was something more like: “Winning isn’t everything. Trying to win is.” That’s the kind of self-help motto that fits a classic head coach’s larger message to both his players and the fans: Follow me. Do what I say. Only I know the way.
2. The Head Coach, college variety, must sell “the program,” the preferred term for the corporate-style athletic department of this era. He does it with a shape-shifting charm that can seduce both small-town working-class families and global financial wolves. In that way, the head coach should remind us of presidential hopefuls who can work both everyday Midwestern diners and waterfront East Hampton fund-raisers for the corporate elite.
In a living room with a talented teenager, he can convincingly promise mom and dad that he will act in loco parentis, not only by keeping junior out of trouble, but by giving him enough playing time to assure him either a pro career or a Wall Street job via successful alumni. At the least, he will make a man out of him.
In a banquet hall filled with those alumni with deep pockets, all the booster whales, he can convincingly promise winning seasons that will include them personally. As an irresistible perk in return for donations to the program (and perhaps a few no-show off-season jobs for athletes), there’s always the chance for donors to mingle in the locker room and to breakfast with the coach, to engage in team scuttlebutt and manly jock talk, not to mention all those photo ops. It’s like lunch at Mar-a-Lago with the president and some cabinet members. (Think: assistant coaches.)
That kind of salesmanship is critical because the salaries of head coaches are obscenely high and have to be justified. In most states, the head football coaches at public universities are also the highest-paid public employees. At the top of the heap right now is Clemson University’s hard-driving, God-promoting coach Dabo Swinney who has promised, for a mere $93 million over the next decade, to keep the Tigers great.
Indeed, his team did win the national championship the year before, but recently lost this year’s title game to Louisiana State University‘s Ed Orgeron whose salary is only 30th on the college coach list (at a paltry $4 million annually). President Trump earns one-tenth of that as president, a salary that he gives away. Little wonder that he needs to bolster his income with emoluments galore and constantly pump up his presidential powers. How else will he keep up with the jock elite?
3. The Head Coach is dedicated to winning by any means necessary. Cutting corners, bad behavior, even cheating is proof that he has true fire in his belly.
While his wealth, power, prestige, and the frequency of recruiting scandals have made the college football head coach a frequent target of media indignation, the leaders of other top sports are probably as culpable when it comes to cheating. As a group, they make a good case for the dark side of all our games as breeding grounds for Trumpism.
And that phenomenon, in turn, seems to have lowered our outrage about everything else in our American lives, including sports. Think of it as a kind of boomerang effect. Cheating has been normalized and, most of the time, we just shrug. Take, for example, the current Houston Astro sign-stealing scandal that helped win that team a World Series in 2017. Despite a few coach departures, compared to other scandals in major league baseball’s Hall of Shame, including the 1919 Black Sox attempt to fix an earlier world series, spitball use, and steroids, it’s made remarkably small waves.
Thanks to Donald Trump’s record of dishonor, it’s been hard to crank up anger over cheating to win at mere games. No wonder the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick, despite the many accusations of wrongdoing lodged against him, is considered the greatest pro coach of all time based on his record six Super Bowl victories (in nine appearances) and a lifetime 304-137 record.
In short, every year it seems all the more as if the end zone justifies the means.
4. Alpha male that he is, the Head Coach has absolute control over the brutes. After all, in the locker room and on the sidelines of the game, he’s the commander in chief, the beast-master of the raw young power he sends into battle.
For so many American men, there seems to be something thrilling in the head coach’s utter, unquestioned authority over the bodies and fates of the young players on his team. The fantasy of such dominance—for most, available only in video games—affects not only the fans, but the coaches themselves. They tend to believe in the righteousness of their power over those strong young men pledged to help them win, no matter what kind of bad actors they may prove to be in their lives out of uniform. (Similarly, by the way, our head coach of a president puts his faith in his control over his administration team, his legal team in those impeachment hearings, and those roaring fans at his rallies.)
Coaches, in fact, tend to love the dark wildness of bad boys, especially if they think that they alone have command over their pit-bull jocks. They love their bad boys so much that they’ll turn a blind eye when they act up and bail them out when they get in trouble for anything from being a bully in the hallway to assault with a deadly weapon or rape.
Among the most famous and successful of such beast-master coaches was Tom Osborne who headed the University of Nebraska’s football team for 25 years, overseeing stars like the psychopathic Lawrence Phillips who should have been in jail rather than lionized as a college hero.
Twenty-five years ago, at an awards banquet at which he was honored, I asked Osborne how he could justify any of this. He answered coldly and cynically, “Would you rather they were on my team or loose in your neighborhood?”
Later, as a three-term congressman, he received a lifetime rating of 83 from the American Conservative Union. Coming to feel that politics offered him so much less, however, he returned to Nebraska’s football team, his eternal place of power and glory.
Osborne’s example, hardly unique, offers insight into President Trump’s intervention in the case of disgraced Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, an out-of-control killer in Afghanistan where fellow Seals accused him of murdering civilians, among other crimes.
As Trump’s version of Lawrence Phillips, Chief Petty Officer Gallagher gave the president that head-coach patina of macho supremacy. He could handle the tough guys! Trump even invited him to Mar-a-Lago.
5. The Head Coach who can check off those first four criteria will be qualified to check off this one, too: ascension to the top ranks of million-dollar-plus power leaders. He will then be perceived as a Strong Man, sport’s version of the top dogs of global politics.
So how does the president match up with, say, three of the most famous and revered head coaches of his own lifetime?
There was Bear Bryant of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide, known for his harsh discipline and almost religious passion for “his” school. “If you want to walk the heavenly streets of gold, you gotta know the password, ‘Roll, Tide, Roll.’”
There was Woody Hayes of Ohio State who attacked an opposing player during a game and was fired the next day. A military history professor as well as a coach, he’s been quoted as saying that the soldiers involved in the My Lai massacre, a 1968 American slaughter of more than 500 Vietnamese civilians, killed men who deserved to die “and I wouldn’t be so sure those women were innocent. The children are obviously innocent—if they are less than five.”
Finally, there was Joe Paterno of Penn State, a much beloved philanthropist and father figure known as JoePa, whose legend was tarnished by the proven pederasty of one of his assistant coaches. Paterno had known enough, early enough, to stop the man and prevent further abuse. He was fired soon after his 409th victory, a record, and died several months later. His statue on campus was carted away.
And the current crop of top coaches has yet to prove itself any better. This is important because head coaches clearly serve as father figures, cult leaders, models of masculinity—perhaps particularly to the disaffected millions who see in Trump the strong man who can guide them, speak for them, protect them from everything that seems to be going wrong in their lives.
For those of us who don’t quite view him that way, perhaps the only saving grace of the head-coach connection at this moment of the 54th Super Bowl is how easily college and pro teams are willing to dump their coaches when they don’t fulfill expectations.
Alas, it doesn’t seem to work that way with presidential head coaches. So far.