Basketball and Football
In a rousing trip through the worlds of Basketball and Football, George Thomas Clark explores the professional basketball league in Mexico, the Herculean talents of Wilt Chamberlain, the difficulties and humor of attempting to play basketball in middle age, and observes that coaching at Caltech can be more painful than studying all night for a physics exam. We also peer into the minds of legends LeBron James, Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant, John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, and numerous others.
On the gridiron Clark reveals the talent and tragedy of Donald Rogers, an All American at UCLA and a star for the Cleveland Browns, the challenges of attending a Seahawks game in Seattle, the thoughts of brilliant but tormented Bill Walsh, the glory and horror of O.J. Simpson, major college football players being exploited by the NCAA and university bureaucrats, the rise and fall of the USC Trojans, issues of alcoholism, substance abuse, and domestic violence, and more.
Half the stories are straight nonfiction and others are satirical pieces guided by the unwavering hand of an inspired storyteller.
I want to emphasize I’m writing this from the viewpoint of a competitive and even Machiavellian coach in the National Football League, not merely the genial elder statesman who in retirement kept an office at Stanford and watched film with and drew plays for some of the young coaches and begged their indulgence if I’d spoken a bit too long. Honestly, I saw their enthusiasm and knew they were under my spell, and their respect enchanted me in equal measure. That’s the irony of my coaching career, the most gratifying times – excepting transitory moments of Super Bowl exhilaration – came when I wasn’t on the sidelines anymore, when I didn’t have to worry about who to draft or cut or how to win in the regular season and ultimately capture the Super Bowl. Anything less than absolute victory invited people to impugn me.
Many wonderful things have been said and written about me in the two weeks since my passing, but one thing most people knew, but suppressed during this solemn period, was that I really did enjoy being called a genius and in fact resented it when lesser status was implied. I’d felt that way a long time. At the latest, I considered myself a revolutionary force in 1970, when, as a Cincinnati Bengals assistant, I designed a quick-strike offense of short passes for our weak-armed quarterback, Virgil Carter, and by 1971 had him completing a high percentage of his attempts, which he wouldn’t have done – and never did do – under the guidance of anyone else. I then took Ken Anderson, a kid out of Augustana College, not a noted quarterback factory, and by 1974 transformed him into a precise passer. He was comparably efficient the following year, but, after owner Paul Brown “stabbed me in the back” and hired someone else as head coach, I left town and Anderson’s passing efficiency plummeted for several years.
Really, it was a humiliating time. I was already in my forties and had not been a head coach in the NFL and felt the call would never come. Many less-able men my age and younger had been given a chance. What’s wrong with me, a tormenting voice continually asked? My opportunity finally arrived in 1977, when I was forty-five, not with a professional team but at Stanford, an elite university qualified to appreciate my creative temperament. We had two good seasons and twice won bowl games, and Eddie DeBartolo, the cocky owner of the woeful two and fourteen San Francisco 49ers, hired me to coach the team I’d followed as a young man in the Bay Area.
In 1979, during the first draft I controlled, I made the most important professional decision of my life, selecting quarterback Joe Montana. My career and Joe’s would likely have been quite different had I not made him a 49er, and for the rest of my life I enjoyed praise for acquiring him. Yes, I’d studied film of Joe at Notre Dame, and later said I had considered him poetry in motion and known he was going to be one of the greatest ever. Frankly, if I’d really realized that at the time, I would have seized him in the first round rather than the third. But that isn’t the point. I took Joe Montana before anyone else, and kept him safely on the bench most of his rookie and my inaugural 49er season during which opponents tattooed us with a two and fourteen record that prompted fans to call me foolish and overmatched.
I worried they might be right. Really, I knew they weren’t, but my record made their catcalls credible. We had to get better. In 1980 I might’ve stayed too long with Steve DeBerg, who completed lots of passes but threw more interceptions than touchdowns, prompting me to comment, “He plays about good enough to get us beat.” Then I announced Joe Montana would be our starter, and felt optimistic as we won some games and improved to six and ten. But we had the worst pass defense in the league, and most observers felt that deficiency would take a few years to resolve. I couldn’t wait that long. Moving decisively in the 1981 draft, I took defensive backs with our first three picks.
Ronnie Lott was the critical choice. He stormed in and hammered receivers and running backs, energizing our team and warning opponents the 49ers were no longer patsies. Rather suddenly, we had the best quarterback and finest defensive back in football. On first downs I often called short passes that worked like long handoffs, and we went that way when defenses expected this way, and struck long when others were looking short, and ran when they expected passes, and confused and dissected defenses while our own controlled opponents. During this sublime season we rolled to a thirteen and three record, best in the league. The entire football world, and indeed many who followed other sports, were stunned by this bold turnaround and delighted by the graceful maneuvers of our offense.
That’s when people in the media, as well as fans, began to publicly call me a genius. I didn’t have time to discourage them. Both arms raised, I was being carried off the field after our Super Bowl victory over the Cincinnati Bengals who’d rejected me. Around the nation one heard the same compliments that have been offered lately: Bill Walsh is “an extraordinary teacher…a great pioneer…an innovator…a master of preparation and detail…” Some also noted I was frequently an unpleasant taskmaster. After the 1981 opener, for example, I cut a rookie kick returner because his two fumbles inflicted defeat.
All coaches say they don’t like losing. It burned my insides and darkened the horizons. In 1982 the players went on strike and shortened and above all distorted the season, and we finished three and six. People enjoyed my struggles and again claimed I couldn’t sustain a high level, that I must’ve been lucky, that after all I’d had three losing seasons out of four in the NFL. I told the media they’d been “awfully good…about tolerating us” this season and I regretted their suffering. They were mere spectators. The 49ers were the show, which I enhanced by taking high-knees running back Roger Craig in the 1983 draft. In 1984 we were supreme, losing but one game all season and in the Super Bowl shredding the Miami Dolphins of celebrated coach Don Shula, who’d actually believed he could win.
The accolades returned in even greater measure, and I felt wonderful. This was the life I’d always craved. Soon I purchased a beautiful house in the bucolic community of Woodside, within minutes of Stanford and our Redwood City training site. And in the 1985 draft I again demonstrated why many have called me an “incredible personnel executive,” trading up to take Jerry Rice, a certifiably superior football player. The Chicago Bears won the championship that year, but in 1986 I counterpunched with my most celebrated draft, trading down to acquire more picks and selecting an astonishing eight players who would become starters.
Our 1986 season nevertheless ended on a gusty winter day in New York City where the Giants crucified us forty-nine to three. We had so much talent, but they’d overpowered us. I responded in the 1987 draft by taking a big offensive tackle, Harris Barton, who could battle brutish defenders. That plan and all others worked during a regular season we consummated with impressive victories, including a forty-one to nothing pasting of the Bears and mulish Mike Ditka. Our unmatched record earned home field advantage for the playoffs when the Minnesota Vikings swaggered into Candlestick Park and, on a soggy field, began abusing us. Joe Montana, who’d had back surgery the year before, was not maneuvering well in the muck, so in the third quarter I benched a man many already considered the finest quarterback in history – and certainly one of the top three – and inserted his talented understudy, and now rival, Steve Young, a sturdy young man who ran like a halfback. Steve generated some offense but we still lost twenty-eight to sixteen.
Joe was angry, our players and fans dispirited, and team owner Eddie DeBartolo hysterical. I thought he was going to fire me, and broke down and said go ahead if that’s best for the team. I couldn’t withstand much more pressure, anyway. Go ahead, give this miserable job to someone else. I’ve already climbed the mountain twice. Eddie was a great motivator, always ready with maximum legal money and more for a champion but a tyrannical runt when his athletic superiors weren’t number one.
We decided to move ahead into 1988. Responding as an adroit leader must, I’d forced some once-key players to retire and alluded to wielding the axe on others. Our team wasn’t overpowering and barely made the playoffs with a ten and six record but began to execute in the playoffs and was a strong favorite in the Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals. They weren’t intimidated and played more sharply to lead us late in the fourth quarter. That’s when Joe Montana, standing confidently in the huddle, said to a teammate, “Check it out.”
“Check it out. There’s John Candy.”
Joe threw strikes and Jerry Rice made great catches against tight defense, and that set it up: Joe over the middle to John Taylor, one of those 1986 picks, and we’d won our third Super Bowl of the eighties. After the game, emotionally embracing one of my sons, Craig, I knew my era had to end. I resigned and became a rather uncomfortable TV analyst. Our championship team the following year was coached by George Seifert, a veteran of my staff, and I think everyone feels that Super Bowl also belongs on my resume.
In 1992 I returned to the sidelines at Stanford and guided the team to a ten and three record and a bowl victory, but in 1994, after two losing seasons, some of the players threatened to revolt because I’d made some harsh remarks about their athletic deficiencies. This time I took off the headphones forever, unwilling to endure 49er-like pressure at a great university whose lofty academic standards precluded annual gridiron excellence.
I didn’t divorce myself from the game. I communicated with my battalion of former assistant coaches who had become head coaches in the NFL and at major colleges. I’m particularly proud of assistance I gave African American coaches Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, and Tyrone Willingham. I concentrated on developing coaches as well as players. I also understood contracts and salary cap restrictions. In the late nineties the 49ers recalled me as general manager to rebuild a losing team soon back in the playoffs. Perhaps I should have stayed on as an executive.
That’s a daydream. In November of 2001 I turned seventy and didn’t want daily duress. I had a great life as sage, speaker, and celebrity as well as husband and father. Then my son Steve died of leukemia. And my wife Geri was incapacitated by a stroke. My war with leukemia began in 2004. Tragedy destroyed paradise, and now only the memories endure.
Former coach of the Sacramento Kings Review
March 20, 2020
As a guy who coached in the NBA, I enjoyed the basketball stories very much. Clark certainly has a good feel for the game.
Sports Book Guy Review
January 20, 2018
With one of the simplest titles for a sports book, “Basketball and Football” by George Thomas Clark is a very entertaining collection of essays and short stories about those two sports. Some of the stories are completely fictional, some are satire based on real football and basketball people or events and some even read like a newspaper account.
Something that was different about this collection was that there wasn’t a single story that I did not like. Of course, some were better reads or far more entertaining than others, but unlike other collections of stories or essays, this one did not have a single clunker in the mix. Each one showcased the author’s writing talent, which is plentiful and beautiful to read.
Stories that are about the same person in the sport are grouped into a chapter and that chapter is titled with the name of the subject. I thought these were the very best passages of the book as the humor and satire of these first person narratives were very entertaining and yet very true at the same time. My favorites of these were the essays on LeBron James in basketball and former coach Bill Walsh in the football section. A close second on the football side was the chapter on O.J. Simpson – which of course talks about not only his football career but also his notoriety later on in life for his famous murder trial.
Fans of these two sports will want to pick up a copy of this very entertaining book that is not only fun to read, it is one that once a reader stops, he or she will be done fairly quickly as it is a page turner that is hard to put down.
I wish to thank Mr. Clark for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
September 10, 2017
The author, George Thomas Clark, says it best about his book: “This book is a stimulating read.”
Do you know Donald and Reggie Rogers, football athletes some 30-35 years ago? How about Boise State and their heyday that, in my opinion, took the NCAA football to a whole new level of excitement.
Ahhh, yes Wilt Chamberlain, the stories about him. Like interesting short stories on basketball and football? Current events? Old stories that you didn’t know that happened?
The author pits dead athletes and coaches talking to the living athletes and coaches. He does it in such a way that you believe it actually happened. Ahh, maybe it did. Mmmm.
This book is full of this kind of stuff. Easy to read and will make you want to scratch your head thinking —– What?
No question this is a 5 rating.