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College Coaches, Drinking, And The Two Men At The Rail

An exploration into college coaches, drinking and the similarities between the two.

"You don't know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation, we drink because it's good, because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar, because we deserve it. We drink because it's what men do."

--Roger Sterling, Mad Men, "New Amsterdam," season one.

Bear Bryant went to rehab in 1978. He left, and began drinking again shortly afterward, and did not cease until his death in 1983. He drank because it was what men did: because it felt good, and because it felt better than unbuttoning your collar, and because it obliterated the day and whatever happened in it like nothing else.

Sometimes Bryant drank with a horse trainer named Bill. Bill was a drinker, too. They met at the track in the offseason, where Bryant would go and gamble, drink, and otherwise be everything but a football coach burdened with the cyclical and incessant stresses of his job. The recruiting that never stopped, the frantic silent race to stay ahead of your boosters' expectations and blatant violations of everything the NCAA says they can't do, the travel, the gladhanding of journalists and politicians, the endless need of his players, the fanbase.  

Bryant could go to the track, drink like men were supposed to do, and watch the ponies all day and drop his losing stubs on the ground like every other willing sucker. He got tips from Bill. The two struck up a rapport based on commonalities. Both came from abject rural Southern poverty. Both liked drinking, and both liked horse racing. Both wore hats like men did. Bill's was a short-brimmed Fedora, the sort douchebags like to wear now while ordering Red Bulls and vodka.

Bill drank brown liquor, and so did Bryant. At the time, it was enough for a minor friendship otherwise lost to time, tide, and rivers of alcohol and forgetting. 

I don't know if Dana Holgorsen is an alcoholic. The evidence says that he is a coach who drinks from time to time, and this is not an uncommon thing. Coaches are people, and for the better part of human civilization people have found one way or another to get drunk for reasons that remain a mystery. Why coaches shouldn't drink while the rest of us do is beyond me, especially if they still manage to get everything done and maintain a balanced life.

The profession itself doesn't discourage it, either. Those drawn to coaching are baited by much of the same biochemical carrots drinking dangles: the satisfaction of a compulsion, the effervescent feeling of release you get around the three drink mark, the sense of adventure you get grinding through a long night of drinking. Ed Orgeron, one of college football's legendary recruiters, said in Bruce Feldman's Meat Market that much of what drove him to drink came from the same compulsions that drove him to recruit, compete, and be a football coach: the need for a rush, the desire to outdo anyone else in anything at any time. He's a recovering alcoholic now, and is still addicted to recruiting and football. He had to choose between his addictions, and it's hard to argue that he did not choose well.

Coaching requires discipline, and contrary to what you might think that's compatible here, too: drinking regularly requires discipline. Cabs must be called. Tallies have to be kept. Aspirin is applied pre-emptively (liver be damned), and elaborate hangover research is conducted until an ideal remedy is found. Mine was always the same: eggs, coffee, and Gatorade. On bad days, a beer at noon helped, preferably a Guinness to fool yourself into thinking you were doing something moderately healthy. Some days nothing helps.

First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.

--F. Scott Fitzgerald

When a person goes from someone who takes drinks to someone who gets taken by them is a fine line.  For Bob Huggins it would have been the moment Cincinnati police pulled him over in 2004 and he couldn't couldn't count backwards from 67. Eddie Sutton crossed that line well before his DUI arrest; so did Larry Eustachy at Iowa State. There are others, too, ones we never knew about who woke up one day and found themselves possessed by something they couldn't control.

Some coaches never cross that line. Bryant didn't, certainly. Alabama won two national titles after his stint in rehab, and that was with Bryant keeping his usual disciplined drinking schedule. Pat Dye, a Bryant disciple, was not and is not shy about enjoying a drink. Barry Switzer kept an even keel despite a very measured fondness for beer-related festivity.

Even Steve Spurrier will, from time to time, be photographed with the banquet beer in hand, one extremely moderate end of a spectrum of behavior. For them, alcohol is just a habit, and not a damaging one. Worrying about them is Puritanical hand-wringing, especially when the young men they're going to mold into men will, on the odds, also be solid citizens who--from time to time and in a responsible fashion--enjoy a drink.

If Holgorsen really is getting kicked out of casinos, then he might be crossing that line, or is at least in the neighborhood of crossing lines. It is interfering with his job in the form of negative publicity, and that is enough to say it is a problem. Behaviors will have to be altered. Changes will be made.

Non-drinkers would now prat on and on about how this means he's an alcoholic. He might be, but some drinkers have the ability to pull back from the edge and put drinking back in the "habit" category. Bryant seemed to be that kind of drinker, the kind who could keep drink from taking him. He was lucky in that respect. Others can't.

I know about this from deep, often woozy personal experience. I drink. I drink for the wrong reasons and the right reasons, and have paid for both of them. (You always pay.) There have been moments in my life where drinking did affect my work, and not in the good way, and there have been moments where it helped. Most of the time I can tell the difference between the two.

Fortunately, for the moment, I have the ripcord in hand. You can't wake up and take care of a child hungover, and that is a good thing. Two screaming babies in one house is too much for one roof to take, especially if one is screaming for a bottle that won't do either of them any good. 

I'm not going to stop drinking, though. Neither will Holgorsen, most likely. It's something he can manage on his own, and in case he doesn't it is not like there won't be a surplus of concerned eyes on him. It is easy to get hysterical about drinking--especially if you don't--but it is one compulsion among a thousand for people who choose the kind of work that eats away at every single facet of your life. Some people do what they do not out of choice, but because they have to, are driven to, and have no choice in the matter. You can only funnel that energy, and point it in the right direction. Addicts never really recover: they just become different, more socially acceptable addicts.

Bear Bryant seemed to get more out of drinking than drinking got out of him, the best outcome a chronic drinker can hope for in the end if he's on the heavier end of the spectrum. (See: Winston Churchill.) He could have quit cold turkey and did for a while, but it seemed unnecessary to him. He still did his job, and the rest was an honest deal with time, his body, and mortality. 

For his buddy at the track Bill, it worked out a bit differently. He crossed that line from drinker into drunk, and didn't have the power to pull back. He went to rehab in Nashville several times, including once with the country singer Webb Pierce. Pierce was in trying to dry out just like Bill.  The move could not have been good for his image, since his classic "There Stands The Glass" is an ode to drinking's necessity.

There stands the glass
That will ease all my pain
That will settle my brain
It's my first one to day
There stands the glass
That will hide all my tears
That will drown all my fears
Brother, I'm on my way.

Webb Pierce and Bill both kept drinking after rehab. Pierce outlasted Bill, dying in 1991 of pancreatic cancer. Bill died a bit before him of a massive heart attack he suffered in a trailer park just over the fence from Churchill Downs. He lived for days afterward on life support, his body too stubborn to know his brain was already mostly dead.

He and Bryant stopped corresponding at one point. I don't know exactly when it was: maybe it was after Bill's daughter politely turned down the scholarship offer to go to the University of Alabama, an offer that had been arranged with some gentle prodding by Bryant. It could have been the result of the restless motion of a horse trainer's life, moving from track to track following the racing season from Detroit to Miami to Maryland to Kentucky to Louisiana and back again.

It could have been for no reason at all. People lose track of each other with ease, and more easily so when they pass over the line from drinker to drunk. Bill lost track of his wife and family for long patches of his life. Divorce, and estrangement followed, along with the eventual reconciliation when the grandchildren arrived and began asking questions. Late in life he still drank, a can of Budweiser glued to his right hand at all times. His bladder was shot from years of drinking, and he would have to pull over to urinate at odd intervals, a stooped figure peeing covertly behind light posts in Louisville. 

Drinking has made my life better. It's probably done the same for coaches who fulfill their obligations and reward themselves with a beer, a cocktail, or a glass of wine at the end of the day. (Given their current salaries, that could and should be a very nice glass at the end of the day, mind you.) It can be a great part of life, a worthy part of life. I'd never take that away from anyone, especially someone who did their job both as a person, as a coach, and as a human being. If that's you, then raise a glass as you like, and keep a toe forward reaching out to make sure you're not close to the deep end.

I also know that drinking can become you. The Chinese word for alcoholic is my favorite: jiu gui, or literally "alcohol ghost." I've seen one, holding a can of Budweiser, smoking his hundredth cigarette of the day, and meeting his new grandson for the first time with a familiar smile on his face.  It's the same silhouette I see next to Bear Bryant, another man who came perilously close to the same edge Bill fell over. I know its contours, and the baby fedora perched on his head.

It's the shape of Bill, my grandfather, the ghost at the rail with Bear Bryant picking horses. One balanced on that rail-edge for a very long time. The other fell clear over it and never got back.