May 11, 1995 in Sports

A Career One Night Can Break

Thomas Boswell Washington Post
 

Gary Moeller, Dennis Erickson and Bobby Cox all wish they could erase one recent night from their lives. Oh, if they only could. But now they never will. Instead each, in his own sad variation on the same theme, will think about police and handcuffs, jail and headlines, shame and public humiliation.

What wreckage. All it takes is one night. And enough drinks.

Moeller, resigning under pressure at Michigan after a night of binge drinking and punching policemen, sees his college football coaching career in ruins at age 54. How can you effectively recruit 18-year-olds after the whole city of Detroit has listened to police audiotapes in which you curse, weep and beg in a slurred voice for police to let you go?

Erickson now enters his rookie season as an NFL coach with dual tasks. Teach the Seahawks. And spend two years in alcohol rehab after a drunk-driving arrest in which he scored .23 on the Breathalyzer! A Seattle expert said that is the equivalent of 11 to 14 mixed drinks or beers.

As for Cox, the Atlanta Braves manager may have the hardest task. He has to go home and face his wife Pamela. She called the cops on Sunday night, had him arrested and then filed a police report claiming he abused her. The next day, the Coxes held a news conference to say it was all a big mistake. Oh. And the police report just invented all that stuff about previous domestic violence?

You’ve never seen remorse until you’ve seen these three guys. Coaches live a life of paradox. Because they are held up as public examples to youth, they often are held to a higher standard.

Each will ask himself the same question for years: What if I hadn’t had that one really bad night? We, however, will inevitably be forced to ask a different question: Did these guys just have a bad night or is that who they really are?

Except for Friday evening, April 28, at the Excalibur Restaurant, Moeller would still have the college football world by the tail.

Instead, he’s turned himself into a tragi-comic anecdote. Moeller’s friends speculate that the pressures of his job are what really got him. You know, those back-to-back 8-4 seasons that brought second-guessing and job-security rumors. That may hold some truth. But Moeller really pushed the envelope.

You can drink too much. You can argue with the restaurant owner. You can insult the waitresses. You can make a disgusting boorish spectacle of yourself. But when the police come, recognize you as a sloshed celeb and try to save you - when they call the cab to take you home - that’s the moment of truth.

If you refuse the cab, insist on driving drunk, start calling names, then punch one cop in the chest repeatedly until they have no choice but to arrest you, it’s amazing how much public sympathy you can lose.

As a bitter irony, many in Michigan have cited the obvious parallels and contrasts between Moeller - who ran a high-class program at Michigan - and Erickson - who, until January, was in charge of one of the least-respectable teams in college football, notorious Miami. Pick your favorite Hurricanes scandal. After a U.S. Attorney’s office told 40 Miami players that they would have to repay fraudulent Pell grants and cooperate with a federal investigation, Erickson said, “I don’t think it will be a distraction. We’ve overcome distractions for years.”

Rival Big 10 coaches have lined up around the block to give Moeller character testimonials. Erickson’s embarrassment has not been so tear intensive. Especially since, so far, he’s gotten off with an extremely time-consuming, but basically lenient slap on the wrist. Erickson has to abstain from alcohol for two years - which doesn’t sound like a bad idea. He has to go to a zillion symposia and consciousness-raising lectures. And he has to go to a self-help group such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings twice a week for two years. That may cut into film study, but as Erickson’s own father says, “We hope he’ll be a better man for it.”

Many are shocked that it was the Seahawks who hired a hard-drinking coach who, according to police, barely avoided three accidents on the night of April 15. On Dec. 1, tackle Mike Frier was paralyzed in an accident a mile from team headquarters. Prosecutors say alcohol was involved. The driver, running back Lamar Smith, stands trial this month for vehicular assault. Just 12 days later, another Seahawk was arrested for drunk driving.

So, a couple of weeks later, you hire Dennis Erickson as your coach?

The Moeller, Erickson and Cox fiascos make us think. One big mistake takes an instant; the consequences can last a lifetime. That’s the pat lecture everybody gives their kids, because it’s so true.

Moeller, Erickson and Cox - these consummate “adults” and leaders - serve as chilling object lessons. No, not because they’re bums, but because, as a group, they’re probably not so much different from plenty of us. But look where they’ve landed themselves.

Who knows which drink or which angry word sweeps us over the line? Until, with enough ill luck, we suddenly end up in a place that seems like somebody else’s nightmare. Except that it can be a new and permanent reality.


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