A story by Dave Dentel
This is the first part of a story about how big-time sports at faith-based colleges can sometimes lead to a conflict of interests. It's part of my anthology now available on Kickstarter.
It was as much a shrine as an office. The team trophies, of course, were encased in towers of glass and varnished cherry out in the foyer where they could impress visitors to Madison Baptist Univesity’s new athletics administration building. But otherwise Eugene “Jimmy” Miller’s personal space bristled with mementos meant to illustrate a champion’s career. Action shots from his stint in the majors; team portraits from his managing days; grip-and-grins with big names: ball players, senators, a pair of presidents, television evangelists—these shared the walls with plaques, certificates and other mass-produced expressions of institutional gratitude.
Paul Kronmeier, mere assistant football coach (linebackers and secondary) had time to examine these items because he’d been put on hold by the man they extolled—Miller himself—while the athletics director wrapped up a phone call at his desk. At least staring at the walls gave Kronmeier something to do besides wonder why he’d been summoned there to discuss, as Miller had put it, “football business.” Kronmeier knew next to nothing about business; if he had he’d have followed his father’s advice and gone into investment banking. Sports decisions involving money were why colleges hired athletics directors. Kronmeier’s problems were more on the level of getting linebackers who weren’t actually tackling the ball carrier to at least try.
“Sorry about that,” drawled Miller after ending the phone call and hanging up. “Sometimes an AD’s work is as much about selling tickets and keeping the bleachers fixed as it is about what’s happening on the field.”
He attempted to smile, but years of squinting from out of a baseball dugout had etched his features into a permanent scowl.
“So what’s all this about?”
The leather guest chair squeaked as Kronmeier tried to pry himself into a more upright position.
“Um, your email said you wanted to see me.”
“So I did.”
Miller took a moment to compose his thoughts and make eye contact. That is, one eye made contact with Kronmeier’s. The other—dead since a line drive killed it and Miller’s career as a major league player—fixed its sightless gaze on a spot near a drawing of the proposed stadium expansion.
“Coach,” said Miller, using the generic term of respect reserved for anyone in sports who wasn’t an athlete or a lackey. “Coach, do you know why this football program is such a success?”
Kronmeier was taken aback. It sounded like a trick question.
“In the past two years combined, we’ve won four games.”
“I’m not talking about wins,” Miller corrected him. “Shoot, son, if all we wanted to do was rack up W’s we could have stayed in the lower divisions, made the playoffs just about every year—and never earned a dime. Why do you think we climbed up to the top league?”
Kronmeier had no idea, so Miller provided his own explanation.
“Scheduling, son. Now that a win against us counts toward a bowl bid for the big-time schools, we can play two, maybe three a year. And split the TV money. You know what that means? Our program turns a profit. That’s huge for a school our size. Instead of Madison Baptist shelling out for football, football supports Madison Baptist.”
“OK,” said Kronmeier, still not grasping where the conversation was headed.
“It’s not OK,” Miller corrected him again. “There’s a snag, and that’s why I wanted to see you.”
“Oh,” added Kronmeier, trying very hard not to stare at Miller’s bum eye as it drifted toward a detail of the new girl’s locker room.
“Have you seen much of that new kid, what’s-his-name—Johnson?”
“That’s him,” Miller replied, sounding pleased at finally not having to correct someone. “He’s the snag.”
“The what? Well, how?”
“I don’t like him,” said Miller plainly. “Or maybe I should say, I don’t like the way he was recruited as a sort of package deal with the new offensive coach.”
“Yeah, him. Wins a high school title and looks to ride his protégé to new heights. Well, it’s not like it’s never been done before. Oh, I know. The kid’s got a first-class redemption story—his mom on drugs; raised by his grandmother; dragged from the trailer park to a shiny mega-church school where he’s made over into a sports hero. Just like that movie.
“Only, he’s a phony. I happen to know that Chase is as much Johnson’s handler as he is his coach. If he doesn’t keep a close eye on him, that kid’ll be out messing around and playing with fire like a lot of these muscle-brained studs. Yet Johnson’s being groomed to play the part of some kind of spiritual star. Lord.”
So that was it.
“You think Johnson’s going to be a discipline problem,” Kronmeier queried.
“Worse,” Miller grumbled—back having to correct people again. “He’s going to be a football problem. On the field that kid’s the real deal. Hardly anyone knows it seeing he came to the sport so late. But I’ve looked at his clips, and what I see scares me. Played the right way, he’s a threat to take it to the end zone every time he touches the ball.”
Kronmeier was dumbstruck. He opened his mouth once or twice, but otherwise seemed unable to summon the vocabulary for discussing the idea that recruiting and coaching a top-rated talent was a bad thing.
Miller wasn’t handicapped that way.
“Come on, son,” he barked before more than half-a-minute had tiptoed toward the exit. “Don’t you get it? It’s one thing to coddle a second-stringer if he’s a good kid. I’ll even pamper a troublemaker if he’s a starter and fits well in the system. But Johnson’s a system-wrecker.
“Look,” he elaborated, “it’s taken years to get to where the big boys who play on TV every week will let us come and get crushed on their home court. We’re not just supposed to lose those games; we’re supposed to lose big. Then a kid like Johnson who no one’s heard of comes along and starts racking up touchdowns. Long touchdowns. Highlight reel touchdowns that steal air time from their pre-season All-Americans. Suddenly we’re competitive. A couple of lucky breaks and we might even pull an upset, and then we’re Appalachian State knocking off Michigan, with head coaches getting axed, boosters rioting in the streets, and next thing you know the best non-conference game we can schedule is Key West College for the Blind. No thanks!”
It was out now. Johnson was a tumor and Miller wanted him gone before he could turn into cancer. That was plain enough. All Kronmeier had left to learn was why the issue supposedly involved him.
“If Johnson’s such a problem, coach,” Kronmeier asked as innocently as he could, “why not tell Head Coach Palermo to cut him?”
“Doesn’t work that way. For one thing, you’ve got to let your subordinates make their own decisions, more or less. For another, we’ve got our own boosters. They’re already being pumped with pro-Johnson palaver; cutting him for no good reason would only stir up a hornet’s nest.
“Confound it!” Miller growled, slapping his desktop for emphasis. “Johnson has got to quit. At least, someone has to convince him quitting’s the best thing for him.”
For the first time during the interview, both of Miller’s eyes bore straight into Kronmeier’s. Something caught in the defensive coach’s throat. He took a second or two to clear it, then spoke.
“Why do I get the feeling …”
“That it’s up to you,” Miller finished the thought.
Kronmeier’s air of deference evaporated.
“Why me?” he blurted. “Johnson’s not my recruit. I don’t coach him. I’ve barely even seen him work out.”
“Coach,” Miller replied, casting a dreamy gaze out the picture window and toward the heavens. Kronmeier braced himself for a barrage of inspirational clichés mixed with petty flattery—the kind of speech every coach pulls out at halftime despite the fact that statistically fifty percent are doomed to fail.
He didn’t get that.
“You’re the only assistant whose contract is up after this season,” Miller said instead. “Probably already thought about how you’ll dress up your resumé. Mid-major schools have openings all the time for hungry young football coaches. I’d hate to see you miss your chance.”
“Wouldn’t invoke the clause that says Madison Baptist can extend a contract at any time on its own discretion? As AD it’s my job to look out for the good of the program. And if it’s best for the program to keep you tied to us for at least another year, well ….”
Blackmail, thought Kronmeier, sure was an ugly way to kick off a football season.