Assistant coaches are accustomed to anonymity. Some of them even prefer it. Let the head coach stand in front of the cameras. Let him serve as an online dartboard. But until Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster announced this summer that the 2019 season would be his last, it never dawned on me how American sports willfully refuses to honor the skills and contributions of men and women who are worthy of recognition.
In the 68 years since the College Football Hall of Fame first recognized the best players and coaches in the sport, not one single coordinator, not one line coach, not one assistant coach at any position, in any conference, in any era, has completed a career deemed worthy of election.
It’s not a dilemma limited to college football, either. The Pro Football Hall of Fame has no assistants, at least not officially. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame has one member likely elected for his accomplishments as an assistant. Since the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened its doors in 1936, there hasn’t been one pitching coach or batting coach whose skills have merited a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.
Given this lack of excellence among American coaches, it’s amazing any team has been able to win a game, much less a championship.
Or maybe the problem lies with the halls of fame.
It turns out that some of those guys scribbling furiously on whiteboards on the sidelines are very good at what they do. They have been an integral part of American sport from its early days. Yet they go unrecognized, unnoticed and certainly unappreciated.
When Virginia Tech plays Duke on Friday night (7 ET, ESPN/ESPN App), Foster will coach his 282nd game as the Hokies’ defensive coordinator. He has held the job since 1996, and he came to Blacksburg with his former boss, Frank Beamer, nine years earlier. Since Foster began running the Virginia Tech defense, the Hokies have led the nation in one statistical category or another — total defense, scoring defense, turnover margin, etc. — nine times in seven different seasons.
Over the course of his career, Virginia Tech has climbed from middling Southern independent to Big East member to four-time ACC champion. There may be no defensive coordinator more identified with one team’s rise than Foster.
“They put a statue of me in front of the stadium,” Beamer said. “I probably need to get them to put Bud right next to me. My statue wouldn’t be there if he hadn’t been part of the thing, too.”
When Beamer was promoted from defensive coordinator into his first head-coaching gig, at Murray State in 1981, he kept on Foster, a graduating linebacker, as a graduate assistant. They stayed together until Beamer retired after the 2015 season.
“When I came to Blacksburg, I brought him,” Beamer said the other day. “There was no question that I was going to bring him. Football made sense to him. Some guys are good at football but they don’t understand the game. I always tell the story that when he played, he wasn’t the fastest guy but he was always in the right place and he always had the right [correct] arm free.”
There’s Foster. There’s Brent Venables, making magic happen as a defensive coordinator for 21 seasons at Oklahoma and Clemson. And before we all start throwing out names, let’s remember the standard for assistant coaches should be high. In surveying 150 years of college football, the Hall of Fame has deemed only 219 head coaches worthy of election across the entire sport, from FBS to NAIA.
But if you look back in recent years, there’s Norm Chow, the quarterback whisperer at BYU, North Carolina State and USC; Randy Hart, who coached defensive line for more than 40 years and worked for four coaches who are in the College Football Hall of Fame: Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce, Jim Young and Don James. There’s Marv Goux, the longtime adjutant to John McKay and John Robinson at USC; and Ken Donahue, who coached defense for Bear Bryant at Alabama for 21 seasons. When the Bear’s successor, Ray Perkins, let Donahue go, he went to Tennessee, which, thanks to three turnovers forced by Donahue’s defense, upset the Tide 16-14 in 1985.
Time — yours, not mine — doesn’t allow me to go back any further. (Herman Hickman, anyone?)
They all meet the standard of excellence as assistant coaches, whatever that is, which is the problem, according to Steve Hatchell, the president of the National Football Foundation, which oversees the College Football Hall of Fame.
“What would be the criteria?” he asked. “We have criteria for head coaches.”
A head coach must have held a job for 10 seasons and completed his career with at least a .600 winning percentage to be considered for election to the Hall. That is a relatively low bar, although too high for Pete Carroll, who spent nine seasons at USC, and Erk Russell, who started the program at Georgia Southern, won three FCS national titles and retired after eight seasons.
Russell also succeeded for 17 seasons as a defensive guru at Georgia, running the “Junkyard Dog” defenses under Vince Dooley. You may remember Russell for the streaks of blood running down his bald head after he head-butted his players, who were wearing helmets at the time. When it comes to the College Football Hall of Fame, Russell is neither fish nor fowl.
“A lot of assistant coaches have had profound impact on the game,” Hatchell said. “Every school has those guys, ‘This is the best coach we ever had.’ I just don’t know what the criteria should be. If we had some, we’d sure look at it.”
The other halls of fame for major American team sports leave it to their voters to establish their own criteria. If the voters are left to their own devices, however, there is the danger of backslapping — electing someone for being well-liked.
Grant Teaff didn’t quite average a 6-5 record over 30 seasons (170-151-8, .529) at Baylor, Angelo State and McMurry. Whether Teaff was elected because he is well-liked or because he served as the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association is a matter of speculation. But it is true that not long after Teaff’s election in 2001, the Hall established the rule about a .600 winning percentage.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame lists no assistant coaches among its honorees. The Baseball Hall of Fame doesn’t even allow coaches to be elected, limiting membership to players, managers, executives and umpires. Baseball Hall of Fame vice president Jon Shestakofsky said coaches are eligible for the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, which the Hall named for the former Negro League player and first African-American coach in the majors.
The Hall presents the award “not more than once every three years,” Shestakofsky said via email. Since O’Neil received the first award in 2008, the Hall has given the O’Neil three times, none to a coach.
The Basketball Hall of Fame, which honors the pro and college games, has elected one man on the strength of his assistant coaching career. Tex Winter created the triangle offense that Phil Jackson used to win 11 NBA championships in Chicago and Los Angeles. Winter isn’t there for a 33-year head-coaching career in college that produced a record of 453-334 (.576).
The problem isn’t limited to the halls of fame for specific sports. The Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor includes one member best known as an assistant coach — Jack Blott. The Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame has no assistant coaches.
Bud Foster, in his 33rd season as a Hokie, is not a member of the Virginia Tech Hall of Fame. You have to retire to be eligible, although the Hall made an exception for Beamer when it inducted him in 1997. If Virginia Tech doesn’t elect Foster next year, I’ll be the first in line to protest. We need to rethink how we think of assistant coaches. It’s not that hard to do.