CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — He's a football coach who keeps not a film projector but a tape deck in his office. He likes to listen to country and western music. He speaks in a drawl, slumps deep in his easy chair while smoking a pipe--looking awfully relaxed for a coach, more like a cowpoke from far out on the range.
He wears jeans and cowboy boots, plays guitar, drives a truck and owns a horse called Face. He comes from just west of Manhattan, all right. But not Manhattan, Kan., Manhattan as in New York. He's, of all things, a north Jersey, city-streets cowboy.
Cowboy Jack Bicknell is no run-of-the-mill big-time college football coach, but then Boston College is no ordinary big-time football operation. He's a hot coaching property who, before last season, reportedly turned down the opportunity to pack up his Louis L'Amour novels--he's got them all, having acquired the western taste from his father--and take a University of Miami job that, with radio and television contracts, would have earned for him about $200,000 a year. At Boston College, where his 33-15-1 record since 1981 includes several startling upsets, he is said to have made about $75,000 last year while producing a 10-2 team that ranked No. 4 nationally.
He has achieved a noted success in a college football setting that, like his cowboy clothes on an Eastern campus, might be described as quaint: outside his office is a little steel and aluminum stadium (too small for Saturday's game with Maryland, instead to be held at 60,000-seat Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro) with a tiny red scoreboard and a bronzed eagle perched above it, ready to fly. "We don't have a great weight room," Bicknell says. "The offices are small. The offensive coaches don't have windows. But the things we don't have aren't all that critical."
What Bicknell has, what anyone would want, he supposes, is "a comfortable feeling" where he is--not in some more familiar college football hotbed, like Lincoln, Neb., or Norman, Okla., but on the edge of Boston with what he calls "the kids," his players. They're big; the linemen, especially, look like they've pumped iron since the cradle, and they have shoulders that bulge their T-shirts and slope like mountainsides. But some Boston College players have been noticed carrying the classics under their beefy arms, and a conversation among them about something other than Xs and Os should not be surprising--John Updike once reported coming upon two BC students cracking a joke about God's five proofs that Thomas Aquinas exists.
"We don't have all choirboys," says Bicknell. "We've got some kids who have to be pushed in the right direction." He's yet to produce a Rhodes Scholar, though Doug Flutie thought he might like to be one. "But we've got to have the kind of kid who wants to play and go to school. Academics have to be first, or at least close to first.
"When I go into a home, recruiting, I'm trying to make a good impression. But I'm also looking, to see how the kid acts toward his parents. If a high school coach says a kid is a great player but I just can't get him to do this or that, I'll back off. Because if he's shaky in high school, what's he going to be like here? He'll be out of my control. All the freedom, the social life . . . " Bicknell waves toward his office window, facing the hillside campus. "We don't have an athletic dorm."
What's important, he continues, is "not how many Parade all-Americas you get, but what kind of kid fits in. In the beginning, we got players who maybe weren't heavily recruited. My first recruiting year was the class nobody wanted--Flutie, Gerard Phelan, right down the list. We'd get kids who visited maybe one other school, or no schools. Now with the whole Doug Flutie thing, the TV exposure, we're getting some heavily recruited kids.
"But the big satisfaction for me here is that we've gotten to the point where a team really has to be ready to play when they play us. We can beat anybody on our schedule. We play hard every week; when I came here I couldn't guarantee that. Now I can. I worry about execution. I worry whether we're good enough. But I don't have to worry about us playing every week. We look forward to a big game, like Maryland. Win or lose, that'll take care of itself, but we'll play hard."
What is it about Bicknell, 47, his black wavy hair just beginning to gray, that makes him seem unalterably sincere? Gives him credibility even when he eschews such coaching creeds as, "Winning is the only thing," in favor of, "I don't think you can look at football like it's life or death. We're not curing cancer."
Says 5-foot-8 senior running back Troy Stradford, the team's No. 1 offensive threat whose lateral step makes it seem he stepped on something hot (but whose pulled hamstring leaves him doubtful for Saturday's game with Maryland): "Coach Bicknell has taught me how to relax and talk to people. He's showed me when things go wrong, you can't yell or scream. There's no sign of military action at all."