SAN DIEGO — Soon after Muhammad Ali proclaimed himself The Greatest, Bennie Edens, Point Loma High School football coach, noticed a dramatic change in his players' attitudes.
They had gone from being relatively humble to startlingly Ali-esque.
"That flamboyant approach was not something we were used to," said Edens, 60, who has been the Pointers' coach since 1956. "We weren't used to people saying, 'I'm the greatest.' We were used to kids saying, 'Aw shucks, just doing my best.' The humble approach."
Edens has been coaching varsity football for 32 years, longest in the county. Second with 28 years each are Gene Edwards, 56, of La Jolla, and Herb Meyer, 51, who began his career at Oceanside and switched to El Camino in 1976.
These veteran coaches recently discussed how much high school football has changed, and the main influence, they say, has been television--for good and bad.
Larger-than-life images of superstar athletes were only a small part of television's influence, they said. Professional football came into households regularly, prompting high school teams and players to:
- Pass more as pro offenses became more complicated.
- Expand training programs as the pros became bigger and quicker.
- Use video technology so that coaches could watch game films even before their teams finished showering.
But other factors helped change high school football, too, they said. Games once considered minor such as water polo and soccer have grown in popularity. Busing has added strength to some teams, while robbing others. And the boom of leisure activities has reduced crowds at prep games. Indeed, the times are a changin'.
Sports stars who become television stars provide role models that are copied by high school athletes, the coaches said. And the models aren't always positive.
"Too often the people who are being showcased are not necessarily the role models we would like to have for some of our youth," Edens said. "Too often, kids are impressed with the flashy or the unusual behavior of the pros and they see some guy who taunts (other players) or does something like that, and they tend to emulate that."
Said Meyer: "When you watch pro athletes on television and you see a bunch of guys who act like jerks and hot dogs and slamming the ball down . . . young people perceive that to be the way you are supposed to act to be the bad guy."
The 1960s brought new styles and fashions--such as long hair and white shoes--and a willingness to rebel that some coaches couldn't take.
"When white shoes first came out, the players were saying, 'What's wrong with decorating your shoes? What's wrong with letting your hair grow longer?' " Edens said. "I know guys who got out of coaching because of it.
"It wasn't so much the white shoes, it was that most of the coaches back then had a military background, a lot served during World War II. They had more of a 'yes, sir, no, sir, no excuse, sir' attitude. And, when kids suddenly started to rebel against authority, they had a hard time dealing with that."
The image of athletes off the field also has made an impact, Meyer said.
"Years and years ago, it used to be taboo for professional athletes to have any type of association or endorsement of alcohol or tobacco," he said. "Now, these guys are all over television with that type of thing. It's the kind of things kids begin to relate to."
Players such as former New York Jet quarterback Joe Namath gained reputations for leading what appeared to be glamorous lives. This gave student athletes more reason to try to make it to the top, Edens said.
The coaches said that such lives are beyond most high school athletes' reach.
"I think the dreams have increased," Edens said. "But they're not realistic. They see so much (of the glamour of a professional athlete's life) and they accept as fact that anybody can do it--and just anybody can't do it."
Said Meyer: "The biggest problem I've found over the years is that the marginal players expect instant gratification. Where it used to be that if a kid were a junior in high school and he was second- or third-string tight end or guard or whatever, he knew that if he worked hard, next year he was going to be a starter.
"That's not the case anymore. Too many of the guys think, 'Hey, if I'm not going to start, I'll quit. I'll come back next year.' They're not willing to pay their dues."
Skills have changed with attitudes.
"The skills development is different (now)," Edens said. "Kids are bigger, they're faster. I think if you could do it, and take the best team I had in the '50s and play them against the best team I've had in the '80s, I don't think there would be any comparison who would win.
"Not to say that those guys (in the '50s) wouldn't have done better if they weren't coached differently."
It didn't take long for pass-happy offenses to move from the pros to high schools. Summer passing leagues, something unheard of in the '50s and '60s, became common.