OGDEN, Utah — Outside of the fact that Tom Keele was at one time the brains behind five losing seasons, a woeful transgressor of NCAA bylaws, a peeve who too often took a gloomy whatsa-matter-with-you-guys stance with his players, and unemployed, some think he really is a helluva football coach.
Keele's wife for one. Keele, himself, for another.
They live happily on--there is life after Cal State Northridge--having that much in common, a new home, an altogether altered state (mentally and geographically) and another coaching job.
You are either a successful coach or you are unsuccessful. If you are successful you have nothing to worry about. If you are unsuccessful you have only two things to worry about--you're either in good health or you're sick. If you're in good health you don't have anything to worry about. If you're sick you only have two things to worry about--you're either going to get well or you're going to die . . .
--"Why Worry, Coach?"
a Keele literary favorite
When we last saw Tom Keele, he looked like he wanted to die. The man who took over the Northridge football program after Jack Elway jumped ship in 1979, and who subsequently went on to win more games than any coach CSUN has ever hired, was fired.
It took Keele seven long seasons to win 30 games. Losses, though, came with ease--43 in the same stretch. Nobody had lost as many at CSUN since Sam Winningham dropped 43 games in the 1960s.
During his last two seasons, Keele's teams lost 15 times in 21 games, unimpressive even by Northridge standards. Adding to the problem, the NCAA announced that Keele broke rules when he held a tryout for punters a year earlier. Things worsened in December, when school officials let Keele know he wouldn't be home for Christmas. And, by the way, they told him, no more paychecks after New Year's.
At 52, the former coach was hustled into a midlife crisis.
After 25 years of coaching, he didn't know if he wanted, or even if he would be given the chance, to coach college or high school football again. "I thought maybe I should go into real estate," he said.
A lot of people agreed.
Nevertheless, Keele jumped on the phone trying to sell himself, not Florida swampland. He called coaches he considered to be close friends who happened to be employed and in a position to hire him as an assistant. I know this coach, see, beautiful coach, Keele's pitch might have gone. Offensive genius, defensive craftsman, a load of experience, never mind the head coaching record and those cockamamie NCAA rules.
"I called guys that understand," he said. "I just wanted to let them know I was available. And that I'd do anything." And remember all the good times we used to have . . .
Keele wasn't begging but he wasn't swamped with offers, either. As it turned out, Mike Price, a young coach at Weber State, a Division I-AA school located in this northern Utah community, had worked with Keele more than a decade earlier at Washington State. He was in the market for an inside linebacker coach who wouldn't mind looking after the equipment, watering the field and, most important, baby-sitting a coaching staff whose average age was about 30. With those 50 years behind him, Keele was Price's man.
It is a sunny, October-orange Saturday afternoon on the campus of Weber State College. The Wasatch Mountains dwarf a modern but modest Wildcat Stadium where the Weebs are taking on the dreaded Idaho State Bengals. "We hate their guts," said one Weber fan before the opening kickoff. "Last year we beat 'em, 46-45. Offensively, we can really light 'em up like the Miami Dolphins."
Defensively, though, Weber normally gets blown out like the Vienna Boys Choir. Keele emerges with his troops--he actually coaches only four players--but the grass looks real green and everybody's shoulder pads seem to fit just swell.
After warm-ups, Keele makes his way to the coaches' room located at the north end of the press box atop the bleachers. In a cubicle no bigger than a hallway closet, Keele and a handful of other coaches keep track of the down and the distance an opponent needs for a first down, and relay the information to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer on the sideline.
Early on, Idaho State goes ahead, 9-0, without much of a reaction from Keele. At halftime, the Bengals lead, 26-22. Nothing much happening by way of emotion from Keele. In the second half, the Wildcats jump ahead and coast to victory, 63-33. Is he alive?
"I don't get too excited," he said. "In fact, when I was at Northridge, I used to get really sleepy before games."
In the locker room, Keele quicksteps around, patting his players on the back, grinning, looking for all the world as if he at long last is genuinely content. "He doesn't feel the pressure here that he felt at Northridge," said Nancy Keele, his wife of 34 years. "His responsibilities are fewer. He doesn't have to look after 70 players. Now he has to worry about just a few things and a few players."