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Sideline Headhunting : Amid a Jungle of Wires, Communication Devices, Football Coaches Are Pressed to Keep Their Heads

October 22, 1987|RICH TOSCHES | Times Staff Writer

An excited football coach runs down the sideline. A player steps on the cord that is attached to the coach's earphones. The coach's head snaps backward, his feet leave the ground and he emits a soft but pain-filled whimpering sound.

The players try not to laugh because they know that a chuckle at this moment could result in them being forced to do punishment situps until it's time to mow the AstroTurf.

With football having long ago gone high-tech, it is a problem that is commonplace at all levels of the game. Most coaches wear headsets, using them to obtain a steady flow of information during a game from assistant coaches sitting atop the stadium, either in the stands or the press box. From that vantage point, the assistants can clearly see defensive and offensive formations that are indiscernible from field level.

The information often can be crucial.

"We go in with a game plan that's built on certain assumptions about the other team," Cal Lutheran Coach Bob Shoup said. "From up top, our coaches can tell right away if those assumptions are holding up. It's probably most helpful in looking at the opponent's defense. When we can see clearly what they are doing defensively, we can tailor our offense to best take advantage of it. The headsets are crucial."

But the price is often steep.

"In the heat of battle you forget you're wearing them," said Rick Scott, the Hart High coach. "And the players forget about the cord. You yell at someone to get up and jump into the game and there he goes, like a madman, and he trips on your cord. Sometimes it feels like your ears are getting torn off. And then your neck hurts."

Scott hasn't found a solution to the problem, but he has found a way to make the occasional head-snap a bit less painful.

"Every game I get a pretty girl on the sideline in charge of following me around, holding the cord," he said. "I still get snapped now and then, but at least I've got this pretty 17-year-old girl chasing me up and down the sideline all night. I figure from the stands it looks like she's doing it because I'm so attractive. It makes me feel good. It's an ego booster."

Shoup also has experienced the joy of nearly having his neck torn from his shoulders by an overanxious player storming about on the sideline.

"People forget, and once in a while they hit my wires and I'll tell you, it can really shake you up," he said. "I don't like it and I let them know that I don't like it. They usually don't do it twice."

Harry Welch, the Canyon High coach, compares the feeling to being electrically shocked.

"I'd be running along on the sideline trying to follow a play and just run out of cord," he said. "Zap. You hit the end of that cord and get jerked backwards a few times by your ears and you really start to dislike those things. And I've also got a closet full of pants with the belt loops ripped off from people stepping on the cord that leads to the battery pack on my belt."

Welch did find a solution to the problem, though.

"The headsets were annoying enough in all regards that I don't use them anymore," he said. "I have now delegated that responsibility to an assistant coach. He wears them."

Bob Burt, the Cal State Northridge coach, takes on the responsibility himself. A painful lesson during his days as an assistant at Cal State Fullerton taught him to anchor the cord to an Army surplus belt at his waist instead of enduring any more neck-snaps.

"We were playing at Montana and an official made a horrendous call against us," Burt recalled. "I was so mad I headed out onto the field after the guy, screaming and running. I hit the end of that cord and it about took my head off."

And if short cords and overzealous players aren't enough to send a coach to a chiropractor, sometimes even the game officials get into the act.

"The other problem I've had is getting my cord tangled in the down markers," Burt said. "You don't realize it until the guys with the chain go running onto the field for a measurement and all of a sudden you're getting towed out there behind them. By the head."

And some coaches know that not every head-snap is accidental.

"When I was playing in Pullman for Washington State we had a coach that nobody liked," said Don DeGroot, one of Scott's assistants at Hart. "One of the players stepped on his cord on purpose as he went running by and just about snapped the guy's head off. Everybody's looking the other way, pretending they didn't see it and trying not to laugh, and this coach is mad. Every time I see Rick Scott get his head snapped by the cord now and leave one of his ears on the ground, I always wonder if a kid might have done it on purpose."

Another type of communication system used by football programs is wireless, with headsets and microphones connected on a radio frequency. This system saves a lot of wear and tear on a coach's head and neck area but carries a new set of problems.

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