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THE FIRE WITHIN | BILL PLASCHKE

Toledo May Say That 'It's Water Under the Bridge,' but It's Still Payback Time

January 01, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

DALLAS — It was several years ago, he was in high school, it was only some crummy pizza joint in Alta Loma, but Rodney Lee remembers.

He was fired from his job there for allegedly stealing money from the cash register, money that was later discovered wedged underneath, where somebody had accidentally dropped it.

Fired, for no apparent reason. You always remember.

"It felt so bad, I kept thinking, 'It's not my fault, this can't be happening,' " said Lee. "I still don't believe they did it."

Driving around town, UCLA's senior flanker still occasionally sees the manager who fired him, and still burns.

"I might wave, but very reluctantly," he said.

This story describes precisely how UCLA Coach Bob Toledo has spent the last week treating Texas A&M Coach R.C. Slocum.

Smiling, but tightly. Shaking hands, but stiffly. Waving, but reluctantly.

This story also explains why Toledo's players know what he's thinking.

Throw out the potential 10-game win streak and potential top-three ranking, and Cade McNown-for-Heisman hype, and the real drumbeat behind today's Cotton Bowl is this:

Kids trying to help their beloved coach whip the fool who once canned him.

The money is still underneath the cash register; it is Bob Toledo's day to dig it out and throw it in R.C. Slocum's face.

"He's been trying hard not to make it visible, but we know what this is all about," said receiver Jim McElroy. "This is about revenge."

Lee laughed.

"Everybody knows, somebody fires you wrongly, you want to go out and beat their butt," he said. "I don't want to say this is going to be a cockfight, but. . . ."

But even Slocum admitted: "What the bowl ought to do to make money is have Bob and I out on the field arm wrestling."

That was the only funny thing he said all week. Slocum spent the rest of the time almost embarrassingly making nice with the man he admittedly made a scapegoat.

It was January 1994. Toledo had just completed his fifth season as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach under Slocum at Texas A&M.

The Aggies had scored a school-record 425 points. Their offense was ranked eighth in the nation. They had finished 10-2.

But they had also lost a third consecutive Cotton Bowl during which they had scored a combined 26 points against Florida State and Notre Dame.

About the time Toledo was learning that his mother had suffered a heart attack, Slocum was on the phone. He needed a fall guy. Toledo was it.

He fired him.

"I was a young coach, I thought it was best we go in a different direction," Slocum said Wednesday. "In retrospect, my decision was unfair to Bob. It was a mistake. It was, 'Dadgum, I wish I could call that play over.' "

It is admirable that Slocum would admit this publicly. The compliment gains credibility when Toledo says that Slocum told him the same thing privately a couple of years earlier.

From a fan's perspective, that upright and starched south Texan has been beaten like an old rug and should probably be left alone.

But from Toledo's perspective?

The ears hear one thing, but the eyes believe another. "It's water under the bridge, it's gone, both of us want to put it behind us," he said while sitting next to Slocum at a news conference this week.

But earlier, while Slocum had been explaining the firing, the normally demonstrative Toledo--his body language reminds you of a comfy couch--sat with his arms crossed tightly and his jaw locked.

About the only time he actually spoke of deeper feelings was after a recent practice, when a reporter wondered if, because UCLA hired Toledo days after he was fired, Slocum actually did him a favor.

"He didn't do me a favor," Toledo said. "Things have worked out, but he didn't do me a favor, believe me."

Immediately after the bowl pairing was announced, Toledo told his team that this was not about him and Slocum.

"He came in and said there were no hard feelings, this wasn't going to be some macho thing," Lee said.

Which, again, convinced nobody.

Said Lee: "Being a man, you kind of wonder."

Said McElroy: "It's time for him to show Slocum, 'Hey, I'm a good coach and if you had kept me around, you would know that.' "

Slocum needed only to look at game films to know that.

Toledo rebounded from two neck-burning losses to Washington State and Tennessee to prove that he can rally a team, run a balanced offense, adapt on defense, disarm critics, make friends, and attract recruits.

Can he successfully manage a comeback in the final minutes? That, we still don't know. After only two years, that's about the only thing we don't know.

But he has shown an ability to walk through the fire, with more awaiting today, and much of it from within.

His players want him to beat Texas A&M by 50, and if that happens, you will know why.

Toledo? While he probably wants to win by 200, he seems to understand that he is not merely a coach, but a teacher.

He seems to grasp that of all the things his students need to learn about adversity, how to properly dance around fallen oppressors is not one of them.

The feeling here is, Toledo would settle for a nice win of any sort, followed by a nationally televised interview in which he refers to Slocum as "My good friend Richard Copeland."

Yeah, that would probably do it.

*

COTTON BOWL

UCLA vs. Tennessee

Where: Dallas

When: 10:30 a.m.

TV: Channel 2.

Radio:

- AM 1150

- KNX (1070)

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