Commentary: Dispatch from the 2009 College Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony

BY J.T. BUGOS | JULY 22, 2009 7:15 AM

I am fortunate enough to have a sister working at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind. This past weekend, she scored me tickets to the 2009 Enshrinement Ceremony, which consisted of a reception and silent auction, followed by dinner and a show.

The show was interviews held with all 21 inductees. ESPN’s Mark May and Rece Davis were cohosts, and May’s jokes were not well-received in South Bend because of his frequent anti-Notre Dame stance.

Luckily for the pro-Irish crowd, Lou Holtz took a shot at his work partner. He defended May initially, saying that he is, in fact, a good man, but he’s just not very smart.

Because his glory days as a coach took place at Notre Dame, Holtz was the inductee who most guests came to see. He came with a case of laryngitis but that couldn’t stop him from getting his say.

He talked about much more than football when the spotlight was on him. Family, friends, and memories were just a few of the things Holtz stressed. Wins weren’t important to him but rather the recollections of the time he had with players.

Holtz has had more than four decades of coaching experience, so he isn’t short on memories. He started at Iowa in 1960 as a graduate assistant. He earned a master’s degree while in Iowa City but said that he did his best learning on the field.

Holtz said he treasured the day-to-day experience. John Cooper, who coached for Tulsa, Arizona, State and Ohio State, echoed his sentiments.

What Cooper misses is the coaching, the competition, and game day. Looking back at his career, he was able to point out one thing that he liked the most: The players always called him “Coach.”

Regardless of where they saw him or when they saw him, he was always “Coach Cooper.” He wasn’t just a coach of football but out on the street, too. His curriculum didn’t consist merely of Xs and Os, but life lessons.

Eddie George, who played for Cooper, showed up at the enshrinement ceremony to support his coach. The former Tennessee Titan running back thanked Cooper for staying with him throughout his time at Ohio State. George had a case of “fumble-itis” his freshman year, but by his junior year, he was a 1,000-yard rusher and his senior year, he was a Heisman Trophy winner.

Players such as George helped make Cooper successful. Holtz said he was successful because he had players who made it happen, but Cooper said it better.

“Show me a successful coach, and I’ll show you a guy who had good players,” he said.

Another electric runner in his college days was Thurman Thomas. Thomas played at Oklahoma State, where he has his number retired. One of the best questions of the night was directed towards the former Cowboy. Davis asked Thomas how he was able to keep fellow teammate Barry Sanders on the bench for two years. Thomas jokingly responded he paid his coach well.

Troy Aikman was arguably the most famous man inducted because of his successful post-collegiate career with the Dallas Cowboys. Aikman started at UCLA, and when interviewed, gave all the credit to the guys who rarely get any, the offensive line.

The graciousness of former players and coaches was on display the whole night. Obviously, these 21 men were immensely talented, and much of their career success came because of their performance.
Aikman surely couldn’t have won numerous Super Bowls without the likes of Emmitt Smith of Michael Irvin, but he was the man running the offense.

Holtz wouldn’t have been able to win the 1988 national championship with a bunch of rag-tag players, but if he wasn’t the intimidating presence who pulled players by their face masks, his teams might not have been so accomplished.

Almost 5 million men have played college football, and slightly more than 1,000 have been enshrined. This was a time for the greatest players and coaches of all time, but each one gave credit to the guys who weren’t there, and that’s a great sight.

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