Football Coaches Do the Darndest Things (Like Stage Their Own Deaths)

Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images
Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images

I live in Cleveland, which doesn't seem like a town where a bottle of water could go for $1,701. There's no Rodeo Drive here, no Hollywood sign, no posh salons promising the perfect poodle pedicure.

On the theory that there had to be something else in the water for it to cost $1701, the supplement search started with Beluga caviar and skipped through the alphabet past gold and saffron. Nothing. No clues whatsoever to explain how something so common could cost so much.

Had the label read, "Nectar of the Gods," maybe. But not a bottle of H20 sitting next to an ice bucket on top of an armoire in a hotel room occupied by a Cleveland Browns player during a preseason trip.

(Note to non-sports fans: The Cleveland Browns are an institution in my town and, on rare occasions, a pro football team.)

With the trip finished and the bill now in the hands of organizational number crunchers, Browns' head coach Eric Mangini learned that one of his players had checked out without paying for the water.

Mangini's next move fell right in line with all the control-freak, single-minded, my-way-or-the-highway football coaches of legend. He didn't tell payroll to subtract $3 from the player's next check. He levied a $1,701 fine—the maximum allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

That was my most recent reminder that football coaches—the driven, paranoid, contradictory lot of them—do (and say) the darndest things.

Basketball coach Bob Knight, who took a class or two as a student at Ohio State from the legendary football coach Woody Hayes, once said, "When they get to the bottom of Watergate, they'll find a football coach."

Well, close.

They found President Richard Nixon, a benchwarmer at Whittier College, who once recommended a play to Redskins' head coach George Allen. If there were a Mt. Rushmore of control freak coaches, one stone-faced expression would belong to Allen, who employed a man named Ed Boynton, whom sportswriters aptly nicknamed Double O Boynton—his job was to search the woods around the Redskins field looking for spies.

Lest any detail go unattended, Allen once had a scout chart the position of the sun to try to keep it out of the eyes of his punt-catchers.

(By the way, Allen did run the play Nixon suggested and it lost yards.)

Please Turn Off the Fireworks

The first NFL coach I spent serious time around was Dick Vermeil, who led the Philadelphia Eagles to Super Bowl XV, quit citing burnout a few years later, and then later won a title with the St. Louis Rams in his reincarnation.

When Vermeil opened his first training camp on July 4, 1976, he huddled his coaches in a room for meetings and film study that night. When darkness fell, explosions big and small erupted outside.

Vermeil hated anything he considered a distraction. He demanded to know what was going on. An assistant told him that not only was it the Fourth of July, it was the Bicentennial—a celebration of the country's 200th birthday. He was, after all, in suburban Philadelphia, a city that served as midwife in that birth.

"I don't care whose birthday it is," Vermeil railed, "Go tell them to turn it off."

While coaching at UCLA, Vermeil conducted interviews for his staff between midnight and 3 a.m. Those were his down hours.

In Phildelphia, he made daily lists every morning for his wife, his administrative assistant, his personnel man and himself. He slept in his office. On more than one occasion, as the reporter covering the Eagles for an afternoon paper, I'd call Vermeil in his office at 3 or 4 a.m. to check on something. He always answered the phone on the first or second ring, as if it were noon.

"What can I do for you?" he'd say.

After the first season, it became clear that Vermeil's tunnel vision about football prohibited even the slightest bit of working knowledge about almost all other topics. We'd have fun with that in the press corps, occasionally sliding a current event into the discussion just to elicit a blank stare.

My favorite Vermeil story came at practice one day. Workers were erecting scaffolding at one end of the stadium for the upcoming Rolling Stones concert. Hammers and drills were the background music of the day. That sort of distraction drove Vermeil wild.

When he walked over to where we stood for his post-practice press conference, someone mentioned the noise. Vermeil griped about the noise disrupting his practice.

"Dick, are you a fan of the Rolling Stones?" he was asked.

"I don't know much about them," Vermeil said. "But my kids read their magazine."

My only regret is that I never got to ask him about The Monkees. It is not out of the realm of possibility that he would've said, "Look, I've never been to the zoo."

When he showed signs of burning out, the Eagles GM along with Vermeil's wife urged him to set aside some time and meet with the team psychologist.

Carol Vermeil remembers her husband walking into the house after the appointment. "How'd it go?" she asked.

Said Vermeil, "Ah, it would take me a week to straighten that guy out."

Vermeil once waived a player at practice after the kid missed three blocks. The player, free agent, Mike Siegel, left the field disrobing as he went until he wore only a pair of shorts. If Vermeil noticed, he didn't say anything.

Vermeil once redid an entire playbook section because an assistant coach drew the circles and squares representing offensive and defensive players by hand. Vermeil insisted on using a stencil.

During Super Bowl XV when we were in New Orleans, the off-field story of the week was that Oakland defensive lineman John Matuszak had been seen out until all hours on Bourbon Street leading up to the game. Asked what he'd do if one of his players did the same, Vermeil huffed. "They be sent home to Philadelphia on the next plane, he said.

Oakland, with John Matuszak playing, came out loose and focused in Super Bowl XV, beating Vermeil's uptight Eagles, 27-10.

In a Sports Illustrated profile that writer Gary Smith did on Vermeil after his resignation, Carol Vermeil talked about how it was living with her husband.

"I'd say, "Dick, I cut off my arm today but I don't think it's too bad—and he wouldn't even blink," she said.

Great Moments in Football Coaching

October seems as good a time as any to celebrate (for lack of a better word) the American football coach for all his single-minded overwrought tunnel vision. In my 33 years of sports writing, here are a few who commanded my attention:

Joe Gibbs: The legendary Redskins coach is said to have asked his wife to tape dinner-table conversations so he could take the tapes to the Redskins' facility and catch up on what the family was doing.

Dale Christensen: You never heard of him, I'm sure. He was a Illinois high school football coach, who thought it would be a good idea before a playoff game to have his players see him get shot.

Christensen staged the phony shooting in the school cafeteria before a playoff game, ostensibly to motivate his players. Students understandably scrambled for cover after Christensen fell to the floor, fake blood covering his shirt. Two calls to police emergency numbers were made.

In the news account of the incident one player said "the shock of the idea we were going to die" overshadowed any point the coach had been trying to make. Go figure.

Woody Hayes: His sideline rants at OSU were famous, especially the one at the 1978 Gator Bowl that cost him his job after he punched a Clemson player. "When I look in the mirror in the morning, I want to take a swing at me," Hayes once said.

My favorite story about Hayes was just recently shared by a writer, who covered OSU football for the campus paper back in the day. Leonard Downie Jr. said last year that after OSU losses or ties, Hayes would conduct post-game interviews in the nude.

"He was an ugly guy," Downie said, "so it would clear out the locker room pretty fast."

Bear Bryant: Not that football coaches ever overestimate the importance of what they do, but the legendary Alabama coach once said, "If you want to walk the heavenly streets of gold, you gotta know the password, "Roll, tide, roll!"

Jon Gruden: Another NFL coach who, like Gibbs and Dick Vermeil, wore a lack of sleep as a badge of honor. In Tampa he was known as "Jon: 3:11." No, not because he was a ravenous reader of Scripture. But because that's when his alarm went off every morning.

John McKay: Consider McKay's inclusion on this list as an intermission. He wasn't like the others. His approach and especially his dry wit were antidotes for what ails some of football's most driven coaches.

Lots of people probably know the most famous quote attributed to him. His Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a winless and hapless expansion team. Asked after one horrid performance what he thought of his offense's execution, McKay said, "I'm all for it."

A lesser known McKay moment came after his USC team lost 51-0 to Notre Dame. Addressing his Trojans in the locker room, McKay said only, "All those who need showers, take them."

Lee Corso: (Extended Intermission) The former coach at Indiana and current ESPN analyst once said, "Hawaii doesnít win many games in the United States."

Lou Holtz: A misplaced college coach, Holtz came to the New York Jets and tried to line up players for the national anthem according to size. He wrote a team fight song to the tune of "The Caissons Go Rolling Along." He didn't last long for some odd reason.

Tom Coughlin: The Giants head coach has famously fined players for showing up early for meetings. Players are told to be there five minutes ahead of time. Four minutes early? Bam, fined.

As head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he fined players for not wearing socks. Coaches could not wear sunglasses. He once fined two players who were hurt in a car accident while rushing to a team meeting, his reasoning being they would've been late anyway.

Nick Saban: Once turned down an invitation to dine with Geroge W. Bush because the time interfered with his practice schedule. OK, avoiding politicians doesn't reflect too badly on a fellow. But Saban also passed up a chance to play golf at Augusta National for the same reason. That's different. That's a man with a serious problem.

More Dick Vermeil: When the Eagles made the playoffs, CBS wanted to do an interview with Vermeil and his family at home around the Christmas tree. No chance. He hardly ever went home, choosing to sleep in his office. CBS got its interview—but only after it the family and the tree to his office.

Bear Bryant, Take 2: We leave you on this note. Bryant was once asked to contribute $10 to help bury a sportswriter.

According to legend, he said, "Here's a twenty, bury two."

If I'm still above ground, I'll see you in November.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus
pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Daily life has changed immeasurably since the onset of COVID-19, and one of the ways people have had to adjust is by wearing protective masks out in public places, including in parks and supermarkets. These are an essential part of fighting the spread of the virus, and there are plenty of options for you depending on what you need, whether your situation calls for disposable masks to run quick errands or the more long-lasting KN95 model if you're going to work. Check out some options you can pick up on sale right now.

1. Cotton Face Masks; $20 for 4

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This four-pack of washable cotton face masks comes in tie-dye, kids patterns, and even a series of mustache patterns, so you can do your part to mask germs without also covering your personality.

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2. CE- and FDA-Approved KN95 Mask; $50 for 10

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You’ve likely heard about the N95 face mask and its important role in keeping frontline workers safe. Now, you can get a similar model for yourself. The KN95 has a dual particle layer, which can protect you from 99 percent of particles in the air and those around you from 70 percent of the particles you exhale. Nose clips and ear straps provide security and comfort, giving you some much-needed peace of mind.

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3. Three-Ply Masks; $13 for 10

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These three-ply, non-medical, non-woven face masks provide a moisture-proof layer against your face with strong filtering to keep you and everyone around you safe. The middle layer filters non-oily particles in the air and the outer layer works to block visible objects, like droplets.

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4. Disposable masks; $44 for 50

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If the thought of reusing the same mask from one outing to the next makes you feel uneasy, there’s a disposable option that doesn’t compromise quality; in fact, it uses the same three-layered and non-woven protection as other masks to keep you safe from airborne particles. Each mask in this pack of 50 can be worn safely for up to 10 hours. Once you're done, safely dispose of it and start your next outing with a new one.

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5. Polyester Masks; $22 for 5

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These masks are a blend of 95 percent polyester and 5 percent spandex, and they work to block particles from spreading in the air. And because they're easily compressed, they can travel with you in your bag or pocket, whether you're going to work or out to the store.

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6. Mask Protector Cases; $15 for 3

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You're going to need to have a stash of masks on hand for the foreseeable future, so it's a good idea to protect the ones you’ve got. This face mask protector case is waterproof and dust-proof to preserve your mask as long as possible.

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At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Double Play: The Curious Life and Career of Ozzie Canseco

Otto Gruele, Allsport/Getty Images
Otto Gruele, Allsport/Getty Images

“Jose, we love you! Jose, you suck!” It’s 1992 in Louisville, Kentucky, and a man who bears a striking resemblance to major league home run king Jose Canseco is smashing baseballs out of Triple-A ballparks for the Louisville Redbirds, the minor league sibling of the St. Louis Cardinals.

A screen erected specifically for home runs at Pilot Field in Buffalo, New York, fails to contain one 550-foot drive. The ball goes over the screen and past the highway.

“Good job, Jose!”

Before and after games, the six-foot-two, 220-pound slugger will be asked about dating Madonna (he didn’t), antagonized into fights (he avoids them, mostly), and begged for autographs. When he signs his name, fans appear confused. They tell him to stop joking around. Doesn’t he know he’s Jose Canseco, perpetual All-Star and prolific masher of baseballs? Who ever heard of Ozzie Canseco, Jose’s identical twin, born two minutes earlier to Jose Canseco Sr. and his wife, Barbara? And if they are identical, why is it that Jose was earning millions as a member of the Oakland Athletics while Ozzie only made sporadic appearances in the majors?

Ozzie tried to explain all of these things over and over again. Every time he thought people got the message, he would head back out into the world, hearing his brother’s name. Once, a car veered and tried to run him off the road. When Ozzie hit the shoulder, the other driver laughed, as if it were a joke, and then referred to him as Jose.

 

There are relatively few examples of twins who excelled equally in sports. Ronde and Tiki Barber were both selected in the 1997 NFL Draft and had successful careers; Karyne and Sarah Steben, both accomplished gymnasts, toured with Cirque du Soleil and credited their psychological connection with helping them perform difficult aerial feats.

More often, siblings of star athletes idle in the shadows cast by their high-achieving counterparts.

Hank Aaron’s brother Tommie joined him in professional baseball. Hank hit 755 home runs during his career; Tommie connected with 13. There were three DiMaggio brothers, though it was Joe—the onetime husband of Marilyn Monroe—who stood out both on and off the field. Had any of these men looked identical to their famous brother, it would have compounded the comparisons. It’s unlikely anyone ever tried to run Tommie Aaron off the road.

Ozzie Canseco plays for the Oakland Athletics in a Major League Baseball game
Otto Gruele Jr, Getty Images

Born on July 2, 1964, Osvaldo “Ozzie” Capas Canseco and Jose Canseco would soon be another sports sibling story.

The two were barely a year old when their parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba. Both grew up learning to play "the great American pastime." Jose, an outfielder who could wallop a ball out of sight, was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in 1982 straight out of high school. After polishing his skills in the minor leagues for three years, he briefly debuted as a late-season call-up for the Athletics in 1985. His official rookie season came in 1986, when he went on to hit 33 home runs and knock in 117 RBIs, resulting in Rookie of the Year honors.

Ozzie, who had played as much baseball as his brother, decided to take a year for college. Instead of being a power hitter, Ozzie had gravitated toward pitching. The New York Yankees drafted him in 1983. After four largely unimpressive years on the mound in the minor leagues, he was released by the Yankees and picked up by the Oakland Athletics organization in 1986 to further develop his skills.

It amounted to a genetic experiment in sports: Two men, nearly identical in build—Jose was an inch taller and perhaps 10 pounds heavier—who played the same game for the same amount of time. In 1989, the two even suffered the exact same injury to the hamate bone in the hand. Yet it was Jose who became a sensation, earning exponentially increasing millions and stats for the Athletics and the Texas Rangers, while Ozzie struggled to get called up.

The problem, according to Ozzie, was that he had pitched for too long, refining a skill that wouldn’t pay the same dividends as an outfielder and star hitter. All those years pitching put him behind Jose and behind the game. When he was finally called up to the Athletics as an outfielder in 1990, the difference in ability when compared to Jose was obvious. After 20 homers and 67 RBIs with the Huntsville Stars farm team, he managed only a .105 batting average in nine MLB games during his first season, striking out in 10 of his 19 at-bats. Meanwhile, in 1988, Jose became the first MLB player in history to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a single season—a feat only three players have replicated since. When Ozzie struck out in his first Athletics game, Jose hit two home runs.

 

Pundits tried to break down Ozzie’s deficiencies. Superficially, he had everything Jose had, including a powerful build that was likely bolstered by steroids. (Jose admitted to using performance-enhancing substances in his 2005 tell-all book, Juiced; Ozzie was arrested for driving in a car that contained vials of steroids during a traffic stop in 2003. Jose later told VICE that Ozzie "used the same type of steroids I used and in equal amounts.") But experts pointed out that Jose was more flexible, with a better range of motion in his swing and a faster sprint. He seemed to be more aggressive during play, too. These were subtle differences, but enough for Jose to make three World Series appearances while Ozzie toiled in the minors.

Ozzie Canseco bats for the Oakland Athletics during a Major League Baseball game
Otto Gruele Jr, Getty Images

Dejected, Ozzie headed for Japan to play for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes to sharpen his game against different kinds of pitches. Playing for the Japanese equivalent of a farm team in Osaka, he quit midway through the season to return to the U.S. minors, joining the Louisville Redbirds, the Cardinals Triple-A team. In 1993, he got a chance to jump on the Cardinals for six uneventful games. When Bernard Gilkey came off the disabled list, Ozzie was bumped back down. In frustration, he briefly quit baseball before signing a contract with the Triple-A arm of the Milwaukee Brewers and, later, the Florida Marlins.

After being released by the Marlins in 1996, he remarked it was the first summer he had not played baseball since he was a kid. While other people may have confused him for Jose, baseball’s management did not.

 

If Ozzie was never quite his brother’s equal on the field, he found parity in other ways. For years, rumors circulated that Ozzie would show up in place of Jose for autograph signings. The two also got in nearly equivalent legal trouble for a 2001 nightclub brawl in Miami Beach that ended in probation and a civil lawsuit against both.

In what was probably their most audacious attempt to fool people, Ozzie reportedly showed up for a 2011 celebrity boxing match claiming he was Jose, who had performed in prizefights against the likes of Danny Bonaduce. Promoter Damon Feldman claimed he had paid Jose $5000 and that he was confused when Ozzie finally removed his shirt. (He lacks the bicep tattoo sported by his brother). Feldman had him escorted out and filed a complaint for breach of contract, winning a default judgment against Jose for the $5000 advance and travel expenses. Feldman later expressed doubt he had ever actually met Jose. (On Twitter, Jose Canseco denied Feldman’s claim that he had sent Ozzie in his place.)

In 2015, Ozzie was named the hitting coach for the Sioux Falls Canaries, a Double-A team in South Dakota. Not long after, he and his brother once again confused onlookers when Ozzie fooled his on-air correspondents into thinking “Jose” had arrived to film a segment for his role as an analyst for an NBC broadcast. It was a bit of levity that may have indicated that the years removed from the field had allowed Ozzie to feel more comfortable—both in his own skin and his brother’s.

It was a long time coming. Speaking to Sports Illustrated in 1994, Ozzie lamented the peculiar reality of resembling his brother in every aspect but the one that mattered to him most. “It’s difficult to explain my existence as Ozzie Canseco on a daily basis,” he said.