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

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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.

eaglesIn 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."

holtz-jets
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.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

[Eric Mangini image credit: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer.]

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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