The countdown — initially measured in months, then days — is down to hours or even minutes, depending on your allegiance.
The closing of the 2008 season spawned immediate anticipation and analysis of the ’09 season. Starters lost, starters back, key newcomers, coaching changes, position changes, schedules — we have analyzed our teams from every possible angle.
Or so we think. Imagine being a head coach. Imagine the fate of your career riding on what some 21-year-old college kid might do in the midst of 90,000 screaming fans.
Imagine being Mark Richt and taking your untested Bulldogs to Oklahoma State. Or Nick Saban, whose Alabama team has to open against Virginia Tech. Or imagine you’re Auburn’s Gene Chizik, a curious hire at best, awaiting your official debut in front of the home crowd.
Two men who know the pressures of big-time football are Ray Goff and Gene Stallings. They know what it’s like to spend eight months preparing for one game. I caught up with both this week; Stallings at Green Island, Goff by phone.
“The first game,” said Goff, “is probably the most nerve-wracking game there is. “You think you’ve got a clue about how good your team is, but you really don’t. Your insides are just chewed up.”
Goff’s second season opener — in 1990 at LSU — ranks among his most memorable, but not for pleasant reasons. The Bulldogs already were rebuilding after the Vince Dooley era. Then, the day before the game, as the players are boarding the bus to go to the airport, Goff learns that his entire starting defensive line and top backup have been ruled ineligible.
“We just lost our top four defensive linemen, and we’ve got to go play LSU in Baton Rouge,” he said. “Try that one on for size.”
Stallings cited the career-ending injury to wide receiver Tyrone Prothro as an event that changed the course of Alabama football.
“If Prothro doesn’t get hurt, who do you think would be the head coach today at Alabama?” Stallings said. He paused before answering his own question. “It would be Mike Shula.”
That’s debatable. But Stallings’ point is well taken. If Prothro staying healthy had bought Shula another year, Saban might have been hired by somebody else two years ago.
Goff remembers his first football Saturday after being fired. He was in a Wal-Mart.
“I was thinking, ‘Don’t these people realize Georgia is playing their season opener?’” he said. “Then I realized there’s a lot more going on than college football. Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Guerry Clegg, firstname.lastname@example.org