I recently had the amazing opportunity to interview former Oregon Football Head Coach Rich Brooks and ask him how he spent his game days as a coach and how those days have changed since he’s retired.
“It’s kind of a blur, really,” Coach Rich Brooks reminisced, as a half smile appeared across his face.
I’m sure memories from past game days are playing through his mind, and I’m going right there with him. He’s taking me to a typical Saturday game day, as if I’m right there on the sidelines with him. Maybe it was while he was Head Coach at the University of Oregon, 1977-1994, or perhaps when he was Head Coach at the University of Kentucky, 2003-2009.
If you don’t know Coach Brooks, he’s one of the best coaches Oregon has had in its football program. With the field at Autzen Stadium named after him, he led Oregon to what was then a PAC-10 conference title in 1994, followed by an appearance in the 1995 Rose Bowl.
“Just depending on the time of day, it was pretty standard. You have meetings at certain times. You go in and do your thing, watch a little TV, ESPN usually, to see what’s going on. Try to keep the routine going, the same way every game, home or away. Night games, we’d have more meetings to break up the day.” It wasn’t until listening to his interview and writing this that I realized his reference to how he game days automatically refers back to when he was coaching, as opposed to having it reflect how he game days now.
Growing up, I only experienced game days from a fans perspective, although through a close family friend, I’ve been able to watch and support Coach Brooks. When I was younger, I had the pleasure of watching a few games while he was head coach at Oregon. I recall watching some of the Atlanta Falcons and St. Louis Rams games, but only because my dad tuned in to support him. It wasn’t until I was older, when he began coaching at the University of Kentucky, that more vivid memories of him stand out.
Game days for fans are far different than those of players and coaches. Oftentimes, game days begin for players and coaches the day before, as the team partakes in a “walk through” of the stadium to ensure the players are familiar with new plays, followed by scheduled team meetings the night before the game on Saturday.
Coach Brooks has not only experienced it from a coaches’ perspective, but also as a player and fan. I had the opportunity to discuss what game days are like from each of those positions with Coach Brooks, and how they differ in each of the conferences he coached. Having been a part of coaching in two conferences within college football, as well as in the NFL, Coach Brooks expressed that, for him, game day schedules didn’t change. For game days as HC at Oregon and Kentucky, it came down to the basics. “It depended on what time the game started. Pre-game meal. Meetings. Went over to the stadium. Night games were a long process, so we had meetings to break up the day. I’d watch a lot of other games to buy time, meet with staff & personnel, and then go over injuries.”
Most players and coaches will engage in a tradition or routine prior to every game. Maybe it was because they did something specific and, since the game was won, they decided to continue with the same routine before every game for the rest of the season. When I asked Coach Brooks if he had any traditions, routines or superstitions prior to kick off, he gave a simple answer, “Nothing; I’m boring. See, I don’t have any real funny stuff or any superstitions.”
I was surprised by this response, but then, after a brief pause, he followed it with, “When I was at Oregon, about my last 5 years, I drove the old green Plymouth to the games, from the team hotel.” This was reference to a 1951 Plymouth Cranbrook that my uncle had donated to an auction, purchased by Coach Brooks. Later, Coach Brooks admitted, the “only thing I did early in my career, was throw up before every game. Talking to the team, sometimes I’d just throw up in the garbage can right there, and keep on talking. But I got rid of that in ‘89 or ‘90.”
One game that stands out in my mind, is the infamous game between Oregon and Washington from 1994; Kenny Wheaton’s “the pick” has become a memory instilled in me, as well as other Oregon fans, though I wasn’t there for the game. I never realized how important that interception was until watching the game in its entirety. I get goose bumps every time the jumbotron plays it prior to every home game in Autzen. Cue Jerry Allen’s voice, “Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score, Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score!”
Coach Brooks described to me what that moment felt like for him, as if it happened just yesterday. “The problem is, we were kickin’ their butt for most of the game. And they came back and took the lead. Then, we get the ball on the 2-yard line after a screwed up kick off return and we drive 98-yards, to what should be the winning score. They convert 2 or 3 4th downs on that drive, before we had even intercepted. You could just feel the air sucking out of the stadium. They had done it too many times to us in the past, where they come from behind and beat us at the end of the game. The place just went bonkers when Kenny stepped in front and picked off that ball.” To think that play happened almost 20 years ago!
Being a Coach for so many years, I wondered if Coach Brooks had any favorite memories that stood out in his mind. “I liked the locker room, before and after games. Dealing with the victories or the defeat, and trying to refocus in both situations on what we were going to do the next week rather than wallowing in sorrows or celebrating too much.”
These days, Coach Brooks resides in Eugene permanently, but visits Kentucky as often as he can to see family and friends. When he isn’t traveling or playing golf, his game days are far more relaxed than when he was coaching. For game days with a later kick off time, Coach Brooks spends his day watching football, until it’s time to go to Autzen Stadium. “I’ll try to watch games that I have a special interest in, like the leagues I’ve coached in, PAC-12 and the SEC. I’ll watch games where some of my former coaches are coaching.” Always supporting those closest to him, a trait that truly reflects the coach he is.
“I think Oregon has a real good chance of going all the way this year to the championship game,” Coach Brooks predicts of Oregon’s potential for the rest of the season. “There’s no question that Mariota’s a Heisman trophy candidate, particularly if he keeps up the numbers that he’s put up so far. The key will be, in November, in the crunch time, particularly against Stanford. Then, obviously, if they slip and lose a game, he could still be in it as long as he’s not the reason they lost it. What he’s done already this year, 7 games and no interceptions is unheard of, just unheard of. But he made up for it with a couple of costly fumbles last week.” Spoken like a true Head Coach.
I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with Coach Brooks during game days the past few seasons since he’s returned to Eugene, as he often stops by our tailgater to visit with family, friends and former players he coached not too long ago. He’s a man of few words, but get him talking about football and all the great memories he has with it, you can’t help but grin as you see the smile and laughter come from Coach Brooks.
“It’s almost incomprehensible. To think where they [Oregon] are now from where they were when I got here. It’s just night and day, totally different.”
It all started with you, Coach Brooks.