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Wednesday, November 27
Updated: November 29, 3:27 PM ET
Wearing out your welcome

By Jim Dent
Special to ESPN.com

When I heard about the Mutiny in the Desert -- forty-one one Arizona players marching into the office of the university president to air their complaints about the head football coach -- I decided to call John Mackovic at his office and to pose this question: What in the world makes you think that you will survive this flap?

"A wise man once said that when the going gets tough, the tough get going," he said. "And I'm a helluva lot tougher than some people think."

John Mackovic
John Mackovic faced a near mutiny, but still believes he can lead the 'Cats to the Rose Bowl.
If you flipped on the tube two Saturdays back, you saw Mackovic being carried off the field on the shoulders of his players following the 52-41 defeat of California. You saw Mackovic smiling, Mackovic waving to the crowd, Mackovic beaming like a man who had just won the Rose Bowl.

Give him credit for the "helluva lot tougher" quote. He knocked that one out of the park. No, let's try another analogy. Mackovic is an avid golfer. He made a hole-in-one. On a par four.

There was so much turmoil, so many rumors riding the wind, that it appeared some of the angry Wildcats (or is that wildcatters?) were poised to boycott the Cal game. They were sick and tired of Mackovic's sharp tongue. That reminds me of a scene in Junction, Texas back in 1954 when a handful of Texas A&M players told Bear Bryant they'd had enough of his preseason hell camp. "God bless y'all," Bryant said. "And tell your mommas I said howdy."

Mackovic is 170 pounds soaking wet. But has he morphed into Bear Bryant? If he wins Friday against Arizona State, he should slip on a houndstooth hat and wave to the crowd as he leaves the stadium. Or maybe he could lean on the goal post and glare at the players in pregame.

No one ever thought about airing Bryant's dirty laundry to any university president. He won six national championships. Furthermore, no one had the guts to make that walk. They knew he might be watching.

Coaching college football is not what it used to be. You get fired for going 9-2. Go back and check Freddie Akers' record at the University of Texas. R.C. Slocum, in spite of a great overall record, is about to be showed the door at Texas A&M just about the time that Dennis Franchione walks through. Don't rule it out.

Two years ago, Spike Dykes was booted at Texas Tech, and he was one of the most beloved coaches in the history of Texas football.

"I had worn out my welcome," Dykes said. "It's like the old Chinese proverb. You lose ten percent of your friends every year. I coached at Tech thirteen years. You figure it out."

You see why Dykes lasted 41 years in coaching. He never lost his sense of humor.

Coaching can be the cruelest game of all. It can also serve as the most addicting. Eddie Robinson once told me that it's like fighting a gorilla: "You've got to ask for permission to stop."

Six Division I coaches have already lost the fight. Kevin Steele at Baylor and Michigan State's Bobby Williams, both 3-6, barely made it past Halloween.

Others are certain to fall. Just ask Spike.

"It's just getting started," he said. "The first week in December we won't be able to count the fired coaches on both hands."

When they fire you,
they always say it's
not personal. But it
always is.
Arizona coach John Mackovic

Where will the Grim Reaper strike next? Tucson? College Station? Austin?

Fearing the Reaper had him on the short list, Mackovic called a press conference following the player revolt and apologized to everyone but the bus driver. A tear was spotted rolling down his cheek.

The next day, he was on the phone with you-know-who.

"Not only are we going to win here at Arizona," he said, his voice rising, "We're going to the Rose Bowl and win. It will happen soon. Mark my words."

I have known Mackovic since the early eighties when he was the quarterback coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Working the newspaper beat, I was around him just about every day. And not a day passed when Mackovic did not have a smile on his face, a song in his heart. He poked fun at everyone, including himself.

About a decade later, Mackovic took the head-coaching job down in Austin and I heard stories of a different Johnny Mack. They say he went stone cold down in Austin. Put on the Landry face. Stayed home and drank his favorite wine. Refused to dance the Texas two-step.

Two weeks ago, the Arizona players told the university president that Mackovic rained on their parade after the Wisconsin loss. Some of the Wildcats delivered biting quotes to the local newspapers. At least one columnist called for his firing.

I know that Johnny Mack can be acerbic. Bright people often digress to condescending words without taking the time to edit themselves. I fully suspect that Johnny Mack blistered some hides, hurt some feelings after the Wisconsin loss. But I have never met a coach who lasted more than a year that didn't rile his players.

Mackovic has lost jobs at Texas and with the Kansas City Chiefs. But he's also been Coach of the Year in three different conferences. He realizes that at least ten Division I coaches will go down in flames before Christmas, and he doesn't want to be one of them. It hurts.

"When they fire you, they always say it's not personal," he said. "But it always is."

The night he was fired at Texas in November of 1997, he had dinner plans at the home of a good friend. That friend turned out to be Spike Dykes. Good thing. Spike can make you laugh.

"I remember sitting home that night being depressed," Mackovic said. "But I called Spike and told him we were coming. We were definitely coming."

Dykes is an old school philosopher. It is rare when you get under his skin. Mackovic said that Spike helped put everything into perspective. To Johnny Mack's credit, Dykes said, "I will say this. He was at my house for three hours. And he never said one bad thing about the University of Texas."

Then there was the cold and lonely night in Kansas City back in 1986 when owner Lamar Hunt called with the news that Mackovic was out after only three seasons as the head coach.

"Hank Stram's son ran a restaurant in Kansas City," Mackovic said. "His name was Stewy. He brought some food over to the house and said, 'My dad got fired once. I know how it is. You must have something to eat.'"

Mackovic paused. "Now that was pretty funny."

For four decades, Dykes has watched coaches come and go. For almost two decades, he coached in the West Texas boomtowns where a man could be fired for going 9-1. If the coach fell into disfavor with the citizenry, especially the oil-rich kind, he might be run out of town on a rail.

Now that was pressure.

"I see things happen every Sunday in the NFL that amazes me," Dykes said. "You do that in West Texas and you'll be looking for a job come Monday. Have ten men on the field at Odessa Permian and you'll never coach again."

But Spike said he never lost sleep over the prospect of being fired.

"I always figured that if somebody fired me, somebody else would want me."

There is little to laugh about when you are fired. On February 27, 1989, I sat in Tom Landry's office for over an hour and watched him box up twenty-nine years of coaching memories. I had a tear in my eye when I left.

Before the onset of leukemia, though, I saw Landry around town several times, and he always seemed to be the happiest man in the house. Dressed in blue jeans and boots and tapping his foot to the music.

"Living life," he once said, smiling.

Spike Dykes knows that feeling.

A trip to the Rose, and Mackovic gets the feeling back. Better dust off Bear's hat.

Jim Dent is the author of "Junction Boys" and "The Undefeated" and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. "Junction Boys" will be ESPN Original Entertainment's second original, made-for-television movie. The premiere is scheduled for Saturday, December 14 at 9:00 p.m. ET on ESPN.

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