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I was saddened to learn today of Marty Schottenheimer’s passing. Was even more saddened to see some in the media focus their stories not so much on a successful, regimented teacher of the game, but instead shining the light on his 5-13 record in the playoffs.
That’s not fair.
Schottenheimer passed away yesterday from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease while in hospice care, and if you’ve ever watched a family member deal with that, well, you know that’s not fair either.
Schottenheimer was an old-school coach who insisted on rugged defense, a Vince Lombardi-type running game, and doing things the way he taught them. No one was immune to it, either, as he even once critiqued Darrell Green’s way of returning punts, despite Green being an all pro and student of the game.
With his passing, I remember the day with Green, the straw hat he wore in practice (I even went out and bought a replica and called it the “Marty” hat, and my initial belief that when he came to Washington, the game may have passed him by. All this attention to detail and strict views on conformance to how he viewed football, I thought at the time, won’t work any more.
Then it did.
The Redskins started off 0-5, his coaching ways were mocked, and folks wondered for the first of many occasions if Dan Snyder had a clue. He had, after all, fired Norv Turner in the middle of an 8-8 season, one year after going 10-6, then winning a playoff game against Detroit before losing the division final to Tampa.
8-8 may not have been great, we all thought at the time, but it beat the heck out of 0-5.
Marty never wavered in insisting his plan would work. He had bounced Jeff George a couple of weeks into the season and was willing to rely on a tough defense, Tony Banks at QB, and a belief in the players he had.
In game 6, he needed a miracle. The team trailed 14-0 to Carolina in the fourth quarter, fans were leaving to get a leg up on the traffic, and the air was filled with a belief this would be six losses in a row. Then there was one of the loudest roars heard in Fed Ex (probably the loudest until Virginia Tech played Southern Cal in 2004 and showed the world how much noise Hokies can make) as LaVar Arrington returned an interception 67 yards to make it 14-7 with 10 minutes left.
Three minutes later, lightning struck again. An 85-yard TD pass from Banks to Rod Gardner tied it. Brett Conway would then kick a field goal and Martyball pulled off the miracle. I’d like to tell you how thrilled I was with that from my front row seat in section 428 on the 50 in the first row of the upper deck, where I had season tickets. But I must sadly admit when Tim Biakabutuka scored for Carolina to make it 14-0, I joined the legion of fans leaving the game.
I heard the roar of the crowd for Arrington’s interception. I listened to the rest in the car on the radio, shocked by what I was hearing.
Yeah, I know. I shouldn’t have. And never will again.
The win was the spark that allowed the team to win 5 in a row, then finish the season with 2 straight to have another 8-8 season. Marty got them to believe, toughened the defense, and with a few additions at key positions, the team looked like it could be even better the next season.
So of course Snyder fired him in the offseason, going from the boot camp style of Schottenheimer to the country club golf course style of Steve Spurrier. This all led to seasons of 7-9 and 5-11 before the ol’ ball coach decided he’d had enough.
I always have wondered what the team would have done if Marty had gotten a second and third season. He was like a turnaround specialist in business that addressed the tough situations no one wanted to deal with (like Jeff George) and changed the culture to one of focus and being prepared. He was successful with this method in Cleveland. Then Kansas City. And even after Washington, he went to San Diego and was named Coach of the year in 2004.
The criticism of not winning in the postseason is reasonable, but should not be the enduring label applied to a great coach and teacher. Like a turnover specialist, the best ones in business clear up the chaos, get the locomotive back on the track, then have to step away and let someone else with a different approach come in and take the company to the next level.
That was Marty’s talent in the regular season. In the playoffs, when teams apply game plans that are totally against their previous tendencies so they can surprise the other team, Marty didn’t. It would have meant he didn’t believe in his system at the time of the year when in his mind, it should have worked the best. But it didn’t.
Turning around one franchise as a coach is mark of success. Doing it four times like Schottenheimer did puts you among the greats. So today as I remember the former Washington Coach, I’m going to put on my “Marty” straw hat, remember how good his teams were, and remember how he turned an 0-5 team into an 8-8 club, just like Joe Gibbs did in his first season. I’d have hated his practices, but I’d have loved to have played for him. At the end of the day, he’d have made everyone better.
Rest in peace, Coach Schottenheimer.