When it became clear that Bears third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie was going to be the team’s signal-caller for the remainder of the NFC Championship Game, I picked up my cell phone to text my friend John.
“Caleb hanie??” I wrote.
“Yeah,” John texted back, “u know yur [screwed] when yur football team depends on a guy named caleb.” (The actual word he used is one favored by Antonio Cromartie.)
Actually, they were screwed before the game even started. Their coach is Lovie Smith.
This is probably where I should state for the record that I have nothing against Lovie Smith. He has proven himself a capable NFL head coach, taking one decidedly unspectacular Bears team to this year’s conference title game and another all the way to the Super Bowl. The problem with Lovie Smith, if you look at the evidence, is that his name is Lovie Smith.
Consider: Of the 90 teams that have now played in the Super Bowl (counting multiple-timers separately), only 10 have been coached by men with polysyllabic first names. (See the full chart.) The rest? Your usual Toms, Dicks, and Harrys—minus the Harrys, of course.
Good old-fashioned all-American appellations dominate the list, names like Hank, Chuck, and Weeb. (Weeb!) “Great strong simple names, suggesting a moral rigor,” as DeLillo wrote in White Noise. That’s Don DeLillo, by the way, as in Shula and McCafferty.
You don’t find any Spencers or Aidens dressing down 330-pound nose tackles on Super Sunday. Name your boy John and he’s got a shot at the NFL; name him Leonard and he’s liable to end up with a Master’s in Liberal Studies from Wesleyan. The list of Super Bowl coaches is filled with hardy, hearty, monosyllabic monikers. Vince and Joe, George and Sean, John and Jon.
Guys named Bill have won nine Super Bowls. That makes nine for Bills, none for the Bills. (Sorry, Buffalo fans.) Four different Mikes have won titles; on Sunday the Packers’ McCarthy can become the fifth. (The Steelers’ Mike Tomlin already won one.) Something’s going on here. Right?
Much has been made of the NFL’s culture of violence and machismo, especially in light of the recent awareness of the concussion crisis. In contrast to, say, baseball, where managers’ names often tend toward the quirky (Sparky, Whitey, Dusty), football has always put a premium on authoritarian leadership and tough love. Bill Parcells, Tom Coughlin, Bill Belichick–these are your archetypical military-type leaders who managed to strike fear into enormous grown men. Football, as George Carlin famously pointed out, is like war, and in war you want your leader, your general, to be a strong, decisive, commanding presence. Imagine marching into battle behind a guy named Eustace. Thanks, but I’d prefer to leave my life in the hands of a Chuck.
Of the 27 coaches who have won Super Bowls, only one, Jimmy Johnson, went by the polysyllabic, more boyish-sounding, version of his name. And 19 of the 23 monosyllabic champions chose pithy nicknames (or a middle name, in the case of Sean Payton) over the ones they were born with. Chuck Noll instead of Charles. Tom Landry instead of Thomas. Admit it: “Michael Ditka” just doesn’t have the same punch.
Bear in mind whom this is all coming from. Like millions of other American parents of the 1970s and ’80s, mine named me Michael. But–and here’s the kicker–my mother absolutely despised the name Mike. (Why she gave her only son a name with a nickname she hated remains a mystery to me.) From day one, I was to be called Michael, and nothing else.
When I was 13, I wanted to be an NFL coach when I grew up. Two decades later, I’m a writer with an MFA from a school that used to be an all-women’s college.
This Sunday two other Michaels, now both Mikes, will lead their respective teams onto the field in Super Bowl XLV. One of them, the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, isn’t even 40 years old. Let’s face it, that could have been me out there. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never played a day of organized football in my life, or that when I was 13, I barely weighed 100 pounds and ran cross-country.
I still blame my mom.
See our comprehensive chart of The Winningest Names in Football. >>