A Football Coach Begins Again
Once-retired John Pont, who took Indiana U. to the Rose Bowl in '67, starts over in Ohio
THERE was a time when John Pont figured he would be coaching Rose Bowl teams for the rest of his life.He was a fast-track football man from the time he took a job at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, at the age of 27. Known as the "Cradle of Coaches," Miami of Ohio was the takeoff point for some of the game's most famous names: Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian, Paul Brown, Red Blaik, Weeb Ewbank, Sid Gillman, Carmen Cozza, and Pont's old Miami roommate, Bo Schembechler. To catch on there was the mother of all career moves. Like the others, Pont didn't stay long at Miami. After winning a couple of conference championships, he was on to Yale, where limousines would occasionally whisk him to Manhattan for cloth-napkin lunches with bank and airline presidents. The next stop was Indiana University. As soon as he set up office, Pont hung a picture of himself standing in front of the Rose Bowl. Indiana had never been to the Rose Bowl, but Pont wanted everybody to know that he had, and it was a destination to which he was partial. The Hoosiers made it to Pasadena in Pont's third season, in 1967. They lost to the University of Southern California and O.J. Simpson, but Pont was named Coach of the Year and secured a little piece of Midwestern gridiron legend. He is still the only coach to take Indiana to the Rose Bowl. At the time, he anticipated a long tradition of California New Years. But Indiana was not exempt from the redefining social movements of the late '60s, and when black players boycotted the football program, the party was over. A few years later, Pont moved on to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where he was unable to reverse an uncompetitive situation. He left coaching to be the school's athletic director, and ultimately retired in 1980, explaining that "the institutions have lost control." He moved back to Oxford, Ohio, sold some insurance, dabbled in a few business deals, and made enough money to feel successful. But all the while, Pont could not suppress the urge to coach. His years away from the game made him realize something about himself: "I belong on the football field." In big-time college football, there is not an enormous demand for gray-haired coaches more than a dozen years removed from their last winning season. So in 1985 - at the age of 56 - Pont did what seemed to be a very peculiar thing. After 22 prominent years of college coaching, John Pont took a high school job. He coached for three unspectacular seasons at Hamilton (Ohio) High School, gave it up once again to be a full-time athletic director, and then, exactly five years after his last peculiar move, lurched to another powerful tug on his whistle string. He saw that there was a small Roman Catholic college on the Ohio River, not more than 45 minutes from his home in Oxford, that was starting up a football team in order to attract male students. The school, the College of Mount St. Joseph, had been in business for 70 years, but had only formally been accepting men for less than five. It didn't own a football, much less a football field; and it would compete in the smallest of collegiate affiliations, Division III of the National Association of Intercolleg iate Athletics. "I still wanted to coach," says Pont. "In addition to that, I had a desire to take a program from scratch, truly scratch." So, for the first time in his 62 years, he mailed in an application. He also called around a little bit. His friends - fellows like former Michigan coach Schembechler and Penn State's Joe Paterno - sent letters of recommendation to the Mount's administrators, one of whom happened to be a Penn State alum. "The reason I had those guys put in a word for me was that I knew what the response would be when they looked at my resume and saw that I was 61 years old," says Pont, who has preserved the hard, efficient frame that made him an all-American halfback. "There's this thing in coaching these days about being young enough to relate to the players. I don't quite understand that. There are 60-year-old teachers on every college campus in America - don't they have to relate?" Pont is a persuasive man. The selection process ended the day he was interviewed. The indomitable coach had a team again, except that the team didn't have any players. Recruiting them would not be easy because there were no scholarships to offer and no facilities to show off. While he was working up a list of available athletes, Pont was also building a locker room. A friend donated some lumber, the maintenance crew built the stalls, and Pont and his volunteer assistants brushed on the polyurethane finish. The team physician chipped in the money for the training room, and one of the n un's parents came through for a weight room, which the players share with the coeds. The coaches hoisted up some goal posts on a vacant meadow - which they sodded in their spare hours last summer - and Pont arranged for the Mount to play home games on a local high school field. Then he set about to fashion his eager but inauspicious young charges - mostly freshmen - into a collegiate football team. Finally, last September, there was a game to play. It was in Terre Haute, Indiana, against the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and before kickoff, Pont paced with all the nervous resolve that he felt back on New Year's Day, 1968. When the game was over, and the Mount had won, 31-10, the coach said he felt like shouting from rooftops. He put that game ball next to the one he kept from the day Indiana beat Purdue to win the Big Ten Conference Championship. When he walked into the cafeteria for breakfast Monday morning, the nuns stood up and applauded. It would, however, be the last time the Lions would win in their first season. "Getting our clock cleaned nine times really didn't bother me," says Pont in the wisdom of years. "If I had been coaching in Division I and we had lost nine straight games, I would have been going crazy. But the way I look at it, at this point it's all about new experiences." The first victory this year was the 100th of Pont's career, and the players carried him off the field on their shoulders, just like the Hoosiers had done after the Purdue game. To Pont, it felt just the same.