This is about Joe Yukica, the football coach who wouldn’t stay fired.
Up in Hanover, N.H., where even pine trees are Dartmouth green (except during winter when they wear their white road uniforms), people take football seriously. There isn’t much else to do, after all. And, in a place where students still build a pregame bonfire, this was the autumn of their disgruntlement. Joe Yukica, 54, Dartmouth’s head coach since 1978, was enduring his third straight washout season. Athletic Director Ted Leland, contemplating the team’s unfolding 2-7-1 record, apparently thought it was time for a change. Leland, 36, is a resolute young man and maybe brash as well; ten Dartmouth head coaches had already left during his two-year tenure. So, though Yukica owned an estimable past-performance record, including three Ivy League championships in only eight seasons, Leland began to press him even before Dartmouth’s final game against Penn—despite the fact that Yukica had one full season left on his contract.
“It was how this thing was handled,” Yukica says. “On Aug. 6 I received a letter renewing my contract, not only for this season but for the next. In very glowing terms. Yet one week before the season was over Leland came into my office and started to talk. The thing became public—that I was probably going to be fired the following week. It was very upsetting, disruptive for my team and staff.”
In such a situation, of course, the sporting thing is to vanish like aerosol cologne. Coaches never hang around where they aren’t appreciated; they grab a fat payoff and vaporize. But Yukica hadn’t read that etiquette manual. He simply wanted to coach in 1986 and—look here—he had a contract that said he could. Leland and Yukica had a short go at negotiation. Yukica said he’d accept any performance standard Dartmouth might impose—five wins in 1986, the Ivy title, you name it. But Leland, with administrative backing, was immovable: Yukica could maybe be an assistant athletic director or something, but he couldn’t coach. On Friday, Nov. 29, Dartmouth announced he was finished.
Yet in this slipshod age, when contracts between otherwise honorable men have less throw-weight than a damp cocktail napkin, when your million-dollar-per-year athlete will regularly hold out, sulk like Achilles and try to renegotiate up, Joe Yukica did something unprecedented: He took Ted Leland to court. His attorneys got a restraining order against Leland. Judge Walter Murphy, himself a former high school football coach, felt that Dartmouth had breached its contract with Yukica; for one thing, the college was required to give the coach 12 months notice of termination and hadn’t. At that point Yukica seemed to be a field goal ahead.
Joe Yukica is plain and firm as zwieback, a big man, rather ponderous of gait, who could stand to recruit some more hair next season. His right little finger was bent permanently when he played end for Joe Paterno at Penn State back in the Korean War era. Football has been his life; right now it pays him $55,800 plus a scenically located eight-room ranch house in which he lives with his svelte wife, Betty. Their three children, all male, are grown, but Yukica doesn’t intend to quit sideline duty and take up full-time Parcheesi or sandal repair. The son of a Croatian immigrant steelworker from Midland, Pa., Yukica has a straight-ahead moral outlook with no fear of facing hard yardage. Leland certainly misjudged his man. “All we’re asking is that the college honor a contract,” says Yukica. “Our faculty are tenured people, that’s a contractual agreement. Why am I treated any differently?”
On Friday, Dec. 13, a hearing was held. Yukica called on Joe Paterno, Boston College coach Jack Bicknell and Dartmouth’s most successful coach ever, Bob Blackman. All testified that the firing would jeopardize Yukica’s future. Paterno was quoted as saying, “I can’t fire a secretary like that. I just felt we [college coaches] got to take a stand.” Judge Murphy issued his restraining order, and matters were referred back to the Dartmouth College Athletic Council for clarification. Yukica, a five-touchdown underdog, seemed bound for an upset.
Then, on Jan. 2, the DCAC announced it had voted 9-1 against Yukica for what it described as “a variety of reasons.” Yet the DCAC, made up of students, faculty, alumni and administrators, didn’t seem comfortable sacking the coach. Meetings were secret, though Yukica had requested an open session. The following day Judge Murphy indicated he considered the council’s “variety of reasons” neither various nor reasonable enough to constitute cause. He sustained the injunction against Dartmouth.
With out-of-court negotiations continuing, the outcome remains unclear. Yukica has continued, under court sanction, to operate as a lame-duck football coach—not a happy posture for recruiting young men. Dartmouth must now cope with intense fourth-quarter pressure, and compromise—on Yukica’s terms—would seem probable. Indeed, the recent football slump at Dartmouth can’t be laid entirely on Yukica’s shoulders. The admission of women in 1972 cost Dartmouth, with only 4,200 students, nearly half its male athletic pool. The academic standard had remained high, even in comparison to some other Ivy League schools. No amount of coaching can make up for that.
Besides, some football-watchers wondered, if Notre Dame could allow Gerry Faust’s five-year contract to run its painful course to conclusion, why couldn’t Dartmouth have done the same for Yukica, a veteran coach with no obvious failings of character? Contracts, either legal or social, are the adhesive of any community; they extend good faith and encourage commitment. Breaking them, merely in the interest of winning more football games, bespeaks a cynicism the Ivies profess to abhor.
Still Yukica bears no grudge against Dartmouth. He’d just like the chance to try for another winning season next fall. “We’ve had a very good experience here,” he says simply. “Deep down in my heart, I think it’s going to be all right.”