Football bowl season again has saturated us with sport’s most absurd cliché, the Gatorade bath for victorious coaches. In the past three weeks, players ceremoniously have dumped tubs of icy liquid on the heads of virtually every winning mentor at the conclusion of the 42 post-season bowls—New Mexico’s Bob Davie, Old Dominion’s Bobby Wilder, Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, South Florida’s Charlie Strong, Air Force’s Troy Calhoun, and on and on—in this stale choreography that is well past its expiration date.
It really is a trite ritual, with not an ounce of imagination or originality. It is the ultimate copy-cat routine, whose practitioners surely don’t realize that it had its roots in avenging the demanding coach, rather than honoring him.
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, the seventh week of the 1985 NFL season:
The New York Giants, after consecutive losses, were 3-3 and preparing to play division rival Washington. Third-year Giants coach Bill Parcells, known for his sarcastic motivational tactics, was “trying all week to light a fire under [nose tackle] Jim Burt,” according to his Giants teammate then, linebacker Harry Carson, “by hinting that Washington center Jeff Bostic might be too quick and too strong for Burt.
“So Burt does a great job all game long and we win [17-3],” Carson recalled years later, “and Jim comes over to me and says, ‘Let’s get Parcells. Let’s get that [blankety-blank] with the Gatorade.’ When Parcells took his headphones off, we drenched him. It was Jim Burt’s concept.”
That appeared to be the end of such an impolite thing. Until the second game of the next season, when the Giants rose up to smite the San Diego Chargers after an opening-game loss to Dallas. Carson considered how Parcells was “very superstitious; if you do something one week and you win, you continue to do that.”
So he revived the Gatorade bath and continued it through the 1986 season. By the time the Giants had won the Super Bowl, TV’s most visible football commentator, John Madden, had begun to draw diagrams of the Gatorade stunt as if it were a key third-down play. At one point, Carson borrowed a security guard’s overcoat to allow him to sneak up on Parcells with the bucket—as if, by then, Parcells didn’t know what was coming.
In his 1987 “autobiography”—one of those quick-turnaround, as-told-to tomes by a sudden celebrity—Parcells related his conclusion that “those showers turned out to be symbolic” of players demonstrating that the coach was “one of them” in their triumphs.
Of course, the whole business—still prominent in televised coverage and game highlights—was a windfall for Gatorade, even if the dunking regularly was done with plain water. A Gatorade spokesman once told me that “you really couldn’t plan to market something as well as the dunk has for us, because it highlights our presence on the sidelines, that we stand for fueling athletic performance in the pursuit of victory.”
He also admitted that, “while we loved the fact that it’s affiliated with victory celebrations, Gatorade is about drinking it, not throwing it. We want to promote its consumption.”
Anyway, here we are, more than 30 years since Jim Burt imposed angry retribution on his coach’s disagreeable tactics, being repeatedly subjected to a custom that not only is juvenile but possibly dangerous.
In December, 1990, veteran coach George Allen told The Associated Press that he had not being feeling well in the six weeks after his Long Beach State players gave him a Gatorade bath at the end of their football season. Days after that public comment, Allen, 72, died.
A subsequent autopsy established Allen’s cause of death as cardiac arrest, though both his attorney and his son said Allen’s death was totally unrelated to a bout with pneumonia which had had him feeling poorly those last few weeks. But a doctor I knew confirmed that there could be “some potential of risk in shocking the body” with an icy shower, because “extreme cold is a significant cardiac stressor.”
Maybe that’s why Kansas State’s players, after defeating Texas A&M in the Dec. 28 Texas Bowl, doused coach Bill Snyder with a bucket of confetti.
Snyder is 77. May he—and all of us—outlive the banality of the Gatorade bath.