An old gallows-humor joke advises that "mixed emotions are what a man feels when he sees his mother-in-law going over a cliff in his new car."
That came to mind on this week when a man said: "You Cornellians must be in a bind. If the 49ers win Sunday, you might rejoice because their coach was supposedly such a popular man around your school when he was the football coach. Yet you will have to explain why he was fired and the third year of his contract was bought out. Guess he was unpopular with the wrong people."
My answer was that I was sure Dave Spoth of East Amherst will be among those former Cornell football players who will be happy to see George Seifert's San Francisco team win the Super Bowl on Sunday. You see, Dave played on the Cornell teams that went 1-8 and 2-7 in Seifert's two years as head football coach. When we talked at the Spoth Farm Market on Transit Road last August, Dave had good words for his former coach.
Although I was not close to the athletic scene at Cornell when Seifert coached the Big Red in 1975 and '76, I was not surprised to see he was replaced after two seasons by a man named Bob Blackman. I was not surprised because over the years I have noted that unsuccessful coaches get fired as quickly in the Ivy League as they do in any big-time football program.
Like others, I believed that Seifert had not known what he was walking into when he took the Cornell job. Sure, the academic requirements at Stanford, where he had been an assistant coach, had been stringent. But at Stanford a football player could be given an athletic scholarship that took care of tuition, books, room, board and laundry. There are no athletic scholarships at Cornell.
Then there was the problem of recruiting. Seifert, a University of Utah graduate, had spent little time in the East before coming to Ithaca and probably did not know just how much Cornell had to offer a young prospect.
In the other direction, his replacement, Bob Blackman, had been a big winner at Dartmouth; his name was associated with Ivy League championships. He left Dartmouth to go to Iowa, where he was fired for failing to do what no other coach had been able to do for many years -- surpass Michigan and Ohio State in the standings. But the Cornellians were sure he could win in their league.
His teams did not win any championships in his six-year tenure; his best team was only 5-3-1. But he made the alumni feel better about the teams, which were more "representative" than Seifert's had been.
After leaving Cornell, Seifert went back to Stanford to become an assistant under Bill Walsh, who is now an NBC-TV analyst and coaching legend. He moved to San Francisco with Walsh and was about as anonymous as Papa Gabor until he became head coach of the 49ers last year.
Writers of pre-game stories are saying that if Seifert wins on Sunday, he would be the only first-year coach to win a Super Bowl except Don McCafferty of the then Baltimore Colts, who won in 1971. But they are not making much of the fact that it has been a long time since an assistant coach who has been promoted to head coach has won a pro championship.
There are those who will say that John Rauch, John Madden and Tom Flores all made the move from Raiders assistant to head coach successfully. No sale in this corner. Many of us believe, with good reason, that so long as Al Davis is the managing partner of that franchise, he will be the co-coach.
Anyway, I know some Cornellians who will be rooting for George Seifert on Sunday. They are people who got to know him when he was the head coach there and appreciate the way he has praised the university where he had some tough days.