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Abilities keep older managers, coaches in game


Something about the number startled.


It's an age when most have stopped working and many head to nursing homes. A generation ago, those who reached the mark had cheated fate. But this month, 80-year-old Marv Levy became the newest general manager of the Buffalo Bills.

He isn't the first gerontological wonder in his field. Florida State's Bobby Bowden, 76, and Pennsylvania State's Joe Paterno, 79, coached against one another in this year's Orange Bowl. Jack McKeon managed the Florida Marlins to a World Series title at age 72.

But Levy was hired at an age when few have worked in sports at all. The move by 87-year-old Bills owner Ralph Wilson drew cheap jokes about the "Sunshine Boys." Even positive reviews said Levy would bring "wisdom" to Buffalo rather than, say, spark or innovation.

Far from being an anomaly, Levy represents the advance line in a revolution, say experts on aging. Baby boomers, the 20th-century's greatest catalyst for sociological change, are turning 60. And improved medical science is expected to keep them alive through the heart troubles and cancers that killed their parents.

At the same time, fertility rates are declining.

So the old shall inherit the Earth, or at least more of it than in the past.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people 65 and older will account for 19.6 percent of the U.S. population in 2030, up from 12.4 percent in 2000. The number of people 80 or older is expected to increase from 9.3 million in 2000 to 19.5 million in 2030.

Discussion of the trend tends to focus on the enormous cost of caring for an older and presumably sicker society. But experts on aging say 80- and 90-year-olds will be doing things that were thought impossible to do at that age a generation ago.

"That's the future you're going to see with the aging of the baby boomers," said Paul Hodge, director of Harvard's Generations Policy Program.

Hodge thinks that in 20 years, retirement as we know it will be obsolete because people in their 70s and 80s will have the ability and economic need to work. And the elderly are especially likely to hang on to high-paying, sought-after jobs, such as those in sports.

"It's being pushed back now because there is an understanding that people are in better condition and that they're not looking forward to retirement at age 55, 60 or 65," said Hubie Brown, who at 69 was hired as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies after a 16-year hiatus from the National Basketball Association.

In the corporate world, high-profile business executives usually retire in their 60s. Even those who graduate to coveted seats on company governing boards usually move on at 70.

But that is changing, too, experts say.

Sumner Redstone, 82, has held on as chairman and chief executive officer of media conglomerate Viacom Inc. for almost 20 years, taking the helm at age 64 in 1987. David Oreck, founder of the vacuum company Oreck Corp., does TV and radio spots as spokesman for his company at 82, in addition to being an avid runner, pilot and motorcyclist. Jack Welch, the celebrity CEO of General Electric, retired in 2001 at 65 but has gone on to write several best-selling business advice books.

John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a human resources consulting company based in Chicago, said more executives, like all employees, are holding on to their jobs and high-profile lives well into the twilight years.

"There used to be a cliff formula, where when you hit 65 you'd fall off the cliff and you were out of the workplace no matter how talented you were or how much good you were doing the company," Challenger said.

It is perhaps unsurprising that sports would offer a proving ground for the aged and able. Athletics have always provided highly visible battlefields for the forces of prejudice and progress. Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson preceded the civil rights movement by a generation. Female tennis stars stood near the front lines of the women's movement as they sought respect and equal pay in the 1970s.

Old coaches and general mangers don't face such virulent prejudice, but when their teams hit the skids, they hear the inevitable questions about being set in their ways or out of touch with younger athletes.

"The individual that's responsible for you getting that opportunity, that person must have courage because until you get it done, they're going to be criticized and put under the microscope," Brown said.

Despite such skepticism, Hodge said, he is not surprised to see hints of the trend in sports.

"There's not as much of the age bias you might find in the normal workplace," he said. "If you can win, they'll want you, and experience can help you win. I think it's great."

Other gerontologists say that cases such as the hiring of Levy might become more frequent but are unlikely to become common because of age discrimination and because many people still want to stop working in their early 60s.

"I think slowly that will change," said Robert Friedland, director of Georgetown's Center on an Aging Society. "But there's nothing to make me believe it will radically change."

Sports history is hardly devoid of grand old men. Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics at 88, and George Halas coached the Chicago Bears at 72. Both owned their teams, so no one was pushing them aside.

Casey Stengel managed the New York Mets until he was 75, but in his last years he was more a curiosity and source of lore than the innovator he had been with the New York Yankees.

Branch Rickey and Red Auerbach ran professional teams well into their 70s. On the college level, Amos Alonzo Stagg coached football at the College of the Pacific until he was 84.

But many of history's "great old coaches" weren't that old by modern standards. Miller Huggins, the New York Yankees manager known for taking a firm hand with Babe Ruth, died at 50. Vince Lombardi died at 57. Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes was 65 when he struck a Clemson player at the Gator Bowl and was forced to resign.

There was an understanding that few were to hang on. John Wooden quit at UCLA at 65. Adolph Rupp at Kentucky and Phog Allen at Kansas made it to 70 but were forced out by state law. Paul "Bear" Bryant stepped aside as Alabama football coach at 69. He had a fatal heart attack less than a month after his final game.

Paterno has occasionally noted Bryant's death in explaining why he has coached so long. When Penn State fell on hard times in recent seasons, Paterno came under intense scrutiny from fans and the national sports media, many saying the demands of modern strategy and recruiting were beyond him.

But he refused to step aside and this year led the Nittany Lions to an 11-1 record. Suddenly, the legend of Joe Pa was back.

Bowden has faced less criticism at Florida State. He is a football chief executive more than a coach, delegating the design of offense and defense to assistants. But when the CEO shows up in the living rooms of top recruits, he still seals many a deal.

Allen Barra, who published a biography of Bryant last year, said he expects college coaches, especially, to stick around longer and longer.

"I think much more than in the pros they can become entrenched," he said. "You build your little empire, and so much of it runs through you. So much of your life goes into it that what else are you going to do?"

In the same years that Paterno faced questions about his age, professional teams began turning to older coaches. Dick Vermeil, who took a 15-year break from National Football League coaching, won a Super Bowl at 63 with five assistants 60 or older. In baseball, the Marlins hired McKeon at 72. The Giants turned to Felipe Alou at 68.

In the NBA, Brown knew that he represented a group of older coaches who itched to return but faced limited opportunities.

"You want to succeed, because you want people to stop taking the stance at the high school, college and NBA level that once you hit 60, you have to go out to pasture, that you have limited communication skills, that the game has somehow passed you by," he said.

Many of Brown's players were in elementary school when he left his previous job in 1986. But he had conducted coaching clinics and worked with college players, so he felt comfortable demanding discipline and accountability.

He said he never dwelled on potential skepticism from his players or the media and fans watching the team.

"They are adjusting to you; you are not adjusting to them," he said.

Not that coaching at 70 is the same as coaching at 50. Older coaches must maintain a balanced diet, get plenty of rest and stay on medication schedules, Brown said.

"You have to take care of your body, and that has to be a major emphasis throughout the season," he said. "You have to be as disciplined about your physical status as you are about planning for the game and planning for practice."

Brown succeeded, bringing fierce defense and disciplined offense to a franchise that had floundered before he arrived. The Grizzlies won 50 games in his second season. The next year, he experienced the downside of coaching as an older person when he was forced to retire because of health concerns.

"I know that for me, it was extremely enjoyable, the camaraderie with the younger players and the chance for your grandchildren to see that Grandpa can still get it done," he said of the experience. "It's a warm and fuzzy feeling."

Some older coaches and executives bring knowledge of techniques lost to the modern game.

Pete Newell was last a head basketball coach in 1960. But at 90, Newell still runs an annual camp for college big men. With the growing emphasis on guards and motion offenses at all levels of basketball, Newell thinks there aren't many coaches left who can teach the footwork and positioning vital to post play.

His age and experience, reaching back to an era when centers dominated, allow him to fill a niche. Newell might forget a name or get mixed up about a date, but his voice livens when he explains how a center can cut off angles on defense and modulate the tempo of an offense.

"We're doing something that's hardly even done today, and that's teaching footwork," Newell said. "We don't even allow the players to dunk the ball, and it's not that I have anything against the dunk, but I want them to learn ambidexterity."

Levy seems to be the prototype heralded by aging experts. He runs five miles three times a week, lifts weights and drops quotations he learned while studying for a master's degree in English history at Harvard.

He is also self-deprecating. "They say two things happen when you get older," he told the Associated Press. "One is you begin to forget things. And I can't remember what the other thing is right now."

But not so self-deprecating that he would rule himself out as a head coach for the Bills when reporters asked. (He has since said he will stay off the sidelines.)

Hodge said those like Levy and Paterno could serve as role models for aging boomers.

"They'll say, 'Why should I stop working at 65 when these guys are still out there at 75 or 80?'" he said. "This is going to be big in every area of life, but I think you'll see sports leading the way."


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