Editor’s note: This column on the bond between Linwood Sexton and his son, Eric, appeared in The Eagle on May 18, 2008. Linwood Sexton died Wednesday at the age of 90.
Eric Sexton has been on the job as Wichita State athletic director for just more than three weeks. Do we really want to bombard him with the football question already?
No, we don’t.
But it is interesting that Sexton’s father, Linwood, is one of the most celebrated football players in Shocker history. His jersey No. 66 is one of only two to be retired. (Prince McJunkins’ No. 1 is the other.)
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Linwood Sexton was a star halfback from 1945-47, when he rushed for 1,995 yards. He is a charter inductee into the Shocker Sports Hall of Fame.
And he is the AD’s father. Don’t forget that. Or that they’re extremely close; Eric is Linwood’s only child.
The father influenced the son from the day Eric was born.
I wanted to know if their relationship made a difference in the way Eric Sexton might approach the football issue when he inevitably is forced to approach it. It is, after all, The Football Issue. If only people had cared this much about Shocker football when there was a program, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
Before delving into the football fracas, though, I wanted to know how Linwood, by far the biggest influence on his son’s life, felt about the decision to drop football for a variety of reasons - apathy being one of the biggest - in 1986.
“Well, I was mad as hell,” he said. “But it didn’t do any good. I think the question was asked before they made the decision: How mad do you think people would be if we did away with football and how long would they stay mad? Well, I’m still mad because you looked forward to going to those ballgames.’’
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Now we know where Linwood Sexton stands.
What about Eric?
He’s playing it politically safe for now, not saying too much. And what he does say has been spit and polished by the time it leaves his lips.
He was a student and a member of the Shocker men’s golf team in 1986, when the football program was disbanded. He had a lot of friends on the team.
He started going to WSU football games with his father when he was barely old enough to walk. So there is a strong bond.
He’s not like previous athletic directors Tom Shupe, Gary Hunter, Bill Belknap and Jim Schaus - men with sympathy to the football cause but no emotional connection.
“I was in the stands with my fellow student-athletes when (football was dropped),” Sexton said. “I was there for my friends, who were out on that field giving their hearts out. I understand what it was like, having a football program.’’
The first book Eric received from his dad - perhaps other than “Run, Spot, Run” - was a two-volume “Vince Lombardi on Football.”
Eric Sexton played one year of high school football before he realized it wasn’t the sport for him to play, but he recognizes his family’s legacy is wrapped in pigskin.
I couldn’t help but wonder if he thought the best way to honor that legacy - and his father - was to develop a plan to re-instate football at Wichita State. He is in the AD’s chair now; he has power.
However, it’s not the kind of power he is ready to unleash. He’s doing his best Clark Kent for the moment, keeping that super-human strength hidden.
He is not pounding on the door of WSU president Don Beggs, pleading football’s case. He is not ringing the cell phones of Board of Regents members, extolling the virtues of WSU football.
“It is so soon for me here,” Sexton said. “I have not really even gotten my arms around what great value we have right now. It would do our coaches, our athletic program, a disservice for me to presume any other things other than to get a good handle on what’s going on right now. And to then be able to look at the future opportunities within the athletic department to move us forward.’’
In other words: Please don’t ask me about football now. Please, please, please.
As much as Shocker football means to Linwood Sexton, he is in no hurry for his son to take on that 1,200-pound gorilla.
“If we had football at Wichita State, I’d go watch it,” he said. “But it’s not the No. 1 priority for me. And it’s not my problem. I know Eric has a plateful right now. There’s no need for me or anyone else to add anything to it.
“I know there’s a lot of interest in WSU football, but I haven’t seen any money.’’
Nor has anyone else. Which is a real sticking point. And, really, all you need to know about the prospects of a football revival at WSU.
Interesting to talk about. Impossible to fund. Or so it seems.
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Football is not the bond to this father and son relationship. It has been important, but the relationship has so many layers. Eric Sexton’s success or failure as athletic director will not be measured on whether he brings back football. Nor, obviously, will the love he and his father feel for one another.
If football returns on Eric’s watch, his father will be gung-ho. If it doesn’t, his father will be just as gung-ho.
Eric inherits a strong department that is on a slight decline. He cannot rely on his experience as an AD because he has none.
At 43, he is a novice. But his love for the university and his apprenti ceship in government relations, which allowed him to dip his toes into the Shockers’ athletic waters, should serve him well.
“I’m more nervous than proud of Eric because I’ve been proud of him all along,” Linwood said. “Knowing the nature of an athletic director, you’re only as good as your teams. But I know that if work has anything to do with it, there is no worry. Whatever it takes, he’s always risen to the top of taking care of business.’’
Eric Sexton says he learned that from his father, who learned it from his father.
Linwood’s dad, Edwin, owned a tailoring shop on East Ninth when Linwood was a kid. He spent hours there, as did his mother, Beatrice, and was successful only because he willed himself to be successful.
And because he treated everyone - regardless of their pedigree - with respect and appreciation.
“That was something that was ingrained in us,” Linwood said. “Regardless of whether they had 15 cents or a million dollars, you treat them all the same.’’
He has worked for Hiland Dairy since 1953. He’s 82. He goes to work early in the morning and stays until 5 or 6. Or 7, if need be.
He and his wife, Delores, raised their only child, Eric, on a farm 41/2 miles outside of Halstead. Delores, who died in 2000, was a teacher - first for 10 years at Dunbar Elementary and for 20 at Peterson Elementary. In between, she took six years away from teaching to raise Eric.
“From my mother, I took my heart,” Eric said. “She cared about everybody, took care of everybody. She thought of others before she thought of herself.
“From my father, I took my guts and my ability to persevere. And I also took my willingness and need to serve from him.’’
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There aren’t more than a few dozen Wichitans, surely, who don’t know Linwood. He’s one of those people you see everywhere; most frequently at games.
“I’d go to a jacks game,” he said.
He wasn’t kidding.
He shows up at City League basketball games with his cronies and he rarely misses a WSU event, especially now that his kid is in charge.
He doesn’t watch like you and me. He watches like a coach would watch.
“I never show my displeasure, but sometimes I’m churning inside,” Linwood said.
Eric inherited that way of watching games. So, Shocker coaches, consider this a warning. He’ll be watching you through the eyes of a coach, not a fan.
“You get passionate about the plays, not necessarily the game,” Eric said. “You’re watching and saying, ‘Boy, that was a good block’ or ‘Boy, that was a great pass.’ That’s how I was taught.’’
Since Linwood has always been a sports junkie, Eric had no choice, really. It’s why he follows all sports - hockey, field hockey, lacrosse. You name it.
Golf, though, is Eric’s specialty. He’s close to a scratch player and it was on long drives to junior events when he was a kid that he and his father developed an even stronger bond.
Eric loved everything about them - except the stogie his dad would light up along the way.
“It’s probably the reason he never smoked,” Linwood said.
Being an only child, Eric was under watchful eyes. He learned respect from an early age and, Linwood said, was never a worry.
Eric made really good grades. He was popular with his teachers and fellow students. He always had that personality that radiates, so he’s almost always in a crowd.
“I used to have a saying,“ Linwood said. “And it was that I brought him in and I can take him out.’’
There was a policy in the Sexton home that the screen door was to be locked after curfew. That meant that if Eric wandered home from a night out with friends past curfew, he couldn’t get in. And he knew that wouldn’t set well with his parents, so he never missed.
“Never a moment’s problem,” Linwood said.
Their relationship has only gotten stronger. Eric looks at his dad with a healthy dose of affection and reverence and Linwood feels the same for his son.
You root for people like them because of who they are and what they represent.
It’s hard to believe, with the upbringing he had and the father who stands devoutly in his corner, that Eric Sexton won’t be a successful athletic director at Wichita State.
Football, really, has nothing to do with it.