It's time, folks. After eight months of starvation, you can once again fill your belly with a whole lotta pigskin. Choose your own barbecue sauce.
Mr. Zemek's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prologue and Citizen-Journalist Entry
Welcome back, college football fans of America. Thought this week would never arrive, didn't you? (The wait seems longer every year, doesn't it?) Before discussing the past weekend, assessing the season to come, and dealing with big-picture issues in the sport, however, a bit of housekeeping as we start another journey together in the seventh year of the Weekly Affirmation. This column has had its own identity, but it's time to modify things a bit to give you even more comprehensive college football coverage, analysis and commentary.
It bears mentioning at the outset that these feature columns you read on Mondays (today is a post-Labor Day special edition) are different in scope, tone and texture from the Instant Analysis pieces provided 90 minutes after the big games end on Saturdays. For this basic reason, it's worthwhile to try and make connections between the analytical process that goes on during gameday and the process of "news organization" that takes place on Sundays. In other words, if you find something weird in an Instant Analysis piece, chances are it will be more fully explained in this column or its companion column, the Monday Morning Quarterback (which is also out today on the CFN website). And if it's not, well, ask a question or three. That's why I'm here.
The other major effort you'll see from the Weekly Affirmation (and the MMQB) this year is an attempt to fit into your lives by providing different kinds of commentary. I have my devoted readers who love the way I write--I call them my "Premium Members," and they know who they are. But I have also encountered a lot of people who just don't have much time to digest everything I put out on a weekly basis during the season, and it is this constituency that I will try to reach out to in 2007 (and beyond). I'll call this group the "Fast-Track Gold Club."
In this and all future Weekly Affirmations (and MMQBs), the first part of the column will feature "Fast-Track Gold Club" content, short bits, nuggets, bullet points, questions, and other things suited to the needs of the office worker and the time-crunched parent. It's the drive-thru part of the Weekly Affirmation. Then, after the quick-hitters at the front end of the column, my "Premium Members" can stick around and digest the long-form essays they've come to know and love. Perhaps, through this process, the Fast-Track Gold Club members can get the essentials on Monday or Tuesday and then, if they have the extra time, can read the Premium Member content on a leisurely Friday night, just before the Saturday buffet of games. At the end of the season, both camps in my readership could become one and the same, and we won't need these distinctions in future years. But for now, let's run with this two-pronged system.
Okay, enough with the preambles. The other new element of this column is something I'll immediately submit for your reading pleasure.
A big goal of the Weekly Affirmation is to democratize college football journalism and journalism in general. If you have a worthy piece of editorial commentary to submit, I'll carefully consider it and, if I see some quality in it, will work with you to publish it in this space. I have a great job, and so it's important for me to let other people in on the fun and give them the chance to craft a piece of journalistic work. Hey, they might get hate mail, too, after I forward messages that come into my inbox!
So as we start the 2007 year of the Weekly Affirmation, here's our first "citizen journalist" entry, from Frank McNellis of Sebring, Fla. Mr. McNellis submitted the piece before this past weekend. I chose not to change the tense of the piece because it now has a special "time capsule" quality to it, in light of Appalachian State's stunning upset of Michigan this past weekend. It helps to put the big story of the past weekend into perspective, but it also serves as a sound commentary on the issues of scheduling and BCS-worthy portfolios.
It's not Division I-A and Division I-AA anymore. It's now the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Football Championship Subdivision. No, I don't like it either. It's more like the Bigs for I-A and the Subdivision for I-AA--forget the "official" label d'jour. The NCAA made the previous I-A and I-AA labels in 1973 and 1978, and since that time, ONLY FIVE TEAMS had never stooped to conquer what should be called a "subdivision" team. They were:
Michigan Notre Dame Ohio State UCLA USC
And then there were four. Michigan fell from the ranks of the noble to leave only four teams who have never sought to lay a whoopin' on a lower-classified school. The mighty Wolverines, whom Brent Musburger and Bob Davie felt would be preseason No. 1 if they could top Ohio State last year, are playing Applachian State. A victory certain. Some play the weak even in multiples, while others avoid them. Those that play the weak will lobby for BCS votes when the going gets tough late in the year. They'll talk about all the "special circumstances" that prevented them from finding a "Bigs" school, and which forced them to settle on Subdivision U.
Those sure are "special circumstances," all right. Special in the most pathetic way possible.
Although I've not sought it, nor heard it, I'm fairly sure Michigan has "extenuating circumstances" that just plopped Appy State on their schedule for a season opener. I think it's getting better, however. Instead of seeking teams from football's subdivision, there's been an upgrade. It's open season on such Bowl Division teams as: Middle Tennessee, LA Monroe, LA Lafayette, Idaho, Navy, Air Force, Temple, and others. See the conquerors of these Sun Belt and low-rung independent teams strut and posture come bowl game selection time. After all, they've won their required eight games, right?
In the "credit where due" category, tip o' the hat to Auburn and Georgia. Both have stepped up to the proud tradition of their conference member Tennessee when it comes to scheduling opponents. Florida State has improved as well.
Notre Dame's argument in support of booking bottom feeders is just as good as certain SEC team arguments (not for the aforementioned trio of Auburn, UGA and Tennessee). The part of their respective schedules that ain't bull is a real bear (Michigan, Georgia Tech, Penn State). Just don't come whining, though, when the BCS doesn't give the level of love that might have been attained by playing higher contenders throughout a season. You can't take the month of November off if you want to play at the big-boy table.
But what about Heisman, Outland and other considerations? The guy that came in second in the 2006 Heisman race (Arkansas' Darren McFadden) will be going against non-conference behemoths such as these: Troy, North Texas, Chattanooga and Florida International. Expect hype for his per-game totals of 200 yards rushing and 450 of total offense. Show me the honor.
So it's hats off to Ohio State, Notre Dame, UCLA, and USC, with special recognition for the more honorable Tennessees, Missouris, and those working their schedules toward challenge and not cheap victories. For certain there are many others unnamed herein for better or worse. Just spare us the tears during the BCS stretch run.
Part One: Short-Form Weekly Affirmation/Fast-Track Gold Club
So, no long essays in this section--I promise. There will be some questions, however, because (like my Premium Members) I want you to think, think deeply, and think meaningfully about college football, which is not just a game but also a business in which human beings are involved, and in which whole communities and institutions are substantially invested. To this end, I'll be asking you "reflection questions" just as much as I'll make some declarative statements.
For starters, try on these questions and think about them over the week (and, frankly, for longer than that): 1) When does a highly-accomplished coach deserve to be on the hot seat? 2) What is the most unforgivable sin a coach can commit? 3) What are your feelings about Chad Henne right now? 4) Is there such a thing as a "players' loss" in college football, or are all losses "coaches' losses"? 5) What coaches would you put on the hottest hot seats? 6) How do you measure your own performance in your own job? 7) Would you want one really bad day at the office to determine your employment status? 8) What was a recent coach firing or hiring that was justified, and which you felt strongly about? 9) What was a recent hiring/firing that was unjustified, and which you felt strongly about? 10) Basically, do you have a well-mapped-out ethical and moral framework that guides you in terms of the issue of coach employment/termination?
That addresses one subset of issues raised over the weekend. Now let's get to the on-field stuff.
The name "Weekly Affirmation" (for new readers of this column) came from the notion that after week one of the season, lots of people will affirm, revise, or rebut various arguments about all the teams in the land. The best prognosticators aren't the ones who know what will happen before the season starts; no, the best assessors of teams are the ones who can look at one weekend of action and make proper judgments in all directions: affirming the teams they liked, downgrading the teams they were alarmed by, and rebutting overly optimistic (or negative) judgments of teams that performed way above or below preseason expectations.
Here, then, is the 2007 edition of the "Week One Affirmations, Revisions and Rebuttals.
Affirmations of preseason judgments after one week are as follows:
Yes, Georgia will be formidable. The Dawgs didn't drop passes Saturday night, and they won. What a concept. It didn't (and won't) take much for this team to be much better than last year. Blocking and tackling don't look as good when skill position/perimeter players fail to hang onto the ball. Fix that one thing, and you have a better team like the one that thumped Oklahoma State.
Yes, BYU will be a load. TCU might have all the defense in the world, but Bronco Mendenhall's Cougars can play defense, too, as shown by a smothering performance against Arizona. The Horned Frogs' journey to Provo this year will be a very dicey proposition.
Yes, Virginia is lousy. The Weekly Affirmation wants to be less critical of underachievers and underperformers, because this is collegiate sports, not professional sports. So when we say that a team or an individual is bad, we'll let that simple comment speak for itself. No personal ripping or bashing. Simple performance assessment is enough of an indictment.
Yes, South Carolina is not ready to win its division. This columnist might be the most ardent Steve Spurrier apologist on the planet, but it's clear that the Gamecocks--on and off the field--aren't focused. They're not doing the things that a truly dedicated and committed team should be doing. Mentally, they're not ready to act (let alone play) like a championship team. Blake Mitchell is a long way from mature, and you need maturity to win on the road in the SEC. Spurrier must feel as though he's coaching Doug Johnson all over again, a kid who couldn't get his head straight. We all know how many SEC titles Spurrier won with Johnson as his starting QB.
Next, the 2007 week one revisions:
Wait a minute, maybe Cal will be a tougher test for USC than Oregon. That speed--at so many positions--will give the Trojans a literal and figurative run for the money. It was amazing to see Tennessee look so slow against the Golden Bears on Saturday night. I still have issues with Jeff Tedford in big games, but that talent might be too substantial in the end.
Wait a minute, maybe Wisconsin will win the Big Ten. Tyler Donovan picked up where John Stocco left off. And there's this other Big Ten team that has a senior quarterback who didn't act like much of a leader (or perform well) against Appalachian State. Hmmmm...
Wait a minute, maybe Auburn won't be that special. LSU was the SEC West favorite, but it didn't seem like a runaway. Now it does. The same broken record is emerging with respect to Auburn's offense. Nothing has changed since Jason Campbell left and Brandon Cox entered two years ago. Indecisive quarterbacking, shaky receiving, subpar line play. Offensive coordinator Al Borges has his work cut out for him, and the shine of 2004 doesn't glow the way it used to.
Wait a minute, maybe Temple can play. The Owls gave Navy--a regular bowl team under Paul Johnson--a serious run Friday night. Would be a great story, and maybe it's wishful thinking, but let's see how this plays out.
And now, the week one rebuttals of knee-jerk reactions:
No, no, no--Michigan isn't finished. There's too much talent on that sideline for the season to go into the tank. (But the evident lack of maturity from Mr. Henne will prevent the Maize and Blue from taking the conference outright.)
No, no, no--Texas won't have a spectacular crash-and-burn. Colt McCoy is not a senior (unlike Chad Henne), and so I expect him to get his head on straight. Still, it's more than a little alarming that Texas could be so flat in the opener after having so much to prove this year.
No, no, no--let's not get crazy about UCLA. Only 14 first-half points against Stanford before padding the ol' statline late? It will take a lot more to sell me on the Bruins, especially in a deep Pac-10.
We conclude the short-form Weekly Affirmation with some standard-issue quick comments:
They play some defense in the Mountain West Conference--just ask Virginia, Arizona and Baylor.
There were a lot more week-one shootouts this year compared to last year, a heartening development. Offenses, in an ideal world, are supposed to be ahead of defenses, for obvious reasons. (As a matter of fact, they usually aren't, but in an ideal world, they should be.) Good to know that a number of coaches and coordinators had their quarterbacks ready to perform.
The ACC Coastal Division comes down to one question and one question only: Taylor Bennett or Sean Glennon?
Part Two: Long-Form Weekly Affirmation/Premium Members
Being a sportswriter used to mean that one would simply chronicle the games people play, and that was it. And while I still live for the pleasure of describing a just-completed game--I could care less about recruiting, fantasy football, bench presses, or 40-meter clock times--it's nevertheless true that sportswriting can no longer be limited to Grantland Rice romanticism. Any sportswriter worth his/her keep has to give some time (though not out of proportion relative to the on-field action) to social, cultural, moral and ethical issues. College football and other organized sports have become billion-dollar industries that now demand, like it or not, the kind of scrutiny befitting any enterprise in which that much money is exchanged, and in which so many people have a profound investment of some sort, be it time, money, emotions, family, or all of the above.
Therefore, after eight dormant months, the Weekly Affirmation needs to start the year with some big-picture reflections on sports journalism and football culture.
First off--and it's not hard to see why this is part of the long-form portion of this column--anyone who appreciates good sportswriting owes a debt to the late David Halberstam, who was killed in a car accident on April 23. Halberstam made his name and reputation by covering the Vietnam War and race issues, but he produced sports books and essays that are widely regarded as model examples of sports reportage. Halberstam investigated the sports world as a fan and lover--sports books were his vacations, his breaks from "serious" projects--and yet his sports books towered over the work of everyday sportswriters. He was that good, and he had that much of an impact on the worlds of sports and journalism (journalism, especially--Halberstam picked up where Edward R. Murrow left off). Halberstam didn't focus on college sports--he stuck with the pros, and was working on a pro football book when he died--but this space still owes him due recognition.
Halberstam gave the world many gifts, but the one that the college football community needs to use a bit more is the ability to tell a story (or identify it) well, and with patience. Readers always tell me that "brevity is the soul of wit." Well, David Halberstam told the world that length is necessary for the telling of a more complete and accurate story. There's a reason why I generally avoid radio, and why you won't find me on TV anytime soon: I'm a writer. Writers--those who work at newspapers and here on the Internet--believe that the printed word and the act of reading are the best ways of serving the English language while educating and, at times, entertaining an audience.
The written word lays out a story without using visual images as a crutch, and without speeding up the human brain, which is already hyperstimulated as it is. A good life is best savored with a properly functioning mind that can take the time to appreciate life's gifts. A well-oiled mind, then, is a mind that is slowed down and allowed to process complex realities. And as any college football fan knows in this era of the BCS, this sport is incredibly complex. In-depth discussions are needed, even though--as I've learned in six-plus years at this job--lots of fans and readers are simply pressed for time. As the years and seasons go by, we ought to be growing in our understanding of college football as a sport and as a subject of journalistic attention. If we remain locked in the same predictable, emotion-fed arguments come 2012 or 2017, it will be a sad commentary on all of us, myself at the head of the list.
David Halberstam searched for the truth in the stories he covered. He didn't possess the truth--he looked for it and tried to understand it. A number of readers have, over the years, felt that I speak as though I possess the truth, when in fact, I'm simply trying to promote higher standards of argumentation and discussion. It's fair to say that David Halberstam was one such inspiration for this larger trajectory in my columns. David Halberstam believed in the value of learning, the importance of explaining, and the need to derive deeper meanings and values from any facet of life and any human endeavor. That's what this column is committed to as well, and that's why length is needed in the world of writing--not exclusively, but substantially.
As we hold David Halberstam's example in our minds, let's now proceed to a brief examination of college football journalism, albeit on the TV side. We have to look at four nasty letters (even though they're the letters that bring us more college football games than ever before): E-S-P-N.
Halberstam would recoil at the way ESPN tries to complete the story in college football before that story has ever been written in the first place. Last year, the Michigan-Ohio State game was hyped on the final Saturday of September, almost two months before the game. All the publicity given to the game nearly robbed Florida of its rightful place in the BCS title game. Thankfully, the need to avoid a rematch entered enough minds that the (small remaining bit of) sanctity in the sport was preserved. The larger lesson of that story, though, was to avoid excess hyping or premature projections. In college football, the only responsible journalistic approach is to let the season play out and then decide the merits of given arguments or competitions. It's juvenile to be looking three months ahead... after all, look at what happened to Chad Henne and the Michigan Wolverines this past Saturday. Their minds were in late November, not September 1 at 12:05 p.m. They paid a price.
No one at ESPN, though, seems to have paid any attention. Throughout August, and especially as the season approached, ESPN did extensive week-by-week projections of how the season and its rankings would play out. Can't anyone in Bristol realize how this poisons the well and predisposes people to cognitively frame the season before it has even begun? It's such a manifestly anti-journalistic bent; there should be ways of entertaining an audience that don't soil the (already rotten) reputation of journalism in this country.
Let's say this simply but clearly: let's stop rushing to premature conclusions and pronounce teams as dead (or, conversely, New Orleans-bound) after the first, second or third weeks of the season. The desire for a "strong take" and for "opinionated talk" is overpowering any sense of cerebral rationality that might still exist when it comes to discussing college football. Fans should be passionate about their teams, but football journalists--especially those on TV and radio--must not fan the flames of idle speculation. Our sound-byte media culture prevents good, rigorous arguments from taking place, because it takes advantage of technology to speed up people's minds in a world that's pressed for time. Our broadcast media preys on the vulnerable, so I challenge everyone reading this column to begin to conduct college football conversations in slower, more measured tones. Good discussions demand time and patience. We can be part of changing the media culture that so often does a disservice to the sport we all love.
Finally this week, a word about football and culture, relative to the past eight months of American life--months during which we haven't been in touch.
The American sports/entertainment world is becoming consumed by violence and nastiness. From Don Imus insulting the Rutgers women's basketball team, to the emergence of MMA and its companion entities, to the dogfighting subculture among a number of athletes, to the violent acts committed by NFL players, we're seeing a horrible double-whammy emerge in the world of sports: while athletes participate in violence away from competition, entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial attitudes are catering to violent attitudes and tendencies by creating vicious entertainment entities (MMA) that masquerade as sports. Violence breeds more violence. It's profoundly disturbing.
Of the mainstream sports in America, none is more violent than football, especially pro football. Since the NFL refuses to give adequate health care to its retired and severely banged-up players, I strongly encourage all of you to boycott the NFL for one season. The pensions issue, a matter separate from health care, is hard to determine in terms of its merits, but health care is a no-brainer, and the NFL has utterly failed to care for former players who have suffered massively, especially from concussions. Profiting from violence--which the NFL has done for decades--should at least be met with an equal investment in the care of players whose lives are as broken as their bones, limbs and cranial regions. The damage done by physical violence to football players is substantial, and yet our nation doesn't seem to care that much. Violence dominates much of the sports/entertainment landscape, and football is the leading force in this context.
With this in mind, I've asked friends of the Weekly Affirmation to find out the extent to which women are turned off by violence in football (or perhaps the degree to which men are turned ON by football). I've gotten only a few responses--this inquiry is just beginning--but I was educated by the responses I did receive.
Women who like football seem to like it for all the reasons other than violence; more specifically, women who do like football were attracted to the atmosphere of the sport and were educated about the finer points of the game by their fathers. Local culture, strong male role models in the family, and the aesthetics of gameday provided three powerful reasons why football appealed to a number of women.
On the other hand, women who didn't like football (again, I'm working with a very small sample of responses here) were indifferent to the sport. They didn't hate it so much as they didn't pay attention to it. The three reasons why women love football were absent from the experiences of women who never came to love football in the first place. The tentative, preliminary theme here is that you either get hooked on football early, or you never pay attention to it. For women, violence in the sport isn't a lightning rod issue. What IS a lightning-rod issue for women--especially those who don't like football--is that excessive football watching by the man in the household places a strain on intimate relationships and the family as a whole.
As I thank the people who responded to my inquiry, I want to gain more feedback on this issue. I'd like to hear from men and women alike about why they do or don't like football, so that we can continue to deal with issues of violence in college football. The more we understand what attracts or repels us, the more we can truly respect and appreciate this sport that I cover for a living. We'll try to stay in touch with this issue throughout the season.
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Week Two: September 10, 2007
Ah, a season is finding its legs. Read all about it, and then find out why the Big East Conference isn't worthy of respect.
Mr. Zemek's e-mail: email@example.com
Short-Form Weekly Affirmation: Fast Track Gold Club
First, we toss out reflection questions to make you think meaningfully about the games kids play on Autumnal Saturdays:
1) Does Michigan's horrible start make you appreciate what Michigan has done over the past four seasons?
2) Do you feel more sympathetic to Lloyd Carr when you consider that Texas (Sept. 1) and Louisville (this past Thursday) have struggled so noticeably against inferior competition at home?
3) Why no uproar over Auburn's start on ESPN or other media outlets? Are Michigan and Notre Dame the only places where outrage is seemingly justified (by some)? Is your school a school where "outrage" comes easily? Is your school a school where outrage SHOULD come easily? Should ANY football school bring forth outrage if the team has a horrible start to its season?
4) Fill in the blank question: if Charlie Weis goes _____ this year, he should have _____ years to turn things around.
5) How did you react during Virginia Tech's lopsided loss to LSU? How much did you make fun of the Hokies during the game, as you watched with your buddies? How fiercely did you criticize Tech players? Coach Beamer? Do you even remember?
Next, some football-only questions worth asking after two weeks of ups and downs:
Kansas State or South Florida? Who's better?
Was Georgia that good in week one and sluggish in week two, or was Georgia abnormally good in week one and closer to reality in week two?
Does Colt McCoy look like a quarterback who will hit his stride this season, or a quarterback who will try hard but still struggle to find his form?
Just who the heck is gonna step up and win the Big Ten when it's all said and done?
Would you vote Hawaii in the top 25 after Saturday?
Louisville or Kentucky this Saturday? It's almost like Pitino and Tubby--both teams win (but it ain't hoops).
Red-painted end zones at the Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio, or the older, plainer end zones of past years?
Now, the quick-hitters:
Hawaii playing on the mainland is a disaster waiting to happen. Saturday, that disaster was temporarily averted... barely.
Sam Keller better shake off the rust quickly. He'll face a familiar foe from his Pac-10 days this Saturday. And oh, he threw four picks the last time he faced this team from Los Angeles.
Florida's been awesome early on, but with very little to criticize about the Gators, it's hard to say that the world has learned anything truly significant about Urban Meyer's club. Well, that will change on Saturday against Tennessee. In six days, we'll finally be able to write something of substance when assessing the defending champions.
South Carolina fans couldn't be happier that a columnist could be so wrong. Georgia fans couldn't be more sad.
Gotta give Marshall's athletic department some credit. The folks in Huntington, W. Va., agreed to an 11 a.m. (local time) kickoff to get ESPN2 television exposure, but also to increase the chances that a highly-regarded opponent might be cobwebby. A few years ago, Marshall had Kansas State for an 11 a.m. game. Saturday, the 11 a.m. start time seemed to work against West Virginia for roughly three full quarters, before reality set in down the stretch.
Beating Colorado Saturday isn't terrifically impressive. But when you're Arizona State and you trail 14-0 in the first half, dusting off the Buffaloes by 19 points actually is something worth noticing. Physicality is slowly being pumped into the Sun Devil program by Dennis Erickson. Softness is being flushed out. That was the plan, Stan.
Seems as though the highest-scoring defense (or the least disastrous special teams unit, or the most mistake-free offense) might determine the Mountain West Conference champion.
Temple played Navy close in week one. Getting bombed by Buffalo has put talk of a resurgence to rest in Philadelphia. Too bad.
Texas A&M: Still no defense. Still not ready to win its division.
Paul Pasqualoni should not have been run out of town, Syracuse fans. Will you finally concede that point after a few years?
Can we just call off the SEC West race except for the Saban Bowl in Tuscaloosa?
Long-Form Weekly Affirmation: Premium Members
Okay, loyal readers. Time for this week's essay. We begin by saying that the Big East Conference isn't worthy of respect. Sounds like an incendiary statement. Well, perhaps--but its all for very good and principled reasons, reasons that you might not expect.
On the field, the Big East is producing results. South Florida took down Auburn on the road. Cincinnati obliterated Oregon State at home. The "Big Three" are undefeated. What's not to love? Well, let's start with the final minutes of Rutgers' win over Navy on Friday night.
If you were watching, you couldn't ignore it: coach Greg Schiano--who usually embodies the best values and the highest ethical standards, it must be said--became a greedy man. He had star running back Ray Rice score a late touchdown to pad his stats in order to look better in the Heisman Trophy race.
First of all, one can't begin to adequately express the disappointment that this situation has brought about. Schiano has taken a doormat and turned it into a winner. Moreover, Schiano engineered this turnaround the right way: by recruiting character kids like Rice and his predecessor--and the spiritual heart of Rutgers football--Brian Leonard. Schiano was given ample time by his athletic director, and he's taken good kids to make a great program that is reviving the college game in a region where pro football is king. Schiano--like Leonard and now Rice--preaches team football in which everyone sacrifices for the good of the whole. Having Rice pad his personal stats is an odious act that stands against every principle that has fueled Rutgers' rise to hard-earned and justified prominence in the college football world. Schiano needs to take a good, hard look in the mirror and remember why his football program has become so successful. Seeing a good coach make a selfish decision is a lot like seeing feel-good story Rick Ankiel being linked with HGH. Good stories and good reputations have been stained.
But this was a Big East story, not just a Rutgers report, correct? Here's where the story expands and acquires more scope.
Rutgers isn't isolated in its conspicuous attempts to promote a Heisman Trophy candidate. The Big East Conference--during the national ESPN broadcast of the Rutgers-Navy game--aired a commercial in which the league's four Heisman candidates--Rice of Rutgers, Pat White and Steve Slaton of West Virginia, and Brian Brohm of Louisville--were saluted for... well... being Heisman candidates.
This is why the Weekly Affirmation exists: to make sure that you don't just focus on the games, and actually realize that matters of consequence permeate the massive college sports industry. In big-time college athletics, with football leading the way, real dollars are spent in all sorts of ways. These dollars could be used for nobler purposes: scholarship programs, educational investment, inner-city outreach, and charitable ventures. Instead, Mike Tranghese and the Big East Conference are promoting Heisman candidates ONE WEEK INTO THE SEASON???!!! Can one begin to appreciate the outrageousness of such an act?
For one thing, the four players' three teams haven't yet faced a game of consequence or stature. Buffalo, Navy, Western Michigan, Marshall, Murray State, Middle Tennessee--these have been the six opponents for Rutgers, West Virginia and Louisville, respectively. To promote Heisman candidacies based on these opponents (and technically, West Virginia hadn't yet played Marshall when the commercial first aired) is ludicrous on its face. The whole notion of promoting candidacies that haven't yet been validated or legitimized is a grave affront to the purity of competition. It's an insult to all the players in leagues--big or small--who don't have a conference to air commercials on their behalf.
What's much worse about this issue, though, is that it makes you wonder just how much money is being essentially wasted by conferences and individual athletic programs that are engaged in petty politicking and other worthless pursuits. If you're a donor or someone who's thinking about donating to an athletic program, you need to ask some serious questions this week about the ways in which your gifts are used. And even if you're not a donor, it's worthwhile to ask your alma mater (if it's a big-expenditure, high-end sports school) about the ways in which it spends its money on athletics. You would do well to consider making more specific donations to a university, perhaps in realms other than sports, where the nuclear arms race for cash is evidently devoted--in part, at least--to ventures that aren't just pointless, but opposed to the spirit of college sports.
Interested in being a philanthropist of substance (or in convincing friends and neighbors to send their money in good, wholesome directions)? Consider a story from the New York Times this past week ("The Age of Riches," by Stephanie Strom, Sept. 6), in which research indicated that "less than 10 percent of the money Americans give to charity addresses basic human needs, like sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry and caring for the indigent sick." You wonder why so many social problems remain unaddressed. Government doesn't do a good job, but if private donations don't amount to much, the situation isn't going to improve. Sports philanthropy--if it can be called that--doesn't seem like a good investment in light of the Big East's use of money to promote Heisman candidates one week into the season.
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Week Three: September 17, 2007
Logic chains return this week, along with other popular forms of early-season team-based analysis.
Short-Form Weekly Affirmation: Fast Track Gold Club
You know them, you love them, and while they're not supposed to indicate the actual quality of FBS schools, they're fun to think about at this early stage in a college football season: logic chains. We trot out the year's first four chains right now:
Logic Chain No. 1: Florida St. beat Colorado who beat Colorado State, who barely lost to California.
Logic Chain No. 2: Kansas State lost at Auburn. South Florida won at Auburn in overtime. Mississippi State won at Auburn in regulation.
Logic Chain No. 3: Texas beat Arkansas State by eight. Arkansas State beat SMU by 17. SMU beat North Texas by 14. North Texas lost to Oklahoma by 69.
Logic Chain No. 4: Cincinnati crushed Oregon State who beat Utah who dismantled UCLA who beat BYU.
Beyond logic chains, there are some not-so-entertaining but certainly more informative (and cautious) statements that can be made about the comparative strength of college football teams at this early point in the 2007 campaign.
For one thing, Troy's win over Oklahoma State makes a lot of sense, in that it makes Georgia's win over Oklahoma State seem a lot less impressive. In light of that development, Georgia's loss to South Carolina becomes easier to understand.
Virginia Tech had an emotional season opener when analysis was, frankly, both inappropriate and pointless. But now, after the Hokies struggled mightily against Ohio, it's pretty safe to say that Virginia Tech's just not that good. Keep this in mind when evaluating LSU (albeit in a very tentative way).
After BYU lost to Tulsa on Saturday, Arizona's loss to the Cougars in week one seems even worse than it did at the time. Guess what? Arizona lost at home to New Mexico (who lost to a not-very-good UTEP club in week one) late Saturday night. Mike Stoops is officially on the hot seat in Tucson (and unlike Lloyd Carr, he actually deserves his flaming chair).
In another one of those games that garners little to no publicity or media coverage on a college football Saturday, Wake Forest--with the same personnel that almost beat Nebraska a week earlier--played horribly in an ugly 21-10 win over Army that was fueled by a punt return and an 84-yard pick-six. Army played the Deacs on even terms for 60 minutes. That should make you realize how suspect Nebraska was. Accordingly, you shouldn't think that USC destroyed the best thing since sliced bread over the weekend. Yes, scoring a blowout in a night game in Lincoln demands a ton of respect (as does USC's mere decision to play a home-and-home with the Huskers; say what you want about USC: they don't shy away from playing big games in Los Angeles). However, Nebraska wasn't exactly setting the world on fire heading into its encounter with the Trojan Empire of College Football.
Navy lost to Ball State at home on Saturday. This shouldn't make Rutgers partisans panic, but it should make Scarlet Knight fans just a bit more sober in assessing their team to this point.
Central Florida gave Texas a good scrap on Saturday. This means that Tom O'Brien and the boys at N.C. State shouldn't feel all that bad about losing a two-point decision to George O'Leary's team.
Other quick hitters from the weekend:
Ohio State-Washington and Florida State-Colorado offered two more classic examples of how the "tweener zone" (midfield to the opponent's 35) and "blue zone" (an opponent's 35 to 20, just outside the red zone) can substantially affect the outcome of a college football game.
Duke snapped its 22-game losing streak with a narrow win at Northwestern that wasn't decided until the final seconds. Congratulations to the young men from Durham, not only for winning a game, but for putting in the effort needed to attain the victory. The hardest part of losing is not so much the result itself, but the discouraging realization that a lot of sweat went into a loss. The persistence needed to push onward only increases with each defeat, and so it's a great credit to the Blue Devils that they could dig deep and surmount the mental obstacles that accompany a particularly long walk through the football wildnerness.
In another off-the-radar game that ended late Saturday night (in the West; early Sunday in the East), Stanford blanked San Jose State, 37-0. No, the Cardinal and new coach Jim Harbaugh aren't about to storm the palace gate in the Pac-10 (UCLA beat them, albeit not too decisively, in week one). However, it's worth noting that San Jose State made and won a bowl game last year, with a victory over Stanford fueling the Spartans' resurgence. Losing to UC-Davis in 2005 and then San Jose State in 2006 will take the shine off a power-conference program in very short order. The fact that Stanford could so soundly defeat San Jose State speaks to some discernible improvements in Palo Alto. Maybe Bill Walsh's talks with Harbaugh--conducted continuously before the Bay Area legend died over the summer at age 75--are proving to be fruitful.
Hard to believe, but true: if Air Force beats BYU this Saturday, the Falcons, under a coach not named Fisher DeBerry (the name's Calhoun--Troy Calhoun), could have the Mountain West Conference championship locked up... or at least, as close to locked up as possible. Air Force has already beaten the league's other prominent ballclubs, Utah and TCU. A win over BYU would give the Academy all three tiebreakers and a 3-0 league record. That would be very hard for any other team in the MWC to overcome.
Now, the questions section of the Weekly Affirmation:
Just asking, part one: who is the best offensive coordinator in college football at the present moment? Not over the past three years, but right now? In my view, it's someone who, at this point last season, was feeling a lot of heat. Can you name the guy?
Just asking, part two: would Glen Mason have Minnesota at 1-2 right now?
How the heck has Kirk Ferentz faded into such obscurity (or mediocrity, or both)?
USC's O-line or Florida's skill people?
Matt Flynn or Sam Bradford?
How did Kentucky enter the Louisville game unranked?
Do you know who Vincent Joseph is?
Do you know who Kevin Everett is?
Do you know how violent football is?
Did you need to be reminded how violent football is?
Be honest: even if you're a UCLA alum, a resident of Omaha, or a fan of LSU/Florida/Oklahoma, did you really think that was a good "disconcerting" call against USC in the first quarter against Nebraska?
Is "disconcerting" ever a good call?
If "disconcerting" is a good call, then what should have been done to the Louisville defender who kept a Kentucky ballcarrier trapped for several seconds in the final minute of Saturday's nailbiter in Lexington?
And here's perhaps the biggest question of all from a football-only standpoint: should replay review apply to pass interference calls in the final two minutes of a game, starting next season?
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This week's essay concerns a topic that can never be talked about too often in football circles: the limits of a coach's ability to affect the outcome of a college contest, for better or worse.
Don't get the wrong idea: having the right man in the right place at the right time makes all the difference in the world over the long haul. With that said, however, the trap that emotionally ambushes people in the college sports world (hoops as well as football) is the fallacious idea that a miracle worker can be found at every program. The grand--and usually false--seduction in college football is the notion that there's a messiah for every school.
"If Gary Barnett could take Northwestern to the Rose Bowl, then all other academic schools could climb the heights." This was one of the major siren songs of the coach-hiring (and firing) business within the last ten years. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, one can see that the tenures of men such as Ty Willingham (Stanford), Woody Widenhofer (Vanderbilt) and Fred Goldsmith (Duke) are only getting better as they recede even farther into the history books. One can see that dozens of programs, at their own levels of struggle (they do vary in terms of standards), have a hard time attaining a higher plateau and staying there. Examples of these programs (we'll provide 24, to ensure that the term "dozens" posesses some legitimacy and heft) are as follows: Virginia, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Army, North Carolina, Arizona State, Indiana, Minnesota, Texas A&M, Syracuse, Ole Miss, Pittsburgh, Mississippi State, Arizona, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Purdue, Baylor, Missouri, South Carolina, Washington State, Alabama, Clemson, and Kansas. If one felt it was necessary to use more rigid definitions or interpretations of what it meant to "attain a higher level and stay there," a few dozen more schools would enter the list.
(Example: Penn State has been a top-shelf program over the long run of history, but if one wanted to view a program's status through the narrow lens of the past seven years, one could then say that even Penn State has failed to "attain a higher level and stay there." I wouldn't count Penn State as a program that's had trouble staying on top; the point is that if another person wanted to be very demanding in the application of his/her standards, s/he could rationalize such an argument. Therefore, it's entirely reasonable--albeit somewhat controversial--to think that at least half of all college football programs, probably more, have a hard time sustaining improvements over extended periods.)
You should be able to identify a larger pattern at this point: it's not exactly easy to have one sensational season in the college football industry, but the truly rare goal for college football coaches is, indeed, to "attain a higher level and stay there," to have respectable seasons that meet a program's standards over long periods of time without any substantial interruptions. This is where athletic directors get cranky and fan bases become impatient. As much as the people of each and every FBS institution want their own school to be the dominant one, the team that is feared on an annual basis, the cold and unsatisfying reality is that only a select few schools occupy the highest and most entrenched places in college football's pecking order. And even then, there will be the inevitable blips:
USC under Paul Hackett. Oklahoma under Gary Gibbs and John Blake. Georgia under Ray Goff. Notre Dame under Gerry Faust. Florida State and Penn State in a few of the past several seasons. Miami in the past two-plus years. Texas for stretches in the 1980s and 90s. Nebraska in recent years. Florida under Ron Zook.
The above programs will never stay too far down for too long. The tradition, resources and local emotional investments are all too great. But those are the exceptions in the college football world, 10 schools out of 120. (Michigan and Ohio State, while having the occasional 7-5 or 6-5 season, have managed to string together successful series of new coaches and have continued to make bowl games every year; in that respect, they don't belong in the above list of schools. John Cooper didn't beat "The School Up North," for example, but only an idiot would say that he wasn't an accomplished coach. Was he weak on gamedays against equally talented opposition? Of course. But he won stacks of games, including a Rose Bowl and a Sugar Bowl. That's not a failed tenure. Less than what it could have been? Sure. But not defined by failure. Nine- and ten-win seasons are not failures, as much as some fans might argue to the contrary.)
For 108 FBS schools (maybe 105 if you wanted to consider a few other schools as established long-term powers in the sport), it's a life of peaks and valleys, ups and downs, the best of times and the worst of times. Legendary quarterbacks leave after four years, believe it or not. Revered running backs also have a limit on their shelf life. Great defensive lines might be incarnated for only one or two seasons. Then they go.
The 1972 USC Trojans didn't get to have several seasons together, like the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers did. The 1995 Nebraska team didn't get to play into the 21st century. Vince Young no longer plays for Texas. The poignant beauty of college football lies in the fact that that you rarely, if ever, get the chance to do it all over again with an intact roster, the same collection of battle-tested legends who won a championship the year before. The programs that never have a losing season are rare; the schools that never dip below eight losses in the occasional year are rarer still. Everyone might believe that "it can happen here," but the odds are stacked on the losing side of the divide. The annual winners are the marked exceptions, and hardly the rule. This is an inherent part of collegiate athletics.
This leads us to a sober analysis of coaches and the limitations on their ability to affect individual games and seasons. A few games from this past Saturday made the point all too clear.
Over the course of a decade (or close to it), Jim Tressel and Nick Saban have elevated themselves above Ty Willingham and Mike Shula. No one would dispute that the coaches of the 2002 and 2003 national champions are objectively better than the current Washington boss and the former Alabama skipper. But with that said, there are limits to what coaches can or can't do. And with Lloyd Carr being crucified for one bad season in Ann Arbor, it's worth showing that "one bad season" should never, ever be used to somehow prove that a coach has conclusively and irretrievably lost the ability to perform his job at a high level.
In one season, the minds of previously proven players can go haywire. (Look at Chad Henne, a two-time Rose Bowl quarterback.) Similarly, the minds of previously shaky players can (and often will) remain fragile even when the newer, more proven coaches come aboard. John Parker Wilson still had that deer-in-the-headlights look in the fourth quarter of the Alabama-Arkansas game. With better officiating, Wilson would have had to convert a 4th and 8 on his final drive. And even when given a reprieve, Wilson floated a prayer into the end zone with eight seconds left. The fact that the ball was caught for a touchdown had nothing to do with the quality of Wilson's performance. Alabama's near-loss against Arkansas could easily have been envisioned under Mike Shula. The only problem was, however, that the narrow escape--after a meltdown of considerable proportions--occurred under Saban, the man viewed as the savior for all things pertaining to Alabama football.
Yes, there was nothing alarmingly bad about Saban's coaching on Saturday against Arkansas--but that's precisely the point. Mike Shula got scapegoated for every close loss and every single thing that went wrong in Tuscaloosa. Had the Tide lost this past Saturday to the Hogs, what would the home folks have said about Saban? Would Bama fans have looked for missteps from Saban that didn't actually exist? Would they have blamed everything on Wilson and exempted Saban from particularly withering scrutiny? The point is that, to this point in the 2007 season, not too much is different from 2006 under Shula. John Parker Wilson is still an immature quarterback. Alabama is still roughly even with Arkansas--the two teams went into overtime last season (and that was in Fayetteville). The difference between one year and the next is that in 2006, Leigh Tiffin choked. In 2007, Bama actually saw the ball (and the yellow handkerchief) fall in its favor.
Nick Saban didn't become a bad coach in the fourth quarter against Arkansas. Equally so, Saban didn't become a genius when the Tide won with eight seconds left. Just the same, though, Mike Shula--who took over a program in ruins and built it back to respectability before losing a senior leader at quarterback (Brodie Croyle)--didn't see 100 points fall off his football IQ last year. He had a poor-to-mediocre quarterback to deal with. That same quarterback isn't all that much better this season. It's so hard for fans to accept--at least when individual games and seasons are concerned--but it's undeniably true: sometimes, it's all about luck, and little else. The coach-as-messiah drumbeat gets old and stale very quickly when a single bad bounce or a rookie mistake decides a ballgame. It's intellectually dishonest to insist that coaching decided the Alabama-Arkansas shootout on Saturday night.
The same thing would apply to Saturday's contest between Ohio State and Washington.
Sure, Jim Tressel has more street cred than Ty Willingham. However, the two coaches didn't decide this past weekend's game in Seattle. Husky turnovers did. Ty Willingham looked like a pretty darn good coach when his team was driving in the third quarter and leading by four points. Jake Locker looked like a solid quarterback who was going to lead his teammates to more clutch scores. But then the Buckeyes blocked a field goal, hit one big pass play, recovered a fumble on a kickoff, and then intercepted Locker inside the Buckeye 30. Willingham didn't cease to be a good coach when OSU's James Laurinaitis made a tremendous catch of a shovel pass he managed to anticipate and deflect. Similarly, Jim Tressel wasn't a bad coach before his Buckeyes found the spark they needed to come from behind. It's completely absurd to say that coaching, more than a few key mistakes from young football players thrust into an intense and raucous environment, made the difference in the Buckeyes' victory over the Huskies. If players were robots who could be remote controlled by their coaches, then perhaps mistakes would automatically reflect on the coaches themselves. But since players are flesh-and-blood beings who are still, in the long run of things, quite young and impressionable, it's just a fact of college football life that players such as Jake Locker will make mistakes as they learn the ropes and take their lumps in the early stages of their careers.
It all adds up to one simple conclusion: as valuable as coaches in fact are, they control far less than you might think in the world of college football. The more fans (and some athletic directors with itchy trigger fingers) realize this, the better the sport will be--ethically, emotionally, morally, socially, politically, and--most important of all--financially. A little perspective can go a long way toward slowing down the corrosive patterns that are making the college football industry much more bloated and wasteful than it ever should be.
* * *
Week Four: September 24, 2007
Short-Form Weekly Affirmation: Fast-Track Gold Club
The big theme of this past weekend--as college football shifted into conference play--was painfully clear for a number of teams. It is the same theme that gives college football its vibrant, pulsating soul: emotions mean everything.
Yes, this weekend wasn't about the Xs and Os, but the Jimmies and Joes. There's no need to be too detailed about it (if you want details and length, you'll read the Long-Form Weekly Affirmation and its regular essays): a number of clubs either displayed hangovers from the previous weekend, or crumbled in the face of in-game adversity.
Florida felt really good about itself after dismantling Tennessee. The Gators were stale and frail seven days after looking bold and controlled against the Vols.
Louisville was heartbroken by Kentucky. Then the Cardinals got stunned by Syracuse at home (as a 36-point favorite).
Nebraska put all its emotional eggs into one USC basket. Then Ball State came one dropped pass from making life even worse in Husker Nation.
Washington suffered a disappointing loss to Ohio State on Sept. 15, even though the Huskies didn't play that poorly against the defending national runner-up. Nevertheless, the nonexistence of UW's defense against UCLA indicated that the young pups in Seattle didn't have their heads into the game. UCLA had to run on every snap in the fourth quarter, when second-string quarterback Patrick Cowen went down with an injury and a walk-on (McLeod Bethel-Thompson) had to step in. But despite the pronounced advantage, the Huskies' generally solid defense didn't just allow points--it got eviscerated by the Bruins' offensive front. That's the sign that a team isn't emotionally "there."
Arkansas definitely showed up against Kentucky, but when a 66-yard fumble return provided a 10- to 14-point swing on one play, the Hogs' emotions took a nosedive, and Houston Nutt's team didn't recover for a whole quarter. Then, when up by eight points midway through the fourth quarter, a roughing-the-kicker penalty (on a missed field goal, no less) provided another massive momentum shift that the Razorbacks couldn't handle. Emotions are your best friend when things are going well, but they're a bear when adversity strikes. Houston Nutt is coaching at a solid and respectable level; he's just catching horrible breaks. It would be intellectually dishonest to say that Arkansas is losing because of coaching-based issues.
Colorado State outplayed Houston for most of the first three quarters, but one fumble return for a touchdown (sound familiar?) turned the game on a dime, as the Rams withered while Houston hummed in the final 17 minutes of regulation.
Two late-night Pac-10 games witnessed incredible runs fueled by momentum and emotions: Oregon State had a 19-0 run to start its contest against Arizona State, but once the resilient Devils--newly toughened by former Beaver coach Dennis Erickson--got off the ground, they never stopped. ASU scored the next 13 points and 44 of the next 51 to cruise to a comfortable win. And in Palo Alto, the mother of all pendulum swing games took place, as Oregon and Stanford traded huge haymakers. The Ducks started with a 21-3 surge, but the Cardinal answered with a 28-0 run, only for Mike Bellotti's team to respond with the game's final 34 points. When emotions start rolling in college football, the young men playing the game have a hard time stemming the tide. That's a timeless part of this youthful sport, but it once again resurfaced in a very big (and prominent) way on Saturday. Keep emotions in mind as the season progresses.
After some of Saturday's notable results, you could create some interesting logic chains, couldn't you?
Arkron beat Kent State who beat Iowa State who beat Iowa who beat Syracuse who beat Louisville.
UCLA beat BYU who beat Air Force who beat Utah who beat UCLA.
South Carolina beat Georgia who beat Alabama who beat Arkansas who beat Troy who beat Oklahoma State who beat Texas Tech.
Wofford beat Appalachian State who beat Michigan who beat Penn State. Yup--Joe Paterno could lose to Wofford if you followed this classic logic chain.
Finally, some quick hitters (the week's reflection questions appear below in the long-form essay):
Giving credit when credit is due, part one: Al Groh, you've been dumped on a lot in this space over the years. Nice win over Georgia Tech for a 3-0 ACC mark. Well done.
Giving credit when credit is due, part two: Ron Zook, you've been dumped on by America over the past several years. Nice job of getting to 3-1 overall. Your hard work is paying off. Well done.
Mike Patrick of ESPN had the most bizarre broadcasting moment I've encountered in a good long while Saturday night. During his broadcast of Georgia's heart-thumping overtime win over Alabama, Patrick--a seasoned and sober veteran of the TV biz, not some wayward youngster--made one of the most unprofessional and inane utterances I've ever heard from a voice of his stature and reputation. Just before Georgia's offense took the field in its overtime possession (which would last all of one play), Patrick took the time to ask Todd Blackledge, "What do you think about Britney's career?" The on-air words were confounding enough as it was, but Patrick's pained attempt to explain what he meant to his broadcast partner was even more baffling. Blackledge didn't know who "Britney" was. I wouldn't have known, either, given that I was riveted to an engrossing overtime football game between two fine teams in one of the sport's best settings. Patrick sucked the life out of a broadcast that was doing just fine, thank you, until that mind-numbing sequence distracted and confused the national television audience.
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Most mainstream journalists now realize that they must better explain themselves to the public, and be accountable for what they do — in the same way that they demand other professions be publicly accountable. They must invite citizens in, and welcome them. "News is no longer a lecture, but a conversation," as Dan Gillmor of the Center for Citizen Media has stated. - John Hamer, Seattle Times guest columnist, Sept. 22, 2007
Some weeks in a college football season can float by without much fanfare. This is true for teams, but it's also true for writers. October 6 will be the year's first high-voltage Saturday, as Texas faces Oklahoma and Florida encounters LSU in two games with national title implications. On that day, four teams will stare down a moment of reckoning. But in the writing business, any weekend has the potential to cause a firestorm and remind a columnist why this profession is both rewarding and taxing. The tensions that flowed through my inbox the past week offer stark evidence that the profession of journalism--and the specific arts of both column writing and dialogal criticism--still need to be explained with care and painstaking detail. If you deeply care about the state of journalism and college football journalism in particular, you need to read this week's essay, not because it's somehow "right," (it's not... more on that in a bit) but because it's human.
The two controversies that engulfed me--one on a very large scale, the other on a more intimate level--came from distinctly different parts of the country and involved two schools who come from different sides of the football tracks: Rutgers and Alabama. The Rutgers controversy is something you probably do know about: Scarlet Knight head coach Greg Schiano called three timeouts late in the second quarter with his team leading an FCS (formerly I-AA) opponent, Norfolk State, 45-0. Moreover, he did this at a time when Rutgers' public image had taken some hits (whether justified or not is a different question), thereby increasing the focus on Schiano's actions and elevating tension levels in and around the university. It was, in short, a perfect storm. When I criticized Schiano in CFN's "5 Thoughts" section last Sunday, Rutgers fans responded in large numbers to voice their displeasure.
With respect to the University of Alabama football program, a few regular Weekly Affirmation readers took issue with my dissection of single-game and single-season coaching performances. Attempts to inject moderate and measured tones into a discussion of Nick Saban's considerable strengths and Mike Shula's evident weaknesses were viewed as the equivalent of hate speech directed at Saban himself and the Bama program in general. I only heard from about ten people on this issue, but most of these ten responses came from Alabama fans who have clearly been keeping tabs on me for at least two years, if not more. All in all, two controversies--so different on the surface--evoked many of the same tensions that cry out for explanation and some degree of resolution.
Let's start with the Rutgers story and the reactions of Scarlet Knight fans to my criticism of Greg Schiano.
The point of this essay is not to regurgitate the arguments made in the past week; the point is to make light of those arguments and gain a better understanding of issues as a result. In order to improve our self-awareness as human persons, we need to learn how to handle--and verbalize--criticisms in a more effective manner. In order to edify each other so that we learn from mistakes and accept our mutual limitations, we need to understand the larger dynamics of various human relationships, in this case the relationship between columnists (about any subject, not just college football) and their readers. This will occupy the subject matter of this week's Long-Form Weekly Affirmation.
The first thing to understand about journalistic criticisms is that they involve numerous calculations and are not knee-jerk reactions (they only seem that way). In choosing to criticize Greg Schiano, I didn't just look at the final score. I didn't see the "42" in the second quarter and assume wrongdoing. I weighed a lot of different factors when evaluating Schiano's decision. Are these factors inherently or empirically "correct?" No, not necessarily. What's important to realize in all of this is that columnists--responsible ones, anyway--have a mapped-out and intricate mental architecture that informs their work. Arguments that will seem simplistic are advanced because a columnist feels that the initial process of issue evaluation has led him/her to feel that an argument will stand up under scrutiny. From this general process comes a deeper set of complexities that need to be unpacked.
Does a columnist aim to advance perfect, airtight arguments? Theoretically, perhaps, but not in the real world. The constraints of daily journalism prevent writers from attaining the level of specificity that would serve them better.
In an ideal world, I would like to write all pieces the way I'm writing this essay: with virtually no limits on the length of the piece, and with an understanding that my audience is reading these words not because it has to, but because it wants to. When I write my feature-length columns, I have the freedom and latitude to select issues, extend my thoughts, and explain concepts. In other contexts, I can't do these things... not to the extent that I'd want to, anyway.
Two to five times a year, I will write a guest op-ed column for Seattle's two daily newspapers. These columns have word lengths ranging from 550-750 words for a weekday column, and 1,000-1,500 words for a Sunday editorial. The longer the column, the greater the editing I receive. In these more tightly edited formats--given their appearance in newsprint, and not just in cyberspace--a writer invariably has to make sacrifices and accept concessions. The sad truth about column writing from the columnist's viewpoint is that normal word limits prevent issues from being discussed with the specificity and clarity they demand (not just deserve, but demand). A typical newspaper column will give a reader one strong idea wrapped in an emotional hook or a memorable image... if the columnist is lucky. The discussion of issues--in an elaborate, professorial, and nuanced way--is generally unattainable in a single column. A series of editorials might begin to inform the reader on systemic and structural levels.
What I hope you're beginning to see is that time is the enemy of everyone involved in the reader-journalist relationship. It's safe to say that almost all of the Rutgers fans who blasted me this past week hadn't read anything I had written about the program during its wonderful rise from the ashes last season. More specifically, they probably weren't regular Weekly Affirmation readers. The presentation of stories, the sharing of news feeds, and the cycling of content through multiple affiliated outlets (as is the case here at CFN, a partner of both FoxSports.com and the Scout.com Network) all lead to variations in visibility. These variations, in turn, bring about a very uneven relationship between the national football columnist and a diverse readership that is small on a national level but increases when regional populations take interest in certain portions of content. It's not the fault of Rutgers fans by any means, but it bears mentioning nevertheless: when regional/school-based fans read columns written by national football writers on outlets other than behemoths such as ESPN.com, they're reading those columns not because of an allegiance to the national columnist, but because of allegiance to their school. Fans of teams or conferences, in certain corners of the country, will read national football writers because the particular stories focus on their team or conference.
Once an article enters the public domain, then, fans will scour the Internet in search for team-specific content. Once an article of particular interest is found, it will be forwarded to the message boards at fan sites for that school or conference. That's when the tribalistic elements of fandom enter the picture: national articles--especially the critical ones--are immediately and emotionally digested and absorbed. Criticisms of a school or conference--no matter how precise or reasoned--invariably wind up being seen as "ruthless and irresponsible personal attacks by lazy journalists out to create controversy, gain eyeballs, and have some fun at our expense." Seven years of sitting in this chair have told me that this reality hasn't changed. Rutgers fans aren't bad at all--they are just like everyone else in America. The constraints of journalism--particularly time constraints--are the real enemy of both college football columnists and the college football fans who double as news consumers.
With that having been established, let's get back to the deeper tensions and questions of this Rutgers story.
If I had enough time and space to give the issue the specificity it truly demands, I would have elaborated on numerous fronts when criticizing Greg Schiano. With a 300-word limit, however, my commentary was limited, and when strong comments are made in limited space and a narrow context, feelings will get hurt--even if, ironically, the columnist is trying to frame his (her) argument in anything but a narrow context. So allow me--particularly if you are a Rutgers fan--to address the Schiano situation in a fuller fashion.
When any old person criticizes a major public figure (and college football coaches, for better or worse, have become exactly that in this day and age), it's usually just emotional venting. But when a columnist criticizes a major public figure, the landscape changes for everyone involved. Ordinary folks don't have professional responsibilities and ethical obligations when analyzing news events or the people involved in them. That's what I have to worry about as a columnist. If I criticize anyone for any reason, I need to make fair arguments that have some basis in fact and convey respect to the person I'm criticizing. Now, you should immediately ask, "what conveys respect?"
For starters, giving proper respect to a college football coach--or any other public figure--is rooted in an acknowledgment of at least one of two things: A) the tensions that person must face on the job, and B) past accomplishments produced by that public figure. Again, the point is not to determine whether my arguments about Greg Schiano were right or wrong; what matters to me, as a journalist, is that readers don't view journalists as lacking in professionalism or integrity when they merely make strong comments about a particularly popular or admired head coach. I might have been loud wrong about Schiano--whatever "wrong" means--but I darn sure wasn't irresponsible, and I definitely wasn't disrespectful. Schiano's accomplishments, past glories, and notable attributes--especially those revealed during his 2006 season--were clearly and frontally mentioned in my criticisms of him, both last Sunday (Sept. 16) and in the Weekly Affirmation (short-form section) from Sept. 10. If you acknowledge a man's good deeds while taking him to task for other questionable moves and decisions, it would take some really profane language or over-the-top gestures to convey true disrespect toward that public figure. People in the public eye, after all, have more power because of the positions they have attained. If not wealthy on a purely monetary level, public figures have the wealth known as leverage, the ability to influence and shape various realities in ways that lower-middle-class workers can't. This doesn't mean public figures are more deserving of criticism on personal levels; it means they demand more criticism as a function of both news analysis and public discussion of important social issues. (Notice, again, that the words "deserve" and "demand" are two very different animals; being clear about their meanings and implications would resolve a lot of reader-journalist tensions.) And in the case of the sports/entertainment world, a college football coach also demands media scrutiny and criticism because media resources and publicity mean more coverage to the program and more positive exposure for the university, which in turn leads to increased athletic department revenues that also accrue to the coach in the form of both salary, perks, and bonuses. In the sports world, coaches are paid to win games, but they're also surely paid to deal with the media and represent their university well.
When I criticized Greg Schiano, I didn't just criticize him as a man paid to win games; I criticized him as a man paid to deal with the media and to represent his university in the best possible way. With all this as prelude, I chose to criticize Schiano for the following reasons: first, this was a man who set a very positive example in 2006; second, I felt there was ample evidence to suggest that this good example was being undone in 2007 (again, whether you agree with my interpretation of evidence is beside the point; the main question I'm concerned with is whether I was unprofessional or lacking in integrity for making the arguments I made); third, there were off-field controversies that put Rutgers in the public eye and increased the level of news value pertaining to any story involving the university and/or its football program; fourth, I felt that a noble purpose or goal could have been achieved or at least pursued as a result of lodging my criticism.
On a deeper level--and pertaining to the process of "issue evaluation" that precedes the actual writing of a column or any kind of commentary on a public figure--I need to explain why I felt Schiano was trying to run up the score against Norfolk State.
Before anything else, I don't think (as some do) that you can do whatever you want in the first half of a football game. A number of Rutgers readers felt that the first half is always, but always, "off limits." That's a perfectly valid and understandable line of argument. I personally disagree, but I completely respect the arguments made by large numbers of Scarlet Knight fans. Nevertheless, I think each and every instance of "running up the score" has to be judged on its own merits. One thing I constantly try to express here in my weekly columns is the need for the college football community--from Seattle to Miami, from Piscataway to Pasadena, from Lincoln to Austin, from Ann Arbor to Baton Rouge--to develop some uniform standards that can help define and resolve various issues that always prove to be difficult.
I personally believe that if the opponent is in a lower division, you've scored at least 35 points in one quarter, and the point spread is equal to 35 points (if not greater), you shouldn't call three straight timeouts late in the first half. Many will disagree (certainly among Rutgers fans, which is their right), but that's the territory I've staked out. I would ask all readers--not just Rutgers fans--to help me in determining the standards that determine what it means to truly "run up the score." In order to to this, the following questions must be asked, thought about, and (after sufficient time for thought and contemplation) ultimately answered:
How many points must you lead by in order to run up the score (or is there no limit)? In what quarter/half/stage of the game can "running up the score" occur? When should starters be pulled? When should trick plays or long pass plays be shelved? When should timeouts not be used? When should you take a knee, if at all? When is it demeaning to the opposition to take a knee (if at all)? Does the level of opposition have any bearing on this issue? Does the point in the season have any bearing on this issue? Do outside factors (the Big East's very premature Heisman campaign for Ray Rice and other players, for example, or also the PR considerations brought about by off-field incidents involving Rutgers fans) have any bearing on this issue?
I can assure you, dear readers--especially those in the Rutgers community--that I asked myself each and every one of those questions in a long process of personal internal deliberation. After taking myself through this process, I felt that the answers satisfied my criteria for going public with my criticism of Schiano (or any other public figure). You're free to disagree, but don't feel that I arrived at my conclusions irresponsibly. Each individual can only answer certain questions for him(her)self. The key is if all people can manage to ask themselves the right questions when evaluating a given issue, public figure, or football debate. The answers will differ from person to person, but the questions determine the levels of professionalism and integrity in the individual journalist.
This brings us to a point that allows me to bring my Alabama readers into this discussion. Rutgers and Alabama fans--like all other college football fans, all other sports fans, and all readers of columnists about any subject in any publication, anywhere and anytime--are in constant need of a reminder about the art of vigorous but respectful debate: disagreement does not mean hatred or disrespect. It means disagreement, and nothing more.
Alabama fans who have read me closely since the 2006 Cotton Bowl (and who clearly monitor every syllable I write about their team) are both endearing and exasperating to me. Tide fans are endearing because I greatly admire their passion--I know what it means to care deeply about something, and that's a beautiful part of being human. On the other hand, I have a lot of draining arguments with Tide fans who will make up their minds about something even before I attempt to make any explanation. (I wonder how many Weekly Affirmation readers know people like that.) Shoot first, ask questions later--that's the kind of mindset that drives a columnist over the edge.
Some Tide fans are still upset with me for the literary license I used to describe the 2006 Cotton Bowl between Alabama and Texas Tech. I described the game as a classic contrast in styles, with Tech being the 22nd century team and Alabama being the 19th century team. The game was "high tech versus stone age." Surely, I can understand why some folks would think that I viewed Bama negatively, but it is admittedly rare for a columnist to be criticized not for game evaluations, but for literary turns of phrase used to describe an evenin an artful and colorful manner. What's really weird about the ongoing discussions that do take place with Bama fans about my coverage of the 2006 Cotton Bowl--discussions that resurfaced this past week--is that if Bama fans knew me on a personal and intimate level, they'd know that my values are much more PREMODERN than POSTMODERN. I like to debate with people in a postmodern way, but I wish to promote and uphold moral values that one would associate with the sphere of premodern ideas and ways of being. Deep in my soul, I long more for a 19th century perspective on life (with certain exceptions) than a 22nd century perspective. In many ways, I felt I was praising Alabama with my words, and not knocking the school's football team. As a sportswriter, I love it when teams stick to their identity and prevail in the face of imposing opposition. I also love it when teams rely on grit and determination to turn back more explosive opponents. The 2005 Crimson Tide represented a team that I greatly admired, and the 2006 Cotton Bowl was perhaps that team's finest hour. But oh, since I viewed them as "19th century," some Tide fans still think, to this very day, that I don't like the team or its fan base.
This same kind of tragic misunderstanding applies to the past week, in which Bama fans felt that by trying to bring some perspective (and more specifically, restraint) to Nick Saban worship (and to the criticism of coaches such as Lloyd Carr, who get put on the hotseat for single-game or single-season struggles), I was expressing "hatred" for Bama and Saban himself. I learned a lot from my interactions with Bama fans over the past several days, and I want to share some realizations that will serve you well in your own attempts to hold journalists accountable (in college football, but also in every other subject under the sun) while respecting them as individuals who--believe it or not--have human flesh and blood just as you do.
One big epiphany I gained from my recent interactions with Tide fans is as follows: many discussions between human beings--especially those involving a journalist and a reader--create frustration on both sides not because of the actual arguments made, but because of the premises on which one person bases a given set of arguments. In last week's Weekly Affirmation, I said that many different college football programs, at their own levels of struggle (which vary from one program to another),have a tough time attaining a high position and staying there over an extended period of time. The key is that italicized reference with the parenthetical tucked inside it. I made it clear that I was about to list many programs that, while different in many ways, were linked under the terms that I had personally set forth before continuing my discussion. I was, in other words, establishing my own premise for my arguments. I was framing the terms of a debate that I was starting. In this way, I hoped to stimulate fresh thought about a subject that is discussed much less often than it should be. That's what columnists are supposed to do, whether they're sports columnists, metro columnists, foreign affairs columnists, or sex advice columnists. But instead of reading fresh thoughts in my inbox, I encountered years-old antagonisms who just thought that I was trying to pile on Nick Saban and Alabama.
This leads to the second major realization I gained from a week of Alabama e-mails: the premise of an argument is just as relevant to a given discussion as the argument itself. When Bama fans and I were talking at--or sometimes past--each other this past week, the problem was not that Bama fans provided arguments that were deficient or wrong (they were perfectly valid arguments in and of themselves); it's that Bama fans were simply not accepting some (maybe all) of the premises behind my arguments. Of course Alabama is not on the same footing as Kansas in a number of respects; of course Mike Shula is a very inferior coach when compared to Nick Saban; of course I have personally viewed a lot of Saban's past actions in a negative light; of course I think that Bama shelled out too much money for Saban. I have never contradicted or denied any of these four statements in my articles. Vigilant, alert Bama fans who have tracked my work over many years know these things, and they know I hold the above set of views--they aren't ignorant of my personal opinions or the writings that have contained said opinions. They know where I stand on issues, and I give Bama fans a tremendous amount of credit for caring enough about my work to track it on an extended basis. The problem is that some Bama fans know me well enough--albeit only on an emotional level--to accurately and correctly think that I'm not exactly a member of the Nick Saban Appreciation Society. Unlike my experience with Rutgers fans this past week, my encounter with Bama fans involved a number of individuals who were angry at me not because they knew nothing about me, but because they've been keeping tabs on me for at least two years. Familiarity, not foreignness, led to friction between a journalist and some of his readers.
One Bama fan in particular was very eloquent and perceptive in picking up on these kinds of realities. We had exchanged e-mails several times over the past few years (columnists will remember familiar names and e-mail addresses, believe me), and so when our conversations became particularly involved (civil, but contentious) a few days ago, we had both arrived at a point where our emotions and thought processes had been nakedly exposed to the other. The Tide fan/CFN reader could see inside my mind, and I could see inside his--it was a wonderful experience for me, because it is the desire of a journalist, particularly a columnist, to forge relationships with readers that come to acquire appreciable depth and understanding. So many arguments occur between journalists and readers (as in the Rutgers firestorm) because there's a total lack of familiarity between the two sides. Once feelings and deeper layers of personal experience begin to be shared, however, both people will usually understand where the other guy is coming from. Disagreements remain, but they no longer cause deep pain or anger; differences persist, but they no longer lead the reader to think that the journalist is lacking in professionalism or integrity. Arguments are exchanged, but at least both sides acknowledge that the premises of the arguments are different (which is precisely what reduces a lot of the tensions and raw emotions that get in the way of a fair and respectful but vigorous argument between two adult human beings).
I could perhaps continue--there are, believe it or not, many more aspects of these issues that could use a full explanation--but I think at this point that you've begun to get a really good look at the behind-the-scenes world of college football column writing and one columnist's interactions with his readers, in both New Jersey and Alabama. For fans of a newcomer to the spotlight (Rutgers), or for fans of an old-money national power (Bama), the principles of professional integrity and respectful conversation are the same. For fans unfamiliar with me or fans who are very familiar with me, the relationship between premises and arguments remains unchanged. For readers who are critical of journalists and readers who don't pay much attention to journalism, the dyanmics of the profession nevertheless place limits on what a columnist can achieve in a given amount of space and time. For those who are inclined to give public figures the benefit of the doubt or for those who are skeptical of public figures, the need to fairly scrutinize--but scrutinize indeed--said public figures will always remain a core mission of journalists everywhere.
Greg Schiano is a good human being whom I still admire, but will criticize when I feel it's necessary. He's a big boy--he can take criticism if it's respectful and, particularly, if it acknowledges his many positive attributes and public achievements that have given Rutgers fans a lot of happiness. Nick Saban is someone whose actions, in my opinion, have left something to be desired, but if the man achieves on the football field, I will give the man his due. The Alabama fans who can see inside my mind will nevertheless read stories whose words will portray events the way they should be portrayed: with fairness and a reasonable basis in fact. It doesn't mean I'll be inherently more "correct" than other observers, but it will mean that I'm respecting other people and, just as importantly, the profession of journalism.
If college football writing--like any other endeavor--doesn't somehow increase respect and understanding between and among human persons, it's not worth doing. If college football writing doesn't provide some degree of social benefit at a time when college sports (like the pros decades earlier) have become billion-dollar businesses that demand intense scrutiny, I'll check out of this gig for good. Until then, though, please know that when I write something, I write it for many different reasons after asking, weighing and answering hundreds of individual questions. I will often be imperfect, and I will never have a monopoly on truth or claim to know more than everyone else. But I will have integrity--you won't be able to disagree with me on that particular point. Everything I've said in this essay will hopefully lead you to that one precious conclusion... after all, as I said earlier, a normal column will convey one basic idea to the reader...
...if the columnist is lucky.
* * *
Week Five: October 1, 2007 - Classic Weekly Affirmation on the Mike Gundy Story
Long-Form Weekly Affirmation: "Gundy-Gate" Special Edition
Last weekend, while writing about fan-journalist tensions at Rutgers and Alabama, little did I know that the mother of all media firestorms was developing in Stillwater, Okla.
The Mike Gundy-Jenni Carlson saga is little more than a week old, but the Weekly Affirmation wanted to sift through the aftermath before weighing in. If you read the previous week's Affirmation, you'll already have an extensive understanding of this controversy's inner dynamics. But if you didn't read last week's column--and especially if you care about journalism in the state of Oklahoma--you need to take a deep breath, clear your mind, check your fan allegiances at the door, and devote sober attention to this examination of a story that has so much to say about America itself, not just the smaller world of college football.
Before we continue, though, a brief word about last week's Affirmation. One of the supreme ironies of human interactions--not just in the world of column writing, but in all fields of endeavor--is that the more you explain yourself, the more you can come under fire from others. This was the dynamic that emerged in response to last week's column. The more I attempted to explain myself to Rutgers fans, the more they viewed my motives and methods in a negative light. It's a pattern that usually arises in reader-columnist interactions, but it's part of human nature on a much wider scale--it happens all the time. When I officiated recreation-league basketball games over the past few years, my attempts to fully explain calls only evoked more intense anger from the players, who thought I was baiting them into technical fouls instead of (get this!) simply wanting to teach the game to them and promote fundamentally sound play.
What's the point of that little anecdote? When relationships lack a basic foundation of trust and openness, explanations--no matter how sincere, detailed or thorough--will be viewed skeptically (if not worse). One of my main themes in last week's essay was that time is the enemy of the reader-journalist relationship, and of journalism in general. Despite pounding that statement into my readers' skulls, my inbox was greeted with a number of replies from Rutgers fans who said that my article was ridiculously long and that they didn't even make it through the whole piece. Apparently, they didn't read (or pay attention to) my major theme: time is the enemy. The whole point of my argument was that fans (readers or news consumers when the subject matter isn't sports) need to take time if they want to receive better journalism in this country. You need to take time to wrestle with the arguments that journalists confront on an everyday basis, whether at meetings in newspaper offices or behind the keyboard for Internet columnists who live a more solitary existence. If you want to offer constructive criticism of both individual journalists and of the journalism industry in general, you need to be willing to take the time to sift through extended essays and lengthy arguments. You can't cherry pick the views you like, and you can't duck in and out of controversies.
With this important point as prelude, then, please take the time to digest this week's Affirmation, and to restrain your emotions until you've had a good 24 hours to truly weigh the various questions that will be put forth in this essay. Readers will produce far more effective criticisms of journalists--and thereby keep us honest and accountable--if they take time on the "front end" of the larger process: formulating precise arguments that can identify weaknesses in journalism while also acknowledging the good things journalists do. If a columnist receives critiques that, while valid, are flooded with raging emotion, s/he will respond to the emotion rather than the content. This will only fuel the sense of emotional disconnect that currently poisons the well when reader-columnist issues are concerned.
With that word of caution behind us, then, let's proceed with an examination of "Gundy-Gate" and the major issues that flowed from it.
In one week, a lot of ink is spilled and a lot of bandwidth is used. Safe to say, everyone (and then some) has had an opinion on this story. For this reason, I'll try to avoid piggy-backing on others' insights as much as I possibly can. But if I had to echo a few of the many voices who have weighed in on this matter, I would choose ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski and Chris Fowler. "Wojo" talked about the climate of distrust that envelops the public's relationship with the press. Fowler--from a more football-specific angle--noted how the Oklahoma State coaching staff was probably frustrated that some degree of insider information (or perhaps just insider debate) was being leaked to the press, in the form of Jenni Carlson. ESPN's pair of pundits helped this discussion because they went beyond the obvious (something good columnists and reporters will do) and tried to unearth the deeper layers of context and meaning that--when explored and confronted honestly--will lead to education and edification for everyone involved.
From my vantage point (and this is something I've consciously written about for the past four college football seasons), the biggest thing we all need to learn--as coaches, journalists and readers (in other words, as human persons)--is that before you can trust your gut instincts in life, you need to fill your gut with ample intellectual and spiritual food. In other words, a gut reaction--while seemingly natural and, therefore, appropriate--must be informed by a deeper sense of awareness that refers to both the internal self and the external world. The more reflection, deep contemplation, and honest examination one performs in life's earlier years, the more one's gut instincts can be trusted in later years. Gut reactions aren't inherently good or bad; the key is that their level of quality will generally depend on the extent of information, reflection and questioning that precedes them.
If you're reading this essay--and especially if you're an Oklahoma State fan, student or alumnus--I need to make something clear about Gundy-Gate: there's no easy answer, no neat and tidy explanation that will solve everything. The only real solution--for you as readers, for Ms. Carlson as a columnist, for Mike Gundy as a coach, and for the editors of The Daily Oklahomanas caretakers of journalism in the state of Oklahoma--is to devote considerable time to the issues, tensions and pressure points that envelop all of us in the daily struggles that define the world we inhabit. Deep down--and this is something I know all too well myself--the quality of journalism in this country is poor and heading downward. The condition of the journalism industry is critical and worsening. The newspaper business is on its deathbed. Network TV news ceased to be relevant about a decade ago, after beginning to lose its foothold in the 1980s, once CNN entered the picture. These and other similarly dark realities about journalism shaped the backdrop for Gundy-Gate, the perfect storm in which a controversy could emerge from a column that was sloppy but, on a grander scale, fairly innocuous. (More on Carlson's column in a bit...)
The elephant in the room when discussing Gundy-Gate is that journalists are (and have become) an easy target. Why? Because criticisms of journalists are--on a general level--so easy to make... not just in terms of identifying the weaknesses of journalism as it is currently practiced, but in terms of resonating with a majority of Americans on a gut level, a visceral level, a primal level. No matter how conscientious or intellectually enlightened a journalist might be, his or her work can and will be shouted down if there's enough of an emotional groundswell that can oppose it. And while no one would confuse Jenni Carlson with Edward R. Murrow, the point is still a salient one: journalists--flawed human beings like everyone else--deserve the right to learn from their mistakes instead of being uniquely crucified for them. The same is also true of college football coaches like Mike Gundy.
Carlson's column--the one that started this whole mess--was not an elegant piece of work. But while its phrasings were poor (the facts of her column have been disputed by Bobby Reid's mother, but not directly by Gundy, who said that "I don't have to" rebut Carlson's claims), the basic point of Carlson's piece was both reasonable and fairly routine in the world of sports journalism. When I covered the Seattle University basketball team as the sports editor of the student newspaper, I received my first taste of interactions with coaches and players. With Seattle U. being a Jesuit school that didn't register on the larger Seattle sports scene (unlike 1958, when Elgin Baylor led the Chieftains--now the Redhawks--to the NCAA Final Four), I was the only reporter in the gym on many nights. I can recall missing the end of the 1997 Auburn-Alabama game so that I could wait outside the locker room for two hours (some intense heart-to-hearts were conducted after a tough early-season loss) and talk with the coach. Interviews with players never went anywhere; I rarely received comments that transcended the stock boilerplate of the athletes who have the microphones and tape recorders thrust in front of them.
Mindful of my own experiences as a journalist, I can relate to Ms. Carlson, who tried to unearth relevant facts and details about Oklahoma State's quarterback situation, which was cloaked in mystery and mixed signals. Because Gundy didn't readily provide ample information about Bobby Reid's status (as it is the right of Gundy and his staff to do, if the benefit of secrecy outweighs the need to provide good PR for the program), Carlson wrote a column that tried to hint at the story without nailing it down. Under the umbrella of a column (as opposed to a report or another type of piece that is divorced from the realm of editorial opinion), Carlson's work could be fairly described as clumsy, but certainly not incendiary. The journalism was sloppy, but it was properly focused; Carlson's use of imagery was tragically poor, but the larger point she was trying to make was a reasonable and solid one: namely, "Why is Bobby Reid going in and out of the lineup when the OSU coaching staff has made public comments to the contrary? In other words, what's really going on behind the scenes with this football program?" That's a solid, bread-and-butter focus for a journalist; the problem was that Carlson's phrasings and reportage were insufficient to the task she laid out for herself. You could call Gundy-Gate a perfect illustration of the saying, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."Carlson is guilty of a number of journalistic sins, but those sins exist in connection to the quality of her execution, not the soundness of her ideas. She had a good angle; she didn't produce wordsmithing or reportage that were clear enough to convey her angle with substance and power. Carlson made mistakes, but given that her column seemed to trip lightly around the edges of a story instead of getting to the heart of the matter with perfect clarity, it's odd that this--of all the columns written throughout the United States during a football weekend--wound up creating the firestorm that eventually erupted. I'm sure that Carlson herself--like any columnist who strongly feels the need to express criticisms about a situation that isn't being handled well--could have poured a lot more acid, venom and vinegar into a column than what she did on the morning of Sept. 22. As I sometimes tell readers, "if you only knew what incendiary language really looked like."
Once again, emotions--and the tempering thereof--demand further discussion here, because Gundy-Gate, along with other stories that have stoked the fires of anti-journalist sentiment through the years, is a teachable moment for all of us, with implications that go far beyond the college football world. In case you haven't noticed, non-sports stories have magnified the importance of this Oklahoma State football controversy.
Sunday morning, as I set out to write this column, I made a survey of newspapers (through the Internet, of course). In The Seattle Times,nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts wrote about the risks associated with allowing free speech. A Google on Mr. Pitts could easily turn up that column. In The New York Times,Jonathan D. Glater wrote a piece, titled "Between Free Speech and a Hard Place," about Columbia University President Lee Bollinger's "double decision" to host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but then excoriate him before last week's highly publicized question-and-answer session.
In many obvious ways, these two collisions--Carlson v. Gundy and Bollinger v. Ahmadinejad--are substantially different, especially in terms of their level of ultimate importance. But in many other real ways, these two battles matter equally, because they point to the same principle America has always claimed to defend and honor: the right to free speech. It's part of this thing called... ummm... errrrr... uhhhhh... lemme see... wait... it's coming... oh, come on, Matt... ooh, yes, yes, I remember now... it's... it's... it's... OH, YEAH!
A figure no less esteemed than Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the alternatives. We chuckle when we hear that statement (for the first time or for the ten-thousandth time), but when the laughter dies down, we have to realize, as Americans, the truth behind Churchill's purposeful and pointed one-liner: democracy--like the human organism itself--is messy, laden with contradictions, and often hard to understand. Democracy--like human beings--demands endless patience, gentle treatment, and the allowance of mistakes over time.
Here's what we need to understand about Gundy-Gate, the Ahmadinejad brouhaha, and any other contentious situation involving the collision of two different viewpoints and all their attendant social interests: no two human beings are exactly alike. Even identical twins have different veins and arteries, will brush their hair at different times of day, and sleep in different beds. Each one of us is a person uniquely shaped by thousands of different events in our early years and, if we live long enough, millions of events in our adult years. To live as a human being is to live in the face of the realization that your thoughts are not the thoughts of others. Many like-minded people do exist in the world, but even within that context of like-mindedness, individual divergences and disagreements will always linger. Out here in Seattle, I'm surrounded by liberals. But many of these same liberals dislike sports, don't attend church on a weekly basis, and view philanthropy as something you do for arts and culture, not for the poor and homeless. So while I'm a liberal, I'm a lonely liberal because of all my other beliefs and preferences. In many ways, I'd rather spend my time with a conservative who likes sports, attends church, and serves the poor. Those things matter more than political labels that are becoming less relevant and more outdated as time marches on. I learned over several years--and have finally absorbed into my bones and marrow--a central reality of human life: it takes a lifetime--if we're really, really lucky--to fully understand and deeply love one person who didn't shepherd or accompany us through our early years. To deeply appreciate even one solitary human being outside of a family member is to know something very special and, dare I say it in this secular publication, sacred.
Once you make that fundamental realization, your life should never be the same again.
When you do arrive at that point of revelation, and you discover just how difficult it is to know even one person outside your immediate family (and for many of us, of course, knowing even one family memberproves to be elusive throughout our entire lives), you should then see the need to treat every person with humility, respect and gentleness. To put this in another but more powerful way, the way you treat one human being must become the way in which you treat all human beings; the person in front of you is no more or less human, no more or less deserving of love, than any other human being on the planet.To fully encounter this searing truth is to desire reconciliation and good will among all people: in clashes between universities (Columbia) and Iranian presidents, and in conflicts between university football coaches (Mike Gundy) and columnists who make mistakes (Jenni Carlson). What you want for yourself and your family should be what you want for all of humanity. This is, in a word, compassion--unvarnished, unfiltered, free of nostalgia or sentimentality. Compassion isn't about giving a buck or a burger to a struggling person (as good as that is); it's about caring deeply in your heart for another human being and sharing in that person's difficult plight, whatever it might be. Compassion involves feeling the pain of others, whatever that pain might be and whatever forms it might acquire. Compassion should govern our everyday lives--as journalists, as fans, and as coaches or players.
We come to the next stage of this essay, where we deal with this situation so that when a future firestorm erupts--in Oklahoma or elsewhere in the United States--we can respond appropriately on all sides.
I don't think anyone in this drama--Gundy, Carlson, or the editors of The Daily Oklahoman--is any more right or wrong than the other. Analytically, I think everyone made mistakes while acting with the best of intentions in mind. The problem I had from the very beginning of this emotional rollercoaster ride was unrelated to any one person's actions--including those of Gundy, who backed a player and, for the most part, did what he was supposed to do. My problem with this whole sorry saga is the same problem that always dominates controversies involving the press: it's the system, stupid. The larger structures we have in this country are responsible for shaping--and usually poisoning--the ways in which human beings conduct themselves on a mass scale. This is true because when human beings--on the ground at the local level--feel powerless in the face of larger structures, they will vent their emotions instead of taking the time to change the system itself. This applies to American democracy, but it also very much applies to newspapers and news-gathering corporations at large.
When I looked into this story from a distance and visited Scout.com's Oklahoma State message boards over the past week (disclaimer: College Football News is a partner of the Scout.com content-providing network), one interesting line of argument kept coming at me from Cowboy fans who rallied to Gundy's defense (and berated Carlson): "The Daily Oklahoman is a pro-Sooner newspaper."
Of course, I have no legitimate basis for judging that statement. All I can say is that this line of thinking was virtually unanimous on the site. The view might be misinformed, shortsighted and just plain wrong, but the mere reality that it simply exists in a wider community should be cause enough for alarm. And in light of another discovery I made about Oklahoma media outlets, I began to realize that while The Daily Oklahomanhas a fine editor (Ed Kelley) who has given some very solid, timely and socially beneficial editorials on various subjects pertaining to the state of Oklahoma (I visited the paper's website over the past week and browsed the archives), one can still cry foul about the larger structures that house Mr. Kelley's editorial viewpoints, as good as they in fact are.
I learned in the past week (it's easy to find out--just go to the Oklahomanwebsite) that the newspaper enjoys a synergistic relationship with a local Oklahoma television station. The newspaper will report some stories covered by the TV station, and the TV station's nightly newscasts will often involve commentary or reports from newspaper staffers. Both outlets get to display the other's logo, and they get to pool their resources to publicize--and feed off--the other. This recent partnership in the larger media world is being (and has been) duplicated in other cities. I know this because my birthplace--Phoenix--is home to such a partnership, between The Arizona Republicand the local NBC affiliate, KPNX-TV. Phoenix is a one-newspaper town these days, because the worsening condition of the newspaper business took down the Republic'sone remaining longtime competitor, The Phoenix Gazette,sometime in the 1990s. In a climate of media consolidation, furthered by a recent series of rulings by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), these partnerships are proliferating across the United States, with the result being more commercially-oriented, profit-motivated news coverage instead of journalism that looks out for the little guy and generally covers the urgent interests of a community. It's usually liberals such as myself who get worked up about FCC hearings and like matters, but it seems that Oklahomans need to get riled up about the same kinds of concerns.
The folks who run and work atThe Daily Oklahomanstruck me, over the past week, as people who have a sincere desire to further the cause of journalism. Their motivations and intentions seem to be appropriate, their goals and aims reasonable. This is true of Ms. Carlson, who--to repeat--had a good story angle, but didn't perform her assigned tasks with the clarity or precision she needed. Just as Gundy-Gate is not the fault of any one person, so it also is true that the quality of journalism in the state of Oklahoma is not due to the people who work at The Daily Oklahoman,which enjoys a substantial advantage in readership over the less widely-distributed (but very dogged and dedicated)Tulsa World.The problem with journalism in Oklahoma is the same problem with journalism throughout the United States: with all corporations expected to make a profit, news-based corporations are also having to make a profit as well. If you know anything about history--or if you simply saw the 2005 movie Good Night and Good Luck--you would immediately recognize the problem at hand. It's a severe one, and it goes far beyond Gundy-Gate. The actions of one football coach, and the media-bashing that followed, are but a few symptoms of a much bigger disease.
Very simply, journalism never was, isn't now, and never will be a field of human endeavor that should make a monetary profit. Journalism is not supposed to profit society financially; journalism is supposed to profit people intellectually, socially, physically, ethically, politically, morally and systemically. Journalism is supposed to promote public health and safety; inform citizens (not merely people; citizens); explain concepts; expose the powerful; and bring transparency from murkiness, among other things. Journalism, in short, is supposed to be a public service built on trust--trust that is earned with the larger (local or national) population. The very nature and mission of journalism necessarily require that a monetary profit be far down on the priority list, and certainly not in the top spot. In Ed Murrow's day, journalism was still (for the most part) a public service, and his organization--CBS (like the other two major broadcast networks)--had a news division that was not expected to turn a profit; it was expected to report the news and serve the people.
The reaction to Gundy-Gate in the Oklahoma State community is so alarming, then, because the frustrations of people in and around the university have a right to demand diversity in the media landscape in their state. This isn't the fault of the men and women who staff the Oklahoman,but at the end of the day, the problem remains unaddressed: the multiplicity of media voices needed to fully serve all viewpoints and interests in the state of Oklahoma is sadly nonexistent. Media consolidation and downsizing--the fruits of the poisonous tree known as the profit motive, which is steadily killing journalism throughout America--are leaving Oklahoma State fans, alumni and students without a voice they feel they can trust. This is how structures and systems do far more harm than individuals. We saw it in the particulars of Gundy-Gate, too.
The profit motive that dominates America (not just the business of journalism) was alive and at work in this series of incidents. The way our current structures are set up in this country, ordinary folks crave info on the state university's starting quarterback more than on the state government's attempts to fight poverty. Media outlets devote more resources to the coverage of sports than to social issues of dire importance. The way things are set up in this country right now, coaches like Mike Gundy stand to benefit from berating journalists in ways that will gain public sympathy and approval. Let's face it: from standpoints of recruiting, publicity, economics, and team loyalty, Gundy profited from his outburst. It's hard to knock a guy when he does something that advances his career while causing, on a larger scale, a relative minimum of pain and suffering. This is not to minimize what Jenni Carlson went through; as someone who receives a lot of vitriol and sometimes spends sleepless nights as a result, I know all too well what Ms. Carlson is experiencing. The larger point, though, should be clear: Gundy has just advanced his career on a number of very important levels. By choosing the right time to unload on a journalist who deserved better--and more specifically, by striking the right chord and hitting the right nerve in the larger culture--Gundy is now likely to make his family ever more secure in the long run. THAT is the problem I have with this whole mess.
Yes, it's undeniable to anyone with a conscience and a functioning brain: the way our systems and structures currently exist in the United States of America, people profit from treating others badly. In other words, people have every incentive in the world to be uncompassionate, and have virtually no financial or material incentives to be compassionate. Our American social structures encourage us to be anything but compassionate, to be people who--instead of sharing in the pain of others--cause the pain of others. This is just as true--I hasten to add--in the worlds of talk radio and the other truly corrosive media outlets (usually on the broadcast side; if you think newspapers and print publications are the worst of the lot, you don't get around nearly enough) who unload on public figures. It works both ways (the media dishing it out, and the media taking it), but the bottom line is the same: people are set up to benefit from hurting others. One could say, at the end of the day, that capitalism is just as messy as democracy: it's the worst form of economic activity, except for all the alternatives. You can't just talk about the need to have democracy and capitalism; you need to act in ways that promote the deepest, best and truest principles of democracy and capitalism while protecting those who are minimized or hurt by the limitations of the two systems. Managing systems and structures is the real way to effect positive change--in journalism or any other aspect of society. If you focus on individuals such as Jenni Carlson or Mike Gundy as emblems of problems (or, perhaps, solutions), you're missing the boat. If you blame individuals for the failings of vast institutions and industries, you're looking at the symptoms instead of the causes. Start looking at the causes.
We've arrived at the final part of this special edition of the Weekly Affirmation. After a necessarily lengthy explanation of many interlocking factors and competing tensions, I will leave you with a homework assignment to carry into the next media firestorm that emerges in America. It could deal with the presidential campaigns, or it could come from the college football world. But whatever the situation, one hopes that people will start acting in less emotional ways, and with more attention to the layers and details that make daily journalism so difficult. If you want to demand better journalism (and, for that matter, better conduct by journalists, coaches, politicians, and all people in the public eye), you need to make a daily habit out of wrestling with questions instead of settling for emotionally easy "answers" that really aren't answers at all. In other words, if you really care about journalism and want to influence the journalists who live and work in your local communities across America, you need to develop a specific set of standards that can hold up under scrutiny and intense examination when a media-centered controversy erupts. A good journalist isn't someone who defends your university, head football coach, or star quarterback in every instance. A good journalist--as a reporter or as a columnist--treats people fairly in times of both criticism and praise.
Want to develop some standards, college football fans (especially in Stillwater and the Oklahoma State community)? Look at Gundy-Gate and spend weeks, if not months, wrestling with these questions:
Would you have reacted differently to this story if Ms. Carlson used an image other than "being fed fried chicken by his mom" to refer to Bobby Reid's attitude?
What if Carlson referred to "eating chicken stir fry with his mom"? Would you have been as outraged then?
How about, "being fed fried chicken by his uncle"?
If a player's attitude or character affects his team's performance (and of course, it does on many occasions), how should journalists balance the need to criticize versus the need to stay out of making character judgments? What are the standards there?
What standards should guide columnists when they mix statements of fact with statements of opinion in the same pieces? Do you even know when a columnist is filing a column as opposed to a game report or a piece of news analysis? How clear are editors or publishers in making such differences readily and outwardly known?
Just what is "an attack on a player" as opposed to, say, "a searing but necessary indictment"?
Was there anything Mike Gundy said or did that was wrong in this larger process? What standards should be applied to the behavior of coaches in sensitive matters such as this one?
How should the editors at The Daily Oklahomanand other American newspapers partnered with TV stations (in a context of media consolidation and cross-pollination) work to create sufficient diversity in their editorial viewpoints?
If fans boo college quarterbacks and college football players at large (and they do), what are the standards that fans should be held accountable to? Moreover, how many fans does it take to (either officially or unofficially) sully the reputation of a fan base?
If a fan base goes over the line, does that affect the behavioral standards for columnists, beat reporters, coaches and players? On a more expansive level, does the behavior of one group of people justify a shift in behavioral standards for some or all of the other groups?
What is the difference between a statement of fact and a statement of opinion?
What is the difference between a responsible statement of fact and an irresponsible statement of fact? Between a responsible statement of opinion and an irresponsible statement of opinion?
Are columnists journalists, or just pot-stirrers? Discuss.
What defines a good editorial viewpoint? A bad one?
How often do you find yourself disagreeing with an editorial or column while acknowledging that the quality of the work is considerable and professional?
How often do you disagree with a journalist while acknowledging that s/he is competent, professional, and generally lacking in malice or (entrenched, not innocent) bias?
Polarizing media personality Bill O'Reilly: fundamentally professional or not?
Polarizing media personality Keith Olbermann: fundamentally professional or not?
Polarizing media personality Mark May: fundamentally professional or not?
Polarizing media personality Billy Packer: fundamentally professional or not?
Bobby Reid: a kid or a man?
At what age does a kid become a man, and therefore demand all forms of criticism (if all forms of criticisms are legitimate for athletes at a certain point in time)?
How much research and fact-checking do readers need to perform in order for their criticisms to become legitimate? In other words, how many stories must they read from an individual journalist or publication before pronouncing a journalist to be definitively professional or unprofessional? How much time should elapse before these same verdicts are rendered by newspaper/Internet readers (or TV viewers, or radio listeners)?
It's time to take some time, everybody... much more than you might be accustomed to. Time to do your homework and leave emotions at the door... that is, if you really care about journalism, the integrity of social structures, the justice of our systems and institutions, and, ultimately, about the value and necessity of real compassion.
* * *
Week Six: October 8, 2007
Long-Form Weekly Affirmation: Diary of a Day, Part One
In the continuing quest to give you a clear and transparent look at the inner worlds inhabited by a journalist (so that fan-journalist relationships and the quality of journalism can both begin to improve in this country), I thought it would be a good idea to simply take you inside my thoughts from moment to moment on a college football Saturday. As you and I both found out, this was a pretty good Saturday to keep a running diary. Here's how I summed up a day to remember. The second part of this diary can be found on the Monday Morning Quarterback.
9:12 a.m., Pacific (Seattle) time: The FSN analyst for the Kansas-Kansas State game: "There are no weaknesses on that (Kansas) defense." Pretty hyperbolic statement, don't you think?
9:20 a.m.: An easily reviewable play in the Wisconsin-Illinois game takes eight minutes to review.
A power run and an option play both produce gains of over 25 yards for Rashard Mendenhall, as Illinois rolls to an early touchdown against Wisconsin. The Badgers will have to win another shootout, it seems.
9:48: ESPN's Andre Ware wonders why Ron Zook accepted a delay of game penalty with Wisconsin facing 4th and 7 on the Illinois 33. I'll tell you, Andre: When a team is on the edge of scoring range, you take the penalty.
9:57: North Carolina, up 13-0, gets a first down inside the Miami 1. Two questions: 1) How bad is Texas A&M? 2) How sweet would it be for Butch Davis to beat his former employer?
10:00: Why is Miami not loading the box? Anyone know? 20-0, Tar Heels.
10:02: Receiver Luke Swan converts a 3rd and 12 for Wisconsin, deep in Badger territory. If the No. 5 team in America wins today, remember that play.
10:07: Kansas running back Jake Sharp runs with the intensity that defines a rivalry game. The Jayhawks, flat-footed in the first quarter, tie Kansas State at 7 in the second quarter.
10:10: Russ Weil, Illinois' fullback, makes an acrobatic catch one would expect of Arrellious Benn. It leads to a touchdown and a 17-0 Illinois lead. The Illini are loaded with athletes, but the key is that Ron Zook's team, after beating Penn State, is now confident and battle-tested. Once you learn how to win, mere potential becomes reality. Athletic ability translates into results. This is how the culture of a program is transformed.
10:17: Wisconsin sports flashback: Travis Beckum's amazing catch evokes memories of Antonio Freeman on Monday Night Football against the Vikings.
10:20: Indiana still rolling up points (against Minnesota), N. Carolina still blasting Miami, and Auburn's revival seems real, as shown by a quick 21-0 surge in the early going against Vanderbilt.
10:21: Kansas State's James Johnson evidently runs just as hard as Jake Sharp. Touchdown, Wildcats, for a 14-7 lead.
10:28: Syracuse trails West Virginia, 28-7. The Louisville win is a distant memory and very much an aberration.
10:30: Michigan leads Eastern Michigan, 16-8, at halftime. The Wolverines simply don't care about playing the game of football when a Mid-American Conference team comes to Ann Arbor.
10:33: A man's catch by Luke Swan (again) on the Illinois 6.
10:35: A much more opportunistic Kansas team somehow finds a way to enter halftime tied at 14 in Manhattan.
10:36: On 3rd and goal, Illinois' defense makes a huge stand to take momentum--and an 11-point lead--to the locker room at halftime. Past Illini teams would have allowed a touchdown and then sagged in the second half.
10:47: No, that's not a reverse in the Miami-UNC game, Rece Davis. It's an end-around.
11:02: As the Badgers and Illini take the field for the second half, Luke Swan--injured on that aforementioned catch--is on crutches, and P.J. Hill is on the bench. Big trouble in river city for the Badgers. Louisville and USC--like Wisconsin--are also accumulating some significant injuries on offense.
11:06: Travis Beckum converts a third down with superb athleticism. Number 9 will have to carry the load for Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst.
11:10: Throwing on every play, Wisconsin hits a big play and snags its first touchdown to narrow Illinois' lead to 17-13. The Illini hit and pursue with considerable confidence, but they lack a consistent pass rush. Now we'll see how Juice Williams responds to the pressure of a tight ballgame.
11:14: The Juice is loose for 24 yards on an option keeper.
11:16: Juice with another run of over 20 yards.
11:21: Touchdown, Rashard Mendenhall. Illinois responds to Wisconsin and sends a message to the opposing sideline. 24-13, Illini.
11:22: Kansas grabs second-half momentum--and a 21-14 lead--with a touchdown against KSU. Can Mark Mangino's team close the deal and gain the legitimacy that's proved to be elusive in Lawrence?
11:26: P.J. Hill back in for Wisconsin.
11:32: Hill scores. Wisconsin might not be a complete team in 2007, but it's clear that the Wisconsin program is an elite one. Under Barry Alvarez and now Bielema, the Badgers--sometimes outgunned but never outfought--always display the mindset of a winner. The program's subculture is healthy, the attitude positive, the resilience unmistakable. Win or lose today, Wisconsin--beset by injuries--is still acquitting itself well.
11:35: Out of absolutely nowhere, Miami comes up with touchdowns in bunches to turn a laugher into a 27-20 white-knuckler against UNC.
11:38: UNC forced to punt. A 180-degree shift if there ever was one.
11:39: A misfire by Juice Williams on third down (he slightly overthrew an open receiver) forces Illinois to punt, up 24-19.
11:47: The same Big Ten replay reviewer makes an incorrect ruling to uphold a downfield pass completion for Wisconsin.
11:50: Wisconsin converts a huge 3rd and 11. Momentum steadily flowing to the Badgers.
11:51: Tyler Donovan has a pass sail on him, and Illinois' Kevin Mitchell picks it at the Illini 15. Unreal. Games can and do turn on a dime. North Carolina used one missed Miami tackle to gain a field goal and an abrupt reversal of momentum.
11:52: As Kansas' foray into the red zone ends in zero points, one truth becomes painfully evident: whoever loses the "Sunflower State Showdown" will lament a boatload of mistakes and missed opportunities. The "tweener zone" and the "blue zone" have figured prominently in this contest.
12:01 p.m., Pacific time: A big-time pick from Vontae Davis keeps Illinois in the driver's seat... for the moment.
12:03: Juice Williams, why not make a cutback on your impressive downfield run?
12:06: Williams is shaken up. On CBS' pregame show, it is reported that West Virginia's Pat White suffered an aggravation of a rib injury, forcing him to leave the Mountaineers' game against Syracuse.
12:08: A quarterback not named Juice--Eddie McGee--scores a gigantic touchdown for Illinois, who takes a 31-19 lead with under six minutes left in regulation. Had Illinois blown out Wisconsin, that would have been impressive enough in its own right. Winning a tough, tight slugfest, though, is actually an even better testament to Illinois' overall quality. Talent plus resolve plus maturity equals first place in the Big Ten... and the true emergence of Ron Zook as a college football head coach.
12:11: Kansas see-saws ahead of K-State, 27-24, in a game where momentum lasts for, oh, about 15 seconds.
12:20: Kansas, still up three with just under 2:30 left, sees its tight end drop a game-sealing touchdown pass. KSU, down 30-24, gets new life and one more chance.
12:22: Touchdown, Wisconsin. Had Bret Bielema not chased an extra point in the third quarter, he could have gone for two here and cut Illinois' lead to three (31-28). Instead, the Badgers trail by five with 1:31 to go (and all three timeouts left).
12:25: Illinois recovers the onside kick. Ron Zook's moment of glory that much closer.
12:26: Interception by Kansas. The Mangino Revolution appears to be real, but let's wait and see--Nebraska and Missouri also need to be heard from. At any rate, a breakthrough moment in the history of Jayhawk football. And as for KSU, well, we still know very little about the true measure of the Wildcats... and Texas... and Auburn.
12:30: First down--and ballgame--Illinois. Ron Zook, deeply moved, hugs Juice Williams. Everyone in the college football community knows how hard Zook fell at Florida. The pounding he took was harsh, public, and impossible to hide. While being a fine person, Zook compiled a body of work in Gainesville that merited criticism from a football-only standpoint. When the Illini took their lumps over the past few seasons, nothing seemed likely to change. But now that a transformation has taken place in Champaign, a good man deserves a substantial salute and a personal word of heartfelt admiration from this columnist. Any time a human being rises from the ashes, it's a great story worth proclaiming from the rooftops. College football is blessed to witness the redemption of Ron Zook, made complete on this day of destiny for the no-longer-ill Illini.
12:44: Mark D'Antonio, meet the ghosts of John L. Smith, Bobby McWilliams, and Nick Saban. Michigan State has just lost its annual "we have no business losing this game" game. Yes, the same Northwestern team that lost at home to Duke takes down the Spartans in East Lansing, 48-41, in overtime.
12:46: Tennessee--on its first offensive possession--makes Georgia's defense look invisible and irrelevant, as the Vols put together a shockingly simple touchdown march. The Vols brought some urgency to Neyland Stadium. Now they must retain that winning attitude for the duration.
12:48: North Carolina holds off Miami, and Maryland--once up 18--sweats out a 52-yard Georgia Tech field goal in the final minute. Travis Bell's kick was long enough, but it stayed wide right, enabling the Terps to view their Rutgers conquest as part of a trend, and not a cruel tease.
12:54: The offenses aren't doing squat in the Red River Rivalry.
1:03: Georgia's defense gets a much-needed stop to briefly stem the tide against the fired-up Vols.
1:06: First big development in Dallas: a long downfield completion by Oklahoma is wiped out by a holding penalty.
1:08: OU gets that downfield pass play once again--and to the same are of the field (the seam between the numbers and the hashmarks on the right side).
1:10: A deep post pattern produces another Sooner bomb, down to the Texas 1.
1:11: Touchdown, Oklahoma... but not on the ground. Texas is loading the box to suff Allen Patrick, so the Sooner braintrust is giving the ball to Sam Bradford. The same QB who wilted against Colorado managed to meet the moment on that drive.
1:15: One beautifully designed and superbly executed trick play produces an easy Tennessee touchdown and a 14-0 lead over Georgia.
1:25: Texas gets off the deck to tie Oklahoma. The Longhorns needed to immediately answer OU's first punch.
1:26: Two scores raise eyebrows: Wyoming spanking TCU, 21-6, with under four minutes left in the third quarter in Laramie. And TEMPLE has won--16-15 over Northern Illinois. Congrats to the Owls, who have never given up at any point this season.
1:30: Tennessee is simply steamrolling Georgia. One team decided to play, the other decided not to show up. In a backyard SEC brawl, that's not a good idea. This is one of those times when an Instant Analysis piece doesn't need to be very long or complicated. (Other games, however, deserve pages and pages of prose. Every game is its own unique entity.)
1:35: I glance at my third TV monitor, and on ESPN2, Penn State is doing a better job of not losing (or, perhaps, a worse job of not winning) than Iowa. Anthony Morelli can't get healthy against a Hawkeye defense that was scorched by Indiana. The Nittany Lions are example No. 1 of how bad play at one position--quarterback--can drag down an otherwise solid team. Oh, for the days of Michael Robinson.
1:39: Colt McCoy threads the needle on a downfield pass, and shoddy Oklahoma tackling adds 30 more yards to the play. Give the Horns an enormous amount of credit for rebounding when previous Mack Brown teams (in the pre-Vince Young days) would have sagged against the Sooners.
1:41: Touchdown, Texas, on another flip from McCoy to an open receiver. 14-7 for the Burnt Orange Bevo Boys.
1:44: Tennessee has scored again. The Vols are taking Larry Munson's hobnailed boot and breaking Georgia's nose. The faces inside the red helmets are being stepped on... a lot.
1:50: Has Mark Richt ever had a team this schizophrenic? Has any coach had a team this schizophrenic?
1:53: On 3rd and 6 from the Texas 7, Sam Bradford gets the protection he needs to complete a huge touchdown pass. This feels a whole lot like the Kansas-KSU game in this respect: momentum is as durable as the past 2-3 plays. This duel in Dallas is a pendulum swinger of a pigskin passion play.
1:58: Something to keep an eye on: Washington State's very bad defense is pitching a shutout against Arizona State, three minutes into the second quarter. If the Cougs and Alex Brink can do anything on offense (the game is a scoreless tie right now), Pullman could pull in an upset victim.
2:01: Touchdown, Washington State. One, two, three: Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.........
2:04: That Wazzu touchdown is taken away on one of the VERY WORST REPLAY REVIEW DECISIONS EVER MADE. The decision was every bit as bad as the Oklahoma-Oregon onside kick ruling, made 13 months ago. Outrageous.
2:05: Field goal for Wazzu. If ASU wins by four points or fewer, a firestorm should ensue. The replay official in Pullman should receive the same sanctions Gordon Riese received back in September of 2006.
2:06: Time to step back during halftime of the main network games and offer some extended commentary...
2:07: Here's an important explanation that needs to be made about the above comments on the Arizona State-Wazzu game. The emotional world of fandom would lead a number of people to believe that I'm either biased in favor of Wazzu or against Arizona State. (Others might think I laid some serious cash on the Cougars over the Internet.) However, the job of a journalist is to report what one sees, and that overruled touchdown was, empirically, an atrocious call. On some occasions, yes, columnists do insert themselves into stories instead of merely reporting the facts of the matter. But this happens much less frequently than you might think. When a writer says that a call is atrocious, readers are inclined to think the writer has an agenda, when in fact that writer is just doing his (her) job by making an important evaluation of a critical play that shaped the trajectory of a key game. As was the case with Rutgers (Weekly Affirmation, Sept. 24) and Oklahoma State (Weekly Affirmation, Oct. 1), this ASU-WSU situation reaffirms the need for readers of any sports publication to evaluate the quality of journalism (be it "straight news reportage" or editorial journalism in the form of column writing) from the standpoint of a disinterested or detatched observer. Honest critics of sports journalists must base their criticisms on (at least some degree of) work pertaining to teams other than one's own (and, for that matter, to a favorite team's foremost rivals as well). Remember this: objectivity (a much talked-about concept that is frequently misunderstood) means empirical factuality much more than it means "balance for the sake of balance."
2:26: Back to watching the games... Touchdown, Arizona State. 7-7. Oh, wait: 7-3 for the Sun Devils... because of that objectively atrocious call I was just talking about.
2:30: Wyoming holds off TCU, 24-21. Once the Horned Frogs blew a 17-3 fourth-quarter lead against Air Force a few weeks ago, Gary Patterson's team never recovered. The 2007 TCU story reminds us: you can spend ungodly amounts of money on a football program, but when young kids lose confidence, all the facilities, weight training programs, and recruiting hauls mean absolutely nothing.
2:34: Touchdown, Washington State. I think...
2:35: Replay confirms the touchdown. Tell me: how was that any more of a catch than the one overturned a half hour earlier?
2:39: Oh............ my............... goodness. Texas' Jamaal Charles, heading for the end zone, is stripped by Oklahoma's Curtis Lofton, and the Sooners recover. The question, though, is: will TEXAS recover?
2:40: Florida State gets a pick-six to snap a 10-all tie against N.C. State (side note: After a 5-hour, 35-minute blackout/malfunction, Comcast finally got GamePlan to work in the Seattle area...)
2:41: Oklahoma gets a crucial pair of first downs to consolidate momentum while gaining field position.
2:49: With 10:45 left in the third quarter, South Florida leads Florida Atlantic by a mere seven points (14-7). One word: pretender.
2:51: Seriously: how long would South Florida last on a neutral field against Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Cal, Oregon, or anyone else in the sport's second tier below USC and LSU?
2:52: Touchdown, Florida Atlantic. 14-all, with 9:43 left in the third. (I note the exact time just to assure you I'm not making this up.)
2:56: South Florida still deadlocked with 8:03 left in the third (one more time notation to further confirm I'm not pulling this out of thin air).
2:57: Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray busts off a 65-yard touchdown run. The Lofton dagger looms even larger now.
2:59: A huge thunderstorm--with game-stopping lightning--is headed for the Cotton Bowl, reports Bonnie Bernstein. Texas might get a cance to mentally regroup before the day's over, although the Horns are already marching at the OU 44.
3:05 p.m., Pacific time: The third quarter ends with Texas on the OU 1. We could have a tie--and a suspended game--in a few minutes.
3:08: Touchdown, Texas, and touchdown, Virginia Tech--on a very early pick-six--down in Clemson.
3:10: An absolutely insane, ridiculous and just plain loony turn of events in Pullman: Arizona State roughs Wazzu's punter only because of a huge shank that caused a pop-up of a punt that literally went straight up and (of course) out of the reach of the punt rusher. Dennis Erickson is going berserk, but the refs got the call right.
3:13: With 1st and 10 at the ASU 37 after the penalty, Washington State "Cougs it," as Alex Brink and his receiver cross signals, leading to a huge pick-six for the Devils, who--on the verge of trailing by ten--now lead by four.
3:18: Oklahoma marching downfield against Texas, in a game that's becoming a shootout.
3:20: Touchdown, Oklahoma, on yet another downfield pass to an open receiver. Sam Bradford takes the huge backside hit and delivers the goods.
3:22: Alabama, up 23-0 on Houston before anyone's seat was warm in Tuscaloosa, is now punting to the Cougars in a 30-24 game. Houston, we could have a huge problem at the Capstone.
3:24: Two plays after Houston dropped a first-down pass that would have brought the ball into Tide territory, Bama gets a mammoth interception to stop the bleeding.
3:25: Off a deflection from an open Texas receiver, Oklahoma gets a lucky interception, followed by a big return from the electrifying Reggie Smith.
3:27: John Parker Wilson throws a shocking interception on an improvised shovel pass. Houston has a first down at the Bama 46 with just under three minutes left in regulation.
3:35: Tremendous defensive reaction from Alabama on a creative trick play from Houston.
3:37: One shot for Houston with five seconds left at the Bama 15.
3:38: CBS shows Tennessee's remaining schedule. The Vols could definitely win the SEC East, folks. It won't be a cakewalk, but I've seen much tougher schedules.
3:39: Bama survives. Credit a gritty defense for finding an extra measure of energy against a surging opponent in the final minutes.
3:40: Virginia Tech gets a long kick return from Eddie Royal for a touchdown and a stunning 17-0 lead in the Palmetto State. Tommy Bowden presiding over a very familiar train wreck.
3:43: The Hokies are flying. In case you haven't noticed today (or throughout your life, for that matter), momentum means a lot in college football.
3:45: Arizona State takes the lead in Pullman, but misses the PAT. 20-17, Sun Devils. South Florida up 28-17 with seven minutes left in regulation.
3:47: Oklahoma moving the chains with the passing game, and the Cotton Bowl clock reaches the four-minute mark in the fourth quarter. Now the Sooners and DeMarco Murray gain a first down on the ground.
3:49: 2:40 left in Dallas.
3:50: Now 2:31 left. Texas calls timeout--its first--with OU facing 3rd and 5 at the Sooner 42.
3:51: Bradford fails to get the first down, and he goes out of bounds with 2:24 left.
3:52: Touchback. Colt McCoy's last stand, coming up.
3:53: A huge sack from OU's Austin English puts Texas in 3rd and 14.
3:55: McCoy short-arms a fourth-down pass, and Mack Brown's two-game win streak over Bob Stoops is no more. A game effort from Texas, but the Sooners showed the mental toughness that was missing a week earlier in Boulder.
3:57: Time to write an Instant Analysis of the Red River Rivalry.
4:44: Just wrote and filed my Instant Analysis of OU-Texas. Back to TV watching...
4:45: Arizona State wins by three. Bill Doba should raise hell about that overruled touchdown. Pac-10 honchos need to strongly sanction that replay reviewer. Two words: Gordon Riese.
4:47: Virginia Tech leads 31-5, and Hokie QB Tyrod Taylor has completed just three passes (out of eight attempts). Incredible.
4:55: Clemson can get only three before the half, as Virginia Tech preserves a 31-8 bulge.
5:02: USC up just 3-0 over Stanford, 21 minutes into the game. Stunned? No--only mildly surprised. USC's battered offensive line will need time to regroup. I'm surprised by the fact that John David Booty hasn't been able to hit a downfield strike a week after the USC passing game was extremely erratic against Washington.
5:05: Booty completes a 31-yard pass to the Stanford 2. Again, I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried. Ah, the beauty of a live diary.
5:06: Touchdown, USC.
5:10: This diary feels as though it's gone on forever, but only now does this day roar to life. Florida-LSU, Ohio State-Purdue, Cincy-Rutgers, Nebraska-Missouri. It's gonna get crowded here. Buckle up, Matt.
For part two of this diary, go to the Monday Morning Quarterback.
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Week Seven: October 15, 2007
Before addressing all the officiating controversies that erupted this past weekend, a few words about our friend, the Bowl Championship Series, are in order.
The pro-BCS arguments have already been voiced this weekend, hours in advance of the first BCS rankings. John Saunders of ABC/ESPN said on The Sports Reporters that this crazy season is proving to be its own internal playoff system. You know, he may have a point. After all, LSU's loss eliminated the...
What? Wait a minute--you mean Les Miles' Tigers are still in the mix? Shoot. Oh well, we definitely know that Oklahoma's loss to Colorado knocked the...
Huh? You're fixin' to tell me that the Sooners are still in this dadgum race? Darn. But hey, we sure know that Kentucky's loss to South Carolina has the...
Waaaa? Kentucky's in the thick of the national title chase with Florida coming into Lexington this Saturday? Crap. Well, we pro-BCS people still know one thing in this crazy season of ours: Florida has been eliminated.
WHAT?! You're trying to say that if Florida runs the table, South Florida and Boston College lose, and Arizona State doesn't go undefeated, the Gators could play Oklahoma (or another one-loss team with a good resume) for all the marbles in New Orleans?
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we once again arrive at the simplest of conclusions: the Bowl Championship Series simply can't address the uniqueness of each and every college football season. The only redeeming value of the BCS is that it provides the opportunity for No. 1 to play No. 2 when the one magic scenario emerges: two and only two unbeaten teams at the end of the regular season. When this golden script isn't written, this system is absolutely worthless; actually, that's being charitable. The BCS--when the magic scenario doesn't materialize--is not just value-neutral, but value-negative for college football, given its cultural and emotional diminishment of the classic matchups and conference tie-ins associated with the New Year's Day bowls.
Please, BCS proponents, don't say this system is a playoff, because practically everybody has lost, and is therefore just as much a contender as at the beginning of the season. Only Michigan and a few other teams have truly been eliminated from the national title conversation. Colorado came THIS CLOSE to making the big game with two losses in 2001; this season, we could have our first two-loss entrant in the Big Easy's Big One. In the meantime, I want my college football tradition back (unless we get a plus one after the top four teams play in two of the four current BCS bowls).
Here are this week's reflection questions for you to think about...
How different a coach is Houston Nutt in 2007, compared to 2006? Be as honest as possible...
Is Steve Pederson of Nebraska good or bad as an athletic director?
Why are Colt Brennan's Heisman credentials even being discussed at this point?
Why are anyone's Heisman credentials being discussed at this point?
Why isn't anyone talking about the superb job Lloyd Carr has done since Appy State and Oregon? What did Carr do at age eight that has earned him such frosty, black-hole treatment from national talking heads and pundits?
After this upcoming Saturday's game pitting Michigan against Illinois, will the losing coach receive more negative publicity than the winning coach receives positive publicity?
If you want to teach sportsmanship and good morals to your children, but you also think Les Miles' decisions simply stunk in the third overtime against Kentucky, a question: do you know what Miles did well after the game ended in Commonwealth Stadium? Ask around if you don't.
If you want to teach sportsmanship and good morals to your children, but you're irate at Mark Richt for doing a subpar job with this year's Georgia team, did you see what Richt did at the end of the Vanderbilt game? More importantly, does your reaction to Richt's personal conduct exceed the force of your emotions connected to Richt's coaching performance?
Based on the two examples above, a follow-up question: do you generally remember acts of character on a football field, or do you more strongly retain and recall the performance-only aspects of a game in your mind's eye? Where do your deepest emotions truly reside?
If Cincinnati played Louisville with a one-man advantage, would the Bearcats finally be able to beat the Cardinals?
Did you ever consider the possibility that a Florida-Kentucky football game would easily exceed a Florida-Kentucky basketball game in importance?
And finally, who plays the role of the sympathetic underdog Thursday night: South Florida or Rutgers?
Next up, a series of quick-hitters...
In case you didn't notice, Minnesota blew a big lead late to Northwestern. Somewhere, Glen Mason is smiling.
The Big Ten championship could be decided by this potentially true statement: Ohio State will face the post-Wisconsin Anthony Morelli. (The empirically proven truth is that Michigan had the good fortune of facing the pre-Wisconsin Anthony Morelli.)
As sure as the sun rises in the east, Boston College will go down against Virginia Tech a week from this Thursday in Blacksburg. Come on--barely easing past a horrible Notre Dame team? Zero field goal kicking? The Eagles might be undefeated now, but they're looking at a long, hard fall in the coming weeks unless they substantially ratchet up their level of play.
Got to see more than a few snaps of the new-look Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday night. The good people of Phoenix and Tempe are unaccustomed to seeing a major football team compete with such zest for a full 60 minutes on a weekly basis. The Devils actually hustle and display mental toughness. Imagine that. Dennis Erickson might be a carpetbagger who lacks a strong ethical compass, but he sure can coach.
The award for "most bizarrely beautiful seven-game sequence in college football history" goes to the Virginia Cavaliers. They lead the ACC despite getting thumped at Wyoming and squeaking by Middle Tennessee and Connecticut by a combined three points. Credit Al Groh for getting his team to win games, no matter how ugly. A win over Virginia Tech at season's end will almost certainly put the Hoos in the ACC title game.
Another reason why college sports are overhyped and drain way more human resources than they ever have a right to in a world where billions of people live on less than a dollar a day: just stop for a second and contemplate all the ink, newsprint, bandwidth, wiring, TV cameras, production trucks, and other man-made products used (or, more accurately, WASTED) to document the life of Jimmy Clausen in relationship to his life at Notre Dame. Can we please introduce some restraint to the coverage and hyping of the recruiting process? I know that's asking a lot, but the Weekly Affirmation strives to attain the greatest moral goods in society.
Just making sure of something here: if you're wondering why USC is struggling so much, are you aware that the Trojans' entire starting offensive line has been wiped out by injury? It's not as though Pete Carroll and Steve Sarkisian have ceased to understand how to coach offense. When a dominant O-line turns into a MASH unit, a team will suffer considerably. If Kentucky and Florida were to lose their offensive lines, Andre Woodson and Tim Tebow would suddenly look a lot more average.
Temple has a two-game winning streak, and Buffalo is 3-1 in the Mid-American Conference. Words don't do justice to the character and commitment displayed by the student athletes at these two programs, which have had to take a lot of beatings over extended periods of time. Way to go, young men. You represent the very best of college athletics, even if your games are played out of the public spotlight.
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In this week's essay, we deal with a subject that needs to receive more attention from anyone concerned with the competitive integrity of college football games: officiating. While talking about the teams and games that will decide conference crowns and multi-million-dollar bowl bids, we--as a college football community--have to talk about the ways in which these games are officiated and reviewed from the replay booth. Too much effort is produced by coaches and athletes for a bad call to decide a result; too much of an emotional investment is given to the sport for its biggest contests to be unfairly shaped by insufficient procedures that don't support the upstanding gentlemen who do their best to officate a game on the field. Officials are trying their best, along with the athletes and coaches; with that said, though, a number of procedures and officiating mechanics are not producing fair outcomes on the field.
The emerging problem with college football officiating is that the speed and physicality of the sport are just too overwhelming for human beings to fully monitor. The incredibly close calls examined by replay--week after week, month after month, season after season--are simultaneously clear yet complex, if that makes any sense. In other words, replay continues to show us--during every football weekend--how certain plays can be impossible to accurately see in real time, but easy to interpret with replay technology. One should understand that more and more football plays demand the time, perspective and image manipulation offered by replay if they're to be called and interpreted correctly. I don't think any officiating supervisor or coordinator could possibly dispute that fundamental assertion.
With this as prelude, then, just consider some of the wild plays from the past weekend's games:
In the final minute of the FIRST HALF of the Alabama-Ole Miss game (yes, the final minute of the second half wasn't the only controversy-filled minute of this game), Penn Wagers' SEC crew conferred before ruling that a Tide ballcarrier was down. A whistle had not blown the play dead, but when the "down" ruling was made, that decision apparently prevented Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron from being able to challenge the play. One can safely make this claim because Orgeron clearly would have challenged the ruling if given a chance to do so. Replay clearly showed that the runner had fumbled, but with the "down" ruling, the play was viewed to be dead and therefore out of the scope of replay review. The sequence illustrated one of many jurisdictional issues involving replay, and the larger subject of what is or isn't reviewable based on certain rulings by officiating crews.
Then, in the last minute of the Alabama-Ole Miss game (in a situation you've probably been made aware of, given its impact on the contest), replay clearly showed that an Ole Miss receiver went out of bounds on his own power before coming back in, which created an illegal touching penalty that preserved the Tide's 27-24 win. The call was correct, but there was considerable confusion about whether or not that kind of play was even subject to review in the first place. There was never any doubt that the Ole Miss receiver stepped out of bounds before coming back in; the question was if the receiver went out of bounds on his own power or not. Since that particular element of the play would decide the legality of the catch, the ultimate ruling on the play was a matter of judgment, not necessarily empirical evidence. And since judgment calls are hard to quantify, there was a great deal of uncertainty among all relevant parties as to the jurisdiction of replay to affect a given ruling.
A big play involving officiating occured in the Illinois-Iowa game, and while Ron Zook never should have accepted a penalty to give Iowa an extra third down, the fact remains that if the officials had administered the game better, the Illini might have pulled out a 6-3 victory. A few plays before Zook's ill-fated decision, Iowa had a 4th and inches with 2:15 left in the third quarter at the Illinois 24. After a timeout for a measurement, the teams went back to the line of scrimmage as the Hawkeyes prepared for their fourth-down play. The umpire stood over the ball, as he always will after an on-field (officials) timeout. Usually, the referee--who stands several yards behind everyone--is supposed to wait for the umpire to fully clear the area before restarting the clock and whistling the ball ready for play. On this occasion, however, the referee blew his whistle with the umpire just behind the Illinois defensive front and not fully clear from the tackle box. With the Illini not yet able to load the box to stop a short-yardage play, Iowa quick-snapped and got the first down. The umpire was standing in the very area where two or three linebackers should have been standing in an attempt to plug gaps and stuff a quarterback sneak. But with the referee's quick whistle, Illinois was prevented--not by Iowa, but by the officials themselves--from being able to mount an adequate defense. A few Illini players protested, but the referee wouldn't allow a do-over. Nothing but poor game administration jobbed Illinois. The overwhelming irony of this instance is that in most cases, "umpire over the ball" game administration usually hurts the offense, as the referee blows his whistle before the quarterback is ready. This is why teams that get first downs with two seconds left in a half fail to spike the ball in time to stop the clock before the end of the half. (Remember the 1998 Rose Bowl between Washington State and Michigan. Remember the 2006 Kentucky-Florida game. Remember, too, the end of last year's Washington-USC game. Happens all the time.) All in all, this particular officiating mechanic needs to be substantially revised. The referee should never be allowed to blow the "ready for play" whistle until the umpire has fully cleared the scrimmage area.
In the Georgia Tech-Miami game, a Yellow Jacket defender stole the ball from a Miami ballcarrier just before hitting the ground. In real time, it was virtually impossible for the official to see. On replay, it was easy. But since Tech coach Chan Gailey and other Yellow Jacket coaches in the press box were unable to get a clear look at the play within a reasonable amount of time, Miami was able to run the next play and keep the ball. This sequence illustrates the limitations placed on teams by the system that allows just one coaches' challenge per half. If this larger issue of replay jurisdiction is to become more genuinely equitable and fair, the NCAA will allow not just one challenge from the coaching staff, but one challenge from a player as well. It's hard to ask a player to run to his coach in the middle of a game and demand a challenge, but in retrospect, that was the only legal avenue Georgia Tech had after that play. If players were given one challenge per half, that jurisdictional issue would have been solved.
Finally, in the Boston College-Notre Dame game, a ball spot--for the first time I can remember--was actually changed as a result of replay. The goal-line ball-spot reviews in the LSU-Kentucky and Oregon State-Cal games weren't reversed because--as is normally the case with ball spots--it's hard to get the accurate camera angles (looking around or over the piles of bodies and limbs) that can clearly identify discrepancies between the live-ball spot and the actual progression of the ball. But with NBC's overhead camera, an angle needed to overturn a ball spot was provided. Given this mechanism, the replay booth was able to make a proper adjustment, and it would have a profound impact on the trajectory of the Eagle-Irish affair. This brings up yet another jurisdictional issue: if an overhead camera could substantially influence one game, where are the standards for the kinds of cameras that should exist at each game?
Can you see the picture here? Officials on the field--with the exception of the Illinois-Iowa crew--did a fine job on Saturday. But in so many cases, the mechanisms and procedures surrounding replay prove that for every answer or solution provided by the current replay system, there are thousands more dilemmas, questions and uncertainties. We're quickly reaching the point where replay--if it is to retain value and fairly arbitrate college football games--should have much more expansive jurisdiction over the contest. Everything should be reviewable, and officials' on-field rulings should not constrict the ways in which replay is allowed to be used. Once these rules and provisions are accordingly adjusted, we might finally reach a time in college football when bad calls no longer decide games. That would be great, wouldn't it? It's time to give a hard look to a subject that elicits a lot of emotion, but needs a lot more constructive action.
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Week Eight: October 22, 2007
Because of the wildness of this particular season--not to mention the eternally fragile nature of college football in general--it's worth engaging in an analysis of college football programs that provides big-picture perspective. If you're a fan who constantly revises your opinion of your own favorite team from week to week, you need to read this week's column.
Before we focus on college football analysis as it relates to various programs, however, let's conduct our customary review of the weekend.
It does need to be said that the Big East Conference is little different from the Big XII, Big Ten and Pac-10 when you consider that the big-name schools in the league are getting knocked off on a weekly basis. Moreover, the Big East is definitely superior to the ACC and competitive with the SEC. The days in which the Big East lagged far behind the other power conferences are over. With that said, though, a special degree of scrutiny must still be devoted to the conference, for two overarching reasons: 1) the conference acted way too big for its britches by airing that Heisman ad (for Brian Brohm, Ray Rice, Steve Slaton, and Pat White) in week two of this season, in an item reported on by this columnist; 2) commissioner Mike Tranghese has adeptly and smartly maneuvered the league's showcase matchups into prime-time, nationally-visible weeknight time slots, in order to maximize the league's visibility. Given that these spotlight showcases have usually proven to be duds, an extra degree of criticism is merited when it comes to the Big East. It's not a double standard, because Commissioner Tranghese and the league's PR wing are essentially asking for special attention. This is a double-edged sword, of course: play well in prime time, you get additional accolades. But play poorly in prime-time, as South Florida and Rutgers did on Thursday, and you get additional criticism. Nothing controversial or complicated about that.
And oh, by the way: if Boston College and Virginia Tech play a sloppy game in a Thursday night showcase game this week, Big East fans can be darn sure that a comment or five will be made about the game's damaging effect on the ACC.
Matt Grothe has grown up a lot since his turnover-filled game against West Virginia. His teammates, though, need to grow along with him. Grothe's mental toughness and otherworldly competitive spirit were amazing to behold on Thursday night against Rutgers.
Greg Schiano wants to get Rutgers to the point where the Scarlet Knights become an entrenched college football powerhouse. He had a few late-game lapses against South Florida, and his offense played rather cautiously as well, but it nevertheless stands that Schiano coached a very solid game. He finally found the right defensive adjustments midway through the second half, and his two special teams trick plays had a big role in carrying his team to victory. Schiano proved that for a second straight year, he could handle the heat of a spotlight game against a top-five opponent. The head coach in Piscataway is the biggest reason why Rutgers football is a factor in the Big East Conference.
UConn, Virginia and UCLA: Three teams that look anything but imposing, but who are winning their conference games in magic carpet ride seasons that are hard to believe. The Huskies, Hoos and Bruins are the polar opposites of ballclubs such as Louisville (whom UConn beat on Friday night), TCU, and Cal (whom UCLA defeated on Saturday).
No, Tim Brando. No, Spencer Tillman. The Oklahoma defender who intercepted a late Iowa State pass did not, I repeat, did NOT step out of the end zone and onto the 1-yard line. The player stepped past the Iowa State logo in the end zone, but not the goal line. Brando made this mistake in a CBS update at 3:52 p.m. Eastern Time (the Weekly Affirmation keeps tabs on things, to be sure), and Tillman then repeated the mistake on CBS' halftime highlight show. Brando had more than an hour to correct himself (and Tillman), but couldn't do so.
The words "Temple" and "three-game winning streak" belong in the same sentence for the first time in 17 years. What's even more impressive is that the surging Owls prevailed over Miami of Ohio--a decent team--without starting quarterback Adam DiMichele, who was knocked out of the game early in the second quarter. One is running out of superlatives that can fully describe what a glorious story this is on so many levels. More kudos to the boys from Philly, who continue to honor themselves and their school.
Just in case any of you thought the old man was losing it, part one: Penn State is now at 6-2 and is scoring points. Somebody has made adjustments in Happy Valley.
Just in case any of you thought the old man was losing it, part two: Michigan is now at 6-2 and is containing mobile quarterbacks. Somebody has made adjustments in Ann Arbor.
Just in case any of you thought the old man had really, really lost it: in a game very few people had a right to care about on Saturday night, Sonny Lubick of Colorado State got his first win of the season. Nice going to one of the gentlemen of the sport.
Don't look now, but Mike Gundy of Oklahoma State is doing some serious coaching. In one of the two Big XII games that amazingly received no national TV coverage on Saturday, the Cowboys came from behind to take down Kansas State and move to 3-1 in the conference.
When the casual college football fan thinks about the Washington Huskies, s/he thinks about young quarterback Jake Locker, who is becoming a very impressive quarterback (but still has much to learn). What is truly perplexing about Ty Willingham's team is how a defense that looked so strong through the first three games of the season has suddenly been getting wiped out by opposing offenses on a regular basis. Oregon's offense is executing better than any offense not belonging to Tim Tebow; with that said, a Duck team suffering from injuries should not light up Husky Stadium for 55 points in a night game. Moreover, Oregon put together lots of long drives; it wasn't as though Dennis Dixon had drive starts in the Washington red zone. The Ducks are humming along, but not to the extent that they should amass 465 rushing yards, at night, in what used to be an intimidating stadium for road teams. No one was expecting Washington to beat Oregon, but Locker played well enough to win the game. (He made a few crippling mistakes, but a half-decent defense would have masked those miscues.) The total wholesale collapse of UW's defense represents the true failing of this season of college football in Seattle. Willingham deserves time to grow his program, and Washington should not yet be judged by how it performs against top-shelf competitors. With that said, UW missed a real opportunity Saturday night. In two years, those same chances to register impactful accomplishments cannot go by the boards.
In the Kansas-Colorado game, minds turned into mush. Did anyone else notice that Colorado running back Hugh Charles intentionally--yes, intentionally--fumbled the ball forward in a misconceived attempt to try to gain a first down on a third-down rushing play that was stopped? Later, a Kansas defender--with five seconds left in the first half, no less--attempted a lateral that was recovered by the Buffaloes. Had Colorado converted the ensuing Hail Mary, that brain cramp could have proved disastrous for the plucky and still unbeaten Jayhawks.
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This week's essay is an exercise that's partly intellectual and partly psychological, but entirely grounded in big-picture football analysis. In a certain sense, it's meant to be therapy, but in another sense, it's intended to represent a form of counsel, a cautionary tale for the nation's college football fans. Rather than offer an extended preamble, let's go right to the "analysis," which could mean a couch just as much as a football reference guide. Consider this week's essay a manual for dealing with severe ups and downs in any season, but especially a wacky, logic-defying rollercoaster such as this 2007 campaign.
You're a California Golden Bear fan. After the wins over Tennessee and Oregon, you were sky high. After a two-game losing streak, you've been brought low.
You're a Clemson fan. Enough said. (Pause for a moment of respectful and knowing silence; what blood pressure fluctuations must occur in this fan base.)
You're a Michigan fan. Unlike Cal fans, you had the early-season start from hell but have now rebounded. Your season began amidst national championship expectations that were immediately shattered. Now, though, the boys on the field have rallied 'round the flag. You don't know whether to revel in the resurgence or lament the inexcusable loss to Appalachian State.
You're a South Carolina fan. You rose above expectations and odds through the first seven games of the season and attained a lofty ranking, only to cede your status quickly and unexpectedly. If you lost the SEC East by losing to Tennessee or Florida, it would be easy to take. But for Vandy to ruin your season at home in Columbia? You're wondering where the cure exists for the exquisite kind of internal torment you're feeling this week.
You're a Virginia, UCLA or UConn fan, always living on the edge this year, but always coming through in close games, especially in the conference. You feel like you're cheating death, but an awesome record is an awesome record, right? It's almost as though you're getting more prosperity than you feel you deserve... ALMOST!
You're a TCU fan. The glory days for your program came in the 1930s with Slingin' Sammy Baugh. Yet, recent years have witnessed notable improvements in and around Fort Worth. This year has represented a big step backward. How upset should you be?
You're a Miami or Florida State fan. You know your programs should be better, but you also know that you simply lack top-shelf talent. How to handle your greatly diminished status in the college football world?
You're an Illinois fan, not used to seeing great football but old enough to remember 2001's run to the Sugar Bowl. How bad is this two-game losing streak after your sensational start?
You're a Texas Tech fan. Mike Leach has done a lot for your program, but aren't these poor defensive showings in conference road games getting a bit old? How to live with the contradictions that are part of Red Raider football?
You're a Rutgers fan. You've been at the bottom for so long, only to explode onto the scene last year. This season brought huge expectations, and while you've generally fallen short, you scored a monster win with a gutsy showing against South Florida on Thursday. How to put your season and the state of your program in proper perspective?
You're a Virginia Tech fan. Haven't looked good at all on offense, but with a win over Boston College on Thursday, this will seem like a great season. But what if you lose to what seems to be an overrated No. 2 team? How would you react?
You're a Cincinnati fan. You've spent years and years in the football wildnerness, and then, as soon as you're in 6-0 heaven, you lose twice to tumble out of the top 25. Does this series of developments cause you to be distraught, or do you have that "gee, life in the rankings was interesting and I wouldn't have traded it for anything" kind of feeling?
You're a Purdue fan. You're having a nice little season, but the big boys in the Big Ten crushed you. Are you happy with a soft 6-2, or does that rankle you?
You're a Wisconsin fan. This year hasn't been what you hoped it would be. Then again, Bret Bielema seems to be a thoroughly competent coach, to say the least. Willing to endure a slightly bumpy ride this season?
You're a Navy fan. Well, your moment of moments--the best chance to finally beat Notre Dame for the first time since the Kennedy administration--arrives this Saturday. We'll talk psychology if you lose. (If you win, no need to.)
You're a Wyoming fan. You've beaten Virginia and TCU. You've lost to New Mexico. Kind of an in-between place to be, isn't it?
You're a Washington State fan. You've heard the statement, "it's tough to win consistently in Pullman" ten trillion times more than you care to remember. Does that mean you're understanding of your football team's plight, or are you fed up?
You're an Oregon State fan. You upset the titans, but you haven't been playing for Pac-10 titles in mid-November, either. Fully satisfied or not?
You're an Auburn fan. Are you proud of the way your team has played in the past four weeks, or are you even more upset about that loss to Mississippi State, which has greatly compromised your SEC West chances?
You're a Georgia fan. Does the 2005 SEC title seem a distant memory, or will Mark Richt command your unswerving loyalty for a long, long time?
You're a Tennessee fan. Philip Fulmer won you a national title and has taken you to a number of BCS bowls, plus the 1998 Bowl Alliance showcase came against Nebraska. But have the past few seasons felt too flat and stale for your taste?
You're a Mississippi State fan. You're making progress, but it's slow and incremental under Sly Croom. Willing to be patient for a number of seasons? Bonus question: do you feel better about having Croom run a clean but non-winning program, as opposed to Jackie Sherrill's unclean but winning program?
You're a Fresno State fan. The big upsets and statement games of recent years have faded away and slipped into obscurity. Still okay with Pat Hill, even if you don't beat at least one of the big boys in the WAC this year?
You're a Southern Miss fan. You've been a fairly stable program, but that also means that you haven't ascended to extremely lofty heights? Are you fine with that kind of profile for your program?
All these examples, it should be noted (now that the list is complete) pertain to fan bases that have to feel fairly conflicted about the current state of their programs, in one way or another. A separate list--even longer than the one above--would deal with the fan bases at long-dormant programs. A smaller list would speak to the fan bases who are feeling very full of themselves right now (and no, that's not meant as a criticism at all; if life is good, you have every right to feel full of yourself; the key moral/ethical/emotional test comes when things don't go well--then the world finds out what kind of person you really are).
The point of raising these "in-between" examples of football schools is to get fans to think about their programs in a big-picture way. If you're a fan of one of the teams on the list above, here are the kinds of questions you need to ask yourself if you want to arrive at conclusions that strike a balance between achieving personal satisfaction and (on the other hand) outward respect for other views and the people who hold them:
Question 1: What was my program like before the current coach came aboard? (Variation on this question: what was my program like five seasons before the current coach came aboard?
Question 2: What was my program's condition three coaches prior to the current one? (Variation: what was my program's condition 15-20 seasons prior to the year the current coach came aboard?)
Question 3: In my program's very best seasons throughout the course of history, how dominant were the individual teams?
Question 4: In seasons that were historically average for my program, how did my team perform? (Variation: including strength of schedule, approximate margin of victory, median conference record, and other assorted stats, what would be a representative season for my program over the past 10, 20 and 30 years?)
Question (more like "set of questions") 5: Records aside, what was the culture of my program before the current coach came along? Was my program run cleanly? Did my program graduate players? Was potential being relatively fulfilled, given the ability of the players in my program at the time?
Question 6: Were my program's best and most dominant seasons historical aberrations, or continuances of trends? (The same question applies to my program's worst seasons, too.)
Question 7: In looking at the collection of coaches at my program throughout history, and especially since the 1970s (when national championships started being more legitimate, given that they weren't handed out before bowl games), was there a coach who defied the odds or bucked lots of trends, or have all coaches at my program registered similar seasons, within a margin of two games (plus or minus)?
When you do the research and follow that up with some honest, soul-searching reflection in response to these questions, you might very well think twice about ripping your current coach or thinking that a fresh two-game losing streak is unacceptable. You might also want to keep the current three-game winning streak in perspective, because a sobering and unexpected loss could be just around the corner (unless, that is, you're a student of history and a follower of the laws of averages). Best wishes in staying sane during this season of college football insanity.
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Week Nine: October 29, 2007 - Classic Weekly Affirmation on the Georgia End Zone Dance
Long-Form Weekly Affirmation Special Edition: Georgia's Cocktail Party Celebration
NOTE: For the standard wrap-up of the weekend's action, go to the Monday Morning Quarterback
Whenever a major moment occurs in the college football world--the kind of moment that transcends the sport itself and is destined to live forever, be it on YouTube or in the history of a colorful Southern rivalry--the Weekly Affrmation needs to set everything else aside and devote exclusive attention to that story. Earlier this season, Mike Gundy's calculated outburst merited an extended examination. This weekend, the calculated and coach-permitted celebrations made by the Georgia Bulldogs provided another one of those occasions that reveals so much about everything America is and has become. We devote all of this week's column space to an incident and an interlocking set of issues that need to be carefully but extensively unpacked.
How does one begin to appreciate the complicated and layered nature of this story? Georgia's first-quarter celebration against Florida on Saturday afternoon in Jacksonville was unusual enough in its own right, but the fact that this team, at this point in time, exhibited such demonstrative behavior is the truly amazing aspect of this mysterious manifestation of masculinity.
If a Dennis Erickson-coached team presided over this kind of behavior, the same level of shock value wouldn't exist. But Mark Richt? Reverend Coach Mark Richt? The same Mark Richt who, at the end of Georgia's previous game against Vanderbilt, angrily and rightly shouted down his players while forcefully removing them from the Commodores' midfield logo? The Mark Richt who paid his dues over the past several seasons in Athens and had earned the lasting respect and admiration of the entire college football world as a man of profound character and integrity? This man sanctioned such behavior?
To quote a Richmond, Va., newspaper editor reporting on a dramatic lunch counter sit-in by African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement: "Eheu! It gives one pause."
Indeed it does. What are we to make of this story? It says so much about our country and our world on so many levels. One must simply take the components of this story and address them piece by piece.
Let's start with the college football world before moving up the sociocultural food chain.
First of all, I would still want Mark Richt to coach a young man. One can disagree with Richt's decision and still think--based on several years of creating a family atmosphere in and around the Georgia program--that the former Florida State offensive coordinator has the best interests of his players in mind. One decision doesn't undo several years of good work. What's ironic about Richt's presence at the center of a controversy is that this columnist has been inwardly sickened by the degree of heat Richt has received from large segments (perhaps not an outright majority, but certainly a substantial and vocal minority at the very least) of his fan base. Despite winning two SEC titles and three division flags since coming to Athens, Richt is doubted and questioned in defeat with a ferocity that is completely undeserved. When a credentialed and accomplished coach receives the kind of criticism one would normally associate with a .500 record or worse, you know that something's rotten in the state of Denmark. When Richt's rival, Phil Fulmer at Tennessee, is given Lloyd Carr or Larry Coker-style treatment (i.e., a national title-winning coach being unceasingly roasted in the court of public opinion), you know that the culture of college football has lost its moral and ethical compass.
The real villain in this story is not Richt himself, but the beast of expectations that consumes way too many fans. Yeah, it's part of human nature, but one needs to say--in the strongest possible terms--that we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss or shrug off bad behavior. Our society shouldn't be so reflexive in accepting the darker elements of human conduct, the shadow sides of our endlessly complex selves. When a fan base can't accept one or two bad seasons, and when accomplished coaches like Mark Richt feel enormous pressure to have to re-prove themselves to their fans, we've lost something important in college football. We've lost the ability to put this sport in proper perspective.
What do football coaches and, for that matter, all sports coaches say about athletic competition? Sports teaches you about life. Athletics provide educational experiences, occasions for growth and personal development, forums in which young people can gain skills and build character while establishing positive self-esteem. The quest to mold solid young men and women has always been the ostensible priority at the heart of scholastic sports. Mark Richt is all too aware of this; he is and has been acutely attuned to the need to develop good people, not just winning football teams. When Richt angrily acted up at Vanderbilt on Oct. 13, he sent a message to his players that stomping on the opposing team's midfield logo was just not acceptable. Clearly and unmistakably, Richt is a coach who, in the core of his very being, knows and understands the true purpose of intercollegiate athletics.
With this having been said, there's only one reason why Richt knowingly and willingly allowed his players to run wild on Saturday: he felt a huge amount of pressure from his constituency/congregation in Athens--not just about the shaky season, but with respect to the Dawgs' longstanding inability to beat the hated Gators. This isn't rocket science, folks: if Richt had been beating Florida with some degree of regularity, and if Georgia hadn't been so inconsistent in 2007, Saturday's display wouldn't have happened. It's just that simple. Richt made a deal with the devil because Georgia's coach--unfairly but undeniably--felt hellish flames warming his seat of authority. No, Richt wasn't quite in Fulmer territory, but for Richt to even be remotely threatened--with his substantial track record of accomplishment Between the Hedges--is enough of an outrage in its own right. Old Demon Expectation is the truly evil figure in this story. Mark Richt, a good man who made one bad decision, does not deserve to be crucified for merely trying to survive in a cutthroat profession that has lost its moral and ethical moorings. If sports had a proper role and an appropriate place in our society, Richt never would have felt he needed to win at all costs, to shake his team up at the expense of a small measure of his dignity and integrity.
This leads us to a deeper exploration of human behavior that the emotional world of college football would do well to reflect upon.
Before proceeding with this essay, I need to make one thing clear: I always try to speak not just as a football columnist, but as a moral being who wants to connect with you, the reader, on a deeper moral level. If you read my columns only as a football fan but not as a spouse or as a parent, I've failed in a profound sense. The larger point of these weekly essays in the Weekly Affirmation is to make important connections between college football and society, between gridiron action and the life lessons that football does indeed teach us. Call me naive, but I still believe that stuff about sports as a life teacher and a guide to holistic personal growth and development. If we lose the ability to allow sports to teach us, we should all pack up and go home. Please read the rest of this essay not as a fan, but as a fully human person. If you're a parent, read this with an eye on how to raise a young man to be an integrated individual who can properly express and channel his emotions and energies in healthy and positive ways. If you're a young person (more specifically, a college student), read this with an intent to understand the powerful passions, yearnings and energies that course through your veins and affect your daily moods.
One of the truly worrisome aspects of Georgia's total team celebration in the end zone against Florida is that it might open Pandora's Box with respect to the behavior of college football players. In future seasons, other coaches and players might remember this incident and do something similar when their teams are looking for an injection of fresh passion and motivation. As was the case with the Bulldogs, 30 yards of penalties might be considered a worthy price to pay for a full tank of inspiration. Why should this worry the parents of college athletes? Why should you, as a young person, not be led to feel Georgia's actions were acceptable? One needs to understand something about human behavior and the economy of human reactions in particular.
Gregg Easterbrook, the author of ESPN.com's Tuesday Morning Quarterback, is primarily known not as a man who writes lengthy football columns that dwarf the Weekly Affirmation in size, but as a senior editor of The New Republic and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a major think tank in Washington, D.C. Easterbrook's most recent scholarly book, The Progress Paradox, said something profound about the human organism that is entirely connected to this Georgia story. Easterbrook devotes a number of pages to the effort to establish--through statistics and anecdotes--the importance of forgiveness in improving human health. Yes, it's true: forgiveness is good for you--not just morally or ethically or spiritually, but physically. Easterbrook--in an unconventional but very convincing way--confirms in his book what we know to be true on a deep, primordial level that is often inutterable and inexpressible: when our bodies are truly at peace and when our health is substantial, we don't engage in overly emotional behavior.
Think of the worst and darkest moments of your life, the times when you were consumed by negativity and bitterness and blackness. Chances are these moments were defined by pronounced internal upheavals that produced dramatic outpourings of raw emotions. Your deepest hurts, your most wrenching encounters with life's difficulties, probably led you to spill out your feelings in a manner that was inefficient and scattered, to say the least. In other words, when human beings are hurt, they need to vent. When we suffer, we need to express that suffering instead of keeping it inside us and allowing it to fester, which only makes the pain worse by adding anxiety and fear to the mix. A forgiving person might be an angry person (though only for people who have achieved substantial self-mastery with respect to their emotions), but a forgiving person cannot be a person whose emotions are unrestrained and out of control. People of peace are people whose bodies are at rest and relaxed. These are the people who can endure great physical traumas, and who pull through severe medical emergencies when others (with higher stress levels and generally more negative vital statistics) don't. The science of human health as it relates to emotional well being is something that Americans, the most stressed-out people on the planet for reasons other than war or genocide, need to consider.
The difficult dimension of this story for me, as a lover of college football and a sportswriter who is drawn to compelling stories, is that the emotion of SEC football has always captured my imagination. The passion of the Southern football experience--never seen firsthand inside a stadium but always absorbed through a TV screen since the age of six--has always grabbed hold of my imagination. A part of me realizes that Mark Richt's actions on Saturday will make the Georgia-Florida rivalry appointment viewing for decades to come. The fires of this classic neutral-site game will continue to burn for another century just on the strength of this past Saturday alone. A part of my brain and a portion of my life experience is conditioned to view this past Saturday's actions as a happy occurrence. Life, in a certain sense, did become more interesting and colorful as a result of what Georgia did in the first quarter against the hated rival from Gainesville. Seven years ago, when I first sat in this columnist's chair for CFN, I might not have been able to view Saturday's spectacle in a negative light. I truly don't know. But after gaining valuable life experiences (outside of column writing) in the intervening years, I can now see why emotions--which have their place in the world of college football--need to be treated with greater care and vigilance.
So many of the e-mails I receive from readers are instances of venting. On many occasions, I'll get a small snippet of venom from a reader. I then respond with a statement such as, "I hope you feel better now. Didn't that feel good to get that out of your system?" About half the time, the reader will be gracious enough to say, "Yeah, I do feel better. I was just venting. Sorry about that." I'm very grateful when this scenario occurs, for all the obvious reasons, but I'm also perplexed as well. If people want to vent their emotions, why not go outside and yell, or blow off steam by whacking a tennis ball or playing some pickup hoops? Why pop off a few sentences that, unintentional though they might be, could be honestly perceived as malicious in the eyes of another human being? Venting, you see, has its limits. If we vent in ways that injure (or merely risk injuring) other people, that's not healthy venting. If we show emotion in ways that could offend other communities, it's not worth showing emotion. If we can't be controlled or responsible in showing anger, we shouldn't show anger. We need to express ourselves and release our pent-up frustrations in life--we need to do it all the time, as we know all too well--but not at the expense of other people.
Since this story has such a Georgia-centric dimension to it, I decided to read the Sunday sports section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Furman Bisher, the venerable longtime columnist for the paper, wrote what was--frankly--a very beautiful and evocative account of the game, laden with references to Richt's calculated move as a declaration of war. The column was a delight to read precisely because it appealed to the literary dimension of sportswriting. For an old-time Southern football writer such as Mr. Bisher, the column was his bread and butter, the kind of piece a longtime SEC observer would instinctively write in the aftermath of a rousing and raucous rivalry. If you have Southern football in your soul, and you've lived through more than half a century of Dooley and Dodd, the Bear and the Ball Coach, Rocky Top and the Iron Bowl, you would indeed view Saturday's events in Jacksonville as an act of war. Furman Bisher is a regional treasure in the world of sportswriting, and his piece was a treat to read, even for someone who now knows that emotions need to be viewed much more cautiously (even skeptically) in the world of college football.
What was troubling about my perusal of the AJC, however, came when I read the e-mail responses to the other column on the Cocktail Party.
Terence Moore did something courageous and responsible by lambasting Georgia and Richt for the unseemly display. Yet, the columnist--who is African-American, by the way--was drowned in a sea of racially-tinged nastiness in the online responses to his column, which stretched on and on... and on and on... as one scrolled down the computer screen. Two supreme ironies emerged from this little online drama: 1) the yahoos who buried Mr. Moore in an avalanche of hatred naturally fell victim to an unwholesome and unhealthy display of emotion, the kind of display that went far beyond "positive venting or catharsis"; 2) many of the people who eviscerated Mr. Moore did so on the grounds that Moore chastised the team for showing too much emotion after having previously written (at earlier points in the season) that the team showed too little emotion. Moore was viewed as a hypocrite (a very overused and misapplied word in the editorial world), a horrible journalist, and--sadly but surely--a racist. The ugliness of the Internet, and the very rough edges that comprise the high price of free speech in a democratic society, were very much on display in the responses to Terence Moore's column.
One has to realize--in exploring the difference between positive venting and negative venting--is that you can't look at life's greatest tension points, ethical debates, and moral questions in a black-and-white manner... not fundamentally, anyway. Rare is the occasion that's cut and dry; when life gets really difficult, one usually has to sift through a bewildering labyrinth of considerations before arriving at an even remotely satisfying answer or solution. This is what I always like to call "the big boy table of debate and discussion." It's what I talked about in this column after run-ins with Rutgers and Alabama fans in mid-September, and after "Gundy-Gate" in late September. When you're at the "big boy table," you can't cherry pick evidence or land your jab and then hide. You need to stay in the arena at all times, looking at the full body of evidence and being willing to discuss the full spectrum of issues. When you're a consumer of college football news, analysis, and editorial commentary, you need to read at least 85-90 percent of a columnist's work over the course of a season in order to begin to form a judgment of that columnist's work that can stand up under scrutiny. Staying seated at the big boy table--instead of running along and going back into the cave of Internet anonymity--makes you a better, fairer, and more objective participant in college football journalism discussions and, for that matter, any other debate that you feel strongly about. Venting your emotions is fine, as long as you vent those emotions with care and civility while having society's greater good in mind. There are wholesome ways to express emotion, and there are unwholesome ways to do so. Terence Moore made this simple and uncontroversial point in his Sunday column, but hundreds (if not thousands) of people viewed him as being hypocritical as a result. Such a view came from an excessively polarized, black-and-white way of viewing the world. If you're reading this essay, please remember that life just isn't that simple on most occasions. You have to view your human experience through shades of gray. Emotions might be the straw that stirs the SEC drink--especially at a game long referred to as the Cocktail Party--but the shadow side of emotions is that they can cause drunkenness... and not of the alcoholic kind, either. Fan bases--as shown by the withering, hate-filled response to Terence Moore's column--can be drunk with incoherent and wayward rage, the outward sign of emotions not brought under control or tamed by the healing power of human forgiveness.
As much ground as this essay has already covered, we've only now arrived at this story's biggest overall commentary on the whole of American society: the deeper truth behind emotional outbursts and unseemly exhibitions of testosterone.
The most disappointing aspect of Georgia's excessive celebration against Florida was found in the realization that a team needed to do something outlandish to motivate itself. From a pure football-only perspective, this incident was so incredibly revealing because it announced to the world, in plain sight and naked daylight, how unmotivated college football players are on a consistent basis. Notice those last few words: ON A CONSISTENT BASIS. College football players ARE motivated, but when it comes to playing with the same high level of intensity and focus on every Saturday, late teens and 20-year-olds will not muster the same consistency that the pros do. Why do so many upsets occur year after year, decade after decade? It's because this fundamental truth of life--namely, that college kids are still learning how to become adults--will always produce uneven performances at some point in a season. The very best teams in college football are the teams that bring consistently high effort to the ballpark on every Autumnal Saturday. Ohio State and USC have been elite programs over the past five years for precisely this reason.
But in getting back to this story's connection to the current state of American life and culture, the point should be equally obvious: at a time when stress is an ever more central part of our lives (in ways it never used to be in the pre-Internet, pre-cell phone era), our attention spans are shorter. In a very materialist culture, sources of motivation don't run as deep as they used to. In a climate of instant gratification, the value of doing something quickly to satisfy a primal appetite has exceeded the value of doing something well, and with the combination of integrity and restraint that defines a person who is willing to sacrifice a piece of self for a greater good.
Mark Richt surely thought that after seven years of doing the right thing in the right way for the right reasons in Athens--which earned him lasting admiration from this columnist and still has him within my good graces--one sanctioned celebration wouldn't cause a lot of harm. And to be perfectly honest, there is the chance (see, I have to be just as open-minded about this as everyone else) that I could be overreacting. However, I don't think Richt was fully cognizant of how negatively emblematic his team's celebration was. I don't think Richt had a larger sense of the extent to which his allowance of such behavior could so negatively reflect on the college football world and American society. It is precisely Richt's inability to see these larger dynamics which limits his level of responsibility or guilt in this instance. Now that Richt has had his eyes opened, I am very confident that he will eventually see this decision as a mistake on his part. Richt will be a better man and a better coach as a result. (As you can tell, I'm not terribly upset at Richt; I'm only trying to connect his actions to bigger issues in this country's unfolding saga.)
But while Mark Richt will grow as a result of this incident, the bigger question is: will America grow? Will you, a college football fan, grow from this incident and become a better parent, a better spouse, a better and more active servant in your household and community? If you think a celebration on a football field still has little or nothing to do with your life and the wonderful country you live in, you need to keep reading and follow this essay to its conclusion.
The inconvenient truth exposed on Saturday in Jacksonville--by Mark Richt and his not-always-motivated team--is that American young people find it hard to gain motivation from a place deep inside themselves. It takes something loud, something brash, something charged with emotion, something drenched in (often) sexual imagery, something loaded with the promise of untold wealth or personal luxury, to get young people to act. This is not a terribly controversial point. If American young people were naturally and profoundly self-motivated, we wouldn't have so many teenagers commit suicide in a country of such affluence and comfort. If American young people were given a better moral compass by parents, we wouldn't have the epidemic of runaway anxiety and depression that currently afflicts high school and college students. If parents devoted more time to the pursuit of life's great truths and less time to the rat race; more time to the search for serenity and less time to the noise and clutter of a fast-paced lifestyle; more time to the emphasis on the need to be free, whole and healthy, and less time to the relentless push to be supercompetitive hyperachievers with overcrowded resumes, we would have a nation in which our young people wouldn't be popping pills. We wouldn't have a nation in which young people "hook up" in search of short-term sexual relationships with "friends with benefits." We wouldn't have a culture in which the Christmas games and toys that we're going to buy in T-Minus 26 days and counting (the Friday after Thanksgiving) are usually discarded and out of sight after a couple short years, if that long. (Giving surpluses of money to philanthropy would be a much better way of using your material abundance this holiday season.)
Georgia's display against Florida--to the uneducated, polarized observer who sees things in black-and-white and doesn't know how to express one's emotions--came across as a display of strength and toughness. In reality, though, the behavior was the height of weakness, the ultimate in cowardice. Bullies, after all, try to intimidate: they puff up their chests and act tough; it's all show, a big theatrical performance. Underneath that surface, however, is the soul of a very weak person, someone who runs away and hides when a truly tough person comes along. As soon as a bully has to stay at the big boy table of debate, he will run away and hide under the safety of vicious emotional attacks and an "us versus them" mentality that continues to enmesh our society in waywardness, violence and instant gratification instead of the virtues of peacemaking, conflict resolution, civil debate, and delayed gratification in the sacrificial pursuit of noble goods and eternal human truths.
One of the great ironies of Saturday's Cocktail Party in Jacksonville, then, was the fact that after Georgia behaved so poorly, Florida responded with a noticeable lack of maturity. Wondy Pierre-Louis committed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he scored a game-tying touchdown, and the Gators--instead of ratcheting up their level of internal determination--got caught up in--what else?--excessive and unwholesome emotionalism that hijacked their own level of concentration. Because Florida met bully-like behavior with its own immature response, the Gators weren't able to turn the Dawgs' display of bad behavior into lasting and inexhaustible motivational fuel. Two teams, not just one, lacked deep-rooted motivation levels on Saturday on the banks of the St. John's River. Florida met violence with violence, instead of humility. For its own immature reaction to Georgia's behavior, Florida received an appropriate reward: a very big and disappointing defeat.
As we conclude this essay, we come to the greatest truth the Georgia-Florida game can offer to the whole of American society: strength--real, lasting and virtuous strength--is not manifested physically, but deep inside the human spirit. Real strength--in its most powerful and profound form--is found in the examples of people such as Jackie Robinson, who helped integrate baseball--and by extension, all of sports--by having the courage to NOT fight back in a physical sense. Real strength is found in people like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, who endured violence without striking back. These and other truly great figures in history (Mother Teresa would be another), the people we remember long after they die (and who will be remembered long after we die ourselves), are people of nonviolence, people who were bitter and angry for much of their lives, but who always channeled and expressed their emotions in healthy and positive ways. The strongest people in life are often the people without an imposing physical presence or overwhelming physical power. The true might of great human beings lies within. We see this when a person is self-motivated by calls and stirrings that don't disappear in the blink of an eye or fade away when a seductive siren song is heard. We see this when a person is assaulted and threatened but persists, at risk of one's life, to advance a cause s/he knows to be more than worthy of the risk itself.
We know how easy it is to resort to violence... to black-and-white thinking... to cheap emotionalism... to sexual or material gratification. We know, then--or at least we should--that real strength comes from having deeper and more internal motivations behind our behaviors. If a football team needs to lose its dignity and integrity in order to motivate itself, no wonder our country has so many problems. If a coach does everything the right way but is besieged enough by his own fan base to feel that he has to win at all costs (and again, this columnist still loves Mark Richt; the Weekly Affirmation only hopes he will indeed learn from an honest mistake), something is very much amiss in our country and its larger culture.
One football game in Jacksonville isn't the reason our country is suffering, but one football game--and one very surprising celebration that was anything but wholesome--perfectly illustrated why America is endangered, wayward, and in need of great repair. Pick your problem, and it was in some way manifested by Georgia's behavior against Florida. This game held up a mirror to our society; the view wasn't very pretty at all.
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Week Ten: November 5, 2007
Short-Form Weekly Affirmation: Fast Track Gold Club
We begin this week's column with a creative idea that, due to its eminently sensible nature, won't ever be adopted by the powers that be in college football. Nevertheless, it's worth considering.
At a time in our sport's evolution when arguments (BCS or no BCS? Plus-one or playoff system? Four, eight, or 16 teams in a playoff?) are becoming calcified and stale, we need to inject some fresh thinking into the discussion. After spending the past few seasons without an original thought on this subject--due to the need to bash the BCS into the ground--I've emerged from something of a cave and can offer a new proposal that should satisfy college football's various warring factions.
Let's call this the "College Football Flex Plan."
If you follow pro football, you almost surely know that last year witnessed the beginning of the NFL's thoughtful and market-friendly decision to provide a "flex plan" in terms of Sunday Night game selection for NBC's season-long package. The concept is simple and smart: if a given matchup is a stinker, relegate it from Sunday night to Sunday afternoon, where FOX or CBS can pick up the game and assign it to the No. 5 broadcast crew. Since NBC pays big bucks for its primetime-only package, the Peacock is able to select a showcase game for late-season inclusion into its broadcast schedule. This kind of creative and nimble thinking illustrates why the NFL can be so incredibly profitable even while possessing a generally unwatchable product. (Side note: have you ever stopped to consider why an early November regular-season game, Patriots-Colts, was so thoroughly hyped? Could it be because every other NFL team suffers so substantially by comparison?) College football--in terms of satisfying its fans while also adding more integrity to the (still-mythical) national championship selection process--should learn from the NFL and adopt its own kind of flex plan.
Instead of explaining the plan and then laying it out, let's just describe the plan and then explain it.
The "College Football Flex Plan" (CFFP) would involve the playing of ten regular-season games from Labor Day weekend through the second weekend of November, with one bye included for every team. Conference games and established non-conference rivalries would comprise these ten contests. On the third weekend of November, everyone would get a week off. On the fourth weekend of November--usually Thanksgiving weekend--the teams in conferences that play a championship game (ACC, Big XII, SEC) could play their eleventh game. On the first weekend of December, the Big Ten, Big East, and Pac-10 could play their eleventh game, while the SEC, ACC and Big XII stage their title tilts.
Why the vague, cryptic and murky reference to the "eleventh game"? Glad you asked. The eleventh game forms the core of the CFFP, and it addresses the kinds of tensions that are emerging in the 2007 college football season (not to mention most seasons).
If you're a college football fan, you obviously want the two best teams to play for the national title. But in order to get to that point, you also want the deadwood to be cleared away first. You want the best teams in each conference to knock heads before the bowl selection show (or perhaps, in future years, a Final Four and/or plus one system). In other words, you would love for Kansas to play Oregon. You would love for Connecticut to play Oklahoma. The bowl games usually provide the sexy matchups, but in order to determine college football's best teams, you first need to identify--and, if at all possible, succeed in creating--the not-so-sexy matchups that emerge in a given season. The rise of previously unheralded schools such as Kansas, UConn, Virginia, Arizona State, Illinois, Kentucky, Boston College, Hawaii and Missouri (last year, the list included Rutgers, Wake Forest, Arkansas and BYU, but not as many upper-tier schools as is the case in 2007) demands that these teams play each other to separate the pretenders from the contenders. More specifically, these teams need to meet late in the season, when identities have been formed and early-season rust (think of Appalachian State over Michigan, South Florida over Auburn, and Washington over Boise State) is not an issue.
These kinds of games--a college football equivalent of college basketball's "Bracket Buster Saturday"--would occur in late November and early December under the CFFP. The mechanism used to decide the home team in these games could be arrived at in a number of different ways. Perhaps there would be an open drawing; perhaps certain conference matchups would be decided in advance; and perhaps TV would carry most of the weight in creating these matchups. At any rate, you'd have late-season matchups involving teams coming off bye weeks. You'd have non-conference games that would be part of the 11-game regular season, but they'd acquire a playoff-like feel. The arrangement would be friendly to television, but it would also be friendly to the fans of the participating schools because they wouldn't be staged at neutral locations. All in all, the CFFP would settle a whole round of arguments at the end of the regular season, which would then make the conference title games and bowl games that much more interesting as well. Moreover, the CFFP--by providing relevant, freshly-arranged matchups at the end of the regular season, would almost certainly create a scenario in which remaining unbeatens would either fall or rise to the top. With this kind of a plan in place, the bowl system could be retained but still produce a more deserving national champion if a plus-one was inserted.
Let's summarize the "College Football Flex Plan" in a simple way: the CFFP shortens the regular season but adds playoff-style excitement; it provides compelling non-conference matchups, but within the regular season and, moreover, at the season's end; it's friendly to TV and fans; it enables teams to compete after a bye week, but not with a ridiculously long (51-day, Ohio State-style) layoff; it keeps the bowl system in place, but it also requires a plus one at the end. All in all, the CFFP provides something for everyone. It's worth looking at... even if the workings of the world suggest that sensible things just don't happen very often in life.
Next up in this week's column, we proceed to some quick hitters, beginning with a national title race that's beginning to take shape...
Oregon fans, do you realize that you're supposed to root for Auburn this weekend and Kentucky on Nov. 24? If you don't, you can either ask me, or start to figure things out on your own.
Yes, Oklahoma State could make this a moot point, but it's amazing to even consider the possibility that Missouri-Kansas on Thanksgiving weekend will have national title and BCS bowl implications.
Just to amplify a point that might have gotten lost in last week's column, but which bears repeating in the wake of Ohio State's 20-game Big Ten winning streak, fashioned on Saturday against Wisconsin: two programs have stood head and shoulders above everyone else in college football over the past six seasons, due to their consistent motivation levels and accordingly levelheaded performances. One is USC. The other is Ohio State. That's why the Buckeyes are headed for yet another BCS title game if they can survive Illinois and then beat You Know Who in Ann Arbor.
Would LSU beat Oregon on a neutral field? That's the question everyone in college football is asking right now. The answer? Well, you need to play these kinds of games instead of speculating about them (same with Michigan and Florida last year). With that said, however, one must raise this cautionary note about talent: supreme talent that is routinely stifled by mistakes isn't worth as much as slightly deficient talent that more regularly emerges in fully ripe form. A short non-football example will prove this point. When I have free moments during my week, I frequent a popular tennis blog. Astute writers on this blogsite have noted that some of the greatest headcases in men's tennis are also the most talented players. If you ever pay attention to men's tennis, you'd know the two names that stand above the others: Marat Safin and, in light of the past three weeks, David Nalbandian. Some tennis fans claim that Safin and Nalbandian are more talented than Roger Federer, which might be entirely accurate in a very narrow sense. However, since Federer has more mental toughness than anyone else on the planet, his considerable gifts almost always emerge in big matches, while Safin and Nalbandian fold the tent. Because each of these guys have been playing professional tennis for several years, you can't say that Nalbandian is the "better" player, even if his very best tennis might be good enough to beat Federer (and even though he's won two matches against the world's No. 1 player over the past few weeks).
The above comparison should be clear enough for LSU and Oregon fans: while LSU has more talent, the Tigers--by consistently making mistakes in each game they play--simply can't deserve the benefit of the doubt at this point in the season. If Les Miles can weed out the silly mistakes in Baton Rouge, and the Bayou Bengals absolutely dismantle each and every one of their remaining opponents in a muscular display of their excellence, then they would deserve to play Ohio State for the whole enchilada (assuming the Bucks win out, of course). If LSU remains wobbly over the remainder of its schedule, while Dennis Dixon leads the Ducks to a string of more easy victories, the team from Eugene would have the better overall argument.
Shifting the discussion away from national title contenders, let's start with a team that could mess up the race for New Orleans: Michigan. Is it just me, or is Lloyd Carr still getting precious little national attention and acclaim for the job he's done in response to that horrible start? What this man has done, under withering scrutiny and intense pressure, is nothing short of sensational. Go back to that night after Oregon had undressed the Wolverines in the Big House, and a shaken, ashen Carr had no answers. Somewhere, in the midst of the darkness, the loyal Michigan man found a way to get his team to not merely compete, but win. Only one team can deny Ohio State another Big Ten title. The fact that it's Michigan--win or lose this week against Wisconsin--represents Carr's greatest achievement as a head coach other than his 1997 national championship. This unfairly besieged coach has still not received his due after engineering one of the most impressive eight-game winning streaks in college football history. If college sports are about leading young men through the fires of adversity, no one's done a better job of coaching in 2007 than Lloyd Carr.
Air Force and Navy win games with option attacks or cousins thereof. Army, it's time to join your service academy brethren.
We always thought that people were kicked out of a group if they were "eighty-sixed." Apparently, however, Bill Callahan might be "76'd" out of Lincoln after Saturday's embarrassment against the undefeated Jayhawks.
Big East fans: the ACC is worse than you are, the Big XII is still extremely mediocre, and the Big Ten is very, very thin at the top. But now that South Florida has imploded and Syracuse's win over Louisville has done absolutely nothing to change that lagging program, can we just up and acknowledge that this has been a miserable season? I know you've had to endure a lot of grief over the years, and I know the ACC treated you like dirt in a shameful display of sinful institutional behavior. With that said, though, just fess up when your teams don't deliver the goods. UConn is your one surprise team, and West Virginia is your one traditional power that has actually maintained its place as an elite program. Cincinnati is a nice little story, but the Bearcats' two losses (especially at Pitt, a lousy ballclub) just shouldn't have happened. Unless Randy Edsall's Huskies finish strong (and we mean REALLY strong), this season has been a tremendous disappointment for the Big East. (If you protest, please ask yourself: just what would make you admit that your conference is having a bad season? Bonus question for non-Big East fans: what would make you admit that your conference is having a bad year? Are fans of any conference willing to acknowledge a subpar season when it emerges?)
Time for this week's reflection questions...Dennis Dixon or Tim Tebow?
Les Miles' trust in his players, or Nick Saban's attention to detail?
Four-hour, 20-minute World Series baseball games that don't need extra innings, or four-hour, 20-minute LSU-Bama games that don't even go into overtime?
The bigger implosion: UCLA or South Florida?
The better success story: UConn or Virginia?
The superior team: Missouri or Kansas?
The more disappointing result from Saturday, given previous conquests registered by each team earlier in the season: Kansas State bowing to Iowa State, or Stanford getting walloped at home by Washington?
Finally, a rare mailbag section in this column.
Last week's essay on Georgia's celebration against Florida elicited some very thoughtful and eloquent letters from readers (in addition to the stacks of e-mails from those just wanting to vent). I want you to read these two letters for a few basic reasons: 1) they're extremely eloquent; 2) they cite a number of similar dynamics to support their given claims; 3) they're very civil and gracious in tone and manner; 4) they're nuanced enough to avoid easy or cheap generalizations; and 5) for all of their similarities in content and style, they reach different conclusions on opposite sides of the debate. Mr. Cardin and Mr. Swift offer living proof that you can disagree and yet have an enlightening, stimulating and cordial adult discussion of emotionally heated topics. What a wonderful example for readers of this column, citizens of this polarized nation, and for all members of the human family. Enjoy.
I am a Georgia fan and have been since Herschel and I were freshman in 1980 at Athens.
With that said, I grew up in South Georgia where high school football was religion, Bear Bryant the Archbishop of Tuscaloosa, and all that was right in our world. And I couldn’t agree with you more.
I can only imagine the response an Alabama team of the 60s and 70s would have made against a team foolish enough to have acted as Georgia did. Unlike Florida, which you rightly pegged as responding in kind, the Bear’s Boys would have quietly and ruthlessly pounded the offending team physically in the dirt. However, what we see in today’s kids was presaged by the Bear according to a story I’ve heard. Bryant reportedly told a reporter or friend in the late 70s he "couldn’t coach ‘em anymore," referring to the players. He retired shortly after he realized he "couldn’t recruit ‘em anymore." I’ve always took this story to mean that Bear realized he no longer knew how to relate to players of the coming MTV generation.
Coach Richt made a tremendous decision and gamble that worked in terms of getting a big win over a rival. The only thing I do not agree with in your assessment is that the decision was the result of any pressure from fans. Yes, there are morons screaming lunacy with regards to Coach Richt, but I truly believe Coach Richt made a decision that was strictly designed for his players to get them emotionally fired up for a single game. I suspect he really regrets feeling he had to resort to a cheap motivation trick, as most of us "old school" guys regret as well.
Thank you for an enlightening essay.
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I love the web site, and have just finished reading your essay regarding the behavior of Georgia. I was at the game, (my twentieth in a row, including the two played in Athens and Gainesville). As a UGA supporter, despite our horrible record over the past two decades, this is the game that I look forward to the most on the schedule.
I must admit, the end-zone celebration was quite a shock. I felt like Otter in the movie "Animal House" during the scene in which the angel and devil embodiment of Bluto was perched on each shoulder whispering instructions on whether to engage the dean's 15 year old daughter. On the one hand, I thought to myself, "what on Earth are we doing? Get the hell off the field!" On the other hand, I applauded the strategy, and felt awakened as a fan. This was the most original act of motivation I had ever seen, and I loved every second of it.
I use the word "awakened" carefully. College football lovers have been blessed by the advent of technology. Every game is on TV, now. The internet is full of the information we crave. We can even listen to our team on the radio in the middle of nowhere thanks to satellite radio. Alas, the blessing of technology is also a curse, in my opinion.
I long for the days when the only way that I could enjoy a night game in Knoxville was to listen to Larry Munson on the radio, (and what a joyous night it was back in 1980 when Herschel ran over Bill Bates as a freshman). Then waking up the next day as a 10-year-old and watching clips from the game on the Vince Dooley show at noon. On the occasions when I did get to go to the game, it was a huge deal because there was no ESPN or CBS sports to televise the games (just the ABC game of the week).
When your team did get on TV back then, it was tremendous. I remember watching Herschel vs George Rogers in 1980. Both teams were very fired up being that it was their first televised game of the year, (in mid-October). Nowadays, TV is not as big a deal to these kids. Neither is playing for a coach who makes millions of dollars a year, for that matter. Today's college athletes are numb. They live in a world that no longer requires exploration. They live in a world with no more mysteries. They live in a world with less passion. They live in the USA, and the USA is wired.
In my opinion, technology is the real culprit. Not Georgia, not Coach Richt, not the fans at the game. It is very hard to get jacked up for a football game week in and week out in the SEC. Kids get distracted because they are part of a wired world. Coach Richt is a genius, in my opinion, because he came up with an original idea to motivate his team. It worked.
I remember the first time I watched Georgia on TV. I remember the first game I went to Sanford Stadium. I remember the first time I heard Larry Munson's voice. And I will always remember when Georgia's players celebrated in the end zone after their first touchdown vs. Florida in 2007.
Right or wrong, I felt "awakened."
P.S. - Kids these days have so many luxuries to choose from, ( video games, cell phones, etc.) I think it is difficult in this day and age to get geared up every week about "real" activities.
Society is having a tough time seperating the "virtual" world from the "real" world. Mark Richt certainly woke me up with his ballsy call last Saturday. For better or worse, I think he woke up his football team, too.
Long-Form Weekly Affirmation: Premium Members
This week's essay is an extended laugh at the college football industry. Seriously, folks: we place so much importance on aspects of this business that are out of our control. We invest so much of our emotions in pursuits that wind up meaning very little when all is said and done. One can only hope that fans across America will begin to realize these kinds of truths, so that we'll enjoy the sport a lot more while not taking defeats so personally (or, for that matter, being so arrogant in moments of victory).
Be honest, Texas fans: your unthinkable run over Oklahoma State has precious little to do with having empirically better players. When the Longhorns play the Cowboys, a strange mojo, a vexing voodoo, enters the picture. What makes the boys from Austin awaken with a vengeance in the fourth quarter? What makes the lads from Stillwater turn off their own internal switch at crunch time? The regularity with which ecstasy cuddles up alongside Bevo (like its accompanying reality, the consistency with which devastation cozies up to OSU) is just one of life's inexplicable mysteries. Perhaps psychology plays a part in this dynamic, but let's not think Texas' amazing run of comebacks against Oklahoma State is part of some inherently better combination of coaching and playing. In a sport where certain "personality traits" manage to remain entrenched at programs over exteneded periods of time--as though these schools are individual psychiatric patients with complete case histories and unique personal quirks--the value of recruiting is simply oversold and overhyped. The human mind is the real source of certain whammies that exist in this sport. Texas coach Mack Brown acknowledged as much in his postgame presser on Saturday, saying, "The mind is a powerful, powerful thing, especially in sports." The man who improved his own internal psychology during the Vince Young era, and whose relaxed demeanor helped the Horns snag the 2005 national title, knows all too well how the right mental outlook, much more than a stable full of talent, leads to championship seasons.
Elsewhere in the land of the free and the home of the brave, Michigan once again stomach-punched Michigan State, but let's not think this game was decided by an inherent talent gap between the two programs. Michigan State played just well enough to lose, as the Spartans--the ultimate example of a school acting like an individual human being in great need of psychotherapy--did everything but finish off the Wolverines. Golden for the first 50 minutes but empty in the final 10, the boys in East Lansing played out an all-too-familiar script. When this kind of pattern becomes this firmly established at a program, the cause ceases to be something technical, physical or tactical. It's a grand mystery that's mostly, if not entirely, inside the human brain. Gloria Vanderbilt, the actress/artist/socialite who had enough romances to last 20 lifetimes, not just one, recently said that "Sex is all in the brain." So it also is with college football. It's all in the heads of the fragile young people who play this game.
Need more proof? Look at LSU under Les Miles.
Year after year, the Tigers play emotional, fired-up football. Year after year, they make tons of mistakes, especially dropped passes. Year after year, they play razor-close games against inferior teams, but usually win. Year after year, LSU teams are the ultimate high-wire acts in college football. Year after year, Miles cuts a late-game clock management situation close to the vest. The talent in Baton Rouge is consistently awesome, but when it comes to winning championships, LSU hasn't yet entered the winner's circle. Why? It's all in the head. I thought JaMarcus Russell was a unique David Nalbandian-style headcase when he played for Miles; but after seeing Matt Flynn throw three crippling picks (very nearly four or five) at Alabama this past Saturday, I realized that this is how life is for LSU fans on an unfailingly annual basis. Every Les Miles quarterback makes big mistakes alongside huge plays. This Jekyll-and-Hyde dimension of the LSU program is going to remain in the Les Miles era unless something in the local subculture finally changes. It's not about recruiting or game planning or scheme. It's about a mindset. As USC and Ohio State have proven under Pete Carroll and Jim Tressel, it's possible to establish the ultimate winner's mentality: relentless appetite for battle rooted in an undercurrent of quiet and humble but confident determination. If you can create this kind of attitude in an entire locker room, you can (and will) succeed when other schools fail.
Let's put to rest the notion that these November dramas--in which seasons hang in the balance and reputations get made or broken--are decided based on recruiting and the other soap-operatic, gossip-laden items that attain way too much centrality in the worlds of many college football fan bases. Mental toughness--found only in the heat of battle--is the ultimate ingredient in a winning football program. When you look at an amazing surprise (Virginia, who knows how to win one-point games because the process of overcoming adversity has become an ingrained habit for the team) or a stunning train wreck (Louisville, where one loss to Kentucky began a tsunami of self-doubt), the lesson should be the same: minds, not muscles, make champions in college football (and, for that matter, in other sports as well). The gravesites of talented college football teams from decades past are countless; it's the reasonably talented teams with the best brains who defy death and hoist the crystal on the first week of January. Remember that the next time you get overly worked up about a hotshot recruit or the next messianic head coach.
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Week Eleven: November 12, 2007
It's been a long season full of long essays. This week, however, after a mid-November Saturday that felt strangely empty, we'll shelve the long-form version of this column. As rivalry week begins and championship collisions await, it's a good time to look back at the first eleven weeks while looking ahead to the final three as well.
Short Form Weekly Affirmation: Fast Track Gold Club
First, a word about this past Saturday: the Ohio State loss aside, has there ever been a mid-November Saturday that rang so hollow on a national level? Virtually every televised game on the major broadcast networks felt like a prelude to the season's stretch run. College football seemed to take a deep breath at a point in the season normally reserved for dire deathmatches and electrifying encounters. Michigan-Wisconsin was just filler time and an excuse to have a few bratwursts before The Big Game in Ann Arbor. USC and Cal played off the national radar with Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit spending their Saturday night in Stillwater. Florida versus Steve Spurrier didn't leave much of an imprint upon the nation's consciousness (although it definitely improved Tim Tebow's Heisman chances). Boston College got upset by Maryland, but frankly, who cared? BC versus Clemson is the only show that matters in the ACC Atlantic. Virginia Tech beat back a Florida State charge, but we're waiting for the Battle of Virginia in two weeks. The only game other than Illinois-Ohio State that really made an impression this past Saturday was Georgia's emphatic, we-might-be-good-enough-to-not-need-emotional-gimmicks romp over Auburn. All in all, the absence of drama from this just-completed weekend of football makes it seem as though we're about to enter a three-week mini-season in which all conference and divsion championships will be claimed.
Next up, a brief comment about violence in football, the subject of the season premiere of the Weekly Affirmation back on Labor Day weekend. If you stayed up late--until 2:30 a.m. in the East--you would have seen a pair of popular quarterbacks--Jake Locker of Washington and Colt Brennan of Hawaii--get knocked out of games due to crushing hits from defenders. Locker had to be taken off the field in an ambulance, only to improbably return to the sideline late in the fourth quarter. Brennan is apparently well enough to play this upcoming Friday at Nevada, but everyone in Aloha Stadium held their breath after Fresno State's Marcus Riley laid out the superb signal caller with a frightening blow early in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's tussle in the tropics. After the game, Hawaii coach June Jones--a man who nearly lost his own life in a motorcycle accident not too long ago--could only voice the supremely inconvenient truth about a sport we love: "If you play football, you're going to have concussions." It wasn't a cold statement for Jones to make; the veteran of many football seasons was expressing a simple fact. Let's remember that while college football makes life more bearable for so many of us, the young men who play this sport are risking a lot to entertain us. Let's remember that while college football gives our lives a great deal of passion, fun and color--a welcome respite from world events or difficult times at work--the outcomes of these games are secondary to the welfare of the people who contest them. Winning on Autumnal Saturdays is a worthwhile goal, but it's never more important than the health of each and every college football player--physical, yes, but also emotional and spiritual as well.
On the officiating front, the Pac-10 and Commissioner Tom Hansen remain a national embarrassment in the face of the continued ineptitude of the league's replay review personnel. You surely remember the Oklahoma-Oregon fiasco from September of 2006. If you've been paying attention this year, you would have noted an atrocious replay decision that took away a touchdown from Washington State in a game against Arizona State on Oct. 6. Now, we have the replay review (non-)decision that might rank as the single worst piece of replay review negligence ever foisted upon a football team.
If you really love college football and you stayed up in the wee hours to watch the Washington-Oregon State game on Saturday night (or Sunday morning), you surely blew a gasket when--in the final minutes of a close game--a Pac-10 replay review official refused to consider a play that was both significant and debatable. With Oregon State leading by six with rougly 2:50 remaining, the Beavers were on the verge of scoring a game-sealing touchdown. OSU running back Yvenson Bernard rumbled down to the Washington 1 and was clearly down by the time he reached the ball to the goal line. The only question surrounding the play was if Bernard scored or not; there was no doubt that a fumble had not occurred on the play.
With this having been said, it's worth pointing out that the on-field officials--who ruled a fumble--displayed proper mechanics by allowing a play to be reviewed. Had the officials blown the play dead prematurely, and had replay indicated that Bernard did indeed fumble, the refs would have prevented Washington from gaining due process and a fair result. By ruling a fumble, the on-field officials did their job properly in the age of replay. Naturally, every soul in Reser Stadium awaited the replay review that would have placed the ball back on the UW 1... or perhaps given Oregon State a game-sealing touchdown. This much was sure: Yvenson Bernard displayed good ball security on the play, and Oregon State had every right to expect a fair resolution to a not-very-controversial situation.
But then the seemingly impossible happened: Washington ran up to the line of scrimmage (the UW 38, after a 37-yard fumble return by Husky cornerback Roy Lewis) and--with the Pac-10 replay official snoozing in the booth--snapped the ball. Forget the fact that the play was easy to call for a replay reviewer. Forget the fact that Oregon State coach Mike Riley had no timeouts left, and couldn't challenge the ruling. If a late-game play is shrouded in even the slightest whiff of controversy, it demands an automatic review from the booth. The simple fact that no review was made on this play represents something more than a mere "mistake." In an era when public officials are all too quick to say that "mistakes were made" after doing outrageous things, this paralysis and incompetence from yet another Pac-10 replay booth demands action. If Oklahoma-Oregon '06 wasn't bad enough, and if ASU-Wazzu '07 wasn't outrageous enough, Saturday night's Washington-Oregon State game has to cause a major shakeup in the employment status of Pac-10 replay review officials. Seriously, Commissioner Hansen--how hard does it have to be to get a competent replay reviewer? Thank goodness Washington failed to score on its ensuing drive; otherwise, a real firestorm would have erupted.
As we continue, here's a first attempt to provide an overview of a season that's been reduced to a final few games. With dozens of campaigns about to end for the nation's sub-.500 teams, it's worth beginning the process of putting this season in perspective.
A subtly simple way of looking at a season is to do something the Weekly Affirmation first started in 2005: scour the scoreboards for the games that defined seasons for better or worse. It bears repeating that in a sport with saturation TV coverage, it's easy to lose track of many games. While Florida-LSU and USC-Oregon are the kinds of epic collsions every fan remembers after a college football season, the journeys of most of the nation's 120 FBS teams are framed and fashioned in contests that take place away from the cameras and the public spotlight. If you want to identify the soul of a season, you need to look at these kinds of games. If you want to understand the resurrections and unravelings that occur on sidelines and in locker rooms across America every Autumn, you need to remember this: baby staps precede the breakthroughs, and light trips come before the big tumbles. Confidence is quietly forged in relative obscurity before it bursts in full bloom against a name opponent.
Without further ado, then, here are just some of this year's off-the-radar games that softly but surely shaped seasons for many of this country's FBS teams:
Week One: Navy 30, Temple 19; BYU 20, Arizona 7. Temple showed, even in defeat, that it would battle with uncommon resolve in 2007. Brigham Young made a very early statement with its defense against the Wildcats, who would muddle through yet another disappointing in Tucson.
Week Two: Louisville 58, Middle Tennessee 42; Cincinnati 34, Oregon State 3; Air Force 20, Utah 12; Wisconsin 20, UNLV 13; Arizona State 33, Colorado 14. Louisville's impending collapse was foreshadowed in a 100-point game that involved shockingly bad defense from Steve Kragthorpe's crew. Cincinnati's rise in the Big East made sense after a beatdown of the Beavers. Air Force flew high under first-year coach Troy Calhoun after gaining momentum in a road win against the Utes. Wisconsin hinted at future fragility with a narrow win in Vegas; and Arizona State's season-long pattern of overcoming first-quarter struggles began in early September against the Buffaloes.
Week Three: Virginia 22, North Carolina 20; Mississippi State 19, Auburn 14; Florida Atlantic 42, Minnesota 39; Ohio State 33, Washington 14; Texas 35, Central Florida 32; Utah 44, UCLA 6; Kentucky 40, Louisville 34. A student manager's alertness enabled Virginia to reverse an on-field ruling, win a game, and compile a magical season. Few people were watching when Sylvester Croom's team took the first step toward a breakthrough year in Starkville. Life after Glen Mason emerged for the Gophers in their loss at Florida Atlantic. Ohio State's surprisingly successful season took wing in Seattle, in a tough game from which the Huskies never fully recovered. Texas began a string of narrow but gritty wins with a hard-earned triumph against George O'Leary's crew. UCLA's up-and-down year became apparent against the same Utah team that lost to Air Force the week before. And when Rich Brooks' boys began to climb the college football ladder, the network broadcasting their Commonwealth conquest of Louisville was ESPN... ESPN Classic, that is.
Week Four: Illinois 27, Indiana 14; Nebraska 41, Ball State 40; Navy 46, Duke 43; Houston 38, Colorado State 27; Connecticut 34, Pittsburgh 14. The first sign of the Ron Zook comeback tour began at Indiana. The Huskers' implosion began shortly after a lucky escape against a MAC opponent at home. Navy would win many games like the one it pulled out of the fire against the Blue Devils. Houston put together a very respectable season on the strength of its win over the Rams, who plummeted to the depths of the Mountain West Conference in a season that began with much promise. And if you wanted to find a moment when Randy Edsall's ballclub grew into a winner, it might have been an afternoon in the Steel City when the Huskies quietly went about their business against the Panthers.
Week Five: Michigan 28, Northwestern 16; Miami of Ohio 17, Syracuse 14; UTEP 48, SMU 45. Michigan didn't play well, but Lloyd Carr's team began a pattern of winning consistently against the Wildcats. Syracuse threw away the momentum gained by an upset of Louisville the very next week in Ohio. This loss to UTEP might have been the straw that ultimately broke Phil Bennett's back as the coach of the Mustangs.
Week Six: Rice 31, Southern Miss 29; Maryland 28, Georgia Tech 26; Northwestern 48, Michigan State 41; North Carolina 33, Miami (FL) 27; Wyoming 24, TCU 21. Simply stated, each of these contests revealed why each of the losing teams had seasons that fell far short of expectations.
Week Seven: Buffalo 43, Toledo 33; Virginia 17, Connecticut 16; Tulsa 38, Marshall 31. The Bulls, not the Bills, have found a way to make big improvements this season in Buffalo. The Husky-Cavalier collision in Charlottesville showed two evenly-matched teams who displayed equal amounts of determination in 2007. Tulsa didn't always play its best, but the Golden Hurricane--on the back of ugly wins such as this one over the Thundering Herd--have won this year under new coach Todd Graham.
Week Eight: Temple 24, Miami of Ohio 17; Vanderbilt 17, South Carolina 6. The Owls' biggest triumph in a season when the historically downtrodden Philadelphia school came up (Al) Golden. Long before the blowout losses to Arkansas and Florida, South Carolina got substantially exposed when the Gamecocks looked past the Commodores.
Week Nine: New Mexico 34, Air Force 31; Boise State 34, Fresno State 21; Clemson 30, Maryland 17. Los Lobos have fared well in the Mountain West, thanks to gritty victories such as this three-point triumph made possible by a perfect fourth quarter of defense. Boise State reminded the rest of the WAC who's boss with this steady and sturdy win in the Valley against a charged-up bunch of Bulldogs. Clemson's ability to survive a road ambush in College Park has enabled Tommy Bowden's Tigers to be in position to defy history and win the ACC Atlantic Division.
Week Ten: Iowa 28, Northwestern 17; Iowa State 31, Kansas State 20; North Carolina 16, Maryland 13. The Hawkeyes' late resurgence--to a bowl-eligible position--was built on the strength of this crucial win in Evanston. Before Kansas State got crushed at Nebraska, the Wildcats seemed to lose their will in a demoralizing loss in Ames. Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen has to be wondering why his struggling program--once in the Orange Bowl a few years ago--has not been able to avoid losses such as this three-point defeat in Chapel Hill.
Week Eleven: Iowa State 31, Colorado 28; Washington State 33, Stanford 17. Any of the gains Dan Hawkins' Buffs made against Oklahoma and Texas Tech were thrown away with this bad, bad loss against the renewed and resilient Cyclones. Just to make sure Stanford's upset of USC remains as big as it should be, you need to realize that the Cardinal have not built on their toppling of Troy, as proven in this loss up in Pullman.
That's it for a first look back at the 2007 season. We now turn to a brief preview of the season's final, fateful football fistfights.
This week's big games: Ohio State at Michigan; Kentucky at Georgia; West Virginia at Cincinnati; Boston College at Clemson.
The big question surrounding The Big Game is if Michigan's tidal wave of pent-up emotions will be enough to withstand Ohio State's superior instincts. The Buckeyes are the objectively better (and healthier) team, so the focal point of this contest concerns the Wolverines' ability to bring their very best football to the table. Lloyd Carr doesn't need to motivate his team, but the UM coach--if he wants to beat Jim Tressel for the first time since 2003--does need to bring some creative strategy and a batch of extra boldness to the Big House. Huge games don't call for desperation, but they do demand courage--there's a difference between the two entities, and it will be up to Carr and his staff to find the right balance against Mr. Sweater Vest.
Kentucky seems to have lost the edge it once possesed this season, while the Dawgs are playing lights-out at the present moment. It's mystifying to see the Wildcats decline so noticeably after competing with LSU and Florida on very even terms. On the other side of the coin, one has to applaud Georgia for getting the job done after the listless loss at Tennessee and the sluggish piece of slop served up against South Carolina back in week two. Georgia doesn't seem inclined to step off the gas pedal, especially with the "clubhouse lead" in the SEC East just one win away. (Tennessee ultimately controls its destiny in the division, but the Vols will be hard pressed to win in Lexington on Nov. 24.) The key to this game therefore lies with Kentucky. Can offensive coordinator Joker Phillips and quarterback coach Randy Sanders coax a top-shelf game from an uneven Andre Woodson? Can playmakers like Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme regain the consistency they found earlier in the season? Georgia's offense won't be stopped; Kentucky will need to win a shootout. The Wildcats can win a calculator game, but they'll need to be at their best to do so.
Mountaineers-Bearcats: it's not just the Bob Huggins basketball battle, it's a Big East title tilt, for all intents and purposes. A Cincinnati win this week, coupled with a West Virginia win over Connecticut in week 13 and a Cincy win at lowly Syracuse, will give the Bearcats an Orange Bowl berth. Long story short, this contest rests in the hands of Pat White: if the dynamic and blindingly fast quarterback plays within his capabilities and avoids the nagging turnovers that plagued him against Louisville and South Florida, the boys from Morgantown will once again claim a conference crown. If White can't hold onto the pigskin, the Bearcats--playing at home and with considerable energy--are good enough to capitalize. No one in the Big East has been able to stand above the rest of the pack; West Virginia should be that team, but mistakes have prevented Rich Rodriguez from being able to breathe easy this late in the season. If WVU can finally put its foot down, Cincinnati will only be able to look on helplessly... and somewhere, Bob Huggins will smile even before basketball season really heats up.
We finally arrive at the most fascinating game of the upcoming weekend: Boston College at Clemson. In one corner stand the Eagles, a national title contender brought low in an abrupt two-week span. BC's struggles have left a first-year coach (Jeff Jagodzinski) and a senior quarterback (Matt Ryan) one loss away from a spectacular free-fall that would perpetuate the ghost of Tom O'Brien and leave dark shadows over the New England landscape. In the other corner stand the Tigers, until recently a non-factor in the ACC Atlantic race but suddenly given new life by outside events. Amazingly, Tommy Bowden is one win away from reaching the ACC Championship Game and finally delivering the goods after eight--yes, eight--very frustrating seasons in the Palmetto State. These two teams know all too well how much is on the line when they strap on the pads in Death Valley. Eagles-Tigers will make for tremendous television, because the emotions will be so pronounced and the reputations of the participants will be so thoroughly defined by this one game. Right now, you have to think that Clemson will shrug off its past demons while BC will be baffled and bamboozled by an untimely downward spiral. Then again, nothing in the Tommy Bowden era has ever been a sure thing. If you want to identify a game key, look at special teams. These two programs have had notoriously bad kicking games. In a sweaty-palm situation late in either half, a major miscue might tell the tale.
Week 13 big games: USC at Arizona State; Missouri at Kansas; Virginia Tech at Virginia; Tennessee at Kentucky.
Oh, how Pete Carroll and John David Booty must be kicking themselves for the Stanford loss. Nevertheless, a Thanksgiving Day win in Tempe would enable the Trojans to compile yet another 10-win season despite a boatload of injuries. Moreover, a victory would enable USC to stay in the running for an at-large BCS bowl invite. Arizona State will be playing for the same BCS opportunity on Nov. 22, but the Sun Devils could vault to an 11-win season if they can defeat the Trojan Empire of College Football. Second place in the Pac-10 is on the line, and with each of these teams getting five extra days of rest before knocking heads, national viewers should be in for a treat while they digest their heaping helpings of turkey and all the fixings. The clear confrontation in this contest will emerge after halftime. USC has a long track record under Carroll of swaming opponents in the second half. Defense and depth have enabled the Trojans to rise to the occasion in the fourth quarter of tight games over the past six seasons. Against Arizona State, however, the boys from L.A. will meet a mirror image. Dennis Erickson's Sun Devils have worn down the opposition in the final 30 minutes of several games this season. Just as surely as the Dennis Devils have struggled in the first quarter, they've also been able to right the ship once they expunge the early-game cobwebs. Who will crest, and who will crumble, when crunch time comes calling? That will likely decide the outcome in the Desert Southwest.
When Missouri and Kansas meet at Arrowhead Stadium--where College Gameday is sure to be on Nov. 24 (just absorb that fact for a moment or two)--you'll see two of the more creative coaching staffs in the Big XII. Missouri and Kansas both derive a lot of benefit from the offensive systems they use. The sleight of hand employed by Tiger quarterback Chase Daniel keeps opposing defenses off balance, while the quick-release philosophy employed by KU coach Mark Mangino enables Todd Reesing to thrive as a savvy yet undersized signal caller. Missouri is the team more likely to influence the course of events in this contest, for reasons both good and bad. On the plus side for Mizzou, the Tigers possess more big-game experience than the Jayhawks, having played in spotlight showdowns over the past few seasons. On the other hand, the Tigers are also the dog in this fight that has a tendency to commit costly turnovers in the worst possible moments. It seems weird to say this, but you know what to expect with Kansas: steady, solid, sensible football not big on talent, but largely free of mistakes. It's up to the good Missouri to show up and relegate the bad Missouri to the dustbin of history. The Tiger team that shows up will probably push the pendulum in one direction or another.
Hokies-Hoos in Charlottesville is a rivalry game, a matchup of mobile quarterbacks, and a division championship encounter. Both teams have plenty of confidence heading into this game (we can't imagine Tech losing at home to Miami Nov. 17, one week before this showdown), so you're not likely to see a major turning point until this contest winds its way deep into the third quarter. Virginia knows how to win one-point games, but Tech has the big-name pedigree and a taste of battle against programs such as LSU. The head says Tech, but the gut can't write off the Cavaliers, who have played inspired football ever since an opening-week loss at Wyoming. You'll be able to tell if Virginia is able to remain calm in the face of pressure; that might well determine what happens at Scott Stadium.
When the Volunteers go to Lexington to face Kentucky, it won't feel like the same old battle that used to be called the "Beer Barrel" game. Kentucky brings clout and credentials this time around. With that said, though, the Vols still hold a hex and wield a mental whammy in this series, so the outcome will have a lot to do with Kentucky's ability to start strong or, failing that, to respond well (and immediately) to any adversity that might come its way. If Kentucky stays mentally tough, the Cats--playing at home--should be hungry yet focused enough to end a decades-long losing skid against a Tennessee team that is eyeing an SEC East title.
Week 14 big games (aside of currently undetermined conference title game matchups): Oregon State at Oregon.
Don't laugh: if Oregon gets by Arizona and UCLA to enter week 14 with a 10-1 record, the Ducks will have their hands full with the Beavers. Six years ago, in 2001, the Ducks figured to pummel Oregon State in Eugene at the end of a dominant season, with a Heisman-contending quarterback (Joey Harrington) leading the way. But even in the cozy confines of Autzen Stadium, those dynamic Ducks (who would go on to rout Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl and show the country they belonged in the Rose Bowl against Miami) struggled against their rivals from Corvallis. Oregon survived a 17-14 slugfest, and walked away happy. A similar outcome should be equally acceptable to Dennis Dixon and his teammates. The Civil War--like other rivalry games--simply can't be taken for granted.
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Week Twelve: November 19, 2007 - Classic Thanksgiving Week Affirmation on Clemson, Vandy
The sacred and the profane often coexist in life, sometimes far too close for comfort. But that's the college football world we live in with the 2007 season careening toward a conclusion that remains entirely up in the air. What's sacred? The emotions that give this sport its soul. What's profane? The quality of football being played.
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First, we deal with the profane. The third Saturday of November--traditionally, the first of three season-ending rivalry weekends--is supposed to offer classic battles, legendary moments, and step-up performances from great players who leave a lasting imprint on the sport. Chris Wells and Vernon Gholston were just about the only two human beings who produced pulchritudinous pigskin performances this past weekend. (Just wondering: how can a word meaning "beautiful" sound so ugly? Pulchritudinous? Sheesh.) Every other big game was a dud.
What speaks to the poor quality of football being played on Saturdays this season? One could trot out many stats or facts, but this tidbit should prove to be especially illuminating: aside of No. 1 LSU, every other major national title contender has a resume as thin as the crepes I had with Friday night's Moo Shu chicken dinner. Kansas? The Jayhawks played Central Michigan, SE Louisiana, Toledo, and Florida International out of conference, while avoiding Oklahoma and Texas in their run through the Big XII.Missouri? The Tigers have had a fabulous season while burying a lot of past demons, but still: the boys from Columbia can only point to a win at Illinois as something pretty to look at on their dossier. West Virginia?The Mountaineers played Western Michigan, Marshall, East Carolina, Maryland and Mississippi State out of conference. With the Big East being down this year after a strong 2006 and a very encouraging 2005, WVU has found it hard to point to a great in-conference win. Ohio State?The Buckeyes tackled Youngstown State, Akron, Washington and Kent State out of conference, and since the Big Ten had a horrible year, the win at banged-up Michigan represents the best scalp on OSU's schedule. It would be one thing if only a few national title contenders possessed resumes free of heft and substance. This year, just about everyone lacks a championship profile. It stands to reason, doesn't it? If the quality of football suffers, you can tell that emotional volatility is much more prevalent in the college game. This has been the ultimate year of the short attention span, the inconsistent player, and the helpless head coach who can't consistently motivate his young men.
Who should go to New Orleans to play LSU (if, indeed, the Tigers can manage to win out) on January 7? Darned if I know.It's intellectually dishonest, in my mind, to claim to know what will happen in a one-shot game played more than a month after the regular season. We keep finding out--year after year--that predictions look great until oh, about three minutes into a big game, when a huge mistake completely reshapes the emotional calculus. Throw Ohio State, West Virginia, Kansas, and Missouri into a hopper, and you just can't predict what will happen. Making objective evaluations of these teams without seeing them go head-to-head (well, at least Missouri and Kansas will duke it out before this season's over) is an act of both wishful thinking and lunacy. It's just one more reason why the BCS offers so little actual value behind the TV hype and the endless prattle of talk shows. The only way to answer a difficult question is to provide a setting in which a legitimate answer can emerge.
Other quick hitters from a weekend that offered very little good football to comment on...
Anyone who views Oregon's loss to Arizona as a disgraceful choke job should stop watching college sports altogether. Yes, some people on this planet actually did say, live and on the Internet, that the Ducks choked against the Wildcats on Thursday night. You wonder why we haven't yet attained peace on earth? That's part of the problem, right there.
Hawaii might not have many quality wins, but let's say this much about June Jones' Warriors: they truly are Warriors. Tyler Graunke battled like a champion on Friday night at Nevada, while kicker Daniel Kelly has the poise of a 15-year veteran placekicker. Whenever Hawaii needs to make a play, someone steps up to get the job done. Whenever adversity strikes, someone on the UH roster immediately finds a way to turn a game around with an impact performance. Kudos to a ballclub that never quits, and has earned respect by winning tough games on the mainland, which has been a long-term problem for Hawaii football.
Yes, Chad Henne deserved the right to play against Ohio State. Lloyd Carr made the fair and honorable decision by listening to his senior. With that said, though, Henne--if he really wanted to beat the Buckeyes--could have chosen to allow Ryan Mallett to take more snaps. Being a winning team member doesn't automatically mean that you have to be the one sweating on the field. Sometimes, great teammates show their worth by having the courage to step aside when the human body just isn't responding well to injury, wet weather, or both.
On the morning of Nov. 24, Temple and Buffalo will both have a chance to finish their seasons with a winning conference record in the MAC. No, that's not a misprint. Two of the great stories of 2007 just keep getting better.
Navy didn't snap a 43-game losing streak or score 74 points this past Saturday, but the Midshipmen won without their starting quarterback, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada. Every week, Navy does something special. The only thing left for Paul Johnson to do in Annapolis is to go 13-0 and make a BCS bowl.
A big thumbs-down to Cal, Louisville and Iowa, three teams who acted this past Saturday as though they wanted this season to be over with. None of these teams quit--that's not an appropriate term to use with young men who are still learning how to live their lives--but in the same breath, the Bears, Cards and Hawkeyes sure didn't spill the proverbial tank in ugly losses that simply should not happen to programs of their stature.
Finally, a simple question: WHAT IN THE BLAZES IS GOING ON IN THE MINDS OF ANDRE WOODSON AND MATT RYAN? There, I had to expunge that raging question from my brain and put it on a computer screen. Seriously (and more calmly), what is making these two veteran quarterbacks take so many bad sacks, again and again and again? It was absolutely exasperating to watch two decorated quarterbacks play so far below their potential this past weekend. Both Woodson and Ryan took double-digit-yard losses on sacks that severely hurt their teams. Woodson paid for his brain cramps because he was facing a Georgia team that turned the corner a few weeks ago. Ryan got away with his mental mishaps because he was playing Clemson with a significant prize on the line. It's hard to understand why two young men who have come so far in their careers could make high school freshman mistakes in mid-November games of their senior seasons. In mid-October, Kentucky looked the part of an elite team, while Boston College had a chance to become one. Regardless of what happens for the remainder of this season, one thing is clear: neither the Wildcats or the Eagles qualify as one of the sport's very best ballclubs. To quote a familiar saying, "Whatever IT is, Kentucky and BC don't have IT." This is especially true for Andre Woodson and Matt Ryan.
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Now that we've flushed the profane from our systems, let's turn to the realm of the sacred in this week's essay.
So much of life is so manifestly unfair. Out of the billions of things that are wrong with the universe, though, a particular problem in the college football world is that most teams' seasons end--usually in defeat, resignation, bitterness, and recrimination--at the very same time of year when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. Wreckage is truly found in human existence when war, famine, disease, and corruption do damage to individuals, households and communities. With that said, however, there's another form of devastation which--while lacking the totality or finality of the suffering that occurs when life is threatened--still eats away at the soul and, for that very reason, remains painful to watch. This more benign yet ever-wrenching form of suffering is seen on national television at this time of year when a football team gets punched in the gut.
When a baseball team gets knocked out of the playoffs, players and coaches can always fall back on the cliched yet accurate saying, "That's baseball." When a basketball team gets sent packing, it usually comes down to a shot made or missed, which--much like baseball--is easy to rationalize for the losing team. "Just ran into a hot team and a confident bunch of shooters," right? When a hockey team gets dismissed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, you know what's coming next in the loser's dressing room: "Well, we just didn't get the bounces in overtime, and they (the winners) caught a good break." The other major team sports have easy cliches to fall back on in the fresh aftermath of a crushing defeat.
Football, however, lacks them.
In football, the quote most often heard from the mouth of a losing player is, "We just didn't make enough plays." Notice how different that statement is from the above examples in other team sports. In football, your own failures are too naked and plain to ignore. In other sports, the chance element of competition can often be used to mask your deficiencies. Football does reveal superiority or inferiority in ways that other sports can't match... or at least, that's the impression that comes across. It's a fascinating thing to contemplate.
Why is this so? The answer is deceptively (or perhaps not so deceptively) simple: no team sport involves the raw physical punishment that football requires of its non-kicking participants. As we mentioned last week in this space through the words of Hawaii coach June Jones, concussions are just a part of life in football. No team-sport athlete risks his body the way football players do. Upper-division college ball is, ironically enough, the arena in which players' bodies are uniquely vulnerable. Unlike the high school game, the bodies are substantially more developed. Unlike the pro game, there's a lot less sophistication because of limited practice time and greater differentials of both talent and depth on rosters. Moreover, the college game offers very little financial compensation. It's very reasonable to say that collegians are the football players who make the greatest sacrifice whenever they step onto the gridiron. This reality does a lot to explain why the pain of losing is so acutely felt in college football--more than in other forms of football, and certainly more than in other kinds of collegiate sports.
You're probably wondering where the sacredness exists in all this. Well, we've arrived at that point.
As stated earlier, it's unfair that so many college football seasons have to end in defeat, precisely when Thanksgiving weekend rolls around. At a time of year devoted to gratitude, friends, family and generosity, clusters of 20-year-old kids have to deal with the emotional fallout of a season gone wrong. Twelve weeks of pounding, and for what? Twelve Saturdays of sacrifice, and for what? A lousy 6-6 record, or a 5-7 mark, or another dumpy lower-level bowl game when a conference title was expected? Where was the meaning? Where was the value? What was the point of it all? This acute sense of agony pervades many a locker room, and the dozens of young minds within them, when seasons end far short of their hopes and dreams. That this occurs at Thanksgiving makes players less inclined to be thankful... but that's only part of the problem.
If players take these losses hard--and they do--just imagine what coaches feel when they have to console their kids. Just imagine what football parents and spouses must feel when they must tend to their sons and husbands who have experienced such exquisite torture on national (or merely regional) television. And then consider what fans endure... often at the hands of other fans. The fact that the finality of football failure coincides with Thanksgiving is a very cruel joke, a perverse reality that colors each and every year when the eleventh month ends and the chill of an especially cold December begins.
But in the midst of the darkness of defeat, the soft light of sacredness can begin to break through.
After the Georgia touchdown celebration against Florida a few weeks ago, a lot was said (especially in this column) about the proper place of college football--and by extension, sports--in our lives. Many Weekly Affirmation readers expressed strong yet divergent opinions on the meaning of sports. Regardless of the content of each e-mail I received, the revelation became quite clear to me: even among those who think that sports don't offer life lessons or powerful metaphors for the human experience, the very topic of college football is nevertheless a big deal... big enough, at least, for hundreds of readers to read a lengthy essay and then respond to its author. Even for people who profess to want sportswriters to steer clear of social analysis or cultural commentary, sports clearly touch a nerve and strike a chord. Athletic competition brings forth deeper dimensions of meaning even when human persons demand that a game remain an entertainment-based escape from the rest of life's troubles. Even for those who claim otherwise, it's true: sports--not always, mind you, but certainly in their more powerful and revealing moments--manage to become far more than tension-releasing distractions and occasions for male bonding. College football games--even for those who just want their football writers to talk about "football"--often transcend their former identity as isolated oases of weekend child's play and old-fashioned roughhousing among boys who just need to let off a little steam.
If you care about college football, and if you know a little bit about the sport beyond your own team or conference, spend this week of Thanksgiving by pondering the fate of some teams that had their stomachs punched over the past weekend, and during this season in general. If you're a Tennessee fan, think of the emotional carnage in Michigan's locker room right now. Maybe Lloyd Carr's exit from the stage might make you appreciate Philip Fulmer that much more. Sit down at the turkey table on Thursday and offer up a word of thanks for the offensive lineman from Winchester, Tenn. If you're an Oregon fan, think of what Oklahoma went through on Saturday. If you're a Sooner supporter, say a good word about the Ducks, 14 months after that painful game in Eugene when you got robbed. Now that you've experienced at Texas Tech what Oregon underwent at Arizona, forgive the Ducks' fans for any message board vitriol exchanged in September of 2006, and sit at this week's big feast with thankful hearts. If you're a West Virginia fan, think of TCU, an underpublicized team with a low profile that fell far short of expectations--after all, you were in that place a few years ago. Think kindly of what Gary Patterson and his kids are experiencing right now, as you stand two very likely wins away from something special. If you survey this sport with any degree of care for any appreciable length of time, you'll find these stories. At a time of national Thanksgiving, allow the empathy in your heart to match the knowledge in your brain, which comes from the passion you evidently possess when college football is concerned.
Before leaving this subject, however, we must deal with the two foremost examples of season-ending heartbreak for two college football programs. If you have a soul--and if you're not a fan of the South Carolina Gamecocks (we'll allow for that one rivalry-fed exception, but only one)--you ought to include a little space in your Thanksgiving reflections for the Clemson Tigers and the Vanderbilt Commodores. Mind you, this is football and not a genuine life-or-death proposition, but still: I wouldn't wish the fate of these two programs on anyone. Within the narrow context of college football, Clemson and Vandy have endured more emotional agony over the past several years than any of the other 118 FBS schools that play on Saturdays in Autumn.
First, a word about Clemson.Something weirdly profound happened to this columnist as he watched the complete train wreck known as the BC-Clemson game on Saturday night (it was going to be a train wreck for the loser, either way; the Tigers simply had a longer history of losing when compared to the Eagles).
It usually happens that Clemson stubs its toe early in the season to get Tommy Bowden in hot water before rebounding late to keep Bobby's son afloat. Last year, however, the Tigers surged early before collapsing late, finding yet another way to fall short of expectations and leave their fan base with a bitter taste. This year, amazingly, provided yet another awful way for Clemson to have its heart crushed. The Tigers overcame a few early losses to right the ship in midseason and make a strong forward push in November. Heading into the game against Boston College, two teams tied in the division standings were headed in diametrically opposite directions. Clemson was hot, confident, healthy, and playing at home. BC was stone cold, rattled, banged up, and playing a long way from New England. It all set up so well for Tommy Bowden in his attempt to finally taste a conference title, nine long years into his tenure at the school Frank Howard made famous.
After Clemson pounced on the Eagles early and grabbed a quick 7-0 advantage, it seemed that the Tigers were ready to banish their old demons and finally claim a prize bigger than a lower-tier bowl win. When this game started, Tommy Bowden had his team ready to play and compete. Cullen Harper and the rest of the Tigers' offense started strong. The team that had mowed down the opposition over the past several weeks was picking up right where it left off. On a very real level, Bowden had already overcome the whammy that had kicked Clemson to the curb so many times before. The Tigers didn't start the BC game with a mental load on their shoulders. They didn't begin this battle with terrific tension or runaway nerves. They didn't step onto the field with the mentality of a chronic underachiever. Simply stated, Clemson began the BC game like a winner, a new team with a fresh outlook and a transformed mindset. Coaches and players weren't doing the same old thing. Change was in the air. Lessons had been learned. "Finish the job" became a motto that seemed likely to stick. This time really was different... at least for a time.
But then, out of the blue, as though filled with mind-altering oxygen, something in the night sky pierced this newly confident Clemson persona. One minute, this columnist was watching a series of plays from the West Virginia-Cincinnati game on ESPN. Upon flipping the remote back to ESPN2, the realization struck with subtle but surprising power: "Holy ----, it's happening again!" The sense of disbelief inside my stomach was minimized only because Boston College was also fighting the nerves as well. As much as I was aware of Clemson's miserable mojo, the Eagles' death spiral (and those bad sacks Matt Ryan was taking) led me to doubt that the Tigers would find the needle of disaster in a haystack of prosperity.
As the game wore on, however, with little happening on the scoreboard, the plain truth of the matter crept up on everyone in Death Valley, not to mention the national TV audience: "This puppy's going down to the final minutes. It's gonna be a coin flip. Not exactly Clemson's preferred historical context."When the Tigers marched to a go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter (thanks to a botched BC squib kick, just the kind of special-teams blunder that usually befalls Clemson in a big game), it seemed that good karma had finally entered the world of this long-suffering program.
Then dogma ran over that karma. Hard. At 150 miles per hour on an interstate highway.
Matt Ryan did his best Virginia Tech endgame impersonation from Oct. 25. Then Clemson receiver Aaron Kelly dropped a touchdown pass in the final minute. Then a bad sack taken by Harper with five seconds left knocked the Tigers out of comfortable field goal range, leading to a woefully short 54-yarder on the game's final play. Stunned silence filled the sea of orange at Memorial Stadium. Another year, another grisly crime scene at a big Clemson game. Another crowd of 81,500 decent, respectable, God-fearing folks (minus a few Eagle fans) had a dagger thrust into their stomachs and twisted for full effect.
What was the weirdly profound experience that greeted this columnist in the aftermath of yet another Death Valley downer? Whereas past Clemson train wrecks inspired disgust at Tommy Bowden and the Tigers--at Bowden because of a salary far more lucrative than what his accomplishments deserve; at the Tigers for generally underachieving on an annual basis--I actually felt sympathy and empathy for a coach and his team. Why? Because Clemson football has entered the world normally reserved for Chicago Cubs fans and pre-2004 Boston Red Sox fans. No matter what happens, this team loses. Tommy Bowden can have his team ready to play at kickoff time, but somewhere in the middle of a big game, this team wanders into that mentally hijacked twilight zone. Is this any different from the bottom of the tenth inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series? Is this any different from the top of the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series? Of course not. This is a hex of epic proportions. It doesn't emerge very often, but when it does, it's unmistakable. Clemson has found this blacker-than-black hole of competitive misery.
This Thanksgiving, don't bash Bowden if you're a Clemson fan. Don't rip Aaron Kelly for dropping that pass. A coach and his kids need to be patted on the back, for they bear a burden that weighs heavily on their shoulders. Thanksgiving is precisely the time of year when big-picture perspective needs to enter the landscape down in Clemson. If you're a student or alumnus at that fine university, allow Saturday's stomach punch to turn into a quiet but real display of appreciation for a team that could not overturn a set of forces that have taken on a life of their own.
Now, a few remarks about Vanderbilt. As agonizing as the life of a Clemson football fan might be, it's just as difficult to contemplate the reality faced by those who clap for the Commodores.
The story of Vanderbilt football begins with the realization that the SEC's least successful program over the past quarter-century has periodically prompted calls for removal from the conference. Vandy, it has been argued by some, should not be dragging down the most competitive league in college football. The same school that produced college football's greatest chronicler and journalist--Grantland Rice--has frequently met with derision. The Dores, in the eyes of more than a few observers, should have been shown the door a long time ago. Vandy's recent downward restructuring of its athletic program only drew more skeptical reactions from its brother SEC programs. In many ways, VU stands out from the rest of the SEC, and when King Football is concerned, that's not necessarily a good thing.
How wonderful it has been, then, to see this program compete so vigorously over the past few seasons under the leadership of Bobby Johnson, one of the class acts of the coaching profession. Johnson--who truly upholds the sacred in life--forbids his players from using profanity, but is nevertheless able to squeeze maximum effort from Vanderbilt teams, season after season and snap after snap. Few teams play harder on a more consistent basis than the Commodores, and this 2007 campaign has witnessed Vandy's best season to date in the Johnson era. Win or lose, up or down, Johnson gets his teams motivated, a far cry from much more successful programs who coast on their talent but will occasionally let down their guard against a small-fry opponent. Vandy lacks the quality depth of other SEC schools, but the Dores--with decent frontline talent and an abundant supply of true grit--always manage to give their very best effort a time in college football history when consistency is very hard to come by. The way Johnson coaches, combined with the way his players compete, represents a model example of how collegiate athletics can transmit good values to young people in a wholesome atmosphere. In a profound sense, every college sports fan should be a Vanderbilt football fan. This is the team that does things the right way. This is the group that toils in the shadows when other SEC teams grab the spotlight. This is the ballclub that spills its guts every week, despite suffering the worst kinds of losses over and over and over again. Vandy is Clemson without the quality or the football heritage, but in so many ways, the Dores--like the Tigers--find a way to become Charlie Brown to an opponent's Lucy at the end of a meaningful game. Sadly but surely, this trend has continued in 2007.
Back on Oct. 13, Vanderbilt was tied with Georgia inside the three-minute mark of regulation. Driving in the Bulldog red zone, VU running back Cassen Jackson-Garrison fumbled. One mistake was all that separated Vandy from one huge win over a divsion rival. Fast forward a few weeks later to a game against Kentucky. Had quarterback Mackenzi Adams not prematurely spiked a ball into the ground on a late two-minute drill, the Dores would have had one more chance to take the Wildcats into overtime.
Ah, but only this past weekend would the classic Vandy game occur. Adding insult to injury, the beneficiary of a heartbreaking Commodore collapse would be the in-state rival from Knoxville, the Tennessee Vols.
On a Saturday with few good viewing choices in the midday time slot, Vandy-Tennessee occupied my main monitor. As Vandy went ahead 24-9 midway through the third quarter on a perfectly thrown short fade, only one thought entered my mind: "How are they gonna blow it this time?As soon as Vandy roughed Tennessee punter Britton Colquitt late in the third quarter, I had my answer. When Tennessee scored early in the fourth quarter to narrow the lead to 24-16, the vision of a 25-24 final score flashed through the blurry (not-so)make-believe screen in my mind's eye. A one-point loss would reflect Vandy's game effort, but the closeness would tease, tantalize and ultimately torment Vandy fans much more than a good ol' fashioned 10-point defeat ever could. It was a nightmarish scene that I couldn't expunge for the remainder of this contest. After all, I had seen this movie so many times before.
When Tennessee missed its two-point conversion to trail by a score of 24-22, it was almost worse for Vandy than if the Vols had converted. A 24-all tie might have liberated the Dores and enabled Adams--so bold and confident until the 24-9 score, but so paralyzed after VU gained its 15-point bulge--to regain his winning edge. But with the narrow lead, Vandy--thoroughly dominant in the trenches for the game's first 43 minutes, but limp and impotent after the game-changing roughing-the-punter penalty--remained trapped in that "oh no, here we go again" netherworld of consuming self-doubt. Tennessee--a dead team walking for the same 43 minutes in which Vandy outplayed them--turned into a strutting, swaggering juggernaut filled with fresh emotion and boundless energy. The snowball just grew and grew and grew, burying the Dores in an avalanche of negativity. The 25-24 score came to fruition with 2:46 left in the fourth quarter.
But no classic Vandy loss is complete without a cruel, final tease to make the devastation even more haunting for Commodore men, women and children of all ages.
On the kickoff following Tennessee's field goal at the 2:46 mark, Vandy return man D.J. Moore found an opening. When at his own 45, Moore--about six to ten yards away from the right sideline--had one Volunteer defender and two Vandy blockers ahead of him, with another Tennessee defender about 25 yards from the sideline farther downfield. If Moore could merely get past the one UT defender near the sideline, he would have assured himself of a return inside the UT 30 at the very least. A touchdown would have been very possible. But just when Moore and his blockers needed to finish the play and carry it to its conclusion, they either hesitated or ran out of steam. As Moore slowed down and his blockers tired out, that one UT defender--Dennis Rogan--slipped through a hole and ushered Moore out of bounds. Quietly but significantly, Vandy's chance to gain back the lead without benefit of a scrimmage play evaporated. Sure enough, an offense that suddenly ran into an emotional brick wall late in the third quarter could not get off the deck, forcing a long field goal from Bryant Hahnfeldt.
Hahnfeldt--who really struggled in 2005 but improved in 2006, merely stepped onto the gridiron and crushed the 49-yard attempt. It was the best placekick I had ever seen the fine young man hit in his Vanderbilt career. The boot would have been good from 59, not 49.
It drifted left in a slight wind and ticked off the left upright. Normally, that would be a joke. With Vandy, it's just another repeat of an improbably familiar scenario.
In 2006, a Hahnfeldt field goal attempt got blown down by the wind on the last play of the game, turning a 22-21 Vandy win into a 21-19 Charlie Brown special against Arkansas in that year's season opener. Nearly 15 months later, the wind toyed with another beautiful bomb from Hahnfeldt's right foot. The pattern that exists for Vandy in the college football world is the same one that always emerges for Clemson: no matter what happens, the end result is always wrong when a longstanding team goal becomes attainable. While Clemson's goal--an ACC title--has been narrowly missed over the past several seasons, Vandy's constant hope for a non-losing season has been similarly shattered whenever it appears to be well within reach. Bobby Johnson--much like Tommy Bowden against Boston College--had his boys ready to compete and win against Tennessee. Like Bowden, he didn't magically turn into a dumber or less effective coach. He didn't lose his football IQ or begin to make incredibly dumb decisions. Johnson simply encountered an emotional tsunami that swept over his team and hijacked the confidence level possessed by his boys. This happens on a number of occasions in college football, but Vanderbilt--along with Clemson--always seems to be the victim of these strange and sinister sequences. The ball is supposed to bounce favorably once in a while; well, "once in a while" never happens for Vanderbilt and Clemson, even (especially) on the occasions when coaches and players come out of the tunnel and do the right things for a significant portion of the proceedings.
Bobby Johnson and Vanderbilt have played 7-4 football for 99 percent of their snaps this season, but the Commodores have a 5-6 record because of one fumble and one mysteriously abrupt fourth-quarter failure in Knoxville. We should be writing about Vandy making a bowl game for the first time since 1982. We should be chronicling one of the great feel-good stories ever seen in college football. We should be celebrating how Bobby Johnson has lifted Vandy over the abyss and into the promised land. But because the scoreboard has said otherwise, a winning season still won't materialize in Nashville. Vandy's only holiday bowl will once again remain confined to oatmeal or corn flakes--it won't hold anything more. This Thanksgiving, be grateful that Bobby Johnson graces the planet with dignity and nobility. Be thankful that Vandy always gives a champion's effort in the midst of a series of bewildering and spirit-sapping defeats that leave the Dores perpetually abandoned at the altar.
In the final stop on our search for college football sacredness during this week of Thanksgiving, we need to give Clemson and Vandy fans--along with all of this nation's football fans--something to feel good about and believe in. Look no further than Bloomington, Ind.
Indiana beat Purdue, 27-24, to claim the Old Oaken Bucket on Saturday. One result in one of the nation's lower-profile rivalry games--on a network with precious few subscribers--might not seem like that big of a deal unless you knew the deeper story behind the game. You see, the Hoosiers didn't just defeat their archrival for the first time in the past six seasons. Indiana clinched a winning season, and the 7-5 Hoosiers now stand to play in a bowl, otherwise known as a thirteenth game, the very game Vandy always misses. Indiana's going to go bowling for the first time since 1993. Really good story, right?
If you don't pay attention to this sport on a national scale, you don't know the half of it.
In the 2006 offseason, the Big Ten and college football lost Northwestern head coach Randy Walker, who died far before his time. This past summer, another Big Ten coach passed away before his 60th birthday, as Indiana's Terry Hoepper succumbed to complications from a brain tumor. The Indiana program was already on the upswing thanks to Hoeppner, but the man who helped the Hoosiers didn't live to see the culmination of his dream, which doubled as a promise to a school and a fan base: IU would make a bowl game, or--as "Hep" himself put it--"play 13." When Indiana beat the Boilers for the Bucket in Bloomington, a beloved coach was honored and remembered in the most powerful way imaginable.
The story still gets better. The Hoosiers won this game after nearly pulling off a Vandy-style collapse and blowing a 21-point bulge late in the third quarter. Eerily bewitched by the same kind of switch-flipping scenario that bewilders a number of underdog programs, the Hoosiers recovered at the very end to destroy the demons that pursued them for 14 seasons. Just how did Indiana pull through, you might ask? With the same 49-yard field goal that Vanderbilt just barely missed at Tennessee. When Austin Starr's kick split the uprights with 30 seconds left, the flood gates known as Jane Hoeppner's tear ducts opened wide. This river flowed into the intensely emotional Indiana locker room for the postgame presentation of the Old Oaken Bucket.
Terry Hoeppner's widow had a much lighter heart once her late husband's wish came true. "The Bucket is very heavy," she said upon receiving the trophy for a team she had mothered in many ways over the past several months. But while the physical trophy weighed her down, one could be just as sure that a slew of internal burdens floated away from Jane Hoeppner's mind. In one moment and one locker room, tears were spilled by 20-year-olds out of joy, not anguish. Testosterone-drenched male athletes--fresh from knocking heads in a rivalry game--couldn't stop crying. A wife became a coach-like figure (Jane Hoepper had given the Hoosiers a pep talk earlier in the week), and a team made its late coach proud, as Terry Hoeppner looked on from his very (very) lofty press box seat.
If you still think that sports carry precious little meaning in their most revelatory moments, try talking to Indiana players or the members of the Hoeppner family this Thanksgiving week. If you still think that college football needs to remain just a distraction, an escape, a time for pushing out pent-up male emotions and aggressions, speak to Jane Hoeppner. Ask her about the ways in which a sport enabled a close-knit community to deal with loss, grief, work, and the other realities that make life so simultaneously difficult and rewarding. Finally but perhaps most importantly, if you doubt that college football can create on-field magic while also providing deeply soulful levels of nourishment and edification, consider the story of the 2007 Indiana Hoosiers from June 19 (the day of Terry Hoeppner's death) through this past Saturday. Trace the journey of a team from overwhelming sadness to gridiron joy. Then tell me and all other sportswriters who link football to the realms of philosophy, ethics and social morality that college football lacks meaning.
There's this inconvenient little reality about college football (like all other sports): it's contested by human beings. If humanity isn't shown to--or demanded from--the people who play and coach this sport on an annual basis, there's not much of a point in covering college football to begin with. What is college football if not a window into young men's worlds and the coaches charged with molding them for good? The very purpose of chronicling the heartbreaks of a Clemson or Vanderbilt is to magnify the triumph of the Indianas of the world. The reason for outlining the train wrecks and collapses in this sport (and there are many of them, year after year after year) is not to have fun at the expense of others' sufferings, but to do just the opposite: to humanize and soothe the players, coaches and fans who wear the colors of Clemson, Vandy, and all the other programs that fall short of their hopes and dreams at this time of year, this time of Thanksgiving. Detailed depictions of on-field failures are not some perverted exercise in emotional voyeurism, but a sincere attempt to remind all college football fans that the heartbeat of this beloved sport isn't found only in the titans who play in the BCS bowls. No, there are 120 FBS schools, and only 20-30 of them (if that many) will exceed expectations. That leaves 90-100 seasons that don't end the way fans hope they will when a season starts in the heat and light of Labor Day weekend. If failure isn't chronicled in this sport, this sport isn't being chronicled to begin with. Humanizing the failure and drawing empathy from it--as opposed to running away from the failure in the first place--is the only real response for a serious and soulfully sensitive student of college football. When meaning can be taken from a failure that, by virtue of taking place in an ultimately trivial realm known as a playing field, is really no failure at all, every aspect of college football--which can seem quite profane at times--becomes imbued with sacredness and significance. At this time of national Thanksgiving, I can't think of a better way to pay tribute to a sport that makes my life much richer because of its very existence. This writer hopes you'll express your own gratitude this holiday weekend--for college football, its Clemsons, its Vanderbilts, its Indianas, its Jane Hoeppners, and everyone in between.
Happy Thanksgiving from the Weekly Affirmation. Seasons might be ending in loss, defeat and frustration, but young lives have the chance to grow into something special, even as we speak. May your own reactions to your own team and its constituent coaches and players reflect an adult understanding of a kid's game that is rich with meaning as long as you're able to look beneath the surface of the gridiron action and its scoreboard results.
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Week Thirteen: November 26, 2007 - Classic Weekly Affirmation on Lloyd Carr
Next week, the national conversation will rightly focus on the freshly-defined BCS Championship Game, along with the other major bowl games. This week therefore offers an appropriate occasion for a final commentary on the larger world of college football, and it what means to all of us.
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This week's essay begins and ends with a question that is meant to connect college football to the lives we lead: just what are we chasing in our devotion to college football? Phrased differently, how do we define and limit the value of this sport within our own human journeys and experiences? In just one week, another regular season will be in the books, and since bowl games lack the stature and cachet they used to possess, you'll slip into that wistful mental posture that begins to confront life without college football once the first week of January slips away. These days, right now, are--for many of you--the final delicious moments of an Autumnal sojourn that, once again, has come and gone much too quickly. Before you face the end of the regular season and nine months without a full plate of Saturday fun, it's worth thinking about the real meaning of college football in your own life.
Just what are we chasing? What are we pursuing? When the fortunes of our teams--and, by extension, the schools they represent--rise and fall, what does that mean for us? How deeply does this sport cut into our psyches and reveal our true feelings about everything under the sun? How much do outside events--in which other people, and very young people at that, compete on the gridiron in games that are then evaluated to produce rankings systems conceived by people with computer formulas in their brains--affect our own moods and manners? These are questions worth asking--of ourselves, our significant others, our friends, and the fans we run into at bars, tailgate parties, and stadium aisles.
Just what are we chasing?
And why is a columnist seemingly obsessed with such a question?
After this week of Thanksgiving and the reflections that accompanied it, I can't shake the notion that the retirement of Lloyd Carr--coupled with the impending BCS firestorm that's going to leave at least a few times crying foul on the night of December 2, 2007--has made me even more uncertain about the reasons why we care about college football. More specifically, the sport's current upheavals--one in Ann Arbor, one in the BCS standings--have forced this columnist to go even deeper in the honest search for what's real, and what's fake; what matters in life, and what doesn't.
Say what you want about Lloyd Carr the coach (I'll defend his record to my dying day, that's for sure), but Lloyd Carr the man is and always has been above reproach. The loyal Bo Schembechler assistant-turned-head coach embodied the meaning of integrity for his entire career in Ann Arbor, which stretched back to 1980. You didn't need to see last Monday's press conference live to appreciate the fuller measure of the man. As a columnist myself, I found that reading Mitch Albom's coverage of Carr's exit for the Detroit Free Press conveyed the significance of the moment, and the magnitude of the man at its center. This isn't just because Albom is an acclaimed and gifted writer who--by virtue of working for a Detroit paper--enjoyed extra access to Carr and the people around him. No, I found Albom's coverage of the Carr retirement to be far more than adequate because of Albom's own personal journey, made famous in his memorable runaway bestseller, Tuesdays With Morrie.
You know Mitch Albom's basic life story, right? Hard-charging columnist, talking head, and do-everything personality runs the rat race, only to find that the big-time lifestyle erodes his character and harms his meaningful relationships. Morrie Schwartz, his old mentor at Brandeis University, is found talking to Ted Koppel on a Nightlinebroadcast about a severe illness, leading the wayward Albom to seek out his teacher. The reunion marks the beginning of a life turnaround for Albom, as a series of Tuesdays spent at Morrie's side reminds the hotshot columnist about the things that really matter in life. Ever since that reunion, Albom--still doing voluminous and first-rate work as a columnist and also as a novelist--is now much more grounded, empathic, sober (in the sense of being aware, levelheaded and clear-eyed about life), and other-centered. In many ways, Mitch Albom is (now) America's best and foremost representation of a sportswriter who makes meaningful connections between these (in many ways) ostensibly trivial games and various dimensions of the larger human experience in the early 21st century. In week one, the Weekly Affirmation mentioned the late, great David Halberstam as a source of journalistic inspiration. Now, in the next-to-last week of the season, before the BCS demands our complete attention, this column points to Mitch Albom as another profound example of how sportswriting can and does serve a much larger purpose than merely evaluating Xs, Os, victories, and championships.
What's real, and what isn't? Just what are we pursuing here?
It's precisely because Mitch Albom experienced a profound personal awakening that he could write with such wisdom, depth, clarity and humanity about Lloyd Carr. (A simple Google would lead you to Albom's full collection of Carr columns over the past few weeks.) In his reflections on Carr, Albom did what this columnist sincerely tries to do each week (though not nearly as well as the master in Detroit): remind all of us why we should care about sports, and--within that context of caring--to care about the things that really matter in competitive sports. College football might just be a game, but you wouldn't be reading this column or visiting this website--and sportswriters like me wouldn't even exist--if our culture viewed sports as unimportant.
Athletic competition--especially in the from of the violent sport of college football--is not the same as war, and should never be confused with truly life-and-death elements of the human experience. Yet, college football evidently matters to a lot of Americans; otherwise, we wouldn't have the proliferation of blogs, talk shows, podcasts, magazines, season preview annuals, recruiting services, content providers, and other entities that engulf the college football industry. If college football was merely just a form of relaxation or innocent and leisurely diversion, these Saturday spectacles wouldn't be so thoroughly scrutinized by so many people. There's something very deep, primal and subterranean about college football passions that is almost impossible to express. This particular sport has a way of pushing people's buttons and eliciting emotions with origination points that run so deep inside so many souls that we aren't even remotely aware of the extent to which we are consumed by college football. Perhaps the long wait from early January through the end of August makes us half-mad, leading us to vent our emotions for the following four months with overflowing intensity. That's probably part of the equation, but it certainly doesn't tell the whole story.
The question of this essay needs to be asked with a little more specificity and detail: in light of Mitch Albom's journey as a sportswriter, and in light of Lloyd Carr's exit from the coaching stage without receiving full due for his accomplishments, just what are we chasing when we follow this sport? Even more particularly, what were Lloyd Carr's harshest critics--inside and outside the media--pursuing when they insisted that Carr be fired, in some cases as early as three or four years ago? What are people pursuing when they insist that a coach be fired as soon as any adversity emerges at any team or school? What were Notre Dame fans chasing when they ran Ty Willingham out of South Bend? What were Ole Miss fans pursuing when they ran David Cutcliffe off the ranch a few years ago in Oxford? What got under the skin of Syracuse fans when they grumbled about Paul Pasqualoni a few years ago? What so fully irritated Pittsburgh fans when they hounded Walt Harris a few years ago? What were Miami fans pursuing when they cried for the canning of Larry Coker? The fans at these (and other similar) programs are now in manifestly worse positions than they were before. As the saying goes, "Watch what you wish for; you just might get it." But aside of the fates encountered by these programs, the deeper and more important question is, "what are we pursuing when we seek the blood of coaches and demand that the guillotine fall on the necks of men who have generally won and served universities with honor?" What makes so many people--perhaps very sane and cerebral at their 9-to-5 jobs during the workweek--so agitated when the subject is the state school's head football coach?
In one of his columns on Lloyd Carr, Albom came up with a stunning gem of an observation that should reverberate in the soul of any fan or journalist who is eager--too eager--to jump on a head coach when things go even slightly wrong... as was the case with Albom before Morrie Schwartz permanently changed his life. As a sportswriter who used to be full of himself but then came to see--through his Tuesday sessions with an old, beloved teacher--a way toward a more compassionate and healthy way of living, Albom could speak with total honesty when he wrote the following sentences, which once applied to his own mindset:
"It's amazing, in modern sports, how the build-up to a coach's departure can get so noisy, so angry, so inflamed -- but as soon as it happens, things get nostalgic. None of those buzzing bees who wanted Carr fired was in sight or earshot Monday (at the retirement press conference). It's as if these folks go underground as soon as the prey is taken, like locusts momentarily satiated, until someone new comes for them to come after.
Well, that's someone else's worry now. When asked what advice he would give a new coach, Carr's first response was "be able to take a punch."
Yes, it's an unfair life and a hard world we live in. Nothing worthwhile comes easily, either, and that's the way things ought to be. However, this doesn't mean that public figures should have to absorb punches just because they're public figures. As much as I will excoriate a public figure when s/he does something I believe to be very wrong and inappropriate, I won't rip someone just to make waves or create headlines, and somehow, that seems to be a motivation that causes a lot of people who are cerebral in their better moments to become unhinged on far too many occasions. At some point along the line, the intensity surrounding college football and the usual debates about its two overriding concerns--namely, how well should the program do on a consistent basis, and how well is the coach performing in accordance with those standards--has been cranked up to an alarmingly unhealthy degree. The Internet has dialed up the volume, and technology has exponentially increased the immediacy and totality with which coaches and programs are scrutinized. It is in this overheated, overhyped context that we have to step back and realize, once again: just what are we pursuing when we care about college football?
Lloyd Carr decided it was time for him to retire well before he actually stepped down. With that said, however, should a single soul in Ann Arbor have desired--independent of Carr's own thought process--to see Carr step aside as Michigan's coach. A number of other men have led their own programs with equal amounts of integrity and character, and some of them with even more national titles and other prizes. But no one could ever exceed Lloyd Carr in terms of doing things the right way at a storied program loaded with its accompanying set of through-the-roof pressures. Bill Martin, Michigan's athletic director, wished he could clone Carr. I can't imagine another AD saying anything else in a remotely similar situation.
What are we pursuing when we love college football, folks? Are we insisting that our program must go undefeated each year? Do we have to win the big rivalry game 60 percent of the time, even if the rival has a legend on its own sideline and even if we still win 10 games a year and make January 1 bowl games? Are we, as fans, insisting that domination must be an annual expectation, no exceptions allowed? Where do graduation rates fit into the picture? What about the holistic well being of the young (very young!) men who play this sport for our entertainment? Does it matter if a coach loses four games a season, but teaches his players how to carry themselves in all facets of life, thereby equipping them for careers beyond football and challenges beyond sports?
The question should now be understood in its most profound sense: just what are we chasing or hungering for when we care about and follow college football?
The Lloyd Carr story allows us to now segue to the other annual element of this sport which generates publicity equal to the major coaching changes that periodically alter the landscape of college football. The item in question? The BCS rankings and their end-of-season controversies. As this season's multi-car pileup comes to a close and one team is sure to cry foul, it's worth asking, with a slightly different focus in mind: just what are we pursuing in these BCS debates? What are we chasing when we arrive at--and engage in--these annual late-November, early-December pissing contests among fans of different schools and conferences?
On a superficial level, it's understandable: fans won't just defend their own teams, but also the conferences that contain them. But while teams have their own personalities and leadership dynamics, conferences are too large and impersonal to be able to view in a particularly intimate way. Conference evaluations, from year to year, are certainly easier to make than a lot of individual team evaluations. Why is it, then, that statements about conferences are often taken just as personally as team evaluations? From receiving a lot of e-mails over the past seven years, I can testify to this reality: people get very, very wounded when you say something unflattering about their football conference. It's all because of these BCS rankings and the tiresome debates that emerge from them. No one wants to be left out of the big game--that's the American way, the American value system, the American psyche. If you're not in the big event, you're not much of anything. That's the way it is these days... and that's how it has been for some time.
Not that it should be, of course. So the question must be asked again: just what are we chasing with these BCS debates? One can't help but look at national presidential politics for a moment (irrespective of any particular party or candidate, of course; we'll keep this general and very non-partisan).
When we sit down, clear our minds, calmly analyze all the information available to us, and then determine the best objective candidate for a BCS title game, just how different is this process from presidential races? More specifically, one could ask this question to focus the debate: just how democratic is either process in this, the country most iconically associated with democracy (aside of Ancient Greece)?
Take off your partisan hats, folks, and try to see this as objectively as possible without perceiving any tilt toward one team (or candidate) or the other: in the BCS and national politics, an uneven playing field inherently exists, with the only difference being that in college football, the results can--once in a great while, in a sport played every year and not just every four years--actually produce a fair outcome. Let's try to be bracingly and brutally honest: every team and presidential candidate, while having an equal chance at the big prize on a theoretical level, does not enjoy equal competitive parity. Hopefully, we can agree on this without making too much of a fuss.
It would be dishonest to say that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama didn't enjoy a substantial built-in edge over the rest of their Democratic competitors. Similarly, it would be dishonest to say that Rudy Giuliani, because of his association with 9/11 (side note: this is not a commentary on whether this 9/11 link should or shouldn't be positive or negative; no e-mail on that subject, please--this isn't a politics column), didn't enjoy something of a built-in advantage over the Republican field. Taken as a larger group, it would be hard to deny that the top four or five contenders in the GOP race didn't enjoy a substantial edge over the lower-tier candidates (Paul, Tancredo, Hunter, Brownback, etc.). From the beginning, the deck is always stacked to a certain extent in presidential politics. There will be slight variations, but at the end, it will invariably come down to one of the top two or three candidates in each field, and more specifically, the ones with the most publicity and the biggest "brand names." After all, if a certain woman wins next year's general election, we will wind up having at least 24 straight years, and possibly (if Clinton is re-elected in 2012) 28, with members of just two families occupying the White House. Name recognition rules in politics, just as it always has in advertising.
Such is also the case in college football. Don't you try to deny it.
You know it, I know it, and the American people know it: if Kansas had Oklahoma's football tradition and Oklahoma had (well...) Kansas's football tradition, there's little doubt that KU would have been No. 1 midway through the season, long before Saturday's game against Missouri. But since the Jayhawks lack a brand name as a football school, they had to slowly make their way up the ladder before this past weekend's big clash against the Tigers. All of the big brand names in college football get the preseason poll leverage that enables them to stay in the national title race much longer than other teams. Only two clubs can make the title game, but the pool of potential winners is small... much smaller than any of us might realize. Hawaii, going into Friday night's game against Boise State, was undefeated with a schedule not that different from the one possessed by Kansas. Yet, the Warriors were on the fringe of the at-large BCS discussion, and completely out of sight with respect to the national championship debate. These are but a few of the many examples that routinely show--in each and every college football season--how the brand name programs have the deck stacked in their favor. The system might not be rigged--the course of events can always upset the apple cart--but it's certainly not fair, democratic or equitable. Not convinced of this point? Why, then, is it the case that whenever there's a really intense debate in college football, the only true democratic solution--play a game and determine the winner in a context of authentic competition, not subjective comparisons and verbal speculation--is rarely if ever staged?
Doesn't this sound a lot like national presidential politics?
There's nothing more inherent to real freedom--honest-to-goodness, full-blooded, democracy-breathing freedom--than the ability to choose from an appreciably wide range of options. An "A or B" choice between two entities that encompass huge and untidy collections of perspectives isn't much of a choice. When given a choice between just two (maybe three) competing entities in a country as diverse and complex as ours, that's really not much of a choice at all. In both presidential politics and the BCS debate (both in full flower right now on a talk show near you), the same basic scenario ultimately, inevitably and invariably emerges: voters (be they citizens in New Hampshire or writers and coaches in the college football community) wind up having to make a choice between philosophies more than between objective records of fact and merit. In presidential politics, we have the clash between who's genuinely better and who's electable; in the BCS, we have clashes among several worldviews, but perhaps most prominently, this football argument features a collision between a belief in the team that's most deserving of a chance to play for the title, and--on the other hand--a belief in the team that's most likely to play well in the title game and represent itself (and its conference) with distinction.
In both presidential politics and the BCS, we very rarely--if ever--get fully democratic solutions, with the one exception occurring in college football, when (luckily) two and ONLY TWO unbeaten teams get to decide a title at the end of the season. Not yet convinced? Just think for a little bit.
In multi-car pileup seasons such as this one, it's absolutely foolish to claim to know--on an empirical level or something close to it--what would in fact happen if two teams played on a given day in a given place. The lack of playoff or (at the very least) plus-one championship games in college football represents a clear lack of democracy that only makes these BCS arguments that much more of a shadowy shell game played by college football's administrators and power brokers. Why we invest so much anger and passion in an inherently undemocratic system is a question that we should ask ourselves with much greater frequency these days.
Is it any different in presidential politics? Hardly. Again, if you're not convinced, just pause for a bit and consider something very simple.
Ever wondered why our presidential debates (primary and general election) are formatted the way they are? Ever wondered why debates couldn't be more free-form in nature? Ever considered why debates and, for that matter, public candidate forums and town halls, all involve such painfully scripted, calibrated and vague language? Just who decided that debates and other centrally important (or at least, visible) campaign events should acquire this particular format and design? It sure wasn't the will of the people--we can be confident of that. Did the people of the United States want the BCS? Were college football fans ever polled and asked what they preferred: old bowl system, BCS hybrid, plus-one, or outright four-team post-bowl playoff? Hell, no. The will of the masses is always ignored. TV and corporations call the shots, with lazy institutional media structures and organizations acting in ways that pad their revenue streams instead of serving the public. News talk radio shows playing up silly and inane aspects of Hillary Clinton's cleavage (or John Edwards's hair, or Mitt Romney's religion, or Fred Thompson's acting career) are rooted in the same media problems as are the proliferation of bombast-filled sports talk shows that carry on about the BCS as though this stuff actually matters.
You know it, I know it, and the American people know it: this stuff doesn't matter. The will of the average person, the ordinary Joe, the diehard fan, is never listened to. We shouldn't any longer delude ourselves into thinking that our voice actually matters. More specifically, we shouldn't think that our voice matters as long as our actions (and more specifically, our lifestyle habits, particularly relative to our consumption patterns as consumers) stay the same.
If you really wanted to affect the BCS race and the long-term health of the BCS as a whole, you know what you should do? You have to change your consumption patterns so as to undercut the BCS' revenue-making machines and the TV networks' credibility. This isn't a pleasant answer, but if you're truly tired of seeing your team or conference get screwed, and if you're finally and fully fed up with this undemocratic system, it does represent the way out of the darkness. Don't travel to your team's bowl game. Don't buy an ESPN-manufactured product of any kind. Believe me: while this idea is almost impossible to imagine, allow it to enter your mind: just what would indeed happen if a team's fan base was so intent on creating change that it boycotted one game, on one day in this very long life of ours? Just think about this. Picture the environment. Then picture everyone boycotting the ESPN broadcast of that game as well. Picture hotels and bars and all other sources of tourism and dollars drying up completely for one game, one day, one afternoon. Picture that possibility. Picture the Rose Bowl half-empty, as Ohio State--perhaps jobbed in the BCS title race and leapfrogged by West Virginia--had a fan base that decided not to travel to Pasadena.
Wouldn't ESPN, ABC, The Tournament of Roses, and the BCS execs react to such a scene by--pardon my French--soiling their undergarments?
You can laugh at such a scenario; it's very unlikely, of course. I realize that. But let's allow ourselves to think about what would happen if certain actions were taken by fans who realize how little a voice they actually have in this process. What would happen if our nation's citizens--over 300 million of them (now)--took to the streets to protest political realities and the lack of real democracy in presidential electoral politics? What would happen?
We might look at life and dismiss these possibilities without a second thought, but then again, it might just be that if you want to do something badly enough, you have to be willing to participate in difficult actions, perhaps over an extended period of time. More often that we care to admit, the solution to a very difficult and troubling life problem is something that goes against our instincts and shatters our comfort zones.
Disgusted with politics? The solution might be to become more politically active, against all inclinations. Disgusted with college football's BCS process? You might have to abstain from watching games in the short run, on TV or in person. Hate what TV and media outlets are doing in politics, college football, and all realms of American life? Well, stop watching TV on the networks you can't stand... but who cover politics and college football on a 24/7 basis and dominate the airwaves to begin with. The solutions to these conflicts might indeed run squarely against our desires to enjoy football games and other pleasures. But would they be worth it? It's a question that merits consideration, at the very least.
What are we really chasing, in college football and in life? What is the purpose of all that we do, all that we watch, and all that we care about? Where is all this taking us, and where SHOULD all this take us? These are important questions--for all facets or our lives--that we should continually ask ourselves in the upcoming months of January through August when football will leave our radar screens... but perhaps not our consciences.
We'll see you next week, as we'll discuss the bowl matchups. You might like your own team's matchup, but maybe you'll feel that a boycott might be in order. The sweet taste of democracy in action could prove to be even more intoxicating than a plane flight and a seat at the 30-yard line for one stretch of roughly 200 minutes.
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Week Fourteen/Season Finale: December 3, 2007
The Season Where No One Was Any Good
By Adam Jones, jonestopten.com
Special to CollegeFootballNews.com
"Can’t anybody here play this game?" -Casey Stengel
So friends, our season ends exactly the way it began, with a stunning upset on the favorite’s home field in what should have been a four-touchdown romp. All Pittsburgh’s punter had to do was take a few dance steps around the end zone and, with clock safely expired, cruise on out the back, taking a safety and eliminating all hopes of West Virginia playing for the national title. I’m sorry Casey Stengel wasn’t alive to see it.
West Virginia was never the perfect national title contender anyway. Yes, the Mountaineers are jaw-droppingly talented at the skill positions, but the offense couldn’t get it going in a loss at South Florida and some of the numbers were piled up against horrific competition. Wunderkind Pat White’s extended absences in the two WVU losses made them look a little like a one-man gang. But let’s not blame the Mountaineers; we as college football fans haven’t liked anyone at the top this year:
We will no doubt look back on 2007 as the season when no one was any good.
We started with the assumption that USC was an unbeatable collection of talent, never for a minute believing that a loss to Stanford was possible. We moved on to LSU, but became wary of the close calls and Les Miles’ (somewhat undeserved) reputation for snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. When the Tigers cracked in overtime against Kentucky, no one seemed surprised. Ohio State was Ohio State: dependable, solid, rugged… boring. The early-season slate, dubbed by some fans as "Y.A.W.N." (Youngstown, Akron, Washington, Northwestern), didn’t help; nor did a down Big Ten, led by Michigan’s loss to the Team That Must Not Be Mentioned.
Oklahoma proved to be a cold-blooded set of playmakers with a smooth-as-silk redshirt freshman quarterback. The Sooners were capable of beating Missouri like a rented mule on Saturday night, but also of losing to both Colorado and Texas Tech. Kansas was the Cinderella story of the Big 12, but the cynics among us never really believed in that fairy tale, and Chase Daniel crushed the Jayhawks' glass slipper under the crushing weight of…OK, I’ll hold the Mark Mangino joke here.
We all love Georgia now. But did we love the Bulldogs when they were losing ugly to South Carolina and Tennessee? These events took place, of course, before Mark Richt, in his heart of hearts, decided that who he really wanted to be was John Jenkins.
Perhaps we should have a moment of silence for Dennis Dixon. He collapsed on the turf without being touched against Arizona and his Oregon Duck brothers followed suit.
As the Christmas season approaches, we find our emotional gauges on empty in the college football world. Ohio State and LSU for all the marbles makes a perfectly fine New Year’s gift, but it seems like a consolation prize in a season when no one team has truly captured the public imagination or, for that matter, seized the moment and made the season its own. We are an ambivalent lot, seeking the team that will truly inspire us to levels of awe, or hatred, depending on which side of the fence we sit. I am not sure we even like our own teams anymore. Of course, offering full disclosure, I am a Texas Longhorn partisan, so I may be carrying an extra dose of cynicism as the holidays approach.
How did we get here?
For starters, I blame Notre Dame. Throughout their brilliant history, the Fighting Irish have provided for this great sport a benchmark of excellence that crosses all geographic and conference boundaries. They tell us the relative worth of the Big Ten in contests with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue. They annually apprise us of the competitive worth of USC and, by extension, the entire Pac-10. For good measure, the boys from South Bend usually throw in some other intersectional matchup that tells us much about our game from 40,000 feet. Who can forget the wars with Miami and Florida State?
I started this season in Notre Dame Stadium. The trip satisfied a personal quest and gave me an up-close look at a very good Georgia Tech squad. The Yellow Jackets looked like a top-ten team that afternoon, but the day was a mirage: Tech would finish 7-5, just like they always do. The only thing they proved that September day was that a good team will usually beat a bad one.
Without Notre Dame, we have had to look for others to validate our expectations. The pickings are slim. LSU’s throttling of Virginia Tech remains the only non-conference result in the data set among top ten teams. That game took place long ago, and it featured a ready-made title contender in LSU against a Tech squad built to improve over the course of the season (they did) and burdened by communal expectations that would sink all but the hardiest competitors (the Hokie players are). The result was predictable.
Quite frankly, the rest of our relevant observations on the national scene have given us about as much data as the average freshman chemistry experiment. We made much of Cal’s demolition of Tennessee only to watch the Golden Bears slide ignominiously down to a 6-6 record and a loss to Stanford. Meanwhile, the Vols played valiant football at times, standing toe-to-toe with LSU in the SEC title game.
We should rightfully applaud USC and Oklahoma for scheduling Nebraska and Miami, respectively. But how were we to know that games against Cincinnati and South Florida—or even Central Florida—would have been better instruments to measure Trojan or Sooner greatness? We may lament the BCS era robbing us of the great national matchups, but we sometimes forget that for those matchups to occur, it all depends on the maddeningly mercurial talents of 18-22 year-olds, which can’t be predicted four years in advance for convenient scheduling.
Even within the conference wars, teams let us down. Louisville, finally considered a legitimate top- ten football program by most of the cognoscenti, promptly fell apart, which couldn’t have thrilled West Virginia as the Mountaineers strived for respectability. The resurgence of Florida State under a new coaching staff never really happened, and the ACC was poorer for it. Pity that Ohio State never really got the challenge we expected from Penn State or Michigan—although hats off to the youthful exuberance of Illinois. As for Texas, well, they weren’t really Texas were they? Vince Young has clearly left the building.
We are all left not quite knowing who reigns supreme in the college football world. I shudder to think what the newly independent and historically mischievous voters of the Associated Press will leave us with after this bowl season. The cacophonic clamorings for a playoff—at least of the "plus-one" variety—will continue, but likely on deaf ears; a 12-0 romp by USC next season will make everyone forget this ugly anomaly.
We would do better to remember the season where no one was any good as perhaps "The season where we saw things we may never see again." It is at least somewhat more celebratory.
But not quite as satisfying.
Adam Jones is the author of the website www.jonestopten.com: the Truth about College Football since 1995. His first book, Rose Bowl Dreams: a Memoir of Faith, Family and Football, will be released by St. Martin’s Press in August of 2008. He lives in Austin, Tex., with his wife and three sons.
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Now that the Weekly Affirmation has kept up with the Joneses, a few final words from this columnist. (If anyone wants to write a guest editorial during or just after the bowl season, you're welcome to do so. And in future seasons, this offer will remain. This space will always be welcome for citizens who care enough about college football journalism to submit their own work for public consumption.
You need to help me out, dear readers. It's hard to generate thoughts that are both coherent and original at this point in time. When the calendar turns to December, two thngs always happen: 1) The BCS makes college football a national laughingstock while toying with the psyches and souls of many decent Americans whose lives are intimately connected to this game. The bitter irony of this particular reality is found in the fact that the person preventing college football from having a plus-one (a very modest and reasonable proposal, one would think) is the commissioner of the SEC, the conference where football means more to its fans than anywhere else in the country. 2) Coaches and athletic departments embarrass themselves with their behavior. It's as though two office co-workers insist on having an extramarital affair in a way that causes maximum emotional harm to their spouses. Disgusting, ethically challenged, and morally repugnant. If it's early December, logic and morals must be getting forcefully assaulted. If college football's regular season has just ended, grown human beings must be injuring each other with the blunt weapons of stupidity, cowardice and greed.
What should you do if you're a college football fan right now? Let's maintain our passion for the sport while also displaying sober realism and--much more importantly--authentic humanity.
On the night of the BCS Selection Show--which has now been conducted ten times (which is seven times too many if you're an astute follower of college football)--I feel used... emotionally, physically, intellectually, and professionally. I've been covering this sport since 1999, and it still isn't easy to accept the absurdity of being told that a national title game is about to be played in which the winner might not deserve the national championship. For those who don't like a playoff (I'd be glad to settle for a plus-one at this point in time; surely, cooler heads can prevail and create that one extra game which will surely not destroy the academic integrity of the sport), just remember a fundamental reality of sports: football is the big-game sport. Basketball, baseball and hockey demand series. Football is all about the big game, the classic matchup, the epic confrontation, the electricity in the stadium, the purity of knowing that if a sport is excessively violent and brutal, it is at least deciding something clear-cut and final. If kids are going to risk broken limbs and concussions for our entertainment and pleasure, then dadgummit, we ought to have a true(r) champion. If football matters as much as it does to the people of the Deep South and Texas... and Oklahoma and Nebraska... and Ohio and West Virginia (among other states and regions), then by golly, we deserve to have a true(r) champion in college football. How many times are we going to have to say this in the first week of December? How long will the wait for a plus-one continue? How long, Mike Slive, how long?
The truly maddening aspect of the 2007 college football season is that we know just about as much right now as we did at the beginning of the season--which is to say, practically nothing. You and I, dear reader, have spent the past three months of our lives trying to figure out the best teams in the country, and now it feels as though these three months have been wasted--can we have them back? Consider all the ink spilled, the bandwidth used, the cameras trained, the electricity consumed, the papers printed, and the other resources poured out across the country so that analysts, coaches, and millions of other people connected to college football could search for the two best teams in the land. It's been an entirely fruitless quest, hasn't it? "Used and abused"--that's the popular feeling for a devotee of college football these days.
One has to constantly repeat oneself when discussing the latest BCS travesty at the end of yet another regular season. When you cut through all the bull and get down to brass tacks, there's only one simple reality you ever need to know (year after year) about this ridiculous and fraudulent system: while destroying college football's previously existing bowl traditions, the BCS fails to deliver fairness to college football's championship chase in every scenario but one.
As this 2007 season proved, college football is nothing if not unpredictable. Yet, the BCS works when only one scenario emerges: two and only two BCS conference teams remain unbeaten at the end of the regular season. Let's repeat that for effect: two and only two unbeaten teams from BCS conferences is the one season-ending scenario in which the BCS actually works. The Virginia Tech-Florida State scenario from 1999; the Ohio State-Miami scenario from 2002; and the Texas-USC scenario from 2005 are the only three times when the BCS did what previous bowl systems failed to do: ensure that unbeaten No. 1 could play unbeaten No. 2 in a winner-take-all battle. It's interesting, as a side note, that those three title games were particularly entertaining--both teams appreciated the purity of the battle. The other six--and far less legitimate--title games in the BCS era ALL fell flat. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?
The eternal argument used to prop up the BCS (or, at the very least, to oppose any kind of playoff) is that the system preserves the identity of a regular season as a playoff. Tell Ohio State and UCLA that Florida State's loss to N.C. State was a playoff in 1998. Tell Miami that its win over Florida State in 2000 represented a playoff. Tell Big XII champion Colorado and Pac-10 champion Oregon that Nebraska won its "playoff" game late in the 2001 season. Tell Pac-10 champion USC that Oklahoma's loss to Kansas State in the 2003 Big XII title tilt was a playoff. Tell undefeated Auburn that all 12 of its regular-season wins in 2004 were playoff games. And tell Michigan that losing out to Florida in 2006 was anything but the artificial political product of a desire among poll voters to avoid a rematch in the national title game. If the Wolverines had played (and lost to) Ohio State on Dec. 2, 2006, and not Nov. 18 of that same year, Michigan would likely have gotten its rematch anyway.
The BCS promised to provide an undisputed title game, but in 2003, we all found out how false that claim turned out to be. Now, four years later, we have another crazy season that has once again created complete and utter chaos. Sense a trend here? You can't say that "this season was unusually unpredictable," because every college football season is unpredictable. Granted, few seasons are likely to have more upsets than this topsy-turvy 2007 campaign, but even with more routine results, a college football season is still random enough that clear-cut comparisons are very hard to come by. Some years, a multi-car pileup might involve just three teams. In years like this one, a solid six teams (perhaps as many as eight) have a valid claim to a national title game appearance. The end of the story, though, is the same: a big-game sport is deprived of the showcase events that make it sing. This leads us to another familiar and not-very-original statement we have to make whenever December comes across the calendar.
At this time of year, I'm always having to say that if college football can't put together a playoff, it would be far better for the sport to return to the old bowl system. In other words, either go for 100 percent tradition or no tradition at all. Go all the way in one direction or another. In an attempt to have it both ways, the BCS gives us nothing, except in those rare seasons when two and only two unbeaten teams remain at the end of Autumn.
Just consider this alarmingly untidy dimension of the BCS bowl selection process: while the championship game will almost always be shrouded in controversy, the most underreported and overlooked aspect of this faulty system is that it provides secondary bowl games that don't answer very many questions.
While fans will generally gravitate to the title game and decry the lack of a clear 1 versus 2 matchup, what's even worse is that the other BCS bowls provide imbalanced matchups that still leave the college football community in the lurch. Why is this the case? The BCS system, of course, which is a 50-percent solution with respect to both tradition and modernity. As we all know, a half-baked approach nets absolutely nothing: 50 percent old plus 50 percent new equals 100 percent disaster.
Here's how this year's BCS process left everyone unhappy... just as it almost always does (except when the one magic scenario occurs). Whenever you're inclined to accept the BCS and defend it, it's worth pointing out what alternative approaches--both old and new--would have created had they been implemented.
With the real tradition of the old bowl system (we're talking pre-Bowl Alliance here), we'd have had Ohio State and USC in the Rose Bowl; LSU versus West Virginia or Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl; Oklahoma versus West Virginia, Georgia, or Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl; and a Fiesta Bowl involving Missouri or Kansas against WVU/Georgia/Va Tech. Those would have been four equally compelling matchups that would have answered far more questions about the national title debate than the crop of BCS bowls that will be played in the first week of 2008.
With zero tradition but complete flexibility built into the BCS bowl selection process, there would have been a way to have Oklahoma, USC, Georgia and Virginia Tech play each other in two of the four BCS bowls (Arizona State, Hawaii, Missouri and West Virginia could have been paired off in the two remaining games). In this way, the sport could still have engaged in the typical political horsetrading that's part of the bowl system, while simultaneously providing fan-friendly matchups that would answer more questions about the nation's best teams. The point should be painfully obvious by now: a bowl system should either have no freedom or complete freedom. Either embrace tradition whole-hog, or give bowls unrestricted political flexibility so that the perfect matchups can be created. It's a mild source of disappointment that Ohio State and LSU are playing in the title game, but what really irritates this columnist is that USC and Georgia aren't playing in Pasadena, while Oklahoma and Virginia Tech aren't duking it out in either Glendale or Miami. If two-loss LSU barely beats the Buckeyes in what is essentially a home game, it would be nice to see if a resounding performance from Mark Richt's team... or Bob Stoops' troops... or Pete Carroll's crew... or Frank Beamer's boys would make the season-ending debate interesting. But with the BCS bowl matchups we have, there won't be a whole lot of drama. No one will learn much about USC when the Trojans tackle Illinois. Few will find fresh info on Georgia against Hawaii in New Orleans. The nation won't make Virginia Tech's case for No. 1 based on a game against Kansas. It's just a shame. Under systems both old and new, tried and untried, you could get far better bowl matchups--for both tourism and television--than what we have under the current BCS system. Roy Kramer's creation truly is the worst thing to happen to college football from an on-field standpoint.
And now, we come to the other part of this silly season in college football: the dreadfully dumb and depressingly dishonest dealings among various coaches, athletic directors, and other participants in a pathetically predictable process that still unfolds every December.
This topic--unlike the BCS--demands few words. Apparently, last year's Nick Saban debacle in Alabama didn't educate many people about the right way to go about a coaching search/inquiry for any and all parties involved. It's not that hard, folks: give honest answers to simple questions. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Wait until after big games to either court or be courted. Michigan and Les Miles--initially responsible when last week began--quickly sullied their reputations as last weekend approached, with a fine mess spilling out in the bowels of the Georgia Dome just hours before Saturday's SEC Championship Game. Simply stated, if adults on all sides of this issue had acted responsibly, there never would have been a need for the hasty and unusual press conference called by Miles just before LSU took the field against Tennessee.
It shouldn't be too much to ask, guys. Be above board in your dealings. Shoot straight, and do what you need to do at the appointed time. Fans, journalists and--most of all--players and their parents should not be left twisting in the wind, where speculation is their only reality and refuge. Who knows how much the LSU Tigers, up and down the roster, needlessly suffered because of their coach's awkward dance with Michigan? The questions were smartly deflected early last week, but that pattern regrettably didn't continue. Maybe in the future, coaches and ADs will get it right. But as long as adults behave badly, we shouldn't wonder why young people find it so hard to be consistently motivated in their own right. As long as grown men act distracted, why should the players they coach behave any differently, on or off the field?
Before we conclude this season finale of the Weekly Affirmation, a final few thoughts if holiday plans with the family--or the demands of a football-weary wife, or both (or something else)--prevent you from reading this column until Labor Day weekend of 2008.
A good story needs a lot of time and space if it is to be told well.
Pretentiousness is not synonymous with length or complexity of expression. It's an attitude that has to be known, breathed deeply, and personally understood.
If you value a good discussion, you'll almost always ask questions before making overly finite conclusions on a given topic.
An opinion you disagree with is not necessarily a bad opinion; it's merely an opinion that's very different from your own. Favorable opinions and editorials can be crafted and formulated with absolutely no skill whatsoever; conversely, unfavorable commentaries can be artfully and cleverly arranged. Remember that.
Forms or genres of commentary and analysis--relative to their scope and scale, not their argumentative or literary quality--do not represent a true measure of journalistic merit. Location is important in real estate; it's not nearly as important in journalism. A problem with this profession is that it's being poisoned by an entertainment mentalilty. Injecting entertainment realms with a large dose of journalism--the perpendicularly opposite tack--is very much needed in contemporary American society.
After following this particular season, it is hoped that you'll finally realize--if you haven't already--that mental toughness is the foremost determinant of supreme success in this sport. At the highest levels of athletic competition, the Xs and Os cease to matter; the main-event ballgame is decided by the heart. These past few weekends of late-season surprises have had very little to do with technique, scheme, tactics, or game planning. They've had everything to do with composure, poise, confidence, self-belief, motivation, urgency, experience, relaxation, swagger, and various other fruits (or lack thereof) attached to the realms of mind, body and spirit. You can read all the season previews and size up all the physical specimens you want; when games are waiting to be won, however, it's the intangible interior factors that count. No team ever really managed to withstand white-hot pressure this season; the teams that hang in amidst the heat are the ones that win championships in college football. Similarly, the mind is the gateway to more fulfilling (or frustrating) outcomes and experiences in all other aspects of life.
The Weekly Affirmation wishes you positive outcomes and experiences over the next nine months, until another season kicks off at the end of another summer. In this time of coaching craziness and BCS dysfunctionalilty, there aren't many positive things to talk about, so one hopes that your own life will encounter what college football--stubbornly and stupidly--refuses to find.