“I’m about ready to shoot myself in the head.”
-- Anonymous college lineman, 7/31/08
That about sums it up for most college football players throughout the nation as the beginning of camp dawns. We fans may be anxiously counting down the days (27) until the world’s greatest sport kicks off again, but the players aren’t too thrilled about the prospect of two weeks of two-a-day practices, extra conditioning and the dulcet tones of angry coaches who “care” enough about their players to drive them to the brink of physical and emotional breakdown all for the greater glory of State U. Compared with all that, a week’s worth of proctologic exams by clumsy doctors wearing hockey gloves seems like a picnic.
While the big men toil, and the old prolate spheroid soars through skies heavy with humidity and hope, the requisite pre-season story lines are taking shape across the country. Some are holdovers from the winter and spring, while others have germinated throughout the sticky months when players learn that college football is indeed a year-round pursuit. Given that grim reality, it’s a wonder those Oklahoma Sooners were able to secure those no-show jobs a couple years ago. It’s gotten to the point where a top player can’t even find time to make sure the automatic sprinkler system turns on anymore.
While the dread grows, and the hitting is about to commence, here’s a look at what’s going on off the field.
Don’t Wake Pop-Pop: Within hours of the announcement that Penn State had excised a pair of felonious defensive linemen from its roster, State College police reported that an out-of-control pool party featuring some fine Nittany Lion student-athletes was now in the department’s sights. Did somebody relocate the PSU campus to the Deep South while we weren’t looking? That’s about the only way to explain the spate of arrests and trouble that have plagued Joe Paterno’s once-pristine program over the past couple years.
Were this in Knoxville, College Station or Coral Gables, the outcry would be deafening. Coaches’ scalps would be demanded. Investigations would be launched. And concerned fans from rival schools would be performing their civic duties by reporting any information they could concoct, er, find to help in the pursuit of justice. But this is Penn State, and decades of political capital earned by coach Joe Paterno have protected him from the usual hysteria that accompanies such activity. But the account is getting low, and it won’t be long before a football team that has clearly lost its direction tarnishes Penn State’s institutional image. Not only are the Lions not winning big any more; they aren’t behaving themselves. When times got tough the last 20 years, Paterno could always rely on a surfeit of goodwill. That isn’t the case now, and unless he leaves his post after this season, Penn State runs the risk of becoming exactly what it worked so hard to avoid for 40-plus years: a football factory.
Some want to blame espn for its “Outside the Lines” report on the program, which detailed the arrests, plea bargains, convictions, text messages sent under Paterno’s name by assistant coaches and attempts to circumvent university policy, but those complainers are blind to the realities of the situation. The school is taking a hit here, and the administration and faculty know it. Unless Paterno ends his desire to be deemed coach-for-life, PSU will suffer, on the field and off. That’s exactly what JoePa has fought to avoid.
Help Wanted, Maybe: It’s somewhat unfair to post in August a list of coaches whose jobs are in jeopardy, but had they won more games, their rear ends wouldn’t be warming quickly as they sit at their desks wondering how this year’s aggregation of mediocrity can somehow earn an International Bowl berth. Here are the prime candidates for uncomfortable discussions with their ADs come late November:
Greg Robinson, Syracuse. Odds: 2:1. The Orange has a brutal schedule and insufficient talent. Could be a package deal as athletic director Daryl Gross gets run too for failing to live up to his promise to turn the ‘Cuse into a Snow Belt version of USC, his former employer.
Tyrone Willingham, Washington. Odds: 3:1. The operative number here is zero. Zip. Zilch. The big goose-egg. While other schools have received as many as 19 commitments from members of the 2009 recruiting class, the Huskies have secured none. That, an 11-25 record over three years, an ever-improving Pac-10 and a non-conference schedule that includes Oklahoma, Brigham Young and Notre Dame should do the job.
Mike Stoops, Arizona. Odds: 4:1. No bowl games and an improved Arizona State team up the road makes alums and donors angry. It’s all on QB Willie Tuitama, who had better stay healthy, or Stoops will be somebody’s defensive coordinator next year.
Ron Prince, Kansas State. Odds: 10:1. It’s only his third year at the school, but Prince is a prickly pear who brought in 19 JUCOs this year. Anybody else smell desperation?
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa. Odds: 12:1. When you’re winning 10-11 games a year, a little off-field tomfoolery is tolerated. But 6-6 records don’t buy the type of protection needed to withstand charges the athletic department covered up sexual assault allegations. Better find a modern-day Nile Kinnick, coach, or the posse will be at your office door.
Early Birds: By this December, high school players around the country could be breathing a lot more easily. That’s when a proposed early signing date might go into effect, allowing prospects to ink letters-of-intent and end the harassing, haranguing and pestering about where they’ll be going to college next year. And that’s just from their friends. The coaches ought to like it, too, because it will prevent them from succumbing to the pressure of making clandestine calls to players who have already committed to other schools in order to flip them – not that they want to do that.
It’s an idea that is absolutely on the mark, so don’t expect it to be instituted by the NC2A any time soon. Just kidding. Something may take hold of the rocket scientists in Indianapolis, and they could make a good move. That ought to improve their winning percentage to .147.
On Target – NOT! There are still 27 arduous days remaining until the ’08 season kicks off, but that hasn’t stopped USA Today from publishing its coaches poll. We don’t know whether USC’s QB situation will work out well. We can’t be sure whether LSU will have a Harvard transfer(!) under center. Is Clemson going to choke again? Will Texas play like heifers, instead of Longhorns? None of this will be clear for weeks, much less right now.
We’re not going to get a playoff system. We can’t stop Oregon from wearing butt-ugly uniforms. And we can’t make Oklahoma play a good bowl game. But can we please prevail upon the pollsters to wait until a few games have been completed before trying to assess the relative strengths of the nation’s best? El Hombre understands there is tremendous pressure from the TV networks to have some polls, so they can promote games involving good teams by hyping their rankings. By starting this mess so early, USA Today is penalizing unheralded teams by burying them in the hierarchy and forcing them to hoe a tougher road than more established programs. The college football world can wait until October for the polls. We’ve waited this long for a system of choosing a champion that doesn’t mimic figure skating’s, so what’s a few weeks?
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EL HOMBRE SEZ: NFL legend Jim Brown has sued Sony and EA Sports for using his image and likeness in video-game products. In a related story, Sony and EA have sued the Oakland Raiders from remaining in the league and forcing the companies to include the sad-sack franchise in their video-game products…China has lowered the pollution in Beijing drastically in the last couple weeks in anticipation of next Friday’s Olympic kickoff. Factories have closed. Driving is restricted. The biggest impact has been the new plan that allows dissidents to breathe only on odd-numbered days…Candace Parker is dunking. The Shock and Galaxy are scuffling. And now for further evidence women’s basketball is getting closer to the men’s version of the game. Louisiana-Monroe guard Regena Jackson has been tossed from school after firing a gun from an apartment balcony. Next up: WNBA stars make rap videos…First the ridiculous “Titletown” competition. Now, the X Games. It’s almost enough to make a viewer beg for espn to provide more Brett Favre coverage – if that’s possible…Seven Russian female track and field athletes were suspended Thursday for providing fraudulent urine samples, another example that the new Russia is Soviet Lite. Back in the day, Leonid and the boys at the Ministry of Sport never would have let this happen. No wonder the people crave autocracy. An iron fist equals Olympic gold, or at least testosterone-free women’s urine.
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AND ANOTHER THING: Now that the trade deadline has passed, and wacky Manny Ramirez is out with the other crazies in LA, it’s time to get down to pennant race business. Five of the six divisions (start setting up that post-season pitching rotation, Angels) have tight races, and the wild-card hunts are compelling, too. Even the NL Worst is interesting now that Manny is on the coast – provided he doesn’t start shoving 60-something traveling secretaries. El Hombre stands by his pre-season pick of the Angels over the Cubs, but let’s hope the races stay tight, and interest holds throughout the league. Maybe that way the stain of the steroid mess will fade, and people can stop wondering whether every great performer is juicing. El Hombre in no way wants the steroid era to be forgotten, and he has some justice he’d like to mete out still, but the best way for baseball to move on is with a high-quality product on the field. It looks like we’re getting it.