Who wants to Play Tailback and Win the Next Heisman?
How ironic is it that at a place where five tailbacks have claimed six Heisman trophies, the Buckeyes are precariously thin at the position? With only two players (one who has yet to take a game snap) on the team, you would think any recruit with enough gray matter to chew gum and walk at the same time would be beating down the doors of the Ohio State coaching staff to commit.
It is not like the two returning tailbacks tore it up in the Big Ten in 2004 or were All-American candidates like Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma and Reggie Bush and Lendale White of USC. Antonio Pittman showed flashes of brilliance but spent much of his time injured, struggled to hammer the ball into the end zone inside the five-yard line, and finished the regular season with just 378 yards. Erik Haw may or may not be the real deal, but there has not been a tremendous buzz about him coming out of practices, and he redshirted. Haw could be great or could be merely serviceable – nobody knows at this point. In short, any incoming recruit be vying not just for playing time but for the starting position.
In 2001, Ohio State used three tailbacks to rush the football and played two true freshmen and a senior (Jonathan Wells, Maurice Hall, and Lydell Ross). In 2002, the Buckeyes played three tailbacks extensively (Maurice Hall, Maurice Clarett, and Lydell Ross) and started a true freshman. In 2003, Ohio State coaches used four running backs (Branden Joe, Maurice Hall, Lydell Ross, and Ira Guilford) to run the football – and played a true freshman. In 2004, the Buckeyes employed four running backs again (Branden Joe, Maurice Hall, Lydell Ross, and Antonio Pittman) to tote the pigskin and at one point started a true freshman. Clearly room exists for two tailbacks to come on board in 2005 and see the football field if they are good enough. This is not a situation of having a short bench; there is no bench right now. Whoever can suit up will almost certainly play.
The only question is whether or not any current high school seniors will be savvy enough to seize the opportunity right in front of them.
Oklahoma Lovers Anonymous
After looking at the farcical final rankings in 2003-04 and 2004-05, I have come to the conclusion that this line describes the national media. For the last four years they (especially the ESPN Game Day crew) have salivated on themselves every time Bob Stoops' name was mentioned. You would think he was Elvis and they were a bunch of prepubescent girls praying he would throw a sweaty rag in their direction. The media frequently describes Oklahoma as unassailable but conveniently ignores a number of indicators to the contrary:
First, the Bedlam rivalry between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State was moved. One wonders why? Historically, this game is not put on a certain weekend, and it might just be a change in schedule. However, might it also be because Oklahoma tanked two years in a row to the Cowboys and ended up just out of the national title game as a result? Not surprisingly, Stoops welcomed this change in schedules (though I doubt the Les Miles felt the same way). In a story on Oklahomascout.com after its announcement, Stoops commented that he was happy to see the date of the game moved: "This is the third year in a row we've had an opportunity to possibly play in the Big 12 Championship game. We will two out of these three years. I think it would be absolutely perfect for our players to practice Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and let them be with their families Thursday, Friday, Saturday to relax and catch up and come back on Sunday and work again on the Big 12 Championship. In the ideal situation, that would be it. I see not one reason or benefit for us to play at this time (italics added)."
Let's call this for what it is – Stoops struggled to defeat Oklahoma State. He could not keep his team properly focused near the end of the season (something Buckeye fans experienced under John Cooper). Following his 1999 whupping of the Cowboys with nothing at stake, he squeaked past Oklahoma State in 2000 12-7; he lost to them in 2001 (16-13) and lost again in 2002 (38-28). Since moving the game back to an earlier date in November, Stoops is not surprisingly 2-0.
Second, in the "be careful what you say because it will come back to haunt you" department, Stoops was highly critical of anyone playing for the national title if they were not champions of their own conference. An AP article by Owen Canfield in November of 2002 states,
"Stoops said the teams that play for the national title should at least have won a conference championship. Last year, Nebraska made it to the national championship game after not even winning the North Division of the Big 12. 'What'll happen this year, I don't know,' he said. 'I don't even bother to speculate. I don't much care. All I care about is going to play Texas A&M this week. Hopefully, down the road they'll find a way to tweak it or incorporate some type of playoff, but use the bowls to use it. I think it would be great.'
One year later, Stoops found himself playing for a national title despite taking a historic beating in his team's final game and not winning his league championship. No No. 1 team in the history of the AP poll had ever lost by the margin Kansas State laid on the Sooners. According to an article by John Niyo of the Detroit News, Stoops' changed his tune completely; ""It's not like we were just hanging on for second," Stoops said. "We were still first, weren't we? I think the 12 games we played before that game put us in that position."
Oklahoma had no business in that game. You don't get beat 35-7 in your final game and honestly believe you should be the number one team in the country unless you are either arrogant or a fool. 35-31? Yes. 35-28? Probably. 35-21? Possibly? 35-7? Please.
Third, the national media is starting to figure out perhaps the Big 12 isn't all that and a bag of chips. They should have come to this conclusion years ago, but better late than never. Check out a Web site named Stassen.com. Chris Stassen, the owner of the site, has taken the time to put together a statistical comparison between the preseason and postseason rankings of all leagues back to 1993. Of every conference (including the WAC, Conference USA, Big East, and MAC), the Big 12 places dead last in living up to the hype. Think about that for a moment. Dead last. The implications there are pretty clear. It means promoting this conference as a ‘tough league' is not warranted as it has consistently underwhelmed not according to this writer's opinion but according to the evidence. Further, take a look at the record of the Big 12 in Bowl Games against BCS Conference teams since 1998:
Oklahoma 2-3 (losses to Ole Miss, LSU, and USC).
Texas 4-2 (losses to Arkansas and Oregon)
Oklahoma State 1-2 (losses to Mississippi and Ohio State)
Texas Tech 1-2 (losses to Mississippi and Iowa)
Texas A&M 0-4 (losses to Ohio State, Penn State, Mississippi State, and Tennessee)
Nebraska 2-3 (losses to Arizona, Miami, and Mississippi)
Kansas State 3-3 (losses to Purdue, Syracuse, and Ohio State)
Colorado 2-2 (losses to Oregon and Wisconsin)
Missouri 1-1 (lost to Arkansas)
Iowa State 1-1 (lost to Alabama)
Doing the math, the Big 12 is a combined 17-23 with three losses in the BCS championship game in just the past four years. Worse, two of those games were a complete farce; Miami could have scored 60 on Nebraska and USC could have hung 75 on the Sooners had both championship teams not mercifully started trying to run out the clock and put in the reserves. The third really was never a game either as LSU physically manhandled the Sooners and once up enough points simply let the game clock bleed down toward 0 – typical Nick Saban football. The conference's lone win was not against a powerhouse team but against a Florida State program starting to crumble and a Seminoles team that had been soundly defeated by a Miami Hurricane squad that was wrongly left out of the title game.
Taking this process a step further, one might ask about the record of the Big 12 against BCS conference teams as a whole. Bowl games after all can be mismatches created by dollars and cents instead of common sense. Since 1998 the Big 12 is a mediocre 40-40 (including Notre Dame). More damaging is the Nebraska program responsible for 10 of those wins – 25% of the conference's total – is now in the doldrums. Without the Cornhuskers, the conference would be 30-39 with most of their victories coming over teams like North Carolina, Ole Miss, Pitt, UCLA, Iowa (1998-2001), and even Rutgers. Last season the entire league played just eight teams from other BCS conferences. Nary a one was a traditional football power. By way of contrast, Big Ten teams (with one fewer conference member) played 14 BCS eligible conference teams (including Notre Dame).
So what is the problem? If all of this is true then why does the media fawn over Stoops and Oklahoma like a favored son?
Many media types enjoy Stoops' braggadocio much as they enjoyed Bear Bryant's swagger. They like it when he predicts his team can win every game at the start of the season. They love it when he hypes his players. When he says "this team is going to be even better than last year's" (a nearly annual statement) they swallow it like an unsuspecting trout leaps for the bait because it makes great print and sells papers. They enjoy seeing Stoops strut on the sideline and flat out abuse any referee who makes the mistake of calling a fair game. More than anything though, they relish basking in the glow of Stoops (or his brothers) when chosen to be ‘the favored media person' interviewing him like it were a Boy Scout badge of honor.
Sure, Oklahoma has a fine program. They deserve a top 10 ranking. Sure, the Big 12 is clearly better than the Big East, Mountain West, MAC, and Conference USA. However, Oklahoma is not all of that and a bag of chips if you look at their performance outside of the league, and Bob Stoops' teams have real trouble closing out their season.
What happens if the national media actually gets a brain and catches on to the fact that Stoops does not walk on water and that his only national title came against a second-rate Florida State squad? What happens when they recognize the last four years his teams have tanked a game despite starting out 43-1? What will happen when the media types see that in the final game of the regular season, Big 12 title game, and bowl – Stoops is 7-5 with four of those losses being downright humiliations?
It's simple; they will find another hallowed program to fawn over and lick the boots of their coach until they recognize that they too are human…say…USC?
Punishing the Booster
Ho-hum. Another week, another round of articles from the national media bashing Ohio State's athletic department. The actions of one rogue booster have opened the floodgates of criticism.
Let's be clear about three items: (1) Nothing I have seen convinces me that Andy Geiger or Jim Tressel are happy with the current perceptions of their program. They have in fact led the charge to root out abuses. It was they and not the NCAA that suspended both Maurice Clarett and Troy Smith for taking improper gifts. (2) I do not expect to see any NCAA sanctions out of the current situation. Sanctions come only when there is university involvement or when a university fails to self-report booster activity. Further, Myles Brand, the head of the NCAA, recently made extremely favorable comments toward Ohio State. (3) The hands of Tressel, Geiger, the university community at large, and even other universities are somewhat tied in keeping these abuses from repeating. They can educate and educate and educate, but the penalty in a situation like this often does not fit the crime when it comes to the booster.
So what would I propose to help prevent this from happening in the future?
I propose the "crime" be made a real crime. How many boosters would be so hip on "buying a player" and thinking that they can "own" another person if the Ohio legislature would get together and pass a well crafted state law? What if it were suddenly illegal to jeopardize the NCAA eligibility of an athlete through improper gifts? What if instead of just running the risk of public scorn (a pretty powerful deterrent but apparently not quite enough) – what if a booster could go to jail?
One might say this is over the top, but I really don't think so.
Rogue boosters and NCAA rule breakers often try to rationalize their actions as if they are some sort of humanitarian. "I am just helping a college kid out. The kid didn't have two nickels to rub together. Now he can at least order a pizza or take a girl out." I understand the sentiment, but it's not just wrongheaded – it's plain wrong. What rogue boosters are really trying to do is justify their desire to be close to a football program. What these individuals truly want is to feel like they are "insiders" and inflate their own sense of self-importance and ego. They love watching sports and despite the risks to the athlete, they are bent on doing whatever necessary to get closer to the action. It is not about the player; it's about their own selfishness.
What these boosters do is not humanitarian but incredibly damaging in a multitude of ways. They undermine the coaching staff and other authority figures that are truly there for these young men on a daily basis. I essentially think of it as I would a neighborhood crack dealer passing out "free samples" to children even as parents try to protect them from the dangers of a modern world. The crack dealer could care less about the player when it all comes down to it; they are using the person – as is the booster – for their own ends. Meanwhile, the parent (a college coach in this metaphor) is the one who literally paces the floor at night trying to figure out how to help their child.
Second, these boosters are reinforcing one of the worst aspects of athletics – the sense of entitlement. They tell the young men, "it's not wrong because after all, you deserve something for all of your hard work." Uh…what about that college scholarship, room and board, great medical care, hands on training for a possible lucrative professional career, etc? Is that nothing because if it is, I wonder why these young men don't graduate owing tens of tens of thousands of dollars like many of their rank and file classmates not fortunate enough to be offered a free education. Life in the real world and integrity are not about getting paid for everything you do but rather doing what is right even when it costs you a great deal.
Third, the boosters are putting the future of the young person on the line for their own selfish, egotistical gain. While the booster could garner negative headlines and forfeit their place of prominence, the athlete stands to lose a whole lot more. If discovered, the young man could find himself permanently ineligible or buried so far down the depth chart they never start again. This is (in some cases) the death of a college career and potentially means a loss millions in forfeited future revenue for a star player.
Given the ramifications for the player who is being exploited (as well as the coach, athletic director, and school), I don't believe making this kind of activity illegal and punishable is overboard. This country has a number of other laws to protect the young from those wishing to take advantage of them – why not one more that makes uncommonly common sense?
Give Jim Tressel and Andy Geiger and every other coach and university administration in the state of Ohio a helping hand. Protect athletes from those who would exploit them. Make this illegal and boot any booster who thinks they are above the law into prison for trying to do something that could result in a promising life being thrown away.