You know how irritating pre-season pundits can be? It's not so much the game they're playing, which most of us also play, it's their tone. The prevailing style of nearly all these "experts" and "gurus" is their use of the categorical, the absolute, the declarative sentence in all its narcissistic glory. I wonder, are they ever curious? Are they interested in any questions other than rhetorical ones? Do they have any appreciation of the surprising, unexpected, shocking, out-of-the-blue elements of college football?
We're all familiar with the trifling nature of the generic, national sports media. And it‘s never more obvious than when they're dealing with something we're personally familiar with, have some knowledge of (for our purposes, here, UCLA football). They tell us how the Bruins did last year, who returns, who we're supposed to miss. They mention a couple of new players who may "contribute," and, if they're into this sort of thing, finish off with some one liners about incoming freshmen, based on other "expert" opinions. Which is all pretty harmless as far as it goes. The problem is the complacent banality of their everlasting "takes." Other than measuring public perception of the program, and sparking interest in the uninitiated, I don't know what they're good for. There are such huge gaps in their knowledge, and, like so many of their brethren, they seem blind to them. They may be right on the easy calls: the Floridas - those infernal three amigos, Miami, Florida and Florida St. - will always be great, and Duke, Baylor and San Jose St. will not. But when one of their top dogs slip badly (Florida, for instance), or some notorious bottom dog succeeds, don't count on any prior hints from these guys. It's the same story with "upsets." Most "experts" are just your basic chalk player/ sports grind, dealing in conventional wisdom, always looking backwards, fighting the last war, always getting caught flat-footed by the shock of the new, while the rest of us, or those of us with some humility, marvel at the rich mysteries of the college game and everything we thought we knew but didn't. And running up to the season, even after the opener, some of us here are sounding like these windy gurus.
We all have our personal favorites among the players, also our whipping boys, and some of us still think we can see clear through to the Fiesta Bowl. If that were true, of course, some of us would be newly minted millionaires by the end of the year. Our favorites are all over the place, especially among the load of first-year talents. Who's the heir apparent to Manual White: Ebell, Harrison, Mathis? (I'm an Ebell man, myself, and hope he won't be relegated to "situational" play because of his size. But I could be wrong.) Matt Moore fell behind Drew Olson early, never quite caught up, then got injured, but he still has his backers who believe he'll battle the obviously impressive Olson next year. Glen Ohaeri looks like he'll make a nice matched pair along with Matthew Clark, carrying on the pocket Hercules tradition being established by Ricky Manning. Jarrad Page must be a great breaking-ball hitter to even consider giving up football. If UCLA operated like SC, they would have already issued Justin London number 8. And how bright is the future of Marcedes Lewis? But hold on... nothing's written in stone (well, maybe Marcedes' future). Everything's going to be decided on the field, or by the fates, not in the papers, or on the talk shows, or on the message boards. Even coaches have been known to alter their preconceptions by what happens on the field.
As to our whipping boys, that can be pretty well reduced to one name (at the moment), and you know who that is. We all know the deal. I‘m sure none of us would have tried covering up a couple of borderline DUI's at his age, would we? And none of us would have felt the pressure he might have felt last November 17th. Cory Paus is obviously not the most laid-back, confident quarterback we'll ever see, and he certainly looked tight in the Colorado St. opener, but he did appear to finally settle down and throw a few nice completions downfield, and, had the particular circumstances of this game been different, would have had the chance to throw a few more. Whatever his senior year will hold for him and the team, none of us can know right now.
A lot of us are slowly coming round to the idea that - absent anything catastrophic - these Bruins have a shot at a very good season. The defense looks formidable, and the offense looks to have enough firepower to cause any defensive coordinator to lose sleep if those weapons can be properly exploited (read effective quarterbacking and play-calling). This is elementary stuff, yet still more informed than the usual humbug emanating from Beeno, Corso, Trev Albert and that crowd, inside the media and out. Simple ignorance is not the same as stupidity, though it's quite a stretch to account for the likes of these guys merely in terms of ignorance.
Which brings me back to adolescence and the notion that a good deal of this inflated punditry may just be testosterone overload (call it egotesticle). Football has that effect on us boys and may just last into our dotage - our final collapse at the Rose Bowl or on the barcalounger in front of the TV some fine Saturday afternoon. Note how quick we are to ape the attitudes and vernacular of the players. Like teenagers, their smack becomes ours. Notice our use of the word "we" when referring to "them." Before long, we're even thinking in the same cliches we hear them repeat on any normal football weekend to explain a win or a loss.
"We came to play."
"We were flat."
"We made out breaks."
"Take away our turnovers, it's a different game."
"We executed our game plan perfectly."
"We just didn't execute."
"We dominated for three quarters; we just had some problems at the end."
"Last I checked, a football game is four quarters."
And so on...
I used to break things after a tough Bruin loss. I killed a nice little ceramic duck my wife was fond of after Johnnie Morton lit up Dion Lambert on that infamous Saturday in 1990. I started busting up the back yard just before Tyus made his immortal full court drive. It used to take me at least the weekend to get over any loss whatsoever. I used to have it figured out, used to know how it would happen (I couldn't often pick three winners on a football card, but who could?). Then I started noticing my errors. One day at practice I listened to a player's father, a football coach himself, tell me that Steve Buck would take Cade McNown's job if he ever got the chance - and I believed him. Then I marveled at Cade's pocket presence all through the twenty-game streak. I knew the Bruin defense would never fall down again like they did against Miami and Edgerrin James, then watched them do the same damn thing against Wisconsin and Ron Dane. I knew the Bruins were going to get their lunch when Larry Smith loaded up the line of scrimmage against John Barnes, and then Barnes and J.J. broke Larry's heart and certainly made our day. The first time I saw him at practice, I knew Scott McEwen was a wasted scholarship, then watched him develop, over five years, into a very respectable player. I got so tired of being surprised I began making fewer assumptions, which isn‘t to say I‘ve given up being a crank entirely. College football is, after all, a subtle game played mostly by straight-ahead guys, which makes for great, though maddening, drama. You'd have to be a serious Buddhist not to let out the occasional howl.
I used to avoid making road trips, used to think maybe I'd be tempted to jump out of the plane if the Bruins got killed in Norman or Lincoln, or throw myself out of the car if they lost at CAL (which we all know stands for Cal Always Loses). Even though I haven't completely shaken this phobia, I'm certainly going to make the trip to San Diego again, and probably to Berkeley in October. But I'm still not sure about Boulder and Norman next year...