The importance of being football

I had planned on writing on this blog regularly, and then life interfered — big time. Now it’s taken something like the abuse scandal and sanctions at Penn State to get me writing again. Not the way it should be, but the way it is. Again, I hope to write more on this blog in the future, and hopefully not just about sports.

But sports was originally the main purpose of the blog, and sports is what brings me back to it today. Or is it?

The statue of Joe Paterno outside of Beaver Stadium on the Penn State campus was taken down Sunday morning, but the memory of what brought it down will last far longer.

Obviously the sanctions levied against Penn State by the NCAA today are sports-related. The football program was hit with huge scholarship losses, a four-year bowl ban, probation and a loss of victories from 1998-2011 that sent Paterno tumbling from the top of the all-time wins list to 298 career wins. The school was also fined $60 million that will be put into an endowment for programs that either prevent child abuse or help victims of the crime. That doesn’t even include the sanctions applied by the Big Ten Conference.

Some have observed that while this stops short of the “death penalty” that some were predicting for the Nittany Lions, this might be worse because of the short- and long-term effect it will have. Current players are eligible to transfer to other schools and play immediately without penalty, and 20 scholarships a year lost is nearly a quarter of those typically used at top Division I schools. This could cripple the program for years to come, maybe decades.

Whether or not the punishment is appropriate is not up to me. The punishments levied were harsh but not surprising, and the death penalty wouldn’t have surprised me either. Nothing like this has ever happened before (that we know of, God forbid), so there’s no frame of reference for anyone to be saying the penalties are too severe. And being an Alabama fan, if I found out something like this were happening under Saban (or any previous coach) I wouldn’t expect or hope the punishment to be any less for the Crimson Tide.

What happened was a result of the Nittany Lions football team, its coach and the reputation of both meaning more to those in a position to stop the horrific events than the people whose lives were affected or ruined by those horrific events. Period. Those people in positions of power were both within the program and in the Penn State administration, making it more than just a football matter.

The Paterno family’s indignant reaction should be of little surprise either, as they’ve continued to listen to every new revelation and piece of evidence against their beloved patriarch with their fingers in their ears and making loud noises to drown it out. The only surprising thing to me was that the statement didn’t include a declaration that Paterno was still the all-time wins leader among Division I coaches — because that and JoePa’s legacy are the most important things.

Watching Penn State students on TV today react with shock and disappointment in the ruling, saying it’s too much and how terrible it is for them and their school, almost nauseates me. The fact that they can’t think about anyone but themselves after so much negative exposure for selfish attitudes throughout the scandal simply shows immaturity, to the point they certainly shouldn’t be sitting or standing in front of cameras and microphones held by people eager to exploit them for continuing live coverage.

But in their minds, this is just a sports story, a story hurting the team and school they love (many of them enough to pay a lot of money to attend). And yes, it is a sports story. More importantly, it’s a story about people, the people who were hurt by this tragedy and those who may potentially be helped by the money being “donated” by Penn State. Not everyone needs the reminder, but the fact that some still do continues to baffle me.


Big Trouble in Little Storrs

Fresh off the latest example that the BCS doesn’t work — and Auburn should appreciate that as much as anyone, considering it’s been in the same boat as TCU — comes another example of how, when college football muckety-mucks say everything’s fine within the sport, that they’re full of it.

University of Connecticut donor Robert Burton doesn’t like the Huskies’ new choice for head coach, so he wants his money and name back from the school. Burton made a $3 million donation a few years ago for UConn’s new football complex — you know, the Burton Family Football Complex.

UConns Burton Family Football Complex

One wonders what recourse Mr. Burton feels he has with his name having been on the building for half a decade, and whether he thinks the school will just zip off a check and get maintenance out there with a pair of pliers or something. He says he had a right to be consulted on the hiring and wasn’t, while the school says he was kept in the loop and knew what was coming.

According to the story, his choice for coach was former Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio. Apparently it didn’t matter to Burton that Addazio had just been hired to become Temple’s new coach; UConn should have stolen him out from under the Owls. Maybe he figures that the Owls were booted from the Big East, and thus the Huskies got first dibs.

New UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni

Even more intriguing is that the coach UConn AD Jeff Hathaway and company did hire, ex-Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni, coached Burton’s son with the Orange ands apparently the coach and dad didn’t exactly get along.

But the biggest question remains: Can Burton actually get a refund on his donation? And if so, what does this mean for the future of college football?

If the school doesn’t cough up the $3 million — only $2.5 million of which was for the naming rights of the complex, by the way; what a bargain! — does Burton then look for another route, including lawsuit, to get the money back? Then a court could be deciding for colleges just how much input in decisions cash like that buys a donor.

A loss for UConn could put a real damper on colleges seeking donations from any eager fan and lead to possibly a screening process in which schools try to find out just how pushy a donor might become when it comes to his or her beloved team.

In the case of UConn, which isn’t exactly Alabama or Florida or Texas, donors like Burton are probably much fewer and further between. Losing a donor of his stature could hurt the program far more than it would in a more established program with a deeper pool of big-walleted fans.

But will it lead to any fundamental changes in the way college football does business? If the repeated proof of the failure of the BCS doesn’t give the powers that be any incentive to change that system, why would this cause them to rethink things any more? Because it’s even more fundamentally about money, and the health and future of the sport.

But the NCAA isn’t known for doing the best things for the sport, so I wouldn’t hold my breath.

NFL out of Luck for now

So Andrew Luck bucked the conventional wisdom and opted to return for another year at Stanford instead of cashing in as the likely No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.

Stanford redshirt sophomore Andrew Luck has decided to come back and finish his junior year to get his degree instead of taking a massive payday as the likely No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.

Apart from the Carolina Panthers, no one else should have a problem with this. Yet apparently radio talk show hosts, bloggers and columnists around the country have been ripping Luck for not getting out while the getting is good.

It’s one thing to voice an opinion that his is not the decision you would make, and maybe you can say it’s the wrong decision in the long run. The biggest arguments against are the fact that Jim Harbaugh very well may not be back to coach the Cardinal next year, Luck won’t have much of the offensive line that protected him this year, and the potential of a new NFL salary structure for rookies could mean he’s leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table.

You also get the horror stories of quarterbacks who went back for another year. Ask Jake Locker in May if he wishes he’d come out early. There’s Matt Leinart, or Jevan Snead — the list goes on.

That doesn’t even include players like Sam Bradford, though his can hardly be considered an unhappy ending since despite missing almost all his senior season he still went No. 1 overall in the draft and nearly led the St. Louis Rams to the playoffs.

His dad is a former NFL quarterback, so it’s not that Luck is speaking or making a decision due to a lack of experience. This honestly, genuinely seems to be what he wants. Who are any of us to deny him that, or ridicule him for not wanting someone to show him the money now?

When he finishes next year, one thing is guaranteed: He will have a degree in architecture from Stanford University. If that’s the worst thing that happens to him, I think he’ll still be OK. Just because many of us wish we could play football for a living doesn’t mean he has to right now.

…On the other hand, carpe diem.

Big Blew and the not-so-Big Ten

Stunning it was to discover that Rich Rodriguez wasn’t the solution that Michigan football needed to turn things around. Well actually, he did start a turnaround with the Wolverines. The team’s record improved each year he was there, but Big Blue had just six conference wins in three years and was 0-6 against Ohio State and Michigan State, and the NCAA investigations into his practice habits and other things probably helped him out the door Wednesday.

I think far more damning was the seemingly increasing problems the Wolverines had stopping … well, anybody. Crunching the numbers reveals that the Michigan defense gave up more than 35 points a game this season, which might be OK if you’re Oregon and score 49 points a game but not if you’re supposed to be one of the historic programs of the Big Ten.

A season-best performance in the opener against Connecticut Sept. 4 in a 30-10 victory sparked a 5-0 start, but that included a 42-37 win over Massachusetts and a last-second 42-35 win over Indiana. Three straight losses to the Spartans, Iowa and Penn State followed, but it was the next game against Illinois that perhaps best symbolized both the better win total but also the overall drop in the prestige of the program.

It took a late fourth-quarter TD for the Wolverines to tie things at 39-all, and only a stop of a forced two-point conversion in the third overtime gave them a 67-65 win in the highest-scoring game in the history of the Big Ten. The previous record for highest-scoring conference game? A Michigan win over what would later be known as Michigan State in 1902, 119-0.

Sure, winning a game by 119 points doesn’t happen any more, but apparently neither does needing less than 50 points to win a game. And the 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl was the last straw. It also helped exemplify just how far the Big Ten as a whole has fallen.

The SEC was 3-0 against the conference on New Year’s Day with a 31-point average margin of victory, but non-automatic qualifier TCU’s 21-19 win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl was just as damaging to the Big Ten. Ohio State held off a late charge by Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, but the only other wins for the Big Ten in bowl season came against Missouri — likely a paper tiger, pardon the pun — and an average Baylor squad.

The top talent in the country is going to the SEC, with a lesser amount going to conferences like the ACC, Pac-10 and Big 12. That’s what makes a player like Denard Robinson or Terrelle Pryor stand out so much in the Big Ten. Their talent level is probably suited more for a conference with more speed and overall ability across the board, but their features are a rarity in a conference better known for size and strength, three yards and a cloud of dust.

The additi0n of Nebraska, which lost three of its last four and had its own special bowl disaster against a .500 Washington team it had beaten by 35 earlier in the year, won’t change things much. Until the Big Ten can start attracting more top-level talent — and unless global warming kicks in and keeps the winters from being, well, what it is right now, I don’t think it will happen soon — the conference will continue to play second fiddle.