Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Holy War: A rivalry disrupted?

As the final seconds drained from the clock at Couger Stadium in Provo, UT on November 20th 1993 the Ute's sideline erupted in an understandable wave of irresistible elation. Utah had not beaten its bitter arch-rival on the road since 1971. Prior to that date the University of Utah had been so much in the habit of beating BYU that the event barely merited mention. Up to 1971 BYU had defeated its great publicly funded nemesis on only five occasions in a whopping forty-seven attempts. To call the rivalry lopsided would be a ludicrous understatement. No one in Utah could have guessed on November 20th 1971 that the balance of football power in the Beehive State would shortly undergo a meteoric shift. A narrow 17-15 Ute win was the final game in the unimpressive sub-500 tenure of BYU head coach Tommy Hudspeth. BYU promoted defensive coordinator LaVell Edwards to the top job, many thought temporarily. Twenty-nine seasons later Edwards retired owning a 22-7 record against Utah, leaving a program that had earned an AP national championship, a Heisman Trophy, and at least a share of no less than twenty conference championships.

LaVell Edwards: legend

None of the Utah Utes who surged off their team's bench to celebrate on the Cougars' home field could even remember the day exactly two decades earlier that their school had last triumphed in Provo. Who could blame them for attempting in their momentary euphoria to tear down the BYU goal-posts? As Ute receiver Bryan Rowley later told a reporter:

"We were just excited. That's over twenty years of frustration... If they hadn't won in twenty years, they would feel the same way."

In fact, BYU players, fans, and coaches did not see things so philosophically. Cougar players rushed to the endzone and attempted to initiate a mass brawl rather than watch their hated foe rip down their goal-posts. A few handbags, insults, pushes, and shoves later, stadium security and coaches separated the groups and the incident was over. BYU's hurt pride, however, was less quick to subside. In an unguarded comment after the game, nose guard Lenny Gomes allowed the disdainful arrogance which had come to characterize Cougar attitudes towards their in-state rival bubble to the surface:

"Typical Utah bulls. All those Utes think that's all there is to life. But when I'm making $50,000-$60,000 a year, they'll be pumping my gas. They're low-class losers."

What more there might be to life than an impressive annual salary Gomes failed to discuss. LaVell Edwards was more diplomatic, only saying that he had never seen anything like a visiting team attempting to tear down the home goal-posts and refusing further comment on the subject.

It is natural for football personnel and fans to see their rivals' actions in the worst possible light. That is exactly what makes rivalries such an integral, wonderful part of the fabric of college football. But perhaps BYU people should have taken a step back and thanked their good fortune that after fifty years of futility in the series their school had so emphatically seized the upper hand that Utah players would react to beating them in such a dramatic fashion.

Doubtless the Ute reaction followed no premeditated plan to offer specific offense. The elation surrounding the moment of victory had been as much a factor of the game's final few possessions as the context of the preceding two decades. Typical of the fast paced aerial explosions that defined the Edwards era, the two teams had thrown the ball around as though passing was about to go on ration. BYU quarterback John Walsh compiled 423 yards on 35 completions in a stereotypically massive 57 attempts with a touchdown. His counterpart Mike McCoy answered yard for yard, going 30-of-49 for 423 yards and 3 TDS. The difference makers on the day turned out to be Utah's 167 team rushing yards on 39 carries [as opposed to just 78 on 20 for BYU], and Walsh's careless, season-high five interceptions. BYU picked off McCoy only twice.

Despite jumping out to a 14-3 fist quarter lead behind drives of 68 yards on six plays and 80 yards on nine, Utah had allowed the Cougars back into the game. Although BYU briefly levelled the game late in the third quarter the Utes responded immediately and appeared to be back in the driving seat, as they had most of the day. After a touchback on BYU's kick Utah started on their own twenty and gained nothing on two plays. Sensing the shift in momentum a three-and-out would provide following their offense's game-tying score, the Cougar safeties moved up and showed blitz. McCoy anticipated the pressure and called an audible for receiver Curtis Marsh to come over the middle. The Ute quarterback called for the snap from the shotgun formation and quickly dumped it to an open Marsh behind the BYU pass-rush. He then ran 80 yards to the endzone and shed much of the frustration of his injury-plagued year in one glorious play.

On the back of such a stunning score Utah players were riding high. As a result, BYU's successive fourth quarter come-back drives must have created intense frustration on the Utah sideline. The long awaited road win that seemed so tantalizingly also refused to come completely within reach. The bad news began with a missed PAT following Marsh's TD by Utah kicker Chris Yergensen. The Ute specialist had already missed two mid-range field goals. Seven wasted points seemed so precious when BYU responded immediately with a nine play drive provided an immediate response and despite all of Walsh's interceptions gave BYU a one-point lead. But the Utes wouldn't give up either and retook the lead with less than five minutes remaining on an impressively conducted eighty-yard drive in fourteen plays that included a clutch 17-yard McCoy strike on third and ten to bring the Utes inside the Cougar redzone. A touchdown and successful two-point conversion restored a seven point lead, but again BYU answered. Walsh finished a scoring drive with a one-yard sneak after moving his offense 64-yards in 4 previous plays that included completions of 30 and 19 yards.

With both defenses apparently AWOL, the desperate struggle had reached the point at which victory would likely go to the team that possessed the ball last. With barely over a minute remaining that was Utah, but after the BYU kicking coverage team pinned the Utes well inside their own twenty a score seemed unlikely. McCoy and the Ute offense ground out 47 yards on ten plays before sputtering out at the BYU 45-yard line with just 00:25 on the game clock. Up against BYU's ever-dangerous passing offense, turning the ball over on downs at the half way line with twenty ticks still to play would have been risky. Handing the opportunity for redemption to Yergensen seemed an unlikely bet for Ute coach Ron McBride, but there was no alternative.

Clearly the football gods had decided it was time for momentum in the Holy War to shift back from Church to State. The previously luckless kicker somehow curved a perfect effort through the uprights from fifty yards, going in an instant from Utah football infamy to glory. The Utah bench exploded and was still in the throes of jubilation when the clock expired.

Perhaps Utah fan R. J. Aiello summed up the context most astutely:

"It's not just between BYU and Utah. Its a lifestyle conflict."

That's exactly what it is. The Holy War is a unique and precious rivalry in college football because there is no other dynamic that matches a flagship religious school with a public institution whose fans are, in many cases, so very different. BYU people are typically modest in lifestyle but with a barely concealed arrogance and disdain towards their wayward, worldly Ute kin. Utah fans, on the other hand, respond with the brash, unapologetic immodesty that smacks of the rebellious teen acting up in the sight of a disapproving parent. This dynamic doubtless fueled the ironic chants of "Repent! Repent!" which rang out from a tiny corner of the Utah faithful that night in Cougar Stadium.

Utah and BYU fans do not like one another. Both believe the other party to be arrogant and misguided. Both harbor an unbridled sense of superiority. Feelings run high and parties are easily offended. That is doubtless why when Utah received an invitation from the big leagues this summer, BYU athletics director Tom Holmoe and President Cecil Samuelson responded with a plan to lead Cougar football out of Mountain West obscurity and into [potentially equally obscure] independence.

At the time of writing, BYU's quest for football independence in order to allow a renewed relationship with ESPN has five more days to play out. According to the most recent rumors this process could damage or destroy no less than three conferences [one of which BYU was the leading party in founding] without actually improving the Cougars' position in the CFB landscape. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: BYU people hate Utah people so much that they don't respond well to seeing them get a bid to the rich, pretty girl sorority while they are left to hang out with the chubbies.

University of Utah administrators, on the other hand, are now so high on their new found status as members of the sport's bourgeoisie that they are openly talking about not playing BYU every year or at least moving the game to an earlier date. Some rumors even indicated that Utah people have flirted with suggesting a two-for-one structure, which BYU people would surely sacrifice their children before accepting.

Such talk on both sides is silly. Schools need an annual rival, preferably one played each year as a final date towards which all preceding games build. If Utah thinks they can live without that, they should ask Nebraska how well Colorado does as a replacement for an annual November date with a hated conference foe. And frankly, college football as a whole needs a rivalry filled with so much hate that things get more than a little religious and end in the occasional brawl.

Good, clean fun!

[Sources: Salt Lake Tribune;]

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Penn State-Nebraska: A rivalry revived?

Under the flood lights on a crisp late-September Pennsylvania Saturday night in 1982, Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge threw a first down pass to tight end Kirk "stone hands" Bowman in the back of the endzone with just four seconds remaining on the game clock. The last-gasp effort barely found its target. Bowman needed to scoop the ball off his laces with his body moving backwards to make the grab. Somehow he reeled the ball in and his third score of the day overturned a 24-21 deceit to Nebraska, giving the Nittany Lions a precious victory that propelled them toward an eventual first AP title in school history.

One minute and eighteen seconds of clock-time previously, Penn State had begun its final offensive possession of the game sixty-five yards from goal needing a touchdown to win. A personal foul penalty against Nebraska on the preceding kick-off helped matters, but with momentum apparently shifting and the famous 'Husker Blackshirt D on the other side of the line of scrimmage a score seemed unlikely. Nebraska's junior quarterback Turner Gill had capped a scoring drive that ate precious clock in the fourth quarter's waning minutes with a one-yard TD plunge.

That score gave Big Red its first lead of a game Penn State had controlled since a fourteen-yard Blackledge pass to Bowman completed an 84-yard scoring drive after only four minutes. 1982 was the first year of his tenure that Joe Paterno truly emphasized the passing attack. Blackledge was simply too good to under-utilize. He had thrown for four touchdowns in each of Penn State's first three games and threw for three more and 295 yards on 23-of-39 attempts vs. Nebraska. His 2,218 yards with 22 touchdowns as a senior lifted him to second in school career passing totals. Such productivity made for an impossing backfield. Alongside Blackledge running back Curt Warner [who had gashed Nebraska for an incredible 238 yards the previous year] racked up a thousand-yard season en route to graduating with a career total of 3,398, which remains the school record. When Warner broke loose for a 31-yard dash to the 'Husker four-yard line in the second quarter before finishing the drive with a two-yard TD run moments later, Gill and Co. faced a major uphill battle.

The situation was far from ideal for Tom Osborne's second-ranked Cornhuskers. With a loaded backfield featuring future Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier and a returning thousand-yard rusher in Roger Craig, Gill preferred to run the option rather than pass down field. When necessary Gill certainly could pass effectively. He graduated a year later standing second on Nebraska's all-time passing list. But with a rushing attack that had accounted for 677 of Big Red's NCAA-record 883 yards total offense during a 68-0 drubbing of New Mexico State the previous week, why pass? On the year Nebraska's three leading rushers alone would combine for 2,844 yards. The following season the 1983 Cornhusker backfield set what is still the school's single-season rushing record with a combined 4,820 yards. Even when compared to the unstoppable ground attacks of the early-1970s and late-1990s, the Nebraska running game of the mid-1980s constitutes a definite high watermark.

Despite their unquestionable pedigree, the Big Red backfield learned on September 25th 1982 that running roughshod over New Mexico State and lining up opposite "Linebacker U" were different matters. Joe Patterno's defense limited Nebraska to a relatively innocuous 233 team rushing yards, and actually caused Craig to leave the game at half time with a strained thigh. Never-the-less, Gill performed as required and dragged his team back into contention with the balanced approach required. The 'Husker signal-caller went 16-for-34 through the air for 239 yards, earning him media plaudits as Big Eight player of the week. With only 38 ticks remaining before halftime Gill threw a 30-yard touchdown strike to I-back Irving Frazier. Then six minutes after Blackledge restored Penn State's 14-point cushion on a pass to flanker Kenny Jackson early in the third quarter, Gill struck again with a scoring strike to Rozier. Nebraska simply refused to go away and it was hardly a surprise when Osborne's team overcame the hostile road environment to seize its late lead inside the final two minutes.

Gill's touchdown dive set up a final, decisive Penn State possession that featured both drama and controversy. Blackledge marshaled his team with apparent ease to the Nebraska thirty-four before the Blackshirts recovered to collapse three consecutive plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. With only 17 seconds remaining, facing a fourth-and-eleven situation and trailing 21-24, Paterno considered for the first time in the game [as he later admitted] going for a tie. But with his place-kicker, Massimo Manca, having already missed three attempts on the day, the Penn State coach decided to try fortune's favor with an ounce of bravery instead. The gamble paid off when Blackledge shot an absolute bullet to Jackson just a step beyond the first-down marker at the NU twenty-three. Blackledge then scrambled for six more before Penn State gained nothing on second down.

It was at that moment that the game attained college football infamy. With all of the team's timeouts expended, Blackledge went deep along left sideline to his other tight end Mike McCloskey. The Nittany Lion receiver was heading out of bounds as the ball reached him and the play ended with him well into the Nebraska bench area. Osborne and Co. could not believe their eyes when the sideline umpire signalled a catch, giving Penn State a first-and-goal from the two with those four precious seconds remaining. Nebraska coaches and players were still crying bloody-murder when Bowman fell backwards out of the endzone clutching his third TD ball of the day, giving number eight Penn State a banner victory as the clock expired.

The call, which was unquestionably wrong, had far-reaching repercussions for both teams. After having gone undefeated in 1968, 1969, and 1973 without winning a national championship, Joe paterno finally gained the AP voters' respect in 1982 despite picking up a loss. The '82 Nittany Lions finished the season 11-1 with a 21-42 road loss to Paul Bryant's Crimson Tide. Despite that loss, several key wins earned the necessary grace for Penn State to be voted number one over 11-0-1 SMU following the bowls. Penn State's opponents combined for a national best record of .687. On New Year's Day, while Nebraska only managed a narrow 21-20 Orange Bowl win over 8-2-1 LSU and SMU failed to impress en route to a 7-3 victory over 9-2 Pitt in Dallas, the Nittany Lions knocked off Herschel Walker and the number one Georgia Bulldogs in New Orleans. Wins over Notre Dame and Nebraska combined with Penn State's impressive Sugar Bowl victory to crown a national championship resume. Without a blown call in the dying seconds on September 25th, the 1982 Nittany Lions would have been just another very good 10-2 Paterno team.

Conversly, that same call caused Tom Osborne to extend his wait for a national championship by another year. The drought eventually lasted to 1994. Big Red finished the 1982 season 11-1 and placed third in the final AP poll. As a senior the following year Turner Gill led his team to a perfect 11-0 regular season and a third consecutive Orange Bowl berth before an endzone pass from the two-yard line once again proved decisive. By the final minute of the game Nebraska had clawed back from 17-0 and 31-17 defecits to reach 31-24 with possession of the football inside the Miami Hurricane thirty. In an uncanny echo of Blackledge's final drive in State College fifteen months previously, three consecutive 'Husker plays garnered little success. Facing fourth-and-eight Osborne called an option play which Gill kept himself, bursting twenty-four yards for the endzone. Down 30-31 number one Nebraska would likely have been voted national champion with an extra point and the tie. But Big Red didn't play for ties. Letting the chips ride for it all, Gill rolled right on a two-point attempt and passed to an open receiver at the front of the endzone. For 'Huskers time slowed to a creep as they watched Miami safety Ken Calhoun close the gap, stretch his body, and put fingertip to ball for a championship-winning deflection. Somehow Nebraska's prolific offenses of the early 1980s never won a national title.

Penn State and Nebraska have played one another on thirteen occasions. Once back in 1920, five times between 1949 and 1958, for a two-game series in 2002 and 2003, and for five straight seasons from 1979 to 1983. The two schools have met six times in State College, six times in Lincoln, and once in the Kickoff Classic at Meadowlands Stadium -- a game in which the 1983 'Huskers meted out bloody vengeance on the graduation-ravaged Nittany Lions for the disappointment inflicted the preceding season. Of these thirteen meetings the five games played during the early-1980s naturally define the identity of the series. Two powerhouse programs known for their old school style and understated dignity clashed with full force at the height of their respective powers. Two massive fan bases in football-obsessed states watched with bated breath as their schools placed national championship aspirations on the line to test their mettle against the best. Nebraska won the first two bouts, 42-17 and 21-7, before Penn State answered in kind 30-24 in Lincoln and so famously in that 27-24 triumph at Beaver Stadium. Sadly, Nebraska's 44-6 romp the following year was the last word on the matter for two decades.

Nebraska finished the 1979 season ranked 9th in the AP poll, Penn State 20th. The following year they polled 7th and 8th respectively. Penn State finished the 1981 season 3rd with Nebraska polling 11th. A year later the Nittany Lions were crowned national champion with Nebraska on their heels in 3rd. In 1983 Big Red finished only behind Miami thanks to their failed two-point attempt, while Penn State followed their disastrous start in New Jersey with an 8-4-1 season to finish unranked for the first time since 1976. Penn State's narrow victory in 1982 helped earn Joe Paterno a national championship. Had the Nittany Lions lost, Nebraska would almost certainly have claimed that laurel. The next year Big Red all but did just that. Simply put, Penn State and Nebraska's games between 1979 and 1983 mattered. And they were nothing if not memorable. The two programs which are perhaps more than any others virtual mirror images of one another provided matchups that built expectations without failing to deliver. It is only a shame they did not continue to play after the '83 Huskers' lopsided coming-out party at the Meadowlands.

Presently Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is considering his newly-expanded league's options for dividing its twelve members into two divisions for football. There are many issues to consider that needn't be rehearsed here. It only need be pointed out that Nebraska has lacked a true annual rivalry game against a conference foe of equal stature since the Texan invasion/hostile takeover of the old Big Eight in 1995. Penn State has perhaps never had a true annual rival. The Big Ten's grand plan to manufacture one via the uninspiring Land-grant Trophy series with Michigan State has been quite the flop. Geography is hardly good grounds for objection in a league with a footprint that now stretches from Philadelphia to a little more than one hundred miles from the Rockies. And more importantly, the Big Ten added Nebraska to increase the relevance and national exposure of its football teams.

Imagine this scenario for the last two weeks of conference play:

Michigan plays Ohio State for one division title. A few hours later Nebraska faces Penn State to decide the other. The following week the winners face off with national championship implications likely at stake.

What could possibly be more appealing and nationally relevant than that?

(Sources:; Michael Weinreib, Daily Collegian;;; USA Today CFB encyclopedia; ESPN Big Ten Encyclopedia;

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Abandoned rivalries: OU-Nebraska

I have posted several times recently about the OU-Nebraska rivalry. In my last post I mentioned as an aside my hope that the one redeeming feature of the newly gutted sell-out Big XII might be that it opened the way to restore OU-Nebraska to an annual fixture as a non-conference game. This apparently will not happen anytime soon. OU athletics director Joe Castiglione recently told Daily Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel:

"Given our current schedule, I don't see a place for them for 10-12 years."

When asked the same question a few days later Bob Stoops was even more emphatic, and sarcastic:

"Yes, we'll stick them in between Cincinnati and Florida State! If we had a non-conference schedule like a lot of other teams, it would be awesome. But we don't. Something's got to change. If they're willing to do it, we'll have to make some serious adjustments in our schedule."

In other words, playing Nebraska makes it too hard to go 12-0. Roadblocks to an unbeaten year aren't popular anywhere, but least of all in Big XII country. Both Stoops and Mack Brown are on public record several times as viewing the conference championship game as an irritating potential hazard. You can believe that after the extra second league officials had to gift Texas in 2009 to get the 'Horns to Pasadena, Brown and Co. will be happy to see the back of a conference title bout in their reduced ten team league. Why make life harder for yourself, right?
More than ever in the BCS era a zero in the losses column is the golden figure that means a shot at the mythical national title. And OU football has always been about the national championships. Its record of seven AP championships since 1950 puts the Sooners among the elite of the elite. This championship history is what Sooners call "a tradition of excellence." Oklahoma's football history is indeed nothing if not excellent. AP championships in 1950, 1955, 1956, 1974, 1975, 1985, and 2000 under three different coaches indicate a consistent institutional ability to win and a commitment to competitive prowess.

Decade after decade, despite changes in personnel, Oklahoma has built its football dynasty on dominance of its conference mates and triumph in a series of annual bouts with fellow heavy weights. Like most of college football's great powers, most of Oklahoma's annual schedules have always been filled by unimpressive conference rivals. Ohio State and Michigan have their Northwesterns and Indianas. USC has its Oregon States and Stanfords. Alabama has its Kentuckys and Mississippi States.

Besides Nebraska and Texas the schools that make up most of Oklahoma's past records amount to little. In-state rival Oklahoma State boasts only one outright conference championship since WWII, that coming in the Missouri Valley in 1948. The Pokes have only one Big Eight crown ever, shared with OU [of course] in 1978. Kansas only owns two shared conference titles since 1948; Iowa State has none. Mizzou earned its lone outright title in 1960 and shared one in 1969. Kansas State has only one, that of course won through a championship game upset of OU in 2003. Colorado has threatened insurrection with an ounce more consistency, claiming unshared conference crowns in 1961, 1989, 1990, and 2001, with shared titles in 1978 and 1991. Obviously only Nebraska's twenty-three conference titles and five AP championships, and Texas' twenty-one and three respectively, provide much in the way of a perennial elite presence in Oklahoma's past records.

Every single Oklahoma national championship team has beaten both Nebraska and Texas in the same season. More often than not those two wins have provided the most impressive achievements on OU's resume. Of the Sooners' seven national championship winning years only twice were neither the 'Horns or 'Huskers ranked in the AP top twenty. During those years, 1955 and 1956, Bud Wilkinson's legitimacy came from the long winning streak OU was amassing [stretching to forty-seven games between 1953 and 1957]. Victories over 12th ranked Pitt and 14th ranked Colorado in 1955 and 19th ranked Colorado in 1956 also helped. In Oklahoma's five other national championship campaigns both the Longhorns and Nebraska were ranked in the AP top twenty at the time they played OU and after the bowls. Six times at least one ranked in the top ten and once, in 1975, both spent the entire season in the top ten. Three times Nebraska and Texas have provided the only wins over ranked teams on OU's regular season national championship resume.

When the Big Eight merged with the SWC in 1995 to form the Big XII people in Norman made a grave mistake in allowing the OU-Nebraska rivalry to be downgraded to a biannual event. A conscious decision was made to prefer the annual OU-Texas game in Dallas. Naturally the Texas rivalry will always be OU's showpiece event. The Sooners recruit heavily in Texas, have many Texas-based and Texan alumni, and rely heavily on Texas media markets for exposure and revenue. But to football fans of a certain age the OU-Nebraska game on Thanksgiving Day owns a national appeal and irresistible mystique. The University of Nebraska wanted to continue that tradition in 1995. Oklahoma's administration refused. Fifteen years later The University of Nebraska has tired of OU's other rival and fled Texas' domineering presence for the safe haven of the Big Ten. Once again, athletics administrators in Norman are closing the door on any hope of an annual OU-Nebraska fixture. The reason: national championships.

Going undefeated is simply more important than either maintaining traditional rivalries or facing unnecessary challenges simply for the sake of hoping to overcome them. To those college football fans who feel strongly that a healthy regard for the game's history is one of the aspects that sets our version of the game apart from the professional brand, this decision begs an important question:

What does it really mean for the University of Oklahoma to claim a national championship without beating Big Red

Lords of the Plains no more

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Forward to the Past: the SWC reborn?

A busy off-season of college football rumor-mongering and high-stakes brinkmanship appears to have ended a long way short of the "revolutionary" realignment that seemed all but a done deal until the 11th hour of the twelve-day Big XII missile crisis. A sport which often infuriates even its most loyal partisans by the almost imperceptible slowness with which it reforms itself off the field appeared to be on the very verge of a near instantaneous leap into the far reaches of an utterly unkown future. The men at the very center of the game made public comments based on the assumption that this shift would certainly take place. Bob Stoops referred to the proposed Pac-16 as "very exciting" and indulged in on-the-record comments about Oklahoma's prospective new conference rivalries. Deloss Dodd's, the ever-present University of Texas Athletics Director, gathered his school's coaches to inform them that the Big XII was dead and that the Longhorns would be heading west.

Then... nothing. Or almost nothing. The Mountain West switched Utah for Boise. The two most old-school conferences finally got a championship game by adding Nebraska to the Big Ten [12] and Colorado and Utah to the Pac. The Big XII [10] decided that championship games are for conferences that like making life harder for their champions and engaging in actual competition. Notre Dame breathed a sigh of relief. And that was all.

The question we are left with is whether the crazy off-season of 2010 ["expansion-palooza" as some are calling the affair] was a near total shakeup masterminded by a single outsider [former Tennis executive now Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott] or the next incremental step in a gradual, inexorable evolution toward the long expected "age of the super-conference." Due to the lightening pace at which rumor became event and event became non-event there is, I think, a general tendency to view this entire affair as an aberration. Many commentators are giving Larry Scott massive credit for "shaking up" the stolid, crusty Pac-10 and coming nearer than any thought possible to advancing college football more than one step forward in a single move.

Viewed in light of the conversations that surrounded the last major wave of realignment, however, this summer's events seem less unprecedented and revolutionary. Back in 1988 then SEC commissioner Roy Kramer spotted a potentially lucrative loophole in an NCAA by-law that implicitly did not apply to football. The rule states that conferences made up of twelve or more members may decide regular-season champions through championship games. Kramer accurately predicted that a one game playoff for a two-division, twelve-member SEC could generate massive revenue as well as the national prestige with pollsters that the league had historically lacked. The search was on for the best fitting two schools to incorporate.

Meanwhile, the once-mighty Southwest Conference was undergoing an existential crisis. No SWC school could boast a national championship since the 1970 Longhorns. During the ensuing two decades every member institution barring Rice, Baylor, and Arkansas had met with major NCAA sanctions on account of cheating scandals. A negative cycle of pay-for-play slush fund arms races and rival schools turning one another in to the authorities culminated with SMU receiving a one-year total suspension of its football program after the 1986 season. There was some symmetrical justice in this move as it had been ultra-rich oilman and SMU booster William Clements who first set the league on its slippery slope to financial depravity. By 1986 Clements occupied the Texas governor's mansion. The unrepentant Mustang-backer sensationalized a state whose tolerance for football motivated madness is remarkably high by instructing SMU to continue its slush fund payments to players even after existence of the practice had come to public light.

Cash incentives for players and recruits had been an open secret in the SWC for years. Gary Shaw claimed in his sensational 1972 expose on the Darrell Royal regime, Meat On The Hoof, that on his recruiting visit to SMU coaches had unabashedly asked him what kind of car he wanted to drive and promised that one would await him upon his enrollment in Dallas. Shaw claimed he had partly chosen Texas precisely because UT made no such offers. Coaches on Austin only told him, "If you come here you will have a chance to start." But after Royal retired in 1976 the 'Horns began to loose their overwhelming competitive advantage and UT also slid into the new culture of cheating. Between 1981 and 1984 SMU compiled a 41-5-1 record and earned three SWC championships with teams made up of blue-chip recruits who had gone to Dallas for money, stayed for money, and played for money. Conference rivals who cried foul were no more than pots screaming "black" at the kettle. By the time Roy Kramer began tentatively searching for new SEC members in 1989 the SWC had become a national laughing stock and byword for disgrace.

When Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles retired in 1976 they unknowingly took the Southwest Conference's former glory with them.

Frank Broyles, Royal's old sparring partner then Arkansas AD, chaffed under the guilt-by-association his beloved Razorbacks suffered. Broyles was also an astute business manager. He had already done more than anyone to move Arkansas toward the modern age of athletics finance, increasing alumni donations and exploring all manner of new revenue streams. As part of that process Broyles petitioned the SWC for permission to negotiate an independent distribution contract for University of Arkansas radio broadcasts. That request was denied.

Other league members did not want to allow the Razorbacks, who alone enjoyed the advantage of not sharing their state with any rival school, any revenue stream or media market it did not have to share. That short-sighted decision alienated power-brokers in Fayetteville and only heightened the mistrust that was rampant within the SWC ranks.

A former University of Texas women's athletic director Donna Lo-piano summed the situation up best, telling Sally Jenkins:

"[The SWC] is a bunch of institutions that care more about themselves than each other. It's a bad business conference."

Arkansas people began to cast hungry eyes over the SEC's notoriously passionate fan bases and the cache new visiting conference mates would bring. As one Arkansas athletics department official astutely foresaw:

"You don't have to worry about selling out the stadium—you have to worry about expanding it."

SWC average attendances fell consistently through the 1980s while those across the SEC only rose. And home gates were only the tip of the iceberg. By 1990 the complete overhaul of college football's relationship to television broadcasting was in full swing. The sixty-three member College Football Alliance had recently signed a $300 million five-year deal with ABC effective to begin in 1991. The promised riches that led to the landmark Oklahoma Board of Regents vs. NCAA
Supreme Court case in 1984 were finally beginning to materialize. If University of Arkansas officials felt alienated by the refusal of the SWC brethren to liberate their radio broadcasting rights, they experienced even greater emotions when considering the possible resources conference TV deals might command in the brave new world of post-NCAA monopoly contract negotiations. The 1990s promised to be an very uncertain decade for collegiate football, and athletics directors worked tirelessly to figure out the best options for their institutions.

Many factors remained uncertain, but several issues could not have been clearer. Firstly, the money collegiate football could command in its immediate future promised to dwarf past revenue. Secondly, through conference-based contracts individual schools could hope to gain a larger slice of the pie than they had under the old NCAA contracts. Consequently, the factors that had created the long-established conference alignments that had defined the game during the twentieth century would necessarily be superseded by new considerations. If Arkansas bolted, the SWC would not only be a discredited, scandal-ridden hive of mutual distrust and institutionalized backbiting, it would also be a single-state league with little appeal to national broadcasters.

While the SEC looked to expand, add a championship game, and promised to command big bucks on the open market, the SWC became a decreasingly appealing asset. Officials at Texas and Texas A&M did everything they could increase their market share in the ailing conference. In 1992, the first year Arkansas played in the SEC, the SWC introduced new revenue sharing arrangements. The league scrapped its ancient 50-50 division of gate revenues between home and away teams. Member institutions playing in televised non-conference games were to retain 80% of the revenue generate rather than the previous 50%. And schools participating in post-season play were to keep the first $500,000 before sharing the remainder with the league as opposed to the previous $300,000. As the SWC cash-cow grew sicker the Longhorns and Aggies milked it harder and kept a greater share. In a statement that rings with starling familiarity to football fans in 2010 DeLoss Dodds, whose tenure as AD in Austin began back in 1981, brazenly told a reporter:

"The world is going to dictate where Texas goes. The marketplace will dictate it."

The very portrait of dysfunction.

The openness with which UT officials implicitly acknowledged that the school was considering following Arkansas out of the SWC created panic in the state legislature. David Silbey, a State Representative and Baylor alum, threatened that if the Longhorns and Aggies left the SWC without his Bears:

"The next time they want to talk about appropriations for new physics professors, they'll have to come through me."

Such threats will surface every time conferences realign. Schools that can command the highest market share will go looking for more, and those that cannot will threaten, rant, claw, beg, and sell their dignity cheap to avoid the ultimate uncertainty of temporary homelessness.

Market driven conference realignment in the early 1990s also created headaches for independents. As future television revenues seemed predestined to follow the most attractive and prestigious conference lineups, the east coast's host of historic independents looked for safe harbors in which to anchor their football programs. The Big East Conference, formed primarily for basketball in 1979, began conference play in football in 1991 to provide a more stable future for nervous independents such as Miami, Boston College, Syracuse, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Rutgers. When Penn State began Big Ten play in 1993 Notre Dame stood alone as the last great independent. Within three short seasons a landscape that had once been filled with independents who had every hope of playing in major bowls and winning national titles [as the Hurricanes, Nittany Lions, and Fighting Irish often did] was all but devoid of such schools.

Only Notre Dame's own lucrative mystique allowed the Great White Whale of conference realignment to hold out. Even then, expectations of the Irish's impending move to the Big Ten ran wild. The possibility of that move created a nervous apprehension in Big East country then as it still does today. One Big East AD commented to a reporter:

"Big Ten officials have declared a moratorium [of four years] on expansion, but who knows if they'll stick to it, once they see the writing on the wall?"

Then as today the Big Ten had its "timetable" and appeared to hold more cards than other conferences. But the bottom line was and always will be the market. Money might make the Big Ten move at any moment in any one of a number of directions. After that everyone else would have to move as well. Of course, Notre Dame didn't want to move. NBC's relationship with ND football began in February of 1990 and has funded Irish resilience at premium rates of return ever since. That precious money, the lifeline keeping Rockne's legacy of lone defiance against the simultaneously loved and hated Big Ten alive, allowed ND athletics director Dick Rosenthal to state emphatically:

"We've been an independent for 148 years. We are independent by desire."

Twenty years on that same money allowed current Notre Dame AD Jim Swarbrick to state that his school's "strong preference" remains independence [a state of being sought over every alternative save Armageddon].

The potential wild card in the whole process both in the early 90s, as today, was post-season revenue. Power players want to figure out the way to maximize bowl revenue while minimizing the number of mouths that revenue feeds and the list of schools that enjoy the opportunity of winning a national championship. Within two seasons of Arkansas' departure from the crumbling SWC the members of the College Football Association had negotiated a post-season structure known as the Bowl Coalition, which pitted the two highest ranked member teams in a championship bowl. This embryonic system grew into the current BCS with the inclusion of the Rose Bowl conferences in 1998. Bowls wanted the most lucrative matchups. Conferences wanted guaranteed bowl berths to add to their new TV contracts. No one except the fans wanted the unpredictable chaos of a playoff, which might generate more money but would also expose bigger fish to post-season competition and claims to revenue shares from upstart minnows.

Orange Bowl president Arthur Hertz stated to Sports Illustrated:

"I'm told by our legal people that if the Big Eight is not constituted the same as it was when we signed the contract [in 1988, with NBC, for six years], then we have the right to reevaluate."

In other words, conference realignment offered the opportunity for renegotiated post-season contracts that could mirror the game changing value of new regular season conference contracts. In such a market the parochial appeal of smaller conferences like the Big Eight and SWC held limited appeal. Frank Broyles saw the writing on the wall and even before Arkansas had officially accepted an invitation from the SEC publicly predicted:

"The '90s are predicted to be moving in the direction of three super-conferences, each with a major network."

Dodds sensed the future direction of college football with equal clarity. Bigger conferences housing multiple heavyweights and boasting blockbusting championship games were the wave of the future. The old SWC was not.

Viewed in light of the landscape as it stood in 1990, the summer of 2010 seems less revolutionary and more a case of 'same song, different verse.' In that same light the final outcome of the Big XII missile crisis seems even more surprising. It also would appear to be utterly unsustainable. The same factors which made the old SWC unstable and undesirable after the departure of Arkansas makes the current Big XII [10] a necessarily impermanent solution. The show may have been temporarily saved at the eleventh hour by money Dan Beebe raised from sources presently known only unto God and a select few other similarly tight-lipped individuals, but in the grand scheme simple market economics must dictate that the patch job will not last. Who in their right mind beyond the Texas-Southwest region will tune in on a weekly basis come fall Saturdays to witness the ritual ass whippings Texas and OU will most assuredly dole out to the grateful likes of Kansas, Iowa State, and Baylor?

Tom Osborne in 2010. Not so keen on Texas.

In 1990 the University of Arkansas left the old SWC because the league had decayed to a shell of its former self. A once-proud conference [home to the state of Texas' first national championship team and first Heisman winner -- neither of which hailed from Austin] had become an irrelevant, parochial group of infighting, backbiting brethren whose incessant scandals reflected poorly on the Hogs and had even begun to cost their athletics programs precious revenue rather than provide it. Association with the dysfunctional Southwest Conference family had, quite simply, become a liability where once it had been an asset.

In June of 2010 the University of Nebraska fled the company of its century-long conference mates for the safe refuge of Big Ten Country. For fifteen years Huskers have indignantly felt the offensive implications of the expanded Big XII's revenue sharing arrangement [which reflects more nearly the post-1992 SWC than the old Big Eight], and the location of the conference headquarters in Dallas. The extra second which miraculously appeared on the clock at the end of the 2010 conference championship game [much to Tom Osborne's chagrin] was, perhaps, the final straw. In pastures new Big Red can be one of twelve equally heard voices at the table rather than one ten utterly irrelevant ones.

Texas politicians and the complete dependence of OU football on its annual date at the state fair in Dallas may be able to keep the rump of the Big XII together for a while, but neither can force the football pedigree rich flagship institutions of other states to suffer bad company indefinitely. Texas politics could not keep Arkansas in the fold back in 1990 when common sense and market economics made the SEC an attractive prospect. Nor could they keep Big Red in the fold when the stable, equitable, lucrative, and cordial Big Ten came calling twenty years later. They, Dan Beebe, nor any other force save God himself will not prevent the Big XII [10] from crashing in a blaze of unmarketable ignominy sooner or later.

Questions have been raised as to the new name for the now numerically challenged Big XII. Presuming the obvious title of "Longhorn Athletic Conference" will not be adopted for fear of depriving Adam his fig leaf, there really is only one sensible choice:

The Southwest Conference.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Abandonned rivalries: Big Red and the Six Dwarves

I haven't posted in several weeks because I've been rather busy, but also because my internet time has been entirely consumed by my morbid fascination with the current conference realignment process. At the time of writing Nebraska is officially in the Big Ten and Colorado officially in the Pac Numeral. Texas A&M is busily flirting with the SEC and imagining a future as a football school of national import in its own right. Texas is apparently considering every single option to figure which one means the most money with the least accountability and easiest schedule.

Anything could happen. But this blog is not about the present or future of college football. All we know about the relation of the current situation to the game's past at this moment is that Nebraska's century-long relationship with the Six Dwarves, the old Big Eight's perennial whipping boys, is over.

I wrote recently about the travesty of downgrading the OU-Nebraska rivalry when the Big XII was formed back in 1995. A few months ago that decision [taken largely with a total lack of courage and foresight by now-discredited people at OU such as then head coach Gary Gibbs] was just a big shame. Now it looks like it might prove an error so costly that it sowed the seeds of the Big XII's demise even at the very moment of its inception. For decades OU and Nebraska played every Thanksgiving Friday in the national spotlight before an audience of millions of spell-bound football fans who couldn't believe the hard-hitting, ground eating rushing attacks these Great Plains powers perennially produced. The winner of that game almost always won the conference. Fairly often they would win a national title, too. At very least they would likely earn a trip to Miami at New Year. The OU-Nebraska game mattered. A lot.

It mattered so much that without it people in Lincoln began to feel alienated in and by their own conference. As Matt Hinton has recently been reminding people, the Big Eight absorbed half the Southwest Conference -- not viceversa. Texas and Co. were the refugees from a discredited, crumbling wreck of a league. The Big Eight was a nationally relevant conference with a strong brand that at the time rested on the edifice of Big Red's unstoppable Triple-Option. In the fifteen years since that time the OU-Nebraska game, stripped of its prime time billing on Thanksgiving weekend, has become secondary in national import to the Red River Shootout. OU-Texas is now the League's annual feature presentation. Nebraska has no great rival and as a consequence has suffered a loss of relevance. The contrived NU-Colorado rivalry has, to say the least, lacked even a fraction of the mystique that saturated the great Oklahoma-Nebraska games of yore.

The silver lining of Nebraska's move to the Big Ten will hopefully be the restoration of the OU series to an annual event, preferably on Thanksgiving. OU played Texas every year out of conference for more than a century before the formation of the Big XII. It would be no different now to add NU to the non-conference slate. This move would be a big gain for college football in general and Nebraskans in particular.

Far less likely to survive the shake-up in any form are Big Red's six lesser 'rivalries' with the soup and potatoes of their old Big Eight menu, the Six Dwarfs.

NU first met Kansas and Missouri on the gridiron in 1892, only the third year of Big Red football. Iowa State joined the slate in 1896. Colorado followed in 1898. Nebraska first joined a conference when the Missouri Valley was formed in 1907. For the first two-decades of its existence the conference grew steadily into a large and unwieldy group that never played a round-robin slate in football. Kansas State first played NU in 1911 and joined the MVC two years later. Oklahoma A&M joined the league in 1925 but never played Nebraska in the three seasons before the league split in 1928. The bigger state schools split from their smaller bedfellows to form a more cohesive football conference in 1928. The new Big Six then became the Big Seven with the addition of Colorado in 1947, then the Big Eight with Oklahoma State in 1958.

Since their first meetings Nebraska has only not played Kansas in 1904 and 1905. Iowa State only fails to appear on the schedule in the years 1902-04, 1920 and 1925. Kansas State is missing in only 1917-19 and 1920-21. Mizzou disappears from 1903 to 1910 and again from 1913-17 and 1920-22 but appears every year thereafter. The Colorado series skipped 1906 and 1908-11 before a long break between 1920 and 1948. Oklahoma State never played Nebraska at all until 1960, but the two then met every year until 1995 and every second year since.

Those six series, especially against KU, constitute some of the longest standing rivalries in college football. They are also some of the most lopsided. Versus Kansas Big Red is a whopping 90-23-3. Mizzou has fared little better at 64-36-3. Kansas State's 77-15-2 constitutes the second-worst effort percentage-wise, while Iowa State owns the longest winless streaks. En route to the ugly end of an 85-17-2 head-to-head record the Cyclones have failed to beat Nebraska for over a decade in five separate stretches and beat them only once between 1978 and 2001. Against Colorado Big Red is 48-18-2, and against Oklahoma State an overwhelming 36-5-1.

For a century Nebraska football literally ran roughshod over these opponents, riding them to forty-six bowl invitations, forty-seven conference championships, and five national titles. When Nebraska played other big boys out of conference the Huskers rarely disappointed and won more often than not. Nebraska also owns a very respectable 38-44-3 record against Oklahoma -- the Big Eight's other juggernaut. There is no doubt that Nebraska football is no mirage created by inflated records racked up against weaklings and only weaklings. Whether under Dana X. Bible, in Bob Devaney's Power-I, or Tom Osborne's Triple Option, Nebraska has never feared clashing heads with fellow heavy weights. But as is the case with all great collegiate programs, the foundation upon which those great championship bouts versus fellow giants rests is a consistently solid conference record against a host of obliging lesser-lights.

Without the Six Dwarfs the Big Eight's big two would unquestionably have amounted to a less perennial brand of large. Those rivalries were rarely interesting, almost never commanded a national TV audience, and will be mourned by no one outside of Big Eight country. But make no mistake; while moving to the Big Ten will likely be a good decision for Nebraska, the step will forever change the face of Big Red football.

So long, friends. And thanks for all the wins.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Great defensive players: Miami's D-line, 1987-89

When Jimmy Johnson took over the newly invigorated football program at the University of Miami in 1984 the task of replicating Howard Schnellenberger’s success seemed almost insurmountable. The departing head coach had, in five seasons, taken a program from the verge of euthanasia to a national championship. Still, even after half a decade of solid performances the nouveau riche power of the collegiate landscape still seemed more likely to prove an aberration than true aristocracy. Johnson also seemed a questionable choice for heir to the rising empire. His little-more-than-modest record at Oklahoma State would undoubtedly have been worse were it not for the presence of Heisman winner Barry Sanders in his most recent offensive backfields. But Johnson proved naysayers as wrong as anyone could possibly be. He did so by doing exactly what he done in Stillwater — giving the ball to his best playmakers. Of course, in Coral Gables there were plenty of playmakers from which to choose.

Commenting on the brash, presumptuous and ultra-confident demeanor of Miami football during the ‘80s and ‘90s would have been redundant even before ESPN’s recent 30-for-30 film on the ‘Canes. It would be utterly superfluous now. Every college fan knows [even those that weren’t around at the time] that those perennial championship contending Hurricanes played their own brand of football. That approach allowed Johnson to coach his teams to a 51-9 record with two national championships. Besides the oft-commented-upon “swagger” and the relentlessly dominant winning, those Miami teams are typically remembered as fertile breeding grounds for future pro talent, explosive pass-oriented offenses, and a barely-restrained penchant for thuggish behavior.

Those traits certainly did characterize Johnson’s Hurricanes, but Miami had plenty else going on as well. The aerial feats performed by quarterbacks Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde and Steve Walsh [two of whom were future Pro Bowl selections] were matched by the uncontainable receiving skills of athletes like Michael Irvin, Brett Perriman and Lamar Thomas. Irvin’s particular brand of unapologetic self-promotion defined his professional persona throughout his remarkable NFL career. By proxy it came to also define his alma mater’s entire football program. But not every memorable and productive Hurricane from those heady years fits the stereotype of the pugnaciously self-assured NFL star-in-waiting.

Even by comparison to the rest of Miami’s staggering two-decade run, Johnson’s teams from 1987-89 attained an observable high watermark. The ‘Canes went 34-2 over three seasons and missed out on an unprecedented national championship “three-peat” only by virtue of a controversial one-point loss at eventual 1988 AP champion Notre Dame. During that stretch the high-flying, fast-paced, offensive-minded Hurricanes scored less than twenty points only twice and averaged well over thirty. Those teams produced three consecutive NFL quarterbacks, six running backs and five receivers, but all four of Johnson's consensus all-America selections played defense. Three of them – Daniel Stubbs, Bill Hawkins and Greg Mark – were linemen.

Jimmy Johnson’s emphasis on the defensive front is an overlooked aspect of his legacy at Miami, overshadowed as it was by more memorable backfield speed, offensive output and off-field antics. Johnson played defensive line at Arkansas under the great Frank Broyles, including during an 11-0 national championship campaign in 1964.While Johnson and his staff clearly possessed an eye for innate talent and enjoyed a large pool of local recruits, Miami also coached players very well — in Johnson’s case, particularly defensive linemen.

Daniel Stubbs left Miami in 1987 as the school’s all-time leader in both a career and single season sack totals at 39.5 and 17 respectively. Both records remain unsurpassed. To no one’s surprised the 6’4” 250 lb pass-rush machine went on to a successful ten year NFL career that included Super Bowl rings with the 49ers in his rookie and sophomore years. Hawkins and Mark, on the other hand, did not enjoy such fortune as players beyond college. In four injury-hampered seasons with the Los Angeles Rams Hawkins started fewer than twenty games. A disappointing pro career contrasts markedly with the heights Hawkins attained in college, such as his 1988 18 tackle-for-loss and 7.5 sack marks in 1988. The following year Greg Mark became the unit's leader, registering an amazing 15.5 sacks en route to a national championship. Like Hawkins, Mark also failed to make an impact at the next level. His two year NFL career with the New York Giants included few highlights. By 1992 Mark was back in Coral Gable as a graduate assistant, beginning an assistant coaching career at his alma mater that was to last until 2005.

Jimmy Johnson's 'Canes: Unquestionably No. 1

Hawkins’ 3.85 GPA in High School led his football team. He went on to earn a finance degree with a solid 3.4 GPA. Mark’s coaching career proved his organizational and leadership abilities, and analytical skill. Neither was a brainless jock riding a broken system at a “pro factory” school that invariably passed its football through with no semblance of an education. No doubt plenty of Miami players left Coral Gables without much education [as they did every where during the 1980s], but that was not necessarily the rule and certainly wasn’t for Hawkins and Mark. For lovers of the college game it should be these players that define the greatest teams of the greatest era of Hurricane football. They went to class, studied, and graduated. And both achieved the highest points of their playing lives in college playing the game as amateurs. Player of their ilk, as much as Irvin, Perriman, or Testaverde, carried Miami to victory after victory over other highly teams that looked to knock the 'Canes off their perch.

When Miami defeated Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day 1988 it marked the third consecutive season they had handed the Sooners their only loss. In meetings between college football’s two most successful programs of the 1980s Miami emerged as the undisputed champion. That had a great deal to do with passing offense. In each of those three seasons Miami not only provided OU’s only loss but was also the only team to hang more than twenty points on them. Through three seasons no other opponent came any closer than seventeen. Behind Testaverde and Walsh’s downfield passing the ‘Canes posted twenty-seven, twenty-eight and twenty points.
In October 1985 Miami waltzed into Norman and stunned OU as Testaverde hit 17 of 28 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns. The next year back in Miami he was even better, completing 21 of 28 for 261 yards and four touchdowns. In the 1988 Orange Bowl Walsh made 209 yards on 18 of 30 for two scores and one pick. All three of those Sooner defenses ranked statistically among the very best nationally. Miami emphatically showed that the days of front-loading defenses with the best athletes playing in the box to stuff the run were over. Those offensive performances left an enduring impression on football fans in general and OU fans in particular.

But just as important to those victories were the stifling performances of Jimmy Johnson’s defensive lines. OU reached its great heights during the Switzer era on the strength of a seemingly unstoppable manifestation of Darrel Royal’s wishbone offense. In 1985 quarterback Jamelle Holieway rushed for 861 yards on 161 attempts. In contrast he threw the ball on only 58 occasions all season, completing an unimpressive 24 for 517 yards and only 5 TDs. Passing stats hardly seemed necessary for the AP champion Sooners, however, with fullback Lydell Carr adding 883 yards on 188 carries. OU’s two most proficient backs generated more than 1,600 yards rushing offense alone. That productivity continued. In 1986 Holieway rushed for 811 yards on 139 carries, supported again by Carr who made 548 on 101. Earl Johnson added 537 on 72 carries at halfback. Again Holieway’s passing game was a mere afterthought, amounting to 541 yards and 4 TDS on 30 of 63 [barely five attempts per game]. In 1987 the trio of stand-out juniors ran roughshod again. Holieway made 860 yards on 142 attempts while Carr and Thompson were good for 676 and 731 yards respectively on 105 carries each. Oklahoma’s prolific ground game averaged around three hundred yards per outing, except when they played Miami.
The 1988 Orange Bowl was typical. Despite their second consecutive No. 1 ranking going when meeting Miami, OU once again stalled. The Sooners managed just 179 team rushing yards. Between the all-American bookends of Daniel Stubbs and Bill Hawkins the Miami line held OU’s wishbone attack between the tackles all day.

While Miami’s high-flying air attacks are rightly remembered as trend setting offenses that ushered in a new era of pass-first college football, the ‘Canes epic threesome of contests against the other great power of the 1980s were won on defense at the line of scrimmage. Perhaps because many of the players involved in those defensive stands did not go on to legendary pro careers, the legacy of Jimmy Johnson’s defensive lines are often subsumed in the image of his irrepressible offenses. That may be understandable, but it is also unfair.

Miami-OU, 1985-87

Sources: Sooner Sports, OU-Miami; Wiki, Bill Hawkins, Danny Stubbs; USA Today CFB encyclopedia; Gainesville Sun, Sept. 4th 1987; Hurricane Sports, Greg Mark; CFB data warehouse)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Great defensive players: Greg Buttle

Joe Paterno has defined Old School football for so long that no one can remember when he was just School. Through the first ten years of his head coaching tenure in State College his Nittany Lions enjoyed the nation’s best overall record. Better than Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes, or Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne’s ‘Huskers. Better even than The Bear’s Crimson Tide. Because no one could ever argue with Paterno’s result they never criticized his methods either. The no-name, plain-uniform program still has a behind-the-times feel today, even in the almost universally stodgy Big Ten. But Paterno wasn’t any more up-with-the-times in 1975 — except that he won, and winning is cool.

Penn State did not have an athletic dorm. Paterno always worked hard first and foremost with all his recruits to sell the school and the collegiate experience. He told one Sport’s Illustrated reporter that he considered a home visit by a football coach to be “just about the worst” reason to select which university to attend. When young men visited campus Paterno often sent them out to wander around campus alone, and always insisted on academic meetings with faculty members in their prospective departments. Paterno wanted boys to want to attend Penn State, but not in the way that most football coaches want boys to attend their school. Joe Pa cared, and still does care, that his players truly sucked the marrow out of college life. For that reason he was outspokenly opposed to the NCAA’s 1972 decision to repeal its prohibition on freshman eligibility. Paterno’s view of the injustice of that move sounded out-dated and wildly idealistic even then, having more the ring of English professor than head coach about it:

“There's so much besides football. Athletes who come to Penn State shouldn't be tied down to a football program. These should be the four greatest years of their lives. I tell them, 'Enjoy yourselves.' I consider football an extracurricular activity, like debating or the band. It should never be removed from that context. More than 90% of our players graduate on schedule.”

Still enjoying it...

That was always Paterno’s way. Somehow his Nittany Lions won ball games without cheating, cutting class, or showboating. The “noble experiment” Joe Pa began in 1966 worked — spectacularly. And it worked not only because Paterno believed everything he said about fun, the college life, learning, attitude, and a host of other subjects, but also because he loved winning football games as much as any peer. Whatever he told reporters.

The archetypal Penn State football player would be workmanlike, diligent, unassuming, intelligent, well rounded, and quietly effective on the field. And he would surely be a linebacker. Call him Greg Buttle.

If Joe Pa’s offenses opened few eyes and his philosophy on college life seemed almost medieval, his defenses made up for it by setting plenty of trends. Penn State was one of the first college programs to run a 3-4 base defense and the four-man linebacker corps at the unit’s center was characterized by remarkable lateral mobility. Big enough to come up and crush the healthiest of running games, smart enough to read offenses on the fly, and fast enough to drop into coverage in an instant; Penn State’s linebackers seemed to simply emerge in an unbroken line of succession from a single mold. Unsurprisingly for a man who sixty years after his graduation is still tied for the all-time interception record at his alma mater, Brown, Paterno has always had an eye for defensive talent. And character. Penn State coaches didn’t just retool their linebacker unit year after year with the previous fall’s most highly touted prep all-American. They frequently converted players from other positions. They also insisted that recruits pass the attitude test. Current players reported back to coaches on recruits after visits and scholarships were often withheld solely on the strength on a player’s opinion that a prospective recruit would not fit the program.

That screening process produced five consensus all-America selections for Penn State linebackers through Paterno’s first ten seasons: Dennis Onkotz twice in 1968 and ‘69, Jack Ham [a High School Offensive Guard] in 1970, John Skorupan [a former receiver] in 1972, and Greg Buttle [another former receiver] in 1975. Some of Paterno’s great ‘backers were bigger than average, some smaller. Some had played the position before, some hadn’t. That didn’t really matter. Joe Pa himself seems a misfit. An Ivy League literature student who has consistently refused pay raises in an era of ever-escalating coaching salary arms races and used no small amount of the money he has earned to partly fund the school’s library [which appropriately bears his name.]

In a profession dominated by maniacal type-A personalities Paterno is a relative renaissance man. It is quite fitting therefore that the defenses that carried his teams should have been built around young men like Greg Buttle. In addition to his outstanding football prowess Buttle was also an active Barber Shop Quartet singer and a sufficiently successful ocean rower to eventually earn enshrinement in that pastime’s Hall of Fame. For all his accomplishment, Buttle remained the consummate Penn State man and never developed an inflated ego. Paterno used to encourage his players to call him “Joe.” Like most of them, Buttle couldn’t bring himself to do so. He continued to bashfully call the living legend “Coach Paterno.” Joe Pa jokingly responded by routinely addressing his all-America linebacker as “Player Buttle.” Shortly before entering the NFL as a third round draft pick by the Jets in April 1976 Buttle joked to a reporter that he had been overwhelmed by his head coach as a young player.

“In my freshman year I never talked to him. I saw him in his shorts one day. I thought, Joe Paterno in shorts. It was like seeing a god in shorts.”

That was typical Penn State — humble, appreciative, respectful. But on the field Buttle had a legacy to maintain and showed his opponents respect only by never giving them a play off. One down at a time through his four-year career Buttle hunted down ball carries and punished them. His 165 tackles as a junior on a team that finished ranked 7th at 10-2 remain the school’s single-season record; as does his single-game high tally of 24 vs. West Virginia on October 26th 1974. His career tackle total of 343 stood as the school’s all-time record for three decades until Paul Posluszny surpassed the figure, reaching 372 in 2006 [after playing slightly more games.]

The 1974 West Virginia game typifies the spirit of Joe Pa’s greatest defenses. Standing at 2-3 Bobby Bowden’s Mountaineers were not the greatest team the Nittany Lions faced all year, but Morgantown is never an easy road trip and Penn State was never in the habit of giving opponents an easy ride whatever their record. In a hard-fought contest Paterno’s team eventually came out on top, 21-12. Three PSU linebackers kept West Virginia quite by racking up an incredible sixty-five combined tackles. In addition to Buttle’s record twenty-four, Buddy Tesner notched twenty-one while pinch-hitting backup Jim Rosecrans added twenty. It is an outstanding achievement that Buttle reached 343 career tackles on a unit in which he constantly shared stats with fellow all-conference selections and second-string youngsters capable of making twenty tackles in a game. Little wonder that he went on to a successful nine year pro career with the New York Jets. Or that the once over-awed student of Penn State’s own renaissance-man-come-football-coach should invest his time and energy after his pro career as a national spokesman for United Way.

It is utterly impossible to single out any great Penn State linebacker from the host of others. Unassuming, hard-nosed defenders made twenty tackles-a-game before Buttle in State College, and plenty have done it since. Any one of Penn State’s all-America linebackers could stand for all of the others; which I suppose is exactly why Paterno has produced so many.

One line in the PSU fight song goes: “We’ll hit that line, roll up the score…” Neither during Joe Pa’s first decade or in the nearly three full decades since has Penn State been known for rolling up scores. But Nittany Lions of the Buttle mold have hit the line down after down like no one else.

Linebacker U: search and destroy

(Sources: Keith Mano, SI; Wiki; Larry Keith, SI; ESPN Big 10 Encyclopedia; USA Today CFB Encyclopedia)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Great defensive players: Ricky Hunley

When Larry Smith, a Bo Schembechler disciple, took over as head football coach at the University of Arizona in 1980 he inherited a program that had earned only two shared conference titles since WWII (both in the WAC), had never won a bowl game, and had finished in the AP poll only twice. Smith was not a high-profile candidate. Through the first three of his four seasons at Tulane he had won only seven games. But then, Arizona was not a high profile job. Preparing for its third season in the newly expanded Pac-10 Conference Arizona had been invited for its size, geographical location, and perhaps its basketball program. Smith’s mandate was for solid, steady progress. He approached that mandate with a passion for the game, wearing his heart very much on his sleeve. He became emotionally invested in the University, eventually retiring in Tucson even after several subsequent head coaching stints elsewhere. Smith also invested in his players.

After his death in 2008 former Arizona linebacker Lamonte Hunley told the USA Today that Smith was extremely careful to listen to parents on recruiting visits. He spent time discussing the family’s goal for their child and whether Arizona was a good fit for those goals. He also promised to make football in Tucson fun; a promise Hunley believed he invariably kept. That approach allowed Smith to recruit a slightly better class of talent than previous ‘Zona coaches had managed. And with that talent he fulfilled his mandate for steady progress, improving his team’s record in each of his seven seasons. The Wildcats progressed from 5-6 in 1980 to 9-3 and the school’s first ever bowl win in 1986.

Smith worked hard recruiting players from across the West and nationally. Most were a modest upgrade for the program. Some were genuine first-class athletes such as slot back/punt returner Vance Johnson who was NCAA Long Jump champion in 1982. But in seven seasons of impressive progress Smith produced only one true great and consensus all-American — Lamonte Hunley’s older brother Ricky.

Ricky was no surprise as a collegiate star. His multi-sport performances as a Prep athlete in his hometown of Petersburg, Va. earned him attention from baseball scouts and he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. But as Hunley grew bigger and stronger it became increasingly clear that his best chance for a successful athletic future lay with football. At the time Virginia’s state schools were hardly successful football powers. Playing outside of the home turf of college football’s great programs Hunley did not garner quite the attention he might have received growing up elsewhere. This allowed Smith to pull off his greatest coup as Arizona head coach and bring Ricky to Tucson.

Hunley lettered four years as a bruising Inside Linebacker in Arizona’s 3-4 base defense. He entrenched himself permanently in the starting lineup only part way into his freshman season with a fourteen tackle performance versus UCLA, four behind the line of scrimmage. Standing at 6’2” with a playing weight of around 230 lbs Hunley was not freakishly big or even outstandingly quick for a college athlete. But his natural athleticism, ability to read the game, and continual desire to learn enabled him to rise above other players with similar or greater physical gifts. By the end of his junior season Hunley had amassed 224 career solo tackles and 166 assists, becoming his school’s first ever all-American in 1982.

As a senior Hunley added ninety-nine more solo tackles, seventy-seven assists, ten tackles for loss, five interceptions, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and repeated as a consensus all-America selection. Hunley terrorized opposition backfields and earned all-conference honors in each of the three years he started. After graduation Hunley was taken seventh overall in the 1984 NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. When the young star’s agent presented a thirty-page proposal listing contract demands the organization felt were excessive a hold-out ensued. Eventually the Bengals traded Hunley to Denver for first and third round picks in the 1986 draft and a fifth round pick in 1987. Hunley’s starting deal of $1 million over four seasons, a $1.75 million signing bonus, and $60,000 of incentives caused enough of a splash to initially alienate several less well-paid Bronco veterans. But he eventually proved a sound investment, leading a solid defense that more-than supported John Elway’s offense en route to consecutive AFC championships in 1986-87. [Elway was certainly much happier watching Hunley from the sidelines as a Bronco than he had been running from him in Stanford’s backfield as a collegian.]

The Wildcat team he led as a senior started the season an unprecedented #14 in the AP poll and climbed to #3 after a 4-0 start — still the highest spot the school has ever reached. After reaching 5-0-1 three straight losses sent ‘Zona crashing out of the polls before two wins to finish the season salvaged some respect. Commentators believed the team failed to handle unfamiliar pressure at the business end of the polls. That was doubtless part of the 1983 Wildcats’ problem. But more importantly the position Smith’s team reached in week five was probably about as high as a team can reach with only one true all-American on the field. Defense is supremely important in football, though defensive stars are too easily forgotten. The fact is that an otherwise only modestly good team can achieve just about anything short of major championships with a 120 tackle-a-season linebacker like Ricky Hunley between the hash marks.

(Sources: USA Today, Larry Smith obituary; SI, 1983 Pac-10 preview; CFB Hall of Fame; USA Today CFB Encyclopedia; Bob Hill, Miami Sun-Sentinel;;

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Great defensive players: Charles Smith, George Webster, and Charlie Thornhill

On a chilly, hostile November afternoon in East Lansing at the end of the 1966 season Coley O’Brien walked toward the ball at his own thirty-yard line. With a minute remaining, a keenly anticipated meeting between unbeatens No.1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State was tied at 10-10. Offensive mistakes on both sides had given opportunities that imposing defenses had staved off, including a first quarter Spartan fumble on their own four-yard line that produced no points for the Irish. With sixty seconds to play and seventy yards to go the football gods had given Notre Dame one last chance, but Ara Parseghian decided controversially not to take it. The Spartan defense lined up expecting a deep ball. When O’Brien handed off for two consecutive short-yardage running plays without any apparent urgency reality dawned on the now disgusted Michigan State players. As a cacophony of boos rained down from the stands Spartan defenders added their own insults and taunts.

Senior Defensive End Charles “Bubba” Smith yelled: “Come on, sissies.”

Linebacker George Webster shouted across the line of scrimmage to the Irish players in their huddle: “You’re going for a tie aren’t you? Get of the field, you’ve given up!”

Parseghian calculated correctly that Notre Dame’s prestige and polling power would deliver a national championship despite the school’s policy of refusing bowl bids and a record blemished with a tie. Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins led the charge of outraged journalists lobbying for pollsters to “punish” Notre Dame. Jenkins sarcastically wondered whether Parseghian had exhorted his players to “Tie one for the Gipper!” But appeals for AP voters to bestow the title upon Bear Bryant’s Alabama after the Tide dismantled Bob Devaney’s Cornhuskers in the Sugar Bowl fell on deaf eras. Notre Dame’s emotional grip on football pollsters could not be broken. That fateful game in Spartan Stadium on November 19th 1966 has been defined in football lore and memory ever since by Parseghian’s somewhat cynical and certainly ignoble calculation. The unbeaten Spartans somehow got lost in the story, playing only the role of unmemorable dancing partner to the real actors from South Bend.

The outcome of that game and its subsequent place in college football history is highly lamentable. November 19th 1966 would more rightly be remembered as the last game of two incredible seasons for the best ever Michigan State defense. Smith and Webster, two time all-Americans of outstanding pedigree, should have finished their careers in East Lansing as they had spent every preceding minute — hustling like the hounds of hell and running over helpless opponents in pursuit of victory. Instead, Parseghian’s conceit and the Big Ten’s nonsensical prohibition of repeat Rose Bowl performances forced the Spartan stand-outs to play end their years in the collegiate game on a low note of anger and frustration.

The 1965 and 1966 seasons remain the high watermark of Michigan State football history. Had the home fans known that November that more than forty years later they would still be awaiting a second performance as repeat Big Ten champion they would probably have rushed the field looking for blood. In fact the Spartans have only claimed a single outright Big Ten title and shared two more in the forty-four years since. The explanation for that all-too-brief high summer of success and the juxtaposing drought that has followed is surely the basic philosophy of the State’s head coach, and his laudable lack of racial prejudice.

Duffy Daugherty played his college ball at Syracuse without much distinction before serving in WWII. After the war Daugherty returned to Syracuse as an assistant to his former coach Clarence “Biggie Munn. Daugherty followed Munn to Michigan State in 1947 and was an integral part of a staff that coached the Spartans to successive unbeaten campaigns and national titles in 1951-52 and a shared conference title in State’s inaugural Big Ten campaign in 1953. Daugherty succeeded Munn as head coach the following year, but with the exception of a Rose Bowl victory and a second place AP finish in 1955 he largely failed to match Munn’s achievements until the mid-1960s.

Daugherty assumed a jocular persona, always having a quip on hand. Publicly he discussed his work as a coach in an almost flippant tongue-in-cheek manner. He brushed off the stresses of the job, such as the pressure to win, with whimsical cracks such as: “The alumni are always with you, win or tie.” But behind the revelry everyone knew that Daugherty took the game very seriously indeed. His ability not to take himself too seriously allowed him to see that victory did not depend upon some revolutionary system or stroke of genius he might contribute. Rather he frankly admitted:

“The reason you win is because you’ve got more good players than the next guy. Most football games aren’t won on the field. They’re won from December to September, when recruiting is done.”

If winning meant finding and fielding the best available players Daugherty didn’t care who they were or where they came from, as long as they wanted to play for Michigan State and would play hard. College football’s color barrier had been broken in the north and west long before Daugherty assembled his great teams of the mid-1960s. Ernie Davis won the Heisman playing for Daugherty’s alma mater four years before his first conference championship. But there still remained an unwritten rule at northern schools that coaches would only field a few black players. For whatever reason, coaches only played the very best black athletes on otherwise lilywhite teams. The 1966 Fighting Irish, for example, who eventually won the AP title over the an unbeaten Alabama team which eastern sportswriters unfairly associated with their state governor’s impetuous stand on the schoolhouse steps, fielded only one black player. Daugherty didn’t care if his entire team was black. His coaches scoured the south, finding young athletes barred from playing for schools in their own states and bringing them to East Lansing.

When the towering Charles Smith left Beaumont, Texas in 1962 aged eighteen he had never had what he would call a “real conversation” with any white person. He later joked that he never seen nor heard of Jews and was surprised to learn in Michigan that there were different types of white people. Regardless of any culture shock Smith felt the 6’7” 280 lb giant settled down to play probably the best defense of any player in Spartan history — he is still the highest drafted player ever from Michigan State. Smith moved his huge body with frightening speed, reaching opposing backfields with apparent ease. Coley O’Brien only saw the field for Notre Dame in that famous 1966 game because Irish starter Terry Hanratty suffered a separated shoulder early in the first quarter when Smith leveled him behind the line of scrimmage. Moving with speed and hitting with brute force Smith quickly established himself as both the anchor of State’s line and the spearhead of its pass-rush.

Behind Smith's defensive line Daugherty built a flexible unit based on speed that looked more like modern defenses designed to stuff the spread than its Big Ten peers. At the heart of the unit was hybrid Safety/Linebacker George Webster. The 6'4" 225 lb South Carolinian was as fast as any Big Ten receiver and strong enough to single-handedly lay out any running back. Webster played with an insatiable intensity. State's defensive captain Cornerback Don Japinga called Webster the greatest footballer he ever played with or against. Japinga said of Webster:

"He literally punished every ball carrier."

Directing the Spartan Linebacker core another southerner flew to the ball with enough ferocity to earn the moniker "mad dog". Charlie Thornhill of Roanoake, Alabama would never have even found East Lansing without the intervention of the very image of Dixie's football establishment, Bear Bryant. Thornhill scored over two-hundred points as a senior running back and became the first black athlete to earn player of the year accolades from Roanoake's Touchdown Club. Thornhill was surprised and thrilled to find Bryant at the awards reception and even more surprised when the living legend asked him where he planned to attend college. Thornhill had an offer from Notre Dame, but Bryant asked him to wait on committing until he made a phone call.

That call went to Duffy Daugherty. On Bryant's recommendation Michigan State offered Thornhill a scholarship. The Bear chaffed under the frustration of his state's system of racial segregation. No one ever accused Byrant of progressivism, but he like Daugherty didn't care about anything in his players but their attitude and ability. Ever the football-obsessed pragmatist Bryant simply wanted to win. He wanted the best athlete's and didn't care whether they were black, white, or green. He eventually led the SEC toward integration in the early 70s, a process eased by the stunning effortlessness with which the USC Trojans led by Fullback Sam Cunningham ran over the all-white Crimson Tide in Birmingham to open the 1970 season.

But the Bear wasn't only a self-interested glory-hunter. Until such a time as Alabama's political climate would accept his desire to recruit black students he went out of his way to steer young men toward northern schools that would actually put them on the field. As a freshman Thornhill had a misunderstanding and confrontation with a Michigan State assistant that left him buried down the depth-chart and ended his hopes of earning a spot at running back. When Daugherty finally gave him a chance to play some downs at Linebacker in drills between the starting offense and second-string defense Thornhill made tackles on six straight plays and absolutely blew-up State's starting quarterback. Neither he nor Daugherty ever looked back.

In Smith and Webster’s junior and senior seasons Michigan State went 19-1-1, losing only to UCLA behind the stunning play of sophomore sensation quarterback Gary Beban in one of the great Rose Bowl upsets. Going a perfect 14-0 in conference play through those two seasons the Spartans gave up only 34.6 rushing yards a game and held their opponents to a combine seven fourth quarter points. Smith and Co. never tired before the guys across the line. Daugherty, like most Big Ten coaches then and since, preferred a ball-control run heavy offense and a reliable defense. Defensive players in any color didn’t come any more reliable than Smith, Webster, and Thornhill. With talent of their caliber on the field, scoring against State proved virtually impossible.

In the years since that infamous Michigan State-Notre Dame game the football gods have not smiled on East Lansing. Spartan coaches have struggled to attract the best players to State — the less storied and fashionable school in Michigan. Even as the Daugherty’s greatest team claimed its second straight Big Ten title, changes were afoot far to the south that eventually spelled the end of Sparty’s greatest era. Jerry LeVais, an undersized but speedy receiver from Smith’s own hometown of Beaumont had accepted an athletic scholarship from SMU in the spring of 1965 and became the first ever black player in Southwest Conference football history in 1966. Slowly but surely the SWC’s color barriers came down over the ensuing years. The University of Texas fielded its first back varsity football player four years later. Inevitably, as these institutions opened their doors to black players the pipeline of talent that created Daugherty’s great success dried up. If Bubba Smith were a High School standout today, the chances of him not signing to play for Mack Brown would be approximately nil.

Sources: Sporting News, CFB's 25 Greatest Teams; Dan Jenkins, "An upside down game"; USA Today CFB encyclopedia; Keith Dunnavant, The Missing Ring;; ESPN, Big Ten Encyclopedia)