Buckle down Winsocki

It's the eve of another college football season. Sis boom Bah!

All the usual suspects appear to be present, accounted for, and in mid-season form.

Sports Illustrated has just come out with its annual preview. Of the academic groves they pick to field the 25 best teams this year, 21 finished in the top 25 last year. Pitt, Miami, Cincinnati and Wisconsin are the new boys replacing Utah, Iowa, Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

Some 600 colleges and universities field bona fide football programs every fall; a "bona fide program" being defined as one that features tackle football, full pads, and a ball that is blown up, not stuffed. Yet every year the same batch of 35-40 schools vie for the top rankings, all the best bowl games, the free publicity in Sports Illustrated, and the largest financial windfalls on TV. It's like musical chairs. When the music stops 25 of them finish in the top 25 and the other dozen or so fire their coach. This happens every year.

It has sometimes occurred to me -- given that a genuine competition is the essence of any athletic endeavor -- that the college football season is kind of boring, given that roughly 95 percent of the schools that play the game are officially eliminated from any hope of any laurels in July. If you know that every year Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, Florida, USC, and Ohio State are going to be scattered among the top ten as certainly as the sun will come up tomorrow, then where is the suspense, where is the drama?

Admittedly, this attitude is very un-American. In fact not so long ago, if you were guilty of this kind of thinking you were presumed to be "a Communist." A little progress has been made. Nowadays such elitist airs merely stamps you as a graduate of a pleasingly small and traditional New England Liberal Arts College that has neither finished in the top 25 nor made it to a bowl game since Harry Truman's first term in the White House.

Still, we doggedly insist you can win, Winsocki, if you only buckle down.

At the University of Southern California, a perennial contender since Harry Truman's second term, no such grasping at mythical straws has ever been required. National Championships, Pac10 titles, merry prances at holiday bowls had become a divine right until a suddenly impertinent NCAA, long the cowering chief enabler of haughty jock behemoths like the Trojans, turned nasty.

Because of the sins of their Heisman star Reggie Bush, which were blithely tolerated by his coach, the supremely unctuous Pete Carroll, the NCAA has forced USC to vacate a national championship, forfeit 14 conquests, lose 30 scholarships, endure unprecedented humiliation, and land on probation, which means they won't be going anywhere the next two years.

Meanwhile Bush, who's alleged to be contrite, continues to reap millions running the ball in New Orleans while Carroll, who gleefully skipped off to Seattle, has no intention of apologizing, which will come as no surprise to those who recall his weak act as Patriots' coach. If it's justice you seek in this scenario you'd be better off waiting for the cow to jump over the moon.

The prosecution of USC may suggest the NCAA is getting tougher. Is it too much to hope they may even try to justify their outrageous endowment -- mainly compiled in hefty television sweetheart deals -- by more vigorously policing the corrupt college jock scene, let alone demanding -- heaven help us -- fairness and equity?

Now under the gun is the University of Michigan, another sacred cow long considered above reproach. In fairness to Michigan, it's a school that's long run classy programs and avoided scandal. But two years ago they got conned into hiring Rich Rodriguez, a fast-talking football gunslinger. In two years he's piled up five recruiting violations to go with a losing record and the inquiry continues. This won't go down well at Ann Arbor. But, then there are so many such examples. Next on the NCAA's docket is another of the holier than thou outfits, the University of North Carolina.

Against this sordid background it becomes faintly amusing that the Big Dogs of the college coaching fraternity are banding together to fight what they call ''rogue agents.'' In an impressive burst of righteous indignation Nick Saban, the noted ethicist who coaches the semi-professional team that represents the esteemed University of Alabama, has demanded curbs on the agents whom he says lead the sort of nice, humble lads on his squad astray with gifts and favors that can also -- by the way -- get his program into trouble. The high and mighty Saban leads the movement and he has high powered coaching types like Meyer of Florida, Kiffin of USC, Tressel of Ohio State, etc. on board.

Me-thinks they doth protest too much. Or is it cynical to suggest that what aggravates these hyper grasping and self-promoting characters most is the extra work and responsibility that the 'rogue agents' incur for them plus the increasing tendency of said agents to lead the better players to the NFL well before their eligibility runs out.

The notion that Nick Saban has a moral objection to deep-pocketed agents greasing the palms of poor, fragile athletes would be risible if it were not downright hypocritical. Boosters and benefactors have been playing the same wily games for decades with the implicit blessings of the Nick Saban's of this sporting world. Spare us your indignation, Coach. It only plays well in Tuscaloosa.

Where does it end? It doesn't. Not as long as academics, including too many college and university presidents who clearly lack the courage of their convictions, continue to be able to convince themselves that the road to growth and eminence runs smack along the 50 yard line.

Recently asked how important football was at his school, the coach of little old Appalachian State University replied that last spring they had to reject 17 thousand applicants. And, he added dryly, "We didn't have that problem before the Michigan game." You may recall that when little known Appalachian ambushed the mighty Wolverines a couple of years ago it was widely proclaimed one of the greatest upsets in the history of the game.

It is on such faint gossamer -- however delusional -- that people who should know better justify what inevitably becomes a certain madness. Here's another small, but priceless example.

In Arkansas, where the Razorbacks of the state university are hallowed beyond belief, the radio station WKAS bills itself "Hog Sports radio." It happened to be raining when WKAS reporter Renee Gork hustled off to cover a news conference featuring the imperious Bobby Petrino, Arkansas' head football man. So, she grabbed a cap from her car. Alas, she's from Gainesville and is a graduate of Florida, and it was a Gator-cap that she doffed.

When she asked him a question wearing the cap, the gracious Coach Petrino complained sharply and Ms. Gork -- although she apologized profusely -- was fired. "We are totally biased," admitted her boss, WKAS General Manager Dan Storr. "We support the Razorbacks 100 percent." If there are any lawyers left in Arkansas they should have a field-day with that one.

In a couple of weeks, the relatively serene and pastoral New England college football season featuring schools that have renounced "the madness" will get underway. Holy Cross will play Harvard and Williams will also meet a traditional foe they've been playing about a hundred years. Up at Dartmouth, Colgate will visit with the leaves beginning to turn. The quaint scene will be replicated at Trinity and Tufts, Bates and Bowdoin.

And at all such gatherings the stadiums may only be half-filled. It won't be tough to get seats near the fifty. Tickets will be cheap, parking ample and maybe free. Students will come and go. Some may even be spotted with a book. The halftime shows will be puckish and soon enough pockets of folks, maybe alums, will break out in song. As for the games, they'll be wide open, a bit messy, and invariably high-scoring and when it's over the walk across the fields will be slow and amiable. Wine will flow throughout.

Who would have it otherwise?

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