Category Archives: College football

Elusive football titles. And Slippery Rock

Here’s the loophole in Alabama’s claim to the national college football title: The University of Central Florida.

This is not to diminish Alabama’s rollicking overtime victory over Georgia in the designated championship game. It is not a call for an expanded playoff system. Nor is it an assertion—impossible to make—that Central Florida would have beaten either Alabama or Georgia. It simply is an understanding that Central Florida, excluded from the four-team playoff by the 13-member committee of athletic directors, former coaches (and one journalist), is entitled to its national championship argument.

Central Florida, unlike Alabama and Georgia, never lost a game this season. Of the 137 schools in the NCAA’s top football division, only Central Florida was undefeated. Furthermore, among Central Florida’s 13 victims was Auburn, which previously defeated both Alabama and Georgia.

Central Florida’s situation is a far cry from the tenuous Slippery Rock Theory of No. 1-ness evoked in 1936. That year, divergent polls knighted Pitt (8-1-1) and Minnesota (7-1) co-national champs, but a Slippery Rock student had an if-then logic to his 6-3 team’s right to the title: Slippery Rock beat Westminster, which beat West Virginia Wesleyan, which beat Duquesne, which beat Pitt, which beat Notre Dame, which beat Northwestern, which beat Minnesota.

In 2008, once-beaten Florida defeated once-beaten Oklahoma in the championship game. (That was six years before the current four-team playoff format, but the title participants were just as subjectively determined.) Salon columnist King Kaufman posited that Tulane—which won two games that season—was the real national champion because Tulane beat Louisiana Monroe, which beat Troy, which beat Middle Tennessee, which beat Maryland, which beat Wake Forest, which beat Ole Miss, which not only beat Florida but also Texas Tech which, in turn, beat Oklahoma.

Such a calculus would have elevated my alma mater, the University of Missouri, to the national title in both 2006 and 2007. In ’06, Missouri was 8-5. But Ohio State lost the designated title game to Florida, and Florida lost to Auburn, which lost to Georgia, which lost to Vanderbilt, which lost to Ole Miss, which lost to Missouri. I rest my case. The next season, LSU defeated Ohio State in the championship tilt, but LSU earlier had lost to two teams, Kentucky and Arkansas, while Missouri lost to only one team that season, Oklahoma (though that happened twice). Furthermore, Missouri dominated Arkansas in its bowl game.

But, OK, fuzzy math and partisan methodology aside, it is fair to note that these championships are not settled entirely on the playing field. It can be debated that Alabama, in losing its final regular-season game to Auburn and failing to advance to its own conference championship game, never should have been admitted to the playoffs in the first place over six conference winners, including Central Florida.

Nobody is likely to contend that Central Florida’s league, the American Athletic Conference, is on a par with Alabama’s Southeastern Conference, but so what? Central Florida demonstrated its worthiness by conquering SEC-division champ Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Central Florida coach Scott Frost called the selection committee’s modest No. 12 ranking prior to conference title games a “conscious effort” to insure his team would be excluded from the playoffs.

It’s the same thing that happened to Boise State in 2006, when Boise State was unbeaten but ranked a humble 9th because it didn’t come from a so-called “power conference.” In that season’s Fiesta Bowl, Boise State upset power-conference member Oklahoma, but that was as close as it was going to get to the Florida-Ohio State championship match-up between once-beaten teams.

Frost, who has improved his chances of a playoff berth by ascending to a higher conference as Nebraska’s new head coach, had a point. There is an asymmetrical attention in these matters to the big-name schools and richer leagues, and folks in my profession—sports journalism—too often feed that narrative.

Definitive statements and established reputations rule. On the Sports On Earth website, Mike Lupica proclaimed Alabama’s Nick Saban “the best college coach of all time….there never has been a better coach in college football than he is, as far back as you want to go.” Which seems a bit over the top when one considers that there were 774 college head coaches, on various levels, in 2017. (And that doesn’t count two-year schools.) Throw in the fact that college football has been played for 148 years, and to anoint one fellow the best of all time sounds mighty presumptuous.

Here’s another school of thought, prompted by the news of Carmen Cozza’s death the week of the Alabama-Georgia buildup. Cozza, who was 87, had been Yale’s coach for 32 seasons and, if greatness is winning, Cozza certainly qualified as among the best. His Yale teams averaged fewer than four losses per year and, during one stretch in the late 1970s, Yale was Ivy League champion seven of eight years.

But, because Ivy League schools opted in 1945 not to participate in post-season play—based on the quaint egghead reasoning that colleges should prioritize education over football—Cozza’s teams never had any hope of playing for a national championship. And so what?

Days before Cozza’s final game at Yale in 1996, against annual rival Harvard, I sat with him in his New Haven, Conn., office as he mulled What It All Meant.

“I think,” he said then, “that anyone in this business has aspirations of being in the Rose Bowl. But I know people who took jobs like that. They are friends and I’ve seen what happened to them. So I’m saying to myself, ‘Be thankful for what you have.’”

More than once, Cozza had had been contacted about taking higher-profile jobs but found himself wondering “if I’d be as happy as I was at Yale. I’d certainly have liked to have players bigger and faster sometimes. But nobody coached as many doctors and lawyers as I have, as many leaders. I always couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning.

“The game is for the young men. It’s not for fund-raising for the university. It’s not for putting schools on the map. I don’t think an institution should ever use an athlete to promote its well-being. If we’re not doing what’s in the best interest of the student, we’re not being educators.”

That same week, Harvard’s coach, Tim Murphy, told me, “If you take the two ends of the spectrum—Vince Lombardi’s ‘winning is the only thing’ and Grantland Rice’s ‘it’s how you play the game’—I think Carm is somewhere in the middle. And me, too.”

And me, too. Congratulations to Alabama. Congratulations to (sort-of) national champion Central Florida. Don’t get carried away.

He outlived Hofstra football


It was just last week that one of my Hofstra University journalism students, for his final paper of the semester, wrote a lament of the school’s 2009 decision to disband its football team. “A Lost Program Gone But Not Forgotten,” he called it.

And now comes the news that a central figure in both Hofstra and Hofstra football history is gone as well: James Shuart, dead at 85.

By the time Shuart retired after 25 years as University president in 2001, he had come to be a sort of Father Hofstra. He had Dutch roots, like the school itself. He had earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Hofstra. He had been one of the first 12 football players to receive a Hofstra athletic scholarship and was a member of the original Hofstra lacrosse team.

He had returned to his alma mater to work as admissions officer, faculty member, dean and vice president before assuming the presidency in 1976, at a time when the university was struggling financially. During his tenure, Hofstra increased enrollment, expanded academic offerings and library holdings, initiated presidential conferences, became the first private university campus in the nation to be fully accessible to the physically challenged, moved its athletic department into top-tier Division I and founded the school of communications—where I now work after 44 years as a reporter for Long Island’s Newsday.

The year after Shuart retired, the football stadium was renamed in his honor. James M. Shuart Stadium still stands, but in 2004, the school’s athletic nickname was changed, from Flying Dutchmen to Pride, and in 2009 Shuart’s successor, Stuart Rabinowitz, did away with intercollegiate football for fiscal reasons.


I am the first to acknowledge that, in the reality-based world of 21st Century college sports, it is difficult to rationalize the expense of fielding a football team at a small private school. Enormous costs for insurance, equipment and staff are virtually impossible to offset when there is none of the rabid spectator following or the massive television-fueled revenues of thoroughly professional powers such as Alabama or Ohio State.

Furthermore, it is not impossible to be a top-flight institution of higher education without a football team.

But it was sad to see the Dutch label ditched. Hofstra takes its name from William Hofstra, an early 1900s Long Island lumber magnate of Dutch heritage upon whose land the university is built. And Shuart told me, during a long interview shortly before he retired, how his surname “really is from the Dutch ‘Sjoerd,’ which means ‘George’ and was used as a last name when Napoleon insisted that people had to have last names. I’m one-quarter Dutch; one of my grandparents allegedly was Dutch.”

When the teams were called the Dutchmen, Hofstra dressed a coed in a Dutch-girl costume as a mascot, complete with wooden shoes, and called her Katie Hofstra—after William’s wife. (Hofstra still holds an annual spring Dutch Festival to showcase a campus flooded with tulips—another Shuart initiative.)


More to the point, Shuart epitomized the sound mind, sound body ideal in college, a “student-athlete” before the term was coined by the NCAA as a brand to rationalize the recruitment of jocks whose primary purpose was to win games and boost the salaries and resumes of coaches and athletic directors.

Shuart, a history major, was captain of the 1952 Hofstra football team his senior year, when Hofstra lost only one of nine games. That loss was to Alfred, when an Alfred punt took an odd bounce, glanced off a Hofstra blocker and afforded Alfred the fumble recovery that set up the winning score.

“We were so upset,” Shuart recalled. “Young men—20, 21 years old—tears streaming down our faces.” Hofstra’s coach then was Howdy Myers, who in 1950—Shuart’s sophomore year—had started the school’s lacrosse operation.

“He called his first meeting of the football players that February,” Shuart said, “and handed us gloves, a helmet with wires and sticks. He said, ‘Gentlemen, this is lacrosse.’ That was his spring training.”

As president and after his retirement, Shuart remained a passionate Hofstra football fan until the sport was dropped, a fixture at the team’s home games long before the stadium assumed his name. For years, a Jim Shuart Football Scholarship went to one of the school’s players.

In 1999, when Hofstra advanced to the Division 1-AA football playoffs before losing to Illinois State, a star of the team was Long Island native Kahmal Roy, a sophomore wide receiver who had been granted one of those Jim Shuart scholarships.

“They never threw the ball to me when I played,” said Shuart, who had been an interior lineman. “But when Kahmal scores a touchdown….oh, man!”


Bowl games and grid inflation

College football

It’s a zeitgeisty thing to have the holiday season filled—stuffed, crammed, clogged, jampacked—with college football bowl games. But we are up to 40 major-college bowls this season, and even some of the sport’s insiders have begun to wonder about a form of grid inflation.

Because, while there is no danger of running out such events, we are running out of blue-ribbon teams to play them.

Three of this winter’s 80 bowl teams—that’s almost two-thirds of the 128 schools that field maximum-scholarship teams—have losing records (Minnesota, Nebraska and San Jose State). Another 12 also are not above .500 after scratching out 6-6 seasons.

Only 18 teams are either conference or conference-division champions (though two independents, 10-2 Notre Dame and 9-3 BYU, could be added to that level of accomplishment). One bowl, the first-year Arizona Bowl, was so desperate for participants that it had to settle for two middling teams in the same conference, fellow Mountain West members Colorado State and Nevada. (One of 7-5 Colorado State’s losses was to that below-par Minnesota outfit, and Nevada is among the crowd of 6-6 teams.)

“Clearly,” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said, “the system is broken.”

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is on record acknowledging that “we do have too many bowl games and have more bowl games waiting in the wings.” According to Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford, his league’s athletic directors would prefer teams be at least 7-5 to be bowl eligible.

Even NCAA president Mark Emmert, the primary-care official for college football, last week cautioned that his organization members “are going to have to figure out what’s the purpose of bowl games? Is it a reward for a successful season, or is it just another game that we’re going to provide an opportunity for?”

Behind that curtain of concern, though, are some financial and competitive realities that don’t appear likely to change:

  • ESPN, which will televise 34 of the 40 bowls—plus the national championship game—wants the programming and the advertising riches that brings. (ESPN, in fact, owns 13 of the bowls through its ESPN Events subsidiary.)
  • Athletic departments and conferences want the payouts for bowl participation, which last year ranged from $325,000 per team in Boise’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to $18 million each for contestants in long-established bowls such as the Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton.
  • Coaches want the added game experience for players with remaining eligibility, plus the recruiting-tool visibility. Not to mention the automatic bonuses that schools routinely spread throughout their staffs. (The Seattle Times recently detailed how Washington State has guaranteed head coach Mike Leach an additional $75,000 for getting his team to the Sun Bowl, while Leach’s assistant coaches will receive from $15,000 to $35,000 each, and athletic director Bill Moos $50,000.)

No surprise: Money was the motivation when all this started with the 1902 Rose Bowl, which leaned on college football’s growing popularity as a way to finance the annual Tournament of Roses Parade, then 12 years old. The final score was so lopsided—Michigan 49, Stanford 0—that the Rose Tournament’s game was held in abeyance until 1916. But, by 1935, the Orange and Sugar Bowls had appeared, and the Cotton in ’37.

Only Major League Baseball was more popular and more widespread than college football then, though perennial superpower Notre Dame had stopped accepting bowl invitations after winning the 1925 Rose and didn’t lift its self-imposed ban on the post-season until 1970.

There was some assertion that Notre Dame chose not to extend its seasons with bowl appearances because the additional games didn’t jive with the primary purpose of education. But that quaint notion was quickly discarded as big money increasingly came with bowl appearances and the Associated Press decided, in 1968, to discontinue crowning its national champion prior to the bowl season.

With that, bowl games (of which there were only 10 in 1969) suddenly evolved from holiday exhibitions to match-ups with we’re-No. 1-implications. And continued to multiply, sending all on this Road to Excess. Civic leaders want the prestige and the free publicity of staging bowl games. Conferences want pre-arranged tie-ins with bowls for a slice of the lucre. Corporations want bowls as billboards. The Quick Lane Bowl. The GoDaddy Bowl. The Zaxbys Heart of Dallas Bowl. The AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl. The Foster Farms Bowl. The TaxSlayer Bowl….


An irony is that the year-old, four-team national championship tournament has clearly diluted the significance of all but the two bowls serving as championship semifinal sites. (This season, those are the Orange and Cotton). And that is just as predicted in 2007 by UCLA administrator John Sandbrook, who first studied a possible playoff for an NCAA committee in 1994 and provided an update on the subject for the NCAA-watchdog Knight Commission in 2004. A formalized playoff for No. 1, Sandbrook said then, would “overtake” the traditional bowl format.

Then again, it hasn’t slowed a more-of-less-accomplished-teams trend. And what are the odds that some player on one of those under-.500 teams, giddy to win a bowl and finish a humdrum 6-7, will then run around proclaiming, “We’re No. 1”?


Football: Columbia U’s Achilles heel


With apologies to Homer…..

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Columbia footballers, like the Wrath of Achilles, that brought ills upon Wagner in fulfillment of the will of the gridiron gods.

Or something heavy like that, as a way to begin the tale of a team that had lost 24 consecutive games before last weekend; the epic struggle for a school that hasn’t experienced a winning record in the sport since 1996—and has enjoyed only two seasons above .500 in the past 42 years. The siege of Columbia football sounds like something out of the Iliad—a book, by the way, that is required reading for all Columbia freshman.


In fact, it was before long-suffering Columbia’s 26-3 victory over Wagner that Columbia’s senior defensive lineman Hunter Little mused to WNYC radio’s Ilya Marritz, “There is something to be said for glory. I don’t know if I can speak so much for Homer as someone like Achilles, or any of the heroes that followed him….

“There’s something to be said,” Little judged, “for being out on a Saturday, and playing a game, and being in the moment, and making a great play.”

Marritz has been narrating a weekly podcast called “The Season,” detailing Columbia’s latest attempt to rise from the gridiron ashes. It is an engaging series, and Marritz declares himself “bizarrely interested” in Columbia football, an enterprise that historically has demonstrated it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the Lions to enter into some grid paradise.

In the last 80 years, since Columbia’s 1934 Rose Bowl victory over Stanford, it has won one league title (in 1961). From 1983 to 1988, Columbia lost a major-college record 44 consecutive games. Its futility was so beyond human understanding that, after it turned a 17-0 lead into a 49-17 loss to Harvard in the first game of the 1985 season, its first-year coach, Jim Garrett, publicly dismissed his players as “drug-addicted losers.”

Garrett had just arrived at Columbia after 20 years working as assistant and head coach in the pros, but immediately demonstrated how overmatched he was in the Columbia job.

“One adversity comes and—bang!—they’re right back in the sewer,” Garrett fumed after a single game. He somehow was allowed to stay the rest of that 0-10 season before being sent on his way. (When he went, he made sure that his three sons on the Columbia team transferred to Princeton. One of them, Jason, is these days coach of the Dallas Cowboys.)

Nineteen additional lost games after Garrett—two full seasons—Columbia was leading Brown, 16-12, with one minute to play. Brown, after advancing to the Columbia 9-yard line, fumbled and Columbia appeared to recover, which would have ended that gruesome losing streak at 40. It was a brutally cold late November afternoon, with a wind chill of 8 degrees in Providence, R.I., the kind of weather legendary sportswriter Red Smith once described as “a perfect day for football—too cold for the fans and too cold for the players.”

Yet Columbia at last was poised to triumph. Over the elements. Over a favored team. Over daunting odds.

Until the officials ruled that Brown had retained possession.

On the next play, a fourth down-and-two, the second-string Brown quarterback squirted through a small hole in the Columbia defense and scored. And Columbia lost yet again: The story of the school’s football Trojan War. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield as prey to dogs and vultures….

Jordan Sprechman was a Columbia student at that time, and threatened to write a book he said he would call, “At Least Soccer Won.” Now a lawyer for J.P. Morgan Chase in Manhattan who moonlights as an official scorer at Major League Baseball games and as statistician with the New York Jets and, of course, Columbia football, Sprechman explained this week that, “My experience as an undergrad and in law school at Columbia was that the football team won five games in seven years. The soccer team won the Ivy League title all seven years.”

Naturally, during last weekend’s surreal turn of events, that rare Columbia victory over Wagner, Sprechman was crunching numbers in the press box. “You can look at it two ways,” he said. “We’ve won one in a row. Or we’ve lost 24 of the last 25.” Against Penn this week, he puts Columbia’s changes as “less than 25 percent.”

It’s not war, or course. Just football. There is every chance that Columbia’s lads, soon to be sent forth with Ivy League degrees, will find fulfilling, financially rewarding work to even the score in another phase of life. But there’s something to be said for a little football glory.


Moving the chains on players’ rights?


It could be that the subversives—those who believe college football players deserve a voice in their billion-dollar enterprise—are gradually establishing field position against the establishment NCAA and its hypocritical “amateur” model.

Because, while the National Labor Relations Board held the line on the Northwestern players’ move to unionize, the NLRB, in effect, punted on Monday by not ruling on the central question of whether Northwestern’s athletes are university employees.

It is true that legal authorities are mostly surprised that the full NLRB board did not uphold last year’s decision by a NLRB regional director, granting the Big Ten school’s players a right to bargain over such issues of health care and work environment. Upsets happen. But, in the meantime, ever since that rabble-rousing former Northwestern quarterback, Kain Colter, lent his face to the case for a union, the NCAA has been scrambling to demonstrate concern for its labor force.

While sticking to its bogus “student-athlete” branding, the NCAA has moved to allow its wealthiest five conferences to set some of their own standards, resulting in increased scholarship values and the guarantee that players will have a four-year ride, instead of one. That isn’t much, given the kind of money the NCAA powers are generating, and the whole process feels all the more tedious—like a two-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense—for anyone who has read former Notre Dame and Kansas City Chiefs lineman Michael Oriard’s 2003 book, “King Football.”


In what serves as an American studies text, examining the transformation of our popular culture as seen through football mores in mass media, Oriard includes a thorough history of the sport’s “uncertain position between work and play.”

Oriard writes that “controversies over scholarships, bowl games and other ethical issues….haunted college football since the 1890s.” And, as long ago as the 1930s, there were agitators—though rarely, and typically at such publications as the proletariat-leaning Communist Party’s Daily Worker—calling for a union in the sport.

Oriard references a 1936 column by the Daily Worker’s Lester Rodney—the first white newspaperman, by the way, who campaigned for the inclusion of blacks in Major League Baseball—is which Rodney took on the argument for “pure amateurism” in college sports. That justification, which also was applied to Modern Olympic sports for almost 100 years, overlooked the fact that well-to-do athletes were the only ones who could afford to play for nothing more than the old school spirit.

Lester Rodney

Lester Rodney

“Why not [idealize], let’s say, a youngster from the Pennsylvania mining region,” Oriard quotes Rodney, who died in 2009, “a good high school running guard who accepts the offer of a college to pay his tuition and expenses in return for playing ball on the team because he wants a college education and couldn’t get it otherwise? A boy who takes the bumps and bruises of the almost year-round practice sessions, takes on odd jobs around the campus in addition to studying and practicing so that he can send a little money home. He has a conflict. He doesn’t get headlines and much glory, he doesn’t get as much time to study as he’d like, he doesn’t particularly care for some of the snobbery of the ‘old grad’ bunch and those who look upon him as a hired hand. But then like all good players he really likes the game, likes the team camaraderie, in which boys of all types and derivations work together purposefully with high spirit, likes the learning and putting into practice of the subtleties of play, the development of himself and the team, the excitement of winning the big game, the appreciation of teammates, coaches, real fans and opponents for his hard and skillfully done anonymous work up front on the line, where more games are won and lost than in the backfield.”

Oriard also quotes Rodney’s Daily Worker colleague, Ted Benson, on the paper’s view that subsidized college players were not corrupted amateurs but underpaid workers. “Our suggestion,” Benson wrote, “is for the boys who tote the leather for dear old Alma Mammy to get wise to themselves and form the American Federation of Football Players and Substitutes under the banner of the C.I.O.”

So, here we are, some 80 years later, essentially watching the same fandango. Is college football, which at the big-time schools is funding multi-million dollar coaches’ salaries and fully professional athletic operations, just play? Or is it work?

The bolshevik question is being raised more often these days. And the NLRB avoided a definitive answer.

Walter Byers and college sport’s “amateur” model



By all accounts, Walter Byers eventually came to a more realistic understanding of college sport’s hypocrisy than he espoused during his 36 years as NCAA’s original executive director, when Byers himself promoted the pretense of the “student-athlete.”

Byers, who died Tuesday at 93, published a memoir in 1995—seven years after his retirement from the NCAA—decrying the exploitation of college athletes. At that point, he bemoaned what he called the organization’s arrogant, autocratic and self-righteous attitudes and lobbied for an athletes’ bill of rights. “Whereas the NCAA defends its policies in the name of amateurism and level playing fields,” he wrote then, “they actually are a device to divert the money elsewhere.”


But he was singing a different tune most of his time in office as NCAA chief, from 1951 to 1988, when he was widely considered the most powerful man in what was branded (with his encouragement) non-professional sports.

In 1974, when Byers granted me a rare interview at what was then the burgeoning new NCAA headquarters in the Kansas City suburb of Mission, Kan., he argued that television money was not wagging the dog; that football was not consuming other sports in college athletic departments; that big-time college football and basketball players were students first and “not hired gladiators;” that Title IX’s mandate to offer equal opportunity for female athletes would be the “possible doom of intercollegiate athletics.”

To re-read Byers’ stated convictions from that session is depressingly like listening to the NCAA’s current state of denial. Byers insisted that imbalances between high-profile and low-profile college powers, and between high-profile and low-profile sports, were not cause for concern. And his justifications for accepting “compromises,” as he put it, easily could be cited as proof that things already were out of control, four decades ago, in terms of the athletic-academic equilibrium.


In 1974, the NCAA was getting $32 million from ABC television for the rights to televise a college football game-of-the-week—with superpowers such as Notre Dame or Ohio State having to be technically limited to two appearances a season (though there were early- and late-season exceptions), which Byers somehow considered a check on inequality.

Now, and still running with that golden TV ball, the NCAA is in the midst of a seven-year ESPN contract for $12.3 billion just for the three-bowl championship playoff. With no end to the big money in sight.

Byers, furthermore, was a primary architect in marketing the NCAA basketball tournament—March Madness—a franchise that has evolved into economic insanity, with a current 14-year television, Internet and wireless rights deal that will bring in $10.8 billion. That, even as NCAA officials continue to insist theirs is an amateur operation populated solely by “student-athletes.”

It is only in the face of major legal challenges that the NCAA recently voted to give the five most powerful conferences an ability to offer some financial aid to athletes. And that decision, in effect, merely will assure that the rich get richer.

In the meantime, in between time, consider some of Byers’ 1974 defenses of the system:

“The big dollar is available,” he said then, “so the emphasis of college athletics is accepted by the students and the public in general. How can you argue it?”

“You might as well whistle in a wind tunnel,” he said, as try to turn back the clock to college sports as an extracurricular student activity, minus recruiting and large, fabulously paid coaching staffs. “It won’t fly. I suppose it’s the quest for excellence that makes that impossible. You beat a guy down the road and get the feeling he wasn’t so tough to handle, so you go looking for better competition.”

And with competition, fans—and, especially television, with its lucrative payouts—will get what they want. “Yes,” Byers said then. “It’s a compromise, and maybe all compromises are bad, although I don’t believe that. You have to have something that will sell. But, remember, we could do more things if we were interested only in the ratings….”

He was asked: Why not acknowledge the reality that the NFL was using NCAA schools as de facto farm teams and declare big-time college football professional?

“I don’t think a university could justify that,” he said. “I guess that’s a compromise, too. It’s a fact that those playing for NCAA colleges have to be students at their schools. They aren’t hired gladiators. Nor, I must admit, are all of them pure oceanography students, to use [an] example, who just want to play football as part of the college experience. It’s a compromise between pure amateurism and having the highest degree of competition.”

Late in his reign as the first NCAA executive director, Byers began to reverse field, to worry that higher education likely could not “stand the strain of big-time intercollegiate athletics and maintain its integrity,” as he told Sports Illustrated, and even proposed a form of compensation for athletes.

But his change of heart—the realization that too many college players indeed were hired gladiators; that TV riches were perverting the enterprise; that the “quest for excellence” was turning the highest levels of college football and men’s basketball into something of a swamp—somehow hasn’t been passed on to the modern-day NCAA.

He might as well have been whistling in a wind tunnel.

Academics and sports: Circular logic?


Here’s a puzzler for Pi Day:

Since one of the earliest written approximations of pi—sorry, my keyboard doesn’t have Greek letters—was found in Babylon (on a clay tablet dated 1900-1600 B.C.), and I (a practitioner of sports journalism) live in Babylon (OK, not that Babylon); and since ancient Greek mathematician and physicist Archimedes, credited with devising the first recorded algorithm for calculating the value of pi, was from Syracuse (OK, not the Division I college sports power Syracuse); and since Pi Day (March 14) also is the birthday of genius poster boy Albert Einstein, who is said to have hated sports as a young man but befriended Paul Robeson, the pioneer black singer and actor who had been an all-American football player at Rutgers….might there be some empirical link between nerds and jocks?

Is there some theory of relativity here?

The convergence of academia and athletics this time of year—that is, teams representing institutions of higher learning in the annual NCAA basketball tournament—in fact has increasingly taken the form of ships passing in the night. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics, 13 of the 68 teams involved in March Madness last year would not have qualified if the new threshold being phased in by the NCAA had been applied—that teams must have 50 percent of their players on target for graduation.

More and more, the most serious forms of academic and athletic pursuits appear to exist in a transitory, incidental relationship without lasting significance. Like pi, the separation seems forever. Especially since the entertainment value of sports—dramatic, unscripted—increasingly generates a never-ending perception that, while games are fun, scholarship is a solitary, punishing grind unworthy of television coverage.


The beauty to Pi Day—recognized by Congress in 2009 because the 3/14 date reflects the first three significant numbers in pi—is the way it stirs up a bit of geek goofiness, worth a good giggle. Grey Matter for Dummies. Pi Day even can serve as a reminder that sports and education are capable of co-existing quite well.

In 2008, a new sport called Pi Ball was invented in South Africa—supposedly on Pi Day—played on a circular court around a central circular ball strike area. Comparable to beach volleyball, with two players on a team separated by a net, it hasn’t caught on internationally. And certainly not here in the United States.

But here’s a better answer to what we may see as the sound mind, sound body conundrum: At MIT, where they really do do rocket science, boasting some of the world’s elite brainiacs among the student body, the football team was undefeated this past regular season.

(Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

(Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Not only that, but MIT has a really fun/intelligent cheer. (With pi included.)

E to the U,  D-U, D-X

E to the X, D-X.

Cosine, secant, tangent, sine, 3-point-14159…..

Integral, radical, U, D-V,

Slipstick, slide rule, M-I-T.

There. Problem solved.






Fantasy and reality in college sports


The thing about NYU’s 2015 baseball team—the school’s first in that intercollegiate sport since 1974, as the New York Times reported this week—is that it is real. I make this distinction because, 15 years ago, I found myself following (through the school’s student newspaper) an NYU football juggernaut that turned out to be the athletic version of a unicorn.

The Violet gridders of 2000, according to regular dispatches by sports reporter Ryse Dwillin in the Washington Square News, were romping (allegedly) past opponents from Brandeis, the University of Chicago, Vassar, Washington U. of St. Louis and Whitman College of Walla Walla, Wash.

Not that many people would have been expected to notice. NYU’s athletic operation—with the exception of a powerhouse fencing team—had dropped off the Division I sports radar a quarter-century before. And New Yorkers’ sporting passions long ago turned almost exclusively toward professional teams. Especially that fall, a Yankees-Mets World Series and the Giants’ run to the Super Bowl were taking up virtually all of fans’ oxygen.

At the time, though, I had a significant connection to NYU, in the form of tuition payments for my daughter, herself a Washington Square News staffer. So, late that autumn, as NYU appeared positioned for the Division III national playoffs, I could have generated some rooting fervor for the lads in purple and white.

at halftime

Then, on Dec. 7, the Washington Square News published a short note from the editor, beginning,

“We’d like to come clean: There is no football team at NYU.”

A shocking Brian Williams moment? A reckless squandering of journalistic credibility? Or just a good college giggle, in the honored tradition of sly sarcasm?

One WSN account of the rampaging mythological team had roguishly quoted made-up quarterback Joel Luber’s complaint—a cliché in the real world of successful athletes who somehow feel unappreciated—that “none of the critics thought we were for real.”

Of course, they weren’t. Neither was the team’s beat writer. (Ryse Dwillin was an anagram, with an extra “i,” of actual reporter Will Snyder). Nor did coach Jack Wizzenhunt nor star tailback Ahmed El Kahloul exist, nor a play called “the Rooster,” wherein El Kahloul would hide the ball between his legs.

Eventually, what most surprised the playful Frankensteins who created that football monster was that a few readers didn’t get what they considered an obvious joke. There were some calls asking where to buy football tickets and how to try out for the team.

The whole thing was meant to lampoon the decidedly low visibility of NYU sports, even among its student body. Then, as now, most of the school’s intercollegiate teams played their “home” games nowhere near the bustling Greenwich Village campus, at such distant venues as Bloomfield, N.J., up-state Suffern, Upper Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. (The revived baseball team’s home field is on Brooklyn’s Coney Island.)


There certainly is some irony in the fact that NYU currently fields 21 intercollegiate sports teams—11 for men, 10 for women—and legitimately can argue that its athletic emphasis is on serving students interested in competition. As opposed to, say, the University of Alabama, which has seven men’s teams and 10 women’s. In such an environment as Alabama’s, where King Football rules, a multi-million dollar entertainment business—based as it is on the labor of quasi-students—serves first to please alumni, television executives, sponsors, fabulously paid coaches and gamblers.

So, in the end, which is the lie? The grand spoofs, or the thing that inspires them—thoroughly professional big-time college sports programs hiding behind a claim of student-athlete amateurism?

Long before the fictional NYU gridders, there was the 1941 Plainfield Teachers College football team, and the Maguire University basketball team of the 1970s.

Annoyed by the attention paid to major-college football at the expense of smaller institutions, a Wall Street broker named Morris Newburger fabricated Plainfield (and an entire 10-team conference) with a simple telephone call reporting a final score to a major New York City newspaper. When the paper’s staff at last realized that it has been hoodwinked, Newburger issued a press release saying 15 Plainfield players had been declared academically ineligible  and that the coach chose to cancel the remainder of the season.

Maguire materialized from regular gatherings of high school coaches and college scouts at a Chicago bar—Maguire’s—who tweaked the NCAA’s policing naivete. As a prank, those fellows simply submitted information about their “school” nickname (the Jollymen), colors (green and white), and college president (Dr. Mel Connolly, actually a truck driver—his real name, minus the “doctor” title—who regularly could be found in his “office” at Maguire’s). Maguire’s subsequently received tickets to two Final Four tournaments until a Chicago columnist spilled the beans.

What we seem to have with these hoaxes is not so much nefarious prevarications but something on the order of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”—characterizing a “truth” as something that, while not exactly based on fact, points to the absurdity of real events.

My former Newsday colleague Stan Isaacs—a man with a twinkle in his eye who was a giant among sports journalists—years ago became so convinced that only bettors scoured the college basketball scores that he added his own invented schools to the newspaper’s list of results.

His favorite was Chelm University, which he named for a town in Yiddish folklore inhabited by people who were good-natured but stupid. There is no record that Chelm ever lost a game.






About keeping ALL of Joe Paterno’s history

It is not as if Joe Paterno coached 111 college football victories posthumously. That restored portion of his record at Penn State wasn’t so much a give-back by the NCAA on Friday as it was an acknowledgment that things cannot un-happen.

Paterno’s teams in fact won those 111 games—from 1998, when the first complaint of possible child molestation by Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky reached police, until 2011, when the Sandusky scandal became public and Paterno was fired for not having acted on an abuse charge against Sandusky.

So Paterno, three years after his death, once again is in the record books for winning more games (409) than any other coach at the highest level of college football. Fine. There are ramifications to rewriting history.

Just as necessary as maintaining an accurate record of wins and losses, though, is acknowledging what got Paterno in trouble in the first place—his elevation to sainted status that surely came into play when the Penn State brand was threatened by the Sandusky revelations. And Paterno, the most powerful man in State College, Pa. (and likely all of Pennsylvania) failed to do more about the awful transgressions on his watch.

Let’s not erase that part of the story, either.

Paterno literally had been put on a pedestal, his seven-foot statue outside the school’s palatial football stadium serving as a pilgrimage site for Penn State fans. An inscription with the statue glowingly proclaimed Paterno an “Educator, Coach, Humanitarian.” He was canonized for his “success with honor” motto that, after the Sandusky mess, sounded ironic at best.

Maybe the trouble was immortalizing Paterno in bronze while he still was alive, which not only fed his self-importance (subconsciously or otherwise) but also prophesied a purity of virtue impossible for any human being to live up to.

Better for universities to sculpt likenesses of some figure of history who is no longer around to take himself too seriously. Or, even less dangerous, a fictional personage. (I therefore submit that my alma mater, the University of Missouri, had a better idea with the two statues on campus: One of Thomas Jefferson, because Mizzou was the first university west of the Mississippi River built in Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase territory; the other of Beetle Bailey, a comic strip character. Beetle and his pals were based on fraternity brothers of his creator, Mort Walker, when Walker was a Missouri student. You may recognize the two honored characters below, during my recent visits.)

me and tom jefferson

me and beetle bailey

Eight months after Paterno was fired—and six months after his death—Penn State officials removed his statue, declaring that it had become a “source of division and an obstacle to healing.” It is hard to know whether Paterno could have been aware of that, or if he somehow is monitoring efforts afoot now to bring back his sculpted likeness. Does he worry, in the afterlife, about the rehabilitation of his legacy?

Some say once gone you’re gone forever

And some say you’re gonna come back

Iris DeMent considered in song,

But no one knows for certain so it’s all the same to me

I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

In this matter of Paterno’s (figurative?) resurrection, it does seem downright cynical that some Penn State boosters want to go beyond his football-record comeback, with fund-raising already in progress to erect a second statue in downtown State College, depicting Paterno seated while reading Virgil’s “Aeneid.”

That Latin epic poem was Paterno’s favorite, an ode that is all legend and exaltation of moral values, chronicling Aeneas’ devotion and loyalty to his country and its prominence—rather than personal gain. It all sounds like Penn Staters again poised on the slippery slope of hero-worship. So many of them were so enamored of football success that Paterno took on the fatherly title of “JoePa;” turned up on life-sized cardboard cutouts (“Stand-Up Joes”) sold in State College; gave the campus creamery reason to market “Peachy Paterno” ice cream. The Sandusky scandal, and the fact his crimes went on so quietly for so long, hinted strongly that Paterno and his football operation had become too powerful to rein in, too locked into the tunnel-vision of producing football success to pay attention to the Sandusky menace right under their noses.

Paterno did leave behind some substantial worth in his 46 years at the school. More than $4 million personally donated to university projects. Hundreds of millions of dollars raised for Penn State through the football operation, including admission into the lucrative Big Ten Conference.

The visibility that Paterno and his teams brought to Happy Valley factored into growing Penn State as a prominent academic institution, and he was further applauded for his insistence that he would not allow athletic preference over education. He called it his “Grand Experiment.”

In the end, though, Sandusky’s depravity knocked Paterno off that pedestal. So, let the old coach keep his football victories. But the complete picture is not a work of art.

The National (College) Football League playoffs


Unincumbered by the thought process, enthusiasts of the new college football playoffs already are contending that a four-team tournament is too limited. There is clamoring to expand to eight teams. Or 16. Fans want it, the narrative goes; “fairness” demands it (poor TCU got left out this year). Excitement and the boffo TV ratings for the New Year’s Day’s inaugural semifinal round foretell it.

This, remember, is an activity of the NCAA, which describes itself as a non-profit organization, in spite of the billions of dollars it is raking in, and is performed by what the NCAA insists are “student-athletes,” though a more accurate label would be—at best—athlete-students.

The sad fact is that nobody—including the university presidents who long argued that expanding the postseason was an infringement upon their educational mission—appears willing or able to stand up to the steamrolling power of ESPN’s money and visibility.

Here’s an unsettling thought: Might the playoff system, now stretching one game beyond the traditional bowl season, have been realized so quickly if not for the revolting Jerry Sandusky child molestation revelations at Penn State in 2011?

At the time, Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier, was chairman of the college president’s Oversight Committee for what was then called the BCS—Bowl Championship Series—that designated two top teams for a “championship” bowl. Spanier was on record declaring that a football playoff in college’s top division was “just not going to happen. The presidents of our universities are not going to go for it. We’re the ones who have the say.”

In a June 2010 interview with BlueWhite Illustrated, a Web site for Penn State sports, Spanier said, “Sports reporters and fans can talk about it all they want…. As if talking about it and debating it makes it more likely to change. Some people say, ‘Just go to four teams.’ Then four will go to eight and eight will go to 16. We’ll end up with an NFL-style playoff. Everyone knows where it will head if we go beyond two teams. I just don’t want to go in that direction.”

That oversight committee was formed in 2003 (Spanier was one of the founding members) and immediately began discussing the possibility of a major-college football playoff. In 2004, it hired UCLA administrator John Sandbrook to study the matter—and Sandbrook, in doing so again for the watchdog Knight Commission in 2007, became convinced that change would overtake the bowl system at some point.

That point was reached shortly after Spanier was dismissed by Penn State in November 2011 following public disclosure that Sandusky, assistant to Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, was a serial abuser of young boys. Both Spanier and Paterno were fired for failing to follow up on tips of Sandusky’s criminal behavior.

And Spanier barely was out of the BCS Oversight Committee scene when that group, in June 2012, voted unanimously to recommend a four-team playoff to begin in 2014-15.

So now, it is with cheerful indifference to the pitfalls of a thoroughly professional playoff, similar to ignoring the perils of coaches such as Paterno having virtually uncontested power over institutional and legal matters involving their teams, that a further expansion of the top-tier college season is inevitable.

Money talks. Loudly. Among Spanier’s comments, when he still was in his oversight position, was that he and fellow university presidents would not be swayed by the “potential” riches inherent in a playoff system. But the $7.3 billion that ESPN offered for 12 years of TV rights was enough to twist those presidents’ arms.

And the reality is that the big bucks hardly are earmarked for academic needs and professors’ salaries. In a discussion I had with Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist a couple of years ago regarding big-time college sports, Zimbalist reminded that “the NCAA, in effect, is a trade association for coaches and athletic directors. I don’t think anybody in his right mind would say this does anything to fulfill the educational purpose.”

Alabama’s Nick Saban, the nation’s highest paid college coach ($7 million a year), reasoned before his team lost its playoff semifinal to Ohio State that, “If you create value for the university, and you look at it for that standpoint, then I think there’s a relative amount that someone’s worth is based on.” Saban, like many football coaches at top public universities, earns more than any other state employee, including the governor and university president.

So here we go. First, Monday night’s hyped-up Oregon-Ohio State lollapalooza. Soon, an eight-team playoff. Then, probably, 12 teams, with a bye week for the top four built in. Then 16 teams? The evolution of The National (College) Football League—professional sports at its finest.

Don’t give higher education a thought; this is what fans and ESPN want.