Some years ago, at a clinic in Santa Barbara, the great football coach, Bear Bryant, was holding forth on the arts and mysteries of recruiting. The hour was late and the bourbon flowing, and Bear was moved to drawl:
"Well, if you got some boys who are good students and have some ability, you send them to Cal or Stanford. But if you have some whiskey-drinking, women-chasing, pool-playing studs who are ath-a-letes , why, you just send them down to ol' Bear to win a championship with!"
Never was the coach's credo more succinctly put. The message was clear: College football is not monastic. It's not even academic. Football players were the mercenaries of our society. They were at the university but not of it.
They led lives as backward as race horses. Their every need was taken care of. They were told when to go to bed, when to get up, what to eat, how to think. Then, they were led out onto the field and expected to perform like the robots they had become.
It was exploitative in the extreme. In ol' Bear's case, he even housed them in separatist dormitories. As if contact with the scholastic community of the school would contaminate them.
In a way, their life styles always reminded me of that of cavalry officers in the old Hapsburg Empire. They were spoiled, catered to, revered. They had these fancy uniforms and looked beautiful in their plumed hats and epaulets. They were indulged in their alcoholic or sexual peccadilloes.
They were Europe's loafer class. They were held in reserve for wars. What they did between them was tolerated, winked at.
What is different in today's replay is that our society is shocked when the modern version of these cadets prove to be less than vicar-like in their behavior. College presidents who want victorious teams are less likely to be like the emperors of old and say, "Boys will be boys," than they are to cluck reprovingly when their modern warrior class blows off steam in an antisocial, the law-be-damned way.
Tracy Dodds, of this paper's staff, traced the primrose path trod by one university, Nevada Las Vegas, in its quest of the big time in football, when it set out on the road-to-beating-Wisconsin.
This road led, as is so often the case, through a police blotter. Some of the best varsity runs were not with a football but with stolen stereos or snatched purses.
The University of Miami football team, No. 1 in your hearts and No. 1 in all the polls, has been alluded to in the public prints as the real "Miami Vice" by more than one chronicler.
This is a team of whom a colleague, Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald, once wrote:
Q. What is the first thing a Miami player hears when he gets into a three-piece suit?
A. Will the defendant please rise?
Of whom Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly wrote: "Miami may be the only squad in America that has its team picture taken from the front and from the side."
This is our national champion team in more than one sense.
It is mystifying why college presidents should be so aghast at what they have wrought. They give a coach a contract for a quarter of a million, or income in that bracket, charge him with producing a winning team--and then are shocked when he picks up that team in pool halls or longshore shape-ups instead of seminaries.
Not all coaches are of the Bear Bryant school of recruiting--and not all players are second-story men at heart.
But whose is the hypocrisy? The coach, who knows that his charter is to win or else--else being to lose a millionaire's style of living if he loses to State; the football player, who is taught to play the game at the homicidal level since grade school, or the academician, who wants a winning team at all costs--all costs being the enrollment of even a small percentage of semi-thugs to represent the university?
College professors are charged with inflicting a moral code of ethics on their classrooms and are expected to turn out not only learned, but also upright members of society. But college professors are tenured. And their effectiveness is not measured each Saturday afternoon.
If one of the school's football coaches knew that his job was safe for a lifetime, no matter how many passes his receivers dropped or how many tackles the secondary missed, he might not be so tempted to suit up a guy whose last job was biting the heads off chickens or busting heads in a dance hall brawl.
Frank Merriwell is dead, the way the game is played today. You get football players the same places Jesse James got his gang.
The question is, are the nation's best teams the nation's best teams because they are scofflaws and hell-raisers? Or are the scofflaws and hell-raisers in the spotlight simply because they are on the nation's best teams?
Either way, until they start getting teams from the student body again, we won't know. Until football coaches can be assured they're not more than one blocked punt from going into selling insurance, they will not shrink at suiting up quasi-sociopaths or the Abominable Snowman if he can blitz.
The defendants who should rise are the institutions themselves. The late Bear Bryant did not invent his attitude. The Bear was always good at reading defenses. And figuring what the university really wanted from him. He knew he wasn't going to get it recruiting a backfield of Rover Boys but one of Broadway Joes.