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They Merely Did What They Had to

August 24, 1993|JIM MURRAY

First of all, let me say I yield to no man in my liking for, and respect for, Don James, the resigned coach of the University of Washington's football team. Whatever alchemy went into the making of a successful college coach, he had it in abundance. He had the Rose Bowl teams to prove it.

Having said that, I would like to note that being a successful coach and running a successful "program" in today's hotly competitive market is no job for an archbishop--or one of the 12 Apostles.

The public seems to think that 6-foot-6, 280-pound troglodytes with the starting speed of bull elephants and 6-1 runners with the speed of ocelots merely show up on campus one day with their hats in their hands, asking which way to the practice field.

That's the way it used to be in Walter Camp's day at Yale. The Frank Merriwell boys' books came out of that tradition. You recruited your football team from the student body.

You don't anymore. You get your football team from places Frank Merriwell never went to--pool halls, barrooms, even, if the occasion warrants it, police stations.

The late great Bear Bryant let the cat out of the bag one year at a coaching clinic when he boasted, "If you have any church-going, suit-wearing boys who are good to their mothers and respect womanhood and drink milk and mow the lawn, you send them to Stanford. But if you got any whiskey-drinking, poker-playing, pool-hustling, card-cheating, skirt-chasing old boys who are good athaletes, you send 'em to ol' Bear--he'll know what to do with 'em!"

It's the credo of the profession. It's what you have to do to get to the Rose Bowl. Everybody in the profession knows it.

There is a certain number of players each year considered "blue chip" by the profession. The competition for these is lively and improper. They used to tell an apocryphal story of the recruit who ran afoul of the law and a faculty adviser protested, "But, Coach! This guy robbed four banks and scored a 7 on the college boards!" And the coach sighs and says, "I know! I know! But he runs the 40 in 4.3!"

Washington is unlucky. Nearly everybody does what it did. Hardly a season goes by but what you hear of some athlete who went four years--in one case, five--to college and came out unable to read or write.

Football players don't graduate. Some of them shouldn't even matriculate. The academic side of the institution lost the battle a long time ago.

Recently, a professor of law at the University of Michigan wrote an article in the New York Times, quoting from a report "of a Midwestern university" that was examining the need for a new football stadium. The report warned that, without the stadium, football recruiting would suffer. The "blue chip" players would go elsewhere.

Sound familiar? Of course. This is what the Washington Husky advocates are crying now. The penalties against Washington will cause a mass exodus of its carefully recruited collection of future Chicago Bears.

Why? The curriculum is still there. Ah, but the Green Bay Packer contracts aren't.

The Green Bay Packers don't want Frank Merriwell. They want Hulk Hogan. Maybe even Hannibal Lecter.

The universities, to a large extent, are merely complicated farm systems for these NFL teams, the football equivalent of triple-A ball.

The Michigan professor, Yale Kamisar, noted in his treatise that the athletic department, importuned to build the new stadium, commissioned a study of the proposal. The study found that "Danger lies in the appearance of a kind of college spirit that is little more than just vociferous support of athletic teams. . . . One of the most serious difficulties of intercollegiate football at the present time is the insistence of the alumni on winning teams. . . . "

Kamisar continues to quote the report: "Publicity is (nowhere) as excessive as it is in (football). The aggrandizement of the individual player has been carried to unfortunate extremes in the case of our football stars. . . .

"Still another evil . . . is the preeminence of the coach. Football teams are referred to as if they were the personal possession of the head of the coaching staff. . . ."

When do you think that report was published? Last year? Last month?

How about 1926?

How many attempts do you think have been made in the intervening years to put football back under the control of the academic sector, decrease the utter autonomy--and separation--of the athletic sector? There have been "Sanity codes," "Sanitary codes," academic "reforms" by the gross.

Nothing works. You can't get the genie back in the bottle.

What the good professors feared in 1926 has only gotten worse and worse. They not only recruit non-students now, in some cases they are recruiting the kinds of people a terrorist organization would go after. Washington merely got caught at it. It's a familiar litany. Key players getting under-the-table payments from prominent boosters, recruits turning out to be drug pushers, team members questioned in phone fraud cases.

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