Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick and wide receiver Luke Massa celebrate… (Danny Moloshok / Associated…)
There is one word you've been hearing a lot lately to describe the best college football teams in the country. It is a strange word for a sport of violence. It is an odd way to describe our modern gladiators.
That word is "smart."
After Notre Dame's victory over USC last weekend, Trojans Coach Lane Kiffin said, "That's a really smart team over there."
Before Stanford's win over UCLA, Bruins Coach Jim Mora said, ''They've got some smart kids, and they can handle a lot."
Smart will be leading the Fighting Irish into the national championship game. Smart will be carrying the Cardinal into the Pac-12 title game. Smart is beating people's brains out everywhere, from nine-win Northwestern to eight-win Vanderbilt to the entirely decent likes of Rice and Duke.
Those six schools, the only BCS members ranked among U.S. News & World Report's top 20 national universities, have a combined record of 51-21 and will be playing in bowls this winter in the same season for the first time in history.
Talk about revenge of the nerds.
It's happening slowly, but it's happening finally, the college football culture witnessing the protracted, painful death of the dumb jock.
"I've always thought it's a cop-out when schools say they have to recruit lower-academic kids," said David Ridpath, an Ohio University assistant professor and member of the academic-athletic watchdog the Drake Group. "This clearly shows that's not the only way to win."
In recent years, former Irish stars Paul Hornung and Allen Pinkett have both said that Notre Dame needed to "lower its standards" or admit "bad citizens" to win. By all accounts, the Irish have done neither, and yet they are America's only unbeaten bowl-eligible team.
Remember when everyone said Stanford's recent success was fleetingly based on a combination of Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck? Both men are long gone, replaced by an anonymously quiet coach and a bunch of kids who hit hard, and some say the Cardinal could be the best team in the country.
For years, Vanderbilt players were the pocket-protector-wearing patsies of football's toughest conference. This season the Commodores' eight victories included more SEC wins — five — than Ole Miss, Arkansas and Auburn combined.
The purple polo shirts of Northwestern lost only two games in regulation, and three games total by a combined 19 points. Football-barren Duke began the season as the site of the Peyton Manning comeback tryout and will end it going to a bowl game for the first time in a dozen years. Rice began the year by playing UCLA tough for three quarters, and ended it with four consecutive victories to become bowl-eligible.
"These schools are as close to doing it right as anybody out there," Ridpath said.
Does this mean the ridiculed phrase "student-athlete" finally has some meaning? Not so fast. Look at North Carolina, where the football program is enduring a bowl ban and national ridicule because of academic misconduct, with former players' shameful transcripts and essays being exhibited on rival message boards. Check out the once-mighty Connecticut basketball team, which has been banned from this season's March Madness along with nine other teams because of poor Academic Progress Rate scores.
"Because of a lack of academic disclosure, we still don't know what's going on," Ridpath said.
But at last, there's hope. There's hope that, after having the message pounded into their ear holes for the last several years, athletes are finally realizing their brains are as important as their biceps, and that winning requires both.
Notre Dame didn't beat Oklahoma in a science class, they blew them out of a beaker in Norman. Stanford didn't beat Oregon on the GRE, they beat them in a toughness test in Eugene. And, yeah, of course, Duke squeaked past the pencil-challenged North Carolina.
"You watch a game, you watch all the play changes at the line of scrimmage and all the adjustments being made, you cannot be a dumb jock anymore," said Allen Sack, professor of sports management at University of New Haven and Drake Group's president. "Maybe you didn't take high school seriously or maybe you don't read very well, but you cannot be a dumb jock."
This academic rebirth starts in the high schools. Ask your teenage child about those athletes at their school who take pride in showing up late for class, sitting in the back and blowing off assignments. See if those athletes are especially admired or popular. I'm guessing they're not.
"The standards have been raised so much that if you want to play in college, you pay a lot of attention to your grades," said Chris O'Donnell, in his 15th season as athletic director at Loyola High. "In every parent-athlete meeting that I have, the first thing I tell them is, you've got to have the grades."
Good academic schools are able to recruit good athletes these days because there's just so many of them. High GPA and test requirements, combined with peer and parental pressure, have made the smart jocks the cool jocks.
"The way it works today, if player 'A' is not academically eligible, college coaches can easily find someone else who is, and everyone knows it," O'Donnell said. "Twenty years those standards were almost window dressing, but not anymore."
Once arriving in colleges, these smart athletes have made even the nerdiest campuses attractive to top coaches, who have slowly built winners. One of the hottest NFL coaching candidates is Notre Dame's Brian Kelly. Despite being in a conference filled with high-profile bosses, Stanford's David Shaw has been Pac-12 coach of the year in consecutive seasons. At Duke, David Cutcliffe is a longtime mentor to Peyton Manning, and has any coach been mentioned for more vacancies than Vandy's James Franklin?
"The result is a type of team that, when you watch them, you can just see they are very fundamental, they adjust on the fly, and they win," O'Donnell said.