October 25, 2014

Pulling Back the Veil at the Big House

The so-called offseason is upon us, presenting an opportunity presents to catch up on some reading. I  just completed a book by University of Michigan alum John U. Bacon about his alma mater, Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011).

As a Big East football fan, I am likewise a fan of Rich Rodriguez. I enjoyed his success at West Virginia, his alma mater, and was disappointed when he left in 2008 for the opening at Michigan. His no-huddle, spread option offense had literally “spread” throughout the realm of college and high school football, providing an exciting, high-scoring style of play. His taking the spread to the Big 10 Conference was a shock.

First and foremost, RichRod’s presence in the Big East had raised the both the reputation and level of play of the entire conference. Secondly, the Big 10 – particularly Michigan – was not and never had been about the spread offense. The pro-style offense was as entrenched there as anywhere in college football:  power rushing and stretching the field in the passing game – combined with hard-hitting, unrelenting defense. How was his scheme going to fare in that conference?

Though Bacon did not set out to write a full-length book on RichRod’s entire tenure in Ann Arbor, that was, fortunately, the outcome.

Rodriguez, his staff and the school administration allowed Bacon, a Michigan faculty member, to be embedded with team for all of his three seasons there. Bacon took part in the games, practices, workouts, film sessions and even the most privileged occasions with Rodriguez among his closest staff and family members. The outcome is a chronology of a three-year struggle to build a program and overcome the stigma of an outsider in one of the most tradition-steeped settings in America.

Bacon relates a story of Rodriguez’s perpetual hope for football team that made progress too slowly to satisfy Michigan standards. The development was set back by a combination of factors, including lingering entanglements in Morgantown, a largely unsupportive AD, weak public relations efforts, and a lack of support from the previous establishment. Though Rodriguez was not without mistakes and poor judgments, the margin for error and opportunity for recovery were both razor thin.

A sad truth of our era is that there are no problems or obstacles so large that the news media cannot make them larger. Journalists are paid to report the news and, occasionally, to comment on the news. It’s not uncommon that they create the news as well, as was the case during Rodriguez’s second year on the job. Though it was not the cause of his demise, it was clearly an impediment to his success.

In the end, RichRod’s termination was due not to issues off the field; wins typically diminish if not erase such matters. Rodriguez simply did not rack up enough victories. The Wolverines typically had little trouble scoring in the spread offense. Their problem was defensive failures in containing their opponents. His sub .500 winning percentage was punctuated by an unforgivable 2-7 record against archrivals Michigan State, Ohio State and Notre Dame. Michigan qualified for a postseason appearance just once under his leadership, losing by 38 points to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl Jan. 1, 2011. He was fired three days later.

The Wolverines’ new head coach, Brady Hoke, a former Michigan assistant, took the players Rodriguez recruited to an 11-2 record last year, including regular season wins against Ohio State, Notre Dame and a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.

RichRod took a year off coaching in 2011. He spent the season providing studio and game analysis for CBS Sports. He was hired in November to replace Mike Stoops as head coach the Arizona Wildcats.

He has since reassembled much his old coaching staff, most notably defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel who stayed in Morgantown when many others moved with him to Michigan. Ridriguez’s new circumstances in Tucson should be much to his liking and favor. The PAC 12 is a much more offensive-centered conference and his scheme has brought much success to Oregon there already.

Three and Out does not exonerate Rodriguez for his shortcomings at Michigan, but it sheds light on others’ previously unknown contributions to the problems there. It shows a steady commitment and respect for the program among the coach, staff and players, despite repeated frustrations. It’s not a legacy that will place RichRod in the lore of the storied program, but one that will not follow him in shame.

 

Pete Sonski hosts “Three Point Stance: The Leatherheads College Football Hour” each Saturday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Blog Talk Radio. He’s is a regular contributor to this and other football blogs. Follow him on Twitter: @29sonski.

Tailgating in the Elm City

Yale’s 2011 football season was not a memorable one, but there is one element of it that will not be easily forgotten.

The team finished 5-5 overall with a 4-3 conference record, good for a four-way tie for second place in the Ivy League, behind 7-0 Harvard. An off-field incident made national news though.

Fellow Leatherheads Joe Williams, Bob Swick and Jon Daly met me at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn., Nov. 19, an unseasonably warm and sunny Saturday, for the annual Harvard-Yale matchup, a.k.a., “The Game.” It was a pilgrimage of sorts. After all, a rivalry that has been contested over parts of three centuries (first played Nov. 13, 1875), is one that any real fan of the sport would consider with some degree of awe.

During the half-time intermission, the stadium’s public address announcer asked for a moment of silent prayer on behalf of a 30-year-old woman who had been struck and killed by a vehicle outside the stadium that morning.

The vehicle was a box truck. The location was a parking lot. The occasion was a tailgate party.

A U-Haul truck, driven by a Yale student (delivering the beer kegs for his fraternity’s bash), accelerated suddenly when entering the parking lot.

The vehicle plowed into a group of tailgaters striking three people. In addition to the woman who was killed, two others were hospitalized; one with serious injuries.

The driver’s attorney claimed the accident occurred as a result of vehicle malfunction. The incident remains under investigation and no charges have filed to date.

Tailgating is a part of the culture. Socializing, eating and drinking alcohol before football games takes place in hundreds of locations each and every weekend during the season. It’s one of the greatest manifestations of Americans’ obsession with football.

The thing is, at Yale, it’s not about football. It’s about the party.

For alumni, some of “tailgate” celebrations at Yale are professionally catered. They are mini reunions of sorts. For the students it’s an opportunity to party publicly, and on a large scale. The football game may be a convenient opportunity – or excuse – to party, but it is of little interest to many of those in attendance.

Many football fans are notorious for extending their tailgate parties up to and beyond the opening kickoff. IN the case of Yale-Harvard though, there were perhaps twice as many people tailgating as ultimately made it into the stadium.

The Yale Bowl is a WWI era structure. It seats some 60,000 fans and is a marvelous venue for football. Because it is so old however, it has many distinctions from modern athletic fields. For one, restrooms and food concessions are in separate buildings outside the stadium. The Bowl is not on campus but on the edge of New Haven in a somewhat residential area. There are open (grass) fields that serve as parking – and tailgating – areas, but there are also a number of city streets.

So, the tailgate crowd distinct from most other football enthusiasts and the tailgating area is not conducive to such widespread and jam-packed parties. These were, arguably, contributing factors to the tragedy of that day.

This past week Yale announced sweeping changes to its tailgating regulations. No more beer kegs, and no more box trucks, unless pre-authorized and operated by professional outside vendors. Also, all parties must disperse upon commencement of the game.

These are positive developments to be sure, but regulations that uniquely tailored to Yale. Its tailgate parties, particularly at every other year’s Harvard game at the Yale Bowl, are anomalies.

One expects the Ivy League should have refined distinctions, compared to other colleges and universities. In the case of Yale, those refinements were not enough.

Penn State Moving Forward

Penn State was back in the news cycle this past week, with the hiring of Bill O’Brien, the departure of Tom Bradley and Jay Paterno, and the Sally Jenkins interview with Joe Paterno.

Two months removed from the scandal that ensued from the grand jury report of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged child molestation, the university its and football program have turned over a host of key administrators and coaches – and hopefully turned the page on an ugly chapter in its otherwise fine history.

I had a chance encounter last night with Silas Redd, the starting (sophomore) tailback for the Penn State Nittany Lions. My curiosity would not be contained. Without even the briefest of pleasantries, I asked him bluntly why – or maybe how – he chose to remain in State College. He looked down for a second and then back at me. “I’m loyal” he said firmly, yet humbly.

I asked how he and his teammates remained composed and committed despite the harsh attention that descended on Happy Valley in the wake the Sandusky news and the abrupt firing of his legendary head coach. (Although there have been some recruits that bolted in the wake of the school’s disgrace, there has not been an exodus of existing players, presumably waiting for the appointment of a new coach).

His answer was equally matter-of-fact. “We just stuck together; we believed” he said referring as much to their belief in their institution as in their mutual dependency. (Translation: “We are Penn State!” Familiar mantra?)

I asked about another recruit, Malik Golden, who, like Redd, is from my home state. Golden has verbally committed to Penn State last fall but had reopened his recruitment after the fallout.

He broke a wide smile and confirmed that Golden was visiting campus a second time this weekend to meet with the new coaching staff. “I told them to tell him he should still come.”

Whatever shame has befallen the Penn State football program, the players evidently have a resilient spirit – a disposition that was typical of their former head coach. In collegiate football, winning is the measure of success, but the objective is forming young men in character. “Success with Honor” has meant something for more than 40 years under Joe Paterno’s watch.

Paterno did not cause the Jerry Sandusky situation. To be sure, Paterno has been, and will continue to be, judged on his actions (or inactions) in regard to the revelations about Sandusky.

I can’t say definitively what I would have done in Paterno’s circumstances. I continue to believe he is, fundamentally, a good man who didn’t appreciate the gravity of the situation and trusted too much that others would investigate and do the right thing. If having faith in the integrity of others is a fault, I hope to be convicted every time.

Whatever Paterno’s shortcomings in the Sandusky mess, he has built and firmly established the success of Penn State football – and contributed immensely to the overall success and reputation of the university. Beyond all this he has shaped the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of players who wore the Penn State uniform over the years.

I don’t know what Paterno knew or didn’t know, did or didn’t do regarding Sandusky. While I may be disappointed ultimately to learn those facts, I will never deny the measure of good that, until two months ago, had been his legacy.

Will Tigers Take the Tide Twice?

Since the morning of November 6, 2011, college football fans have been making their voices heard: no rematch!

The previous evening’s so-called “Game of the Century” had resulted in a single-digit outcome for both participants: LSU 9, Alabama 6 – in overtime!

Before I read the comment twice I was on the defensive. The purpose of the BCS is to pit the top two collegiate football teams against each other in the season’s final contest for the national championship.  If LSU and Alabama are the best two teams in the postseason, they should contend for the Crystal Ball.

I, for one, am not enamored of the BCS, but whether the current system is flawed is debatable. The outcome of its complicated formula is bound to result in disagreement, regardless of the outcome. Put me down in favor of the Plus-One plan.

Returning to reality, the system has seen fit this season to give the honors of playing for the title to the same two teams who did battle that November Saturday. On that occasion, LSU and Bama were vying for the top spot in the SEC west. This time it is for all the proverbial marbles.

They are the two best defenses in the NCAA. They are the two best teams in the NCAA. They are deserving contenders for the championship, and the winner deserves all the accolades. The SEC wins again because, until another conference proves otherwise, it has the best teams on the planet.

My assessment of the game is all over the map. I have changed my pick three times. Alabama’s defense is ranked first in the country and has surrendered and average of just 191 yards and 8.8 points per game to its opponents this season. LSU’s defense is number two and given up fractionally more yards and points, while forcing more than two turnovers per game.

LSU has three All-Americans this season in Morris Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu and Brad Wing. Alabama has four: Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower, Barrett Jones and Trent Richardson.

Richardson has averaged 198 yards against Top 25 opponents this year and has fumbled once in 614 career touches. LSU has scored 40 points or more nine times this season.

Les Miles is 75-17 (.815) at LSU. Nick Saban is 49-12 (.803) at Alabama. Need I go on?

If there are any clear advantages, it would be LSU’s prowess on special teams, but Bama missed four field goals (12 points) in November and still held LSU to just nine points in total.

So how will one team prevail?

Look for the coaches to set aside the conservative approach of the last game in hopes of gaining an early advantage. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to play catch-up against either of these defensive units.

The Alabama players have to feel they have something to prove in this game. I’ll go with the Tide, 17-13.

Sweet Victories and Happy Memories

For the casual football fan, Thanksgiving Day is an opportunity to watch the Lions and Cowboys – preferably over dinner – and spend some down time with the ones you love.

My Thanksgiving for the last several years has begun at Andrus Field, the oldest continuously used football field in the United States, with several thousand people.

Corwin Stadium at Andrus Field in the heart of Middletown, Connecticut has been the one and only playing field for the Wesleyan University football team since the 1880s. Surrounded by academic buildings both modern and historic in the center of the campus, it has become the Thanksgiving meeting place for high school football zealots eager to see the city’s crosstown rivalry, the Middletown Blue Dragons vs. the Xavier Falcons.

This year’s contest produced more than 5,000 spectators for the 10 a.m. contest, the results of which, to my satisfaction, were the same as last year: the Falcons rolled to a decisive 48-6 victory. The win capped the second consecutive undefeated season for Xavier (10-0) and secured the top playoff seeding in defense of its Class LL (Connecticut’s largest high schools) state championship.

Throughout the season the Falcons had narrowly enjoyed the number one ranking in the state polls. Despite having won 23 straight games at this point, Xavier was still just a vote or two away from being supplanted by the Masuk Panthers of Monroe, quarterbacked by Connecticut’s two-time Gatorade player of the year, Casey Cochran. The players knew they had targets on their backs. Every opposing team and player was “up” for the match against them, wanting the prize of knocking off the state’s best team.

The Falcons were by no means a group of no names, but the team’s strength was in its unity. With 20 seniors, the group had formed a bond – an interdependence and trust – that produced confidence and incredible sense of purpose.

The defensive squad, particularly, had a synergy that made it a dominant force, allowing an average of just eight points per game throughout the season. The blitz-oriented scheme not only was stingy in surrendering points, but also resulted in frequent tackles in the backfield. Resulting field position gave the Falcons run-first offense frequent opportunity to find paydirt.

The following Tuesday, the Xavier squad beat the eighth-seeded Glastonbury Tomahawks 34-6, holding them scoreless until the fourth quarter. Four days later, in the semifinal game, the Falcons trailed for the first time this year, 7-6 against Norwalk. They recaptured the lead just three plays later and didn’t look back, beating the Bears 55-14. Masuk’s season came to an end however, losing to Hand High School of Madison.

Saturday, December 10, brought the sublime: the state finals against the Staples Wreckers of Westport. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state’s governing body for high school sports competition, had wisely secured Rentschler Field (home of the UConn Huskies) for its championship games. In the state’s premiere football stadium, the Falcons triumphed 42-7, defending their title and securing the unanimous number one ranking. To add to the sweetness of the championship, Xavier’s resounding defeat of previously undefeated Staples was a bit of vindication too. Staples was the last team to beat the Falcons, in the 2009 semifinals.

The undefeated streak now stands at 26 games.

Xavier will bid farewell to its 20 seniors, but will send with them fond memories of two undefeated seasons and consecutive state titles. Of more enduring value however, will be the bonds of friendship and the sense of confidence in staring down adversity.

The experience of playing sports in high school offers little in comparison. Developing personal skills, practicing teamwork and devising strategies to succeed and advance are cemented. The Xavier players have all this, and an abiding sense of accomplishment too.

Will There Be an Alabama-LSU Rematch for the National Championship?

Last night’s “Game of the Century,” a.k.a. No. 1 LSU at No. 2 Alabama was the second-highest (non-bowl) college football game in history. According to USA Today, “The 11.9 overnight rating trails only CBS 14.5 rating for Notre Dame-Miami on Nov. 25, 1989.”

It’s not surprising that Boise State, though still unbeaten, is below Alabama in the rankings. The Tide played well last night, but not their best. It’s unlikely that Alabama – or Boise State – will lose another game.

Stanford hosts Oregon this coming Saturday (Nov. 12) and Oklahoma travels to Stillwater to play Oklahoma State Dec. 3. If Stanford and Oklahoma State lose in those games (or any other along the way), Alabama is likely to be in line for a rematch for the national championship. In fact, Alabama fell only one spot to No. 3 in today’s BCS rankings (edit 11/07).

That is just wrong. Not that I’m opposed to a rematch; I’d actually enjoy seeing the two teams square off again. Though I ranked Alabama at No. 4 in my vote submission this week due to the loss, I think the Tide is equal or better that Oklahoma State and Stanford. There should be a playoff system to determine the final two teams in the championship game.

On the Three Point Stance last night,  Bob Swick and I spoke with Kevin McGuire about the need for an NCAA playoff system. Have a listen and let me know your thoughts.

Pete Sonski hosts the Leatherheads weekly college football podcast and is a regular contributor to Leatherheads of the Gridiron. Contact him via Twitter @29sonski.

Superbowl Saturday

Today’s  showdown between the top-ranked LSU Tigers and the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., is the NCAA football equivalent of the Super Bowl.

These two unbeaten teams go head to head in a game that likely will determine the SEC West. In all probability, the winner will go on undefeated to the SEC championship and compete for the BCS (national) championship as well.

Leatherheads of the Gridiron has you covered.

Join Bob Swick and me tonight from 9-10 p.m. Eastern on Three Point Stance: the College Football Hour as we discuss the game and look at the history of this rivalry with fellow Leatherheads contributor and college football historian par excellence Tex Noel.

We’ll also be joined by Kevin McGuire of the National College Football Examiner and the No 2-Minute Warning podcast, who will unwrap the complexities of the Big East’s expansion efforts as well as its recent showdown with the West Virginia Mountaineers

Tune in tonight or download tomorrow. You be glad you did!

Missou’s Declaration Perpetuates Realignment Unrest

Just when the mad flurry of rumors and speculation regarding conference realignment seemed to quiet and settle into a temporary sanity, the University of Missouri stoked the fire. After meeting earlier this week, the University’s curators emerged with the now famous rhetoric: We’re exploring all options in the best interests of the University.

Translation: Missouri is not committed to the Big 12. We’ve always wanted to go to the Big 10, but we may go to the SEC also. In the meantime, we’ll smile and wave … and basically keep NCAA Division I football in a state of unrest.

Though the remaining Big 12 teams seemed to have ironed out differences and TV revenue sharing, Missouri’s posturing keeps the conference on edge and causes more frustration for the Big East.

The SEC has declared itself content at 13 teams with the addition next season of Texas A&M. Logic dictates that the conference will even its number of member programs, but the SEC acts at its own pace and discretion, insulated at the top of the college football world.

The Pac-12 has declared itself not interested in short-term expansion, and its long-time Rose Bowl dance partner, the Big 10, has closed doors too.

So the effect of Missouri’s announcement is that the Big 12 cannot presume on the school’s continued membership. At nine schools plus Missouri – for now, it wants to add programs and stabilize. Candidates recently rumored to be brought aboard include Texas Christian University and the University of Louisville. TCU is scheduled to join Louisville in the Big East next season, but the destination is no longer as appealing with the defections of Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC – and Connecticut a very public ACC wannabe.

The Big East, like the Big 12, wants to shore up its ranks. Its location, history and football reputation however make it the least likely destination for football programs of stature, and a wait-and-see destination for any program really. It may be imprudent for any school to enter the Big East in its tenuous status of present.

So, Missouri’s opportunity seeking keeps college football on the alert in a conference alignment situation seemingly unable to find contentment.

Heisman 2011: A Week 4 Snapshot

In 1935, the Downtown Athletic Club in New York created an award for the most outstanding player in collegiate football. Eventually it was renamed in honor of the club’s athletic director, John Heisman. It has become one of the most prestigious annual awards in all of sports and pundits begin weighing in on potential winners in the preseason.

With each successive week the focus becomes sharper. By the time the award is presented in early December, there is typically an odds-on favorite. The interest is particularly keen this year, with a large field of candidates.  Here are some of the most commonly mentioned candidates.

Andrew Luck
The Stanford QB was runner-up in the Heisman balloting to Auburn’s Cam Newton last year. A redshirt junior, he surprised many by forgoing the NFL to play a third collegiate season. He was the preseason favorite and has performed well to date. Stanford had a week four bye, but Luck has led them to a 3-0 record with 786 passing yards on 57 completions. He has tossed eight TDs and only one INT.

Kellen Moore
A redshirt senior, Moore has led his Boise State Broncos to both prominence and BCS contention over his three seasons. Though a Heisman finalist last year, he is often dismissed by pundits due to his stature (6 ft. 0 in., 190 lbs.). His size hasn’t inhibited his success, however. Moore is 41-2 as a starting QB. He’s already thrown for 995 yards and 12 TDs this season (against two INTs). The Broncos are 4-0 and have their sights set on a national championship.

Marcus Lattimore
The South Carolina tailback burst on to the Heisman stage this year with 611 rushing yards and eight TDs. He also has a TD through the air and 139 receiving yards for the Gamecocks. Though only a sophomore, he has carried his team to a 4-0 record overall record and 2-0 in the SEC.

Robert Griffin III
The Baylor Bears don’t get a lot of attention, often being overshadowed by more prominent Big 12 schools. Their junior QB has brought them notoriety this season though. Once a player earns a universal nickname, his stock is bound to rise. “RG3” has earned a lot of Heisman mentions this season. His Bears are 3-0 and he has 962 passing yards and 13 TDs (with no INTs).

Landry Jones
The Oklahoma Sooners have enjoyed top billing in the weekly AP poll much of this season. Landry Jones is a primary reason for that prominence. The redshirt junior QB has 1,022 passing yards this season for the 3-0 Sooners. He has five TDs against four INTs.

Russell Wilson
Wilson is a redshirt senior QB for the Wisconsin Badgers, having transferred from North Carolina State, where he enjoyed much success in the ACC. He has led Wisconsin to a 4-0 start throwing for 1,136 yards and 11 TDs and one INT.

Geno Smith
Every writer is entitled to a dark horse candidate. I’ll take Geno Smith, junior QB for the West Virginia Mountaineers. Smith has thrown for 1,471 yards so far, with nine TDs and three INTs. West Virginia is 3-1, having lost to LSU last Saturday. Despite the loss Smith threw for 463 yards against the Tigers, one of the best defenses in the NCAA.

One other player who emerged last weekend with 288 yards rushing and two TDs is LaMichael James, a junior tailback for Oregon. During the preseason he was widely expected to be among the contenders, but has not had a Heisman performance until last Saturday against Arizona. Going forward he may find his way into the conversation.

These players all have impressive credentials, making for interesting competition. Unlike many recent years’ competition, this could be a toss up in December.

 

Check out this disscussion on Moore and Lattimore at: Heisman Hopefuls Kellen Moore and Lattimore

 

Pete Sonski blogs about college football. He welcomes feedback here and on Twitter @PSPRGuy.