Category Archives: News

The Curious Case of Gordon Gee

A statue of OSU mascot Brutus made to resemble Gee; photo by Natalie Guinsler.

Gordon Gee was—and still is—a bona fide celebrity at Ohio State.  From his his bow ties and round glasses, to his off-the-cuff manner and comfort with crowds, Gee is an accomplished self-promoter, and has leveraged his fame to not only become a tremendous fundraiser, but to become adored by many in the Buckeye state.  For all his skill, Gee’s recent nudge from the president’s office was a self-inflicted affair reflective of a career that became known more for gaffes than achievements.

Gee is a man of competing concepts.  He abstains from alcohol as part of his faith, but he attended OSU social events (including Greek and dorm parties) regularly.  He’s an outsider from Utah (schooled in Utah and New York), who was accepted almost unabashedly as a transplanted Ohioan.  And despite the transplant, he left OSU, yet was still admired enough to be rehired.  He reignited the core Columbus campus with a spate of land buys and construction, yet traveled the state and the school’s other campuses enough to be seen as an advocate for all of Ohio.

His CV might suggest a nebbish scholar, but he’s best used in emptying donors’ pockets and aiding OSU’s—he seems most comfortable spotlit as a charismatic, driven figure , as his success in a current $2.5 billion campaign suggests. Finally his public persona is  warm and caring, yet his most controversial actions are seen by many as calculating, self-serving, even heartless.  One striking example, if true, is his ex-wife, Constance Gee.  She claims Gordon divorced her at the behest of Vanderbilt trustees, who threatened their then-president with termination if he didn’t distance himself from Constance’s publicly-exposed use of medicinal marijuana.

Gee holds the dubious honor of creating controversies of some sort at each of the five institutes he’s helmed, whether the Vanderbilt scandal, his corporate-style revamping of (and sudden departure from) Brown, allegations of sexist comments at Colorado—even his stint at WVU had a hint of the unusual, as he was bit of wunderkind having taken the post at the age of 37. The past three years brought heaps of criticism that, hard to believe, relates most to his handling of the Buckeyes’ football team—the same team that exited a cheating scandal by hiring an upgrade over their fired BCS Championship leader.

He was also a man who learned from his mistakes, only to create new ones, and sometimes come full-circle on old problems.  Most tellingly, Gee keeps a list of the one-liners and comments that’ve caused him the most trouble in public, and it’s quite a list: calling a sitting governor a “dummy,” making a Polish joke, and his “Little Sisters of the Poor” quip are some notables.  Despite having so many learning experiences, the cause of his departure has been a series of embarrassing verbal gaffes, beginning with an ill-advised quip on Jim Tressel’s importance (made during the midst of an NCAA investigation), and now concluding with jabs at Catholics and Southerners. It seemed Gee thought himself immune to recriminations for his stand-up routine, or perhaps had little self-control over his own mouth, though both are hard to fathom for a man of his experience and position.

He also continued his methods of changing the university climate, which to many faculty and alumni tarnished the university.  Tuition and fees were raised and lowered in see-saw fashion, and much of the university’s parking space was leased to QIC, a private firm in Australia, for 50 years and $483 million.  Raising the ire of landlords and students alike was his plan to build more student housing for second-year students, which would pull them out of the city and suburbs and into the ever-growing main campus.  He also oversaw a curriculum that gradually pushed more teaching responsibilities on GTAs whose stipends were lower than those of peer institutions.  Since most of these changes occurred during the recession, opinion was split on whether Gee was pointing OSU in a sensible direction, or merely taking advantage of circumstance in implementing his vision.

There was also an inevitable element of timing that likely hastened Gee’s ouster.  Gee’s return to OSU was fortuitous—his second term followed the resignation of Karen Holbrook.  Holbrook was in many ways about as different from Gee as two presidents of the same school could be.  A biologist who steadily worked her way up the career ladder (without incident) to the provost’s spot at UGA, Holbrook had few of Gee’s concerns.  While her academic progression plan was established in part by Gee, she was the first to honestly carry it out, and she did so through consensus-building and collaboration.  She also ended the school’s policy of open admission for Ohio residents, which drastically changed the campus’ student culture.

Both Gee and Holbrook were respected as fundraisers, though Holbrook took a patently academic route, as her big successes were with federal research entities, not alums and friends of the school.  In the eyes of many, OSU’s first female president was most concerned with tamping down the Buckeyes’ football culture, particularly boozing and tailgating. I find it hard to fault her much in this regard—she had barely settled in when OSU’s 2002 victory over Michigan erupted into the school’s largest-ever riot.  And this is coming from a school with a reputation of rioting for no particular reason.  On one trip to Columbus, I remember seeing copies of The Lantern, the student newspaper, with front page shots of street riot. Many of the participants were captioned with requests for identification tips.

In fact, Holbrook’s resignation letter mentions football only in that the sport (along with things like “random warm spring weekends”) was a cause of riots, and that this had been tamed under her watch.  OSU also won a national title on its way back to dominance under her, though this gets no mention, as tangential as her participation might’ve been.  Worsening her perception in the eyes of Buckeye fans was when portions of a later interview with USF were made public, particularly her stinging comments on rioting at OSU.

It’s been six years since Gee took over for Holbrook, and among the faithful, memories of the bad old days aren’t nearly as strong, and perhaps even forgotten.  Since then the inevitable divide of “academics vs. athletes” has gradually worsened.  You can see it in the message board posts and hear it in conversations among fans. The tone of conversation has moved to a different point most recently, with OSU supporters seeing the  entire institution’s value as being sullied by Gee’s remarks and the mishaps that occurred under his watch.

Perhaps most important is that the university seems to be a perpetual motion machine when it comes to fundraising and major sports.  The upshot is that the sense of gratitude towards Gee has diminished, as has the need for him.  In the eyes of the trustees, it seems the aging president could only screw up the good thing they had going: he wasn’t a bad leader or even a bad person, just an embarrassing and erratic one.

Rightly or wrongly, they think he can be easily replaced—easily enough to warrant a carrot-and-stick expulsion from his post.  The carrot was a generously compensated “President Emeritus” role that would ask him to still raise money and hobnob with elites; the stick was publicly chastising him with a letter of rebuke that promised stern consequences for future errors made during his presidency, and a demand that he essentially enroll himself in a supervised etiquette program.  My guess is that any replacement will come without Gee’s public missteps, yet lack the star-power that was so critical to Gee’s fundraising abilities.  Unless of course they fellow Maurice Clarett’s advice and hire Jim Tressel to take the post.

Deacon Jones (1938 – 2013)

“Going in, going into The Pit, I like to slap the guys’ helmets.  It shakes them up.  When I get to the man with the ball, I hit him as hard as I can.  If I can hit a man hard enough so he has to be carried off the field, I’ll be glad to help him off.”  –David D. “Deacon” Jones

Deacon Jones

Deacon Jones might’ve been the greatest defensive end to ever play the game.  During ten years with the Rams he earned the nickname “The Secretary of Defense” by terrorizing quarterbacks.  Even though he may have invented the term “sacks,” they weren’t individually counted until 1982, so gauging his stats is a bit of educated guesswork.  Jones may have had nearly 200 during his 14-year career, most of them during his tenure with the Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” line, and good for third-all time.

He used speed, guile, and power to rip and dart past opponents, bull rush through timid blockers, and employed a head slap so effective that linemen would come of their stance with their arms up like a rolling boxer’s.   Quarterbacks and runners weren’t safe from his hands, either, since one of his favorite tackling styles involved clubbing the ball carrier across the head and/or face.  He was one of the main reasons head slaps and clubs were banned.

Just as impressive was his drive.  Players around the league were amazed by his dogged, sideline-to-sideline pursuits.  “The main thing is to keep going,” Jones said once.  “If I get blocked, I claw my way in, even if I have to crawl.”

Despite all this he was only a 14th round pick coming out of college, though this was due more to enrolling at small, historically black schools, and even being kicked off his first squad for participating in the Civil Rights Movement.  Deacon grew up in violently segregated Florida, and personally witnessed heinous racial acts, one of which ultimately ended in death.  He came into the NFL determined to shed aside the docility demanded by the South and make a name for himself, which led to him developing a persona to match his on-field prowess.  He was wild on the field—not so much coached as unleashed—and brash during interviews.  He gave himself the nickname “Deacon” to help in this effort.

Jones was so dominant that family movie night at George Allen’s house (then head coach of the Rams) would turn into a film session extoling the defensive end’s virtues.  He also became a fixture in the Allen family, and many years later Allen’s daughter Jennifer named one of her sons ‘Deacon.’

Like many ex-NFLers (including fellow Foursome members Rosey Grier and Merlin Olsen), Jones dabbled in acting and broadcasting after his playing days ended.  He had numerous cameos in number of shows and films, one of which was alongside Jim Brown.  I remember recognizing Jones on G vs E, a short-lived series that tried to ride the combined coattails of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 90’s/early 2000’s.  No surprise he was the best part of the show (and he played a character named ‘Deacon,’ no less.)  He was even a talented singer.  The last decades of his life were spent fighting poverty in the Anaheim/LA area, mainly through his eponymous foundation.

A quick glance at the number of headlines and recollections on Jones is sign enough of his impact.  Twice named Defensive Player of the Year, a five-time All Pro, and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Deacon Jones left an indelible mark on the game.

Pat Summerall (1930 – 2013)

“For somebody who has been as close to the game as I have, it is staggering that people heavily involved in the game today wouldn’t know who Jim Brown is, not to mention Landry and Lombardi.  We live in an era of unprecedented communication, in which there is an abundance of sports talk stations and information available on television, radio, and the Internet.  But it seems that the more information there is, the more the actual history seems to get buried.  It’s appalling to me, but then again, history and football have always been two of my biggest loves.”  –Pat Summerall, Giants

George Allen “Pat” Summerall was a piece of history himself.  A three-way player—offense, defense, and special teams—in college and the pros, a good enough basketball player to get an offer from Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, and a minor league baseball player, he’s best remembered (on the field, at least) for his role as placekicker for the New York Giants.   Summerall was a true throwback—well over six feet tall, an end on defense and offense, and a straight-ahead kicker during an era when special teamers were embraced as teammates, and not the vestigial oddities that seems to be the norm today.  His greatest moment was a 49-yard field goal (the longest boot of 1958) made in a snowy season-ender against the Browns that sent the Giants to the playoffs.  His book Giants, quoted above, is an account of both his time as a player in New York, and an ode to two of his coaches on that team, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.

Of course, he’s best known for his broadcast work with Tom Brookshire and then his two decades with John Madden.  His tenure alongside Madden cemented Summerall’s place in the pantheon of football commentators; though his reserved, thoughtful tone as play-by-play caller probably won’t get the same retrospective airplay as his longtime colleague’s, it was every bit as important.  He called 16 Super Bowls, an AFL-NFL Championship game, Emmitt Smith’s breaking of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record, Masters golf tourneys, and the U.S. Open, along the way racking up awards and accolades, including enshrinement in the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association’s Hall of Fame.

For many folks my age, Summerall and Madden simply were the combined “voice” of football.  In his prime, Summerall was in a class by himself in a way that should inform his peers in every sport.

The NFL’s Ban on Crown-of-Helmet Hits

The NFL’s new rule prohibiting some hits with the crown of the helmet is being called ‘controversial’ in almost every news piece it appears in, to the point where it’s drowning out another new protective measure to eliminate peel-back blocks. Marshall Faulk has been particularly vocal, calling the ruling “crazy” and “stupid,” and citing head-up/face-up hits as causes of injury, including the concussion Steven Ridley incurred from Bernard Pollard during last year’s AFC championship game. I’m in the camp that believes the head-up rule is one that’s going to make football a slightly safer sport for a variety of reasons without drastically changing the game.

The instant of collision between Steven Ridley and Bernard Pollard; notice a slight flaw in Faulk's reasoning.

It’s a foregone conclusion that our bodies never evolved to endure head impacts. The position where the spinal column can best absorb force (a neutral posture that results in crown-first hits in football) is the weakest position for the neck muscles. Our large, thin skulls aren’t dense enough to withstand severe trauma, nor are they faceted to deflect blows. Finally, the brain itself is structurally fragile and anchored in only one location, which means it can twist and actually bounce against the skull during external impact; it’s suspected the gyri and sulci (the “wrinkles” in the brain) evolved to limit the amount of brain surface exposed to contact during head trauma, but even if true it’s a bit like saying your skeleton protects you from gunfire–it’s true, but not very practical.

The fragility of the skull and the attached sensory organs led us to adopt protective behaviors to keep us safe. Almost paradoxically, protective helmets and pads put athletes at risk by nullifying these behaviors. The advent of contact sports—especially collision sports with hard helmets—runs counter to these behaviors. In football, the head and face are protected from the superficial wounds that would otherwise accrue with repeated blows. Without a helmet, concussion-inducing hits would lead to deep lacerations, fractured bones, broken teeth, displaced eyes, and other injuries that prevent subsequent immediate hits and deter future activities of the kind.

With the helmet, only the brain is unprotected, and its ability to send damage-indicating sensory signals is limited. Unlike a sensitive piece of anatomy such as the nose or lips, the brain has no sensors for detecting damage to itself—put simply, it can’t feel pain in the normal sense. This is great for doctors, who can perform brain procedures with only local anesthetics, but not so much for gauging our own head trauma. If we felt neurons tearing or being battered during a punch the same way we’d feel our nose breaking or lip splitting, football would be a very different game. Football isn’t the only sport to fall victim here. Boxing does much the same thanks to gloves and tape, which both limit superficial facial injuries and protect the bones in the hands, while allowing tremendous amounts of force to impact opponents’ heads.

Head-up hitting can help alleviate some of these factors. First, there are behavioral aspects. Face-up hitters are more likely to move under control and at slower speeds, which limits the force being applied to the head. They also tend to position themselves in a way that avoids a head-on collision. Part of this is an instinctual desire to protect the face, which can steer players towards more shoulder-to-shoulder hits. It’s also tactical in that a player with his head up, eyes open, and moving at a controlled speed is better able to avoid or deflect contact (in the case of breaking tackles and shedding blocks) or to make plays that might lead to better on-field results than a hard hit (such as a form tackle, play on a ball, or proper stalk block.)

There are also mechanical advantages to head-up hitting. I mentioned earlier the weak muscle position of the crown-first hit. This is because a neutral head position requires the muscles of the neck to work in balance with each other in a relatively loose manner while the spine is largely responsible for positioning. In this situation, there is little way for force to be dispersed from receiving angled hits; neither the brain nor spine is aligned to counter them, and by the time the muscles react to counter the blow, it’s already come and gone. This is part of why earhole hits can so often lead to concussions: the head not only takes the initial blow, but the neck muscles can’t react quickly enough to prevent rebound trauma caused by the head whipping around like a speed bag.

Head-up hitting, on the other hand, locks the head both at the end of its ability to extend and butts the base of the helmet against the shoulder pads and neck rolls/collars. There’s a slight measure of absorptive give (which might be helpful), but for the head to significantly whip backwards on impact the entire body essentially has to move along with it, thus offering much more protection from whipping. Head-up hitting also actively and dominantly engages the upper portion of the trapezius muscles and other thick neck extensors, which are the strongest muscles in the neck. Rather than being in a reactive balancing act with weaker flexors, the upper traps and extensors are already tensed against blows before contact is even made, which reduces extra motion in both axes.

Trapezius highlighted in red; note the size compared to other muscles attached to the neck and skull.

Looking back, Faulk’s argument about the Ridley/Pollard hit is specious—Ridley actually lowered his head to use the crown of his helmet against Pollard’s earhole, despite being in a fairly upright position. In doing so, he negated the absorptive ability of his body and relied on the weaker muscles of the neck. Essentially he contorted himself into a poor position. Had he kept his head back, there may have been only a glancing blow between helmets, with most of the impact occurring at the shoulders (which ended up happening during the hit, anyways) and he may have been able to better absorb force from the hit, though it’s not guaranteed as I’ll note below. Pollard is in a vulnerable position, too, though because he’s tensed and aligned as a result of essentially looking up at Ridley just before impact, he’s better protected.

Is the head-up hit a solution to football concussions?  Not at all. It’s really only applicable to players in the secondary, and not to QBs or linemen. In terms of the hits the rule is designed to soften, the trapezius is strong, but not strong enough to consistently overcome the force of angled linebackers or arcing receivers. Given that leading with the crown also has an instinctual element in that it can protect the face during impacts, it’s going to be tough to teach: we might see a ton of minor face-up collisions while the big hits still turn into crown-first blows.

Even straight ahead collisions like the back-on-backer hits the rule seems to target are going to still cause concussions.  Head-up hit forces created by football players at any level can lead to brain injury, and the sport is far too chaotic to guarantee only stable, evenly-matched hits. Referring again to the Ridley/Pollard hit, where Ridley likely lowered his head without thinking of the act, there’s also no good protective strategy for an upright player or someone in mid-stride/mid-leap. It’s extremely difficult for even a fully-readied player to overcome a mid-air hit followed by a slam to the ground. Even if someone in Ridley’s situation avoids the frontal tackler or limits initial contact, players coming in from the sides are still major threats, too.

And for Ridley specifically, his chin would have been exposed during the play had he not lowered his head. Crown-on-chin blows are like uppercuts from sledgehammers, and it’s tough to imagine a player not only giving away his chin, but doing so on faith that a defender won’t hit it.  Airborne and upright hits are just damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t situations where avoiding them is the only safe measure.

There’s also a devil in the rule’s details: leading with the crown is only banned outside of the tackle box, meaning short interior runs and blocks will probably still resemble a documentary on bighorn sheep.  More generally, if repeated subconcussive blows lead to the chronic problems that some suspect (or are a greater problem than occasional concussions), a head-up tackle rule only masks the real problem. In the final measure, the rule will likely help the immediate health of players by turning some hard crown hits into wrap tackles. But ascribing anything more than that is a stretch.

NFL Evolution: The League Plays Defense

Any fans watching this year’s Super Bowl saw at least a few of the five ads for “NFL Evolution,” (NFLE) the NFL’s public relations answer to the growing concern over football and head injuries.  Between insurance issues, lawsuits, and even the erosion of the league’s foundation of K-12 players, the worst-case scenarios for how football fares during this era of concussion awareness are plentiful. Less clear is the likelihood any of these scenarios will come to pass.

While brain injury as public topic is a new hurdle, the league has overcome many difficulties and developed an approach that’s informed NFLE.  Before concussions and CTE became buzzwords, the NFL’s two main concerns were public visibility and maintaining a cheap talent pool.  It ably handled the former thanks to decades of promotional work that almost paradoxically managed to make the NFL be both a titan of tradition and the “next big thing” in sports; and an iron grip that was kept clenched on licensing partners and rivals alike.  Even missteps like the European leagues were contained failures that never tarnished the brand.

NFL owners have handled the talent issue more discretely.  Most important in their cause was building an alliance with college football programs that allowed the NFL to avoid the hindrance of running a farm system.  The system is mutually beneficial–schools have greater access to the game’s best players in the most financially rewarding sport, while the NFL’s future talent is developed at no cost to the league–though the NFL has exerted its influence of late by encroaching on traditional college game nights as much as antitrust statutes will allow.  Compared to the MLB’s massive farm system and the NBA’s mix of an expensive developmental league and uncontrollable foreign leagues, the NFL gets quite a bargain.

The NFL works further down the supply chain, too.  Football is an almost prohibitively expensive sport for many K-12 schools and youth leagues, and it was viewed with a wary eye by parents even before there was much awareness of head trauma risk.  Coupled with more recent concerns that the population of sporting youths is dwindling thanks to electronic enticements, and it’s conceivable football could see both future talent and viewers siphoned off to other forms of entertainment.  The league’s reaction has been to place a greater focus on reaching children through digital media, providing funding for youth programs through the NFL Youth Football Fund, and beginning an array of child-friendly health/wellness ventures such as NFL Youth Education Town to the more recent NFL Play 60.

The NFL Evolution campaign takes all these lessons and condenses them into a more aggressive package.  “Forever Forward Forever Football” (sic) is the motto.  The emphasis on “forever” isn’t an accident: with so much uncertainty on the health front, the league has doubled-down on portraying the game as an integral part of American life.  While earlier NFLE ads focused on the history of the league and its growth into the modern game (and clumsily including in the ads imagery of players involved in concussion lawsuits), the latest batch courts families more than fans. Three of the five new Super Bowl spots focused on youth players, including one that was just footage of Internet celebrity Samantha Gordon ripping off a long run.  Regarding the remaining two, one showed a mother and small child (the latter in a Raiders helmet) as they ostensibly watched a game, and the other was nothing more than home movie footage of the Kennedy family chucking the ball around a backyard in Camelot.

The NFL Evolution web page takes a more direct approach.  As I write this, the featured items on the home page include:

  • A piece on how football has “enriched” Mike Tomlin’s life
  • Three articles questioning the concussion practices of the NHL, NBA, and NCAA
  • A post on the NFL’s safety summit
  • An entire side panel on the league’s funding for research on player safety
  • And two posts that cast doubt on our understanding of concussion risk (in ways both favorable and unfavorable to the sport)

It’s a shotgun effort that simultaneously declares the game safe and modern, then shrugs and says “but we’re still making sure” and “the other guys are even worse.” The ads are especially divergent as they now target every demographic, with women factoring far more heavily than any PR campaign I can remember. It seems an unsophisticated approach for the NFL to craft something that relies on wooing moms (or at least stereotypical moms), but the tonal shift and its presence in the most important advertising window of the year only reinforces that this is indeed intentional.  Compare the NFLE spots to Chrysler’s much-discussed “God Made a Farmer” ad, which featured the raw imagery and stentorian narration we associate with the typical NFL’s promotional efforts–I’m surprised a fog-breathing Dick Butkus didn’t climb into a Ram at the end.

As for the NFLE website, I see little reason for the league to have a hands-off enough approach with the project to let an independent management team try to present the issue fairly.  There’s just no business sense in doing so, not when the league’s taking body blows.  NFLE is a promotional tool that pairs facts with feel-good advertising and deflects attention to other sports. It’d take a legal intervention (as happened to the cigarette industry) to expect anything different.

While it might be fun to argue just how manipulative the NLFE effort is, the campaign will ultimately play a small role the game’s future.  Though some were quick to equate the Super Bowl’s power outage as bit of symbolism befitting a falling sport, the end isn’t so clear or inevitable.  The league can thrive with just this level of uncertainty.  Lawsuits can be weathered, the promise of dollars will always lure risk-takers to the game, and an uncertain public won’t pull their children from the field en masse without better evidence.

Things like NFL Evolution can work in such an uncertain environment.  Provided technology keeps advancing, however, the uncertainty will disappear and we’ll have a truer understanding of football’s future.  Along the way, we’ll learn if NFLE was a savvy move that helped the game get through a rough patch, or a tactic that only delayed fundamental changes to the sport, its stature, or both.

Like Father, Unlike Son

The Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Super Bowl match-up has cast some attention on familial ties in football.  The “Brother Bowl” is rare enough to be intriguing in any environment, and especially so in the biggest football game of the year.  As good as the season has been for the Harbaughs, it’s been an uneven one for a handful of coaches who followed their legendary fathers into the profession.

USC's Lane Kiffin during the final seconds of a 2010 loss to Notre Dame.

Skip Holtz’s run at South Florida ended with a thud.  His second straight losing season notched only three wins, and built on none of the ground developed during Jim Leavitt’s long tenure.  Expectations were high for Holtz, whose success at ECU included two CUSA championships and a stretch where he nailed consecutive wins over Boise State, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia (all ranked, and with WVU at #8 at the time.) Many thought Florida’s talent base and USF’s strong position in a BCS conference were two ingredients that would elevate both program and coach.  It didn’t work out that way.

Holtz landed on his feet, though it seems that keeping the momentum developed by Sonny Dykes and crew will be tough: the team’s roster is built for one of the most unique schemes in the game, while Holtz isn’t known for being a whiz on offense. Then again, his dad survived a disastrous attempt to bring both the veer and the Notre Dame fight song to the NFL’s Jets.  And there’s probably thousands of kids out there who think he’s really a doctor, so maybe LT isn’t that great an obstacle.

When I started writing this piece, Derek Dooley was still looking for work following his departure from Tennessee.  After three losing seasons (including 3-5, 1-7, and 0-7 conference efforts) the biggest surprise may be that he lasted that long.  His tenure will be remembered for Tennessee’s first loss to Kentucky since dinosaurs roamed the earth, on-field coaching gaffes, recruiting failures, a hemorrhaged coaching staff, and the creation of a run-off rule nicknamed in his honor.  The last one is probably the only one people will remember; the rule was designed to reverse an odd situation where the Vols lost a bowl game because their opponent penalized themselves at the end of the game.  That game capped Dooley’s first season, which unfortunately for the young coach was also his best season in Knoxville. I wouldn’t bet someone else’s money on him coming close to equaling his dad’s national title and six SEC championships, especially since his post-Vols springboard team is the Dallas Cowboys, which has its own running theme of failure in this piece.

For my money, the saddest story actually involves the man Dooley replaced at Tennessee.  Lane Kiffin has been a mirror-universe Midas, with every program he touches collapsing into chaos.  He was given the benefit of a doubt over his Oakland exit—call it the “Al Davis Clause”—though the shambles Kiffin created in the wake of Phil Fulmer at Knoxville largely erased the goodwill.  Bad losses, recruiting and public affairs gaffes, an ill-advised public showdown with Urban Meyer, and a humbling bowl loss that showed his team to be largely unprepared and apathetic—Kiffin achieved all this in just one season, then fled the Tennessee Valley like a deposed dictator.  He even left rioting youth in his wake. He established shop at Southern Cal, where he teased Trojan fans with a 10-2 season before becoming the first coach to take a preseason #1 to a 7-6 record ranked outside the top 25.  He even echoed his bowl “success” with UT, with his Trojans getting soundly whipped by Georgia Tech at the Sun Bowl.

It’s the saddest story of the three not because of Lane (who still is employed with the Trojans), but because he dragged his father into it.  While Lou Holtz entertained audiences across the country with his Dadaist talents, and Vince Dooley enjoyed consulting gigs and writing children’s books, Monte Kiffin spent a fair chunk of his golden years trying to help his son win a few ball games.  Monte is recognized as one of the greatest defensive coaches to have worked in the NFL, and he’ll be synonymous with Tampa-2 schemes (and probably Cover-2 schemes in general) for decades to come.  So of course his venture into the college game was unrewarding.

The media tale is that the elder Kiffin couldn’t match the schemes of today’s spread squads, though it’s a faulty analysis: it wasn’t the smoothest schematic transition for Monte, though his game plans against Florida (when he was at UT), Oregon, and Georgia Tech had an expert’s wrinkles, and his teams held more than a few potent offenses to respectable scores.  An eminent professional, Monte couldn’t overcome the chaos of sanctions, blue-chippers, and his own son’s antics.  There are two versions of how his tenure in the college ranks ended.  He was either fired by Lane, or he willingly left for the Dallas Cowboys, a team led by the Lane Kiffin of Owner/GMs.  If you’re of the mind that he was escaping the college game, he knew going in that two opponents in the NFC East take offensive cues from Baylor and the run-and-shoot (Chip Kelly came along later.)

Rex and Rob Ryan are a mixed bag that seems appropriate for a year of successful brothers and lacking sons of coaching legends: the tantrum-throwing twins flip back and forth between being hailed as geniuses approaching Buddy’s understanding of the game, or being scapegoated (as is their current predicament.)  Come to think of it, Rex and Rob have quite a bit in common with their dad.

Rob Ryan and his playsheet.

Buddy Ryan at his peak was a defensive genius, but he was undone by a mercurial temper, stubborn personality, and a professional self-destructive streak that occasionally led to violence.  Rob’s work with the Cowboys was likewise volatile and odd. He brought the same strategies that at their best baffled even Tom Brady, though his tenure was marred by injuries to his players and their lingering difficulties in learning his shifting schemes.  In the end, his final season was eclipsed by the advertisements gracing his play sheets, and perhaps a bit by the arrival of his replacement, Monte Kiffin.

In New York, Rex seems to be on thin ice with the Jets, though given how much turnover has gone on in the staff and front office, it’s as stable as can be expected.  His tabloid coverage and the Tim Tebow trainwreck, unfortunately, have been more consistently newsworthy than his teams; barring some tremendous improvement, Ryan’s departure seems a matter of “when,” not “if.”

None of these examples point to any disadvantage with being a famous coach’s son; if anything, having family roots eases an entry barrier.  The stumbles only show how difficult the profession is, where even being raised in the football life doesn’t guarantee regular success.


*The Close But No Cigar Category:  In case you’re wondering, Michael Lombardi isn’t related to Vince, and Pat Shurmur is Fritz’s nephew.


From Brett to Manti: Football and the Internet News Machine

I doubt Jerry Yang and David Filo imagined that their tiny private web directory would grow into one of the most-used internet search engines on earth and a titan among internet media companies.  I more seriously doubt they ever imagined their grad school hobby becoming what might be the most feared name among college football coaches and ADs.

Yahoo! has come a long way since 1994.  So has sports journalism.

A thank-you letter from former Oregon Ducks Head Coach Chip Kelly to scouting service provider Will Lyles, as reported by Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel.

In many ways the Yahoo! sports staff is a cast of throwbacks: they painstakingly put together stories and follow traditional journalism’s rules on sources and verification. Charles Robinson’s and Dan Wetzel’s investigations into Miami, UNC, Oregon, and Ohio State played out over months.

The internet has changed the rules of journalism.  It’s given reporters unlimited and instantaneous access to sources and data, which is a definite boon to their work.  On the other hand, the democratization of start-up websites and free-to-operate blogs has created a wave of competition that’s empowered by the public demand for an instant and constant stream of information.  No print-run deadline has ever created a challenge quite like this, and the result has been the sudden appearance of football stories seemingly ripped straight from The National Enquirer.

Though they’re important to today’s climate, the big multimedia players–ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, etc.–aren’t the trendsetters or the risk takers (though I suppose it could be said that ESPN frequently risks its journalistic credibility.)  The big entities have advertisers, shareholders, and parent companies to keep happy.  While they’ve adopted the tools and techniques of the internet community, they won’t, for example, play by Deadspin’s rules.

Deadspin is one of eight websites in the Gawker network.  A privately owned company targeted at hard-to-offend, internet-affixed younger demographics, Gawker doesn’t have to fear audience blowback the way its bigger rivals do.  This measure of freedom allows Deadspin to serve as a sports-news tabloid where the writers often have a celebrity columnist’s desire to be part of the scene and a blogger’s flair for search-engine optimization.  Deadspin writer (now Gawker editor) A.J. Daluerio broke the Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger scandal with a story that focused as much on his attempts to wring information out of Sterger as it did Favre’s indescretions.  To quote Daluerio, he “persisted because I’m a dick and it’s an incredibly funny story[…]”

As distant as it is in scope and concern from a publication like The Atlantic, Deadspin at least tried to report a full story on Favre.  It’s easier to praise their recent expose on Manti Te’o. While still tabloid material, the piece sought to correct public perception with a few pounds of indisputable facts, and smartly embarrassed their more established competitors along the way. Not often rising to that ambition are the small-market sports operations–the team-specific sites of conglomerates like Rivals and Scout–and independent bloggers.  Both were badly exposed during recent bouts of conference realignment speculation.

Orangebloods, an independent member of the Yahoo!-owned Rivals network, became a go-to source for Big 12 and ACC fans worrying about how these conferences could cannibalize each other. Every day seemed to bring new updates and rumors from unnamed sources.  As rumor after rumor failed to materialize, it was obvious that while the site may have been well-connected to “insiders” with Texas and other Big 12 schools, it wasn’t well-connected with any facts.  In retrospect, I’ll give its operators the benefit of the doubt and say it probably fell victim in part to the machinations of a few higher-ups hoping to use the site for their schools’ (or personal) agendas, though the bulk of the blame for their failings lies in Orangebloods’ inability (or unwillingness) to vet sources and discern just how truthful their reports were.

Worse are the completely uninhibited loose cannons, of which Chris Lambert, aka “Honus Sneed,”  aka “Dude of WV” is a prime example.  An internet troll extraordinaire, Lambert used a Twitter account, a Blogger site, and a litany of unverifiable and oft-contradictory rumors to obtain the coveted status of “guru” in the minds of many NCAA fans.  How successful was he in getting attention?  One batch of comments on the Seminoles’ purported departure from the ACC is the assumed cause behind a retaliatory announcement from FSU President Eric Barron.

His predictions haven’t quite reached the same peaks, either because he’s being fed misinformation or because he’s making up rumors and tips by the gross.  Not surprisingly this isn’t a distanced, ethically mindful reporter we’re talking about: it’s a ticked-off Mountaineer fan who  has an ax to grind with the ACC.  Lambert admitted as much on Twitter, saying his goal was to “sow instability in the ACC & make poaching easier” in order to avenge the conference’s likely snub of WVU.

Still, everyone described above has at least vestiges of a traditional journalist, even if they’re by way of a shock jock or cult leader.  The last rung on the internet-news ladder is the hive mind.

Curious internet users–sometimes spontaneously, sometimes directed–have broken several football stories, most notably with the trail of follies that eventually coalesced into sanctions for the UNC Tar Heels.  Beginning with defensive tackle Marvin Austin’s ill-advised tweets, contacting public figures and conducting research throughout the story’s development, and keeping their gripes alive even after the delivery of sanctions, the NC State fans of Scout’s Pack Pride forums are without doubt at least partially responsible for igniting and maintaining the steady blaze that upended UNC’s football program.  During the process they turned rumors, complaints, and long-standing grudges into a stream of persuasive evidence, and when that wasn’t enough they transformed into a self-directed crowd-sourcing project that unearthed public records and established a virtual archive of every possible development and piece of evidence in the case.

While they pursued their share of false leads, the Pack Pride crew was eventually credited for several breaks.  The first was reviewing official (and publicly available) court documents and discovering that UNC football player James McAdoo not only blatantly plagiarized sources for a paper, but that both UNC and the NCAA had missed the obvious evidence.  More damningly, the Pack Pride crew also unearthed a transcript belonging to former two-sport UNC star Julius Peppers; the transcript, which was left forgotten on a public server, roughly verified the worst of the school’s academic improprieties.  If he holds true to his promise, it will also lead to Chancellor Holden Thorp’s resignation in June.

As unconventional as their methods were, the Pack Pride crew never entered dangerous legal ground, and their topic of interest was, at the end of the day, issues prosecutors rarely take interest in. The same can’t be said of the case unfolding in Steubenville, OH, which involves the alleged sexual assault of an underage victim by two likewise-juvenile members of the local high school football team.

While independent bloggers were the first to make the story national news, a cluster of computer hackers associated with the loose Anonymous collective upped the stakes.  The hackers (operating under the name “Knight Sec”) themselves collected some of the case’s most damning evidence legitimately by tapping into the near permanent and under-appreciated archival capabilities of the internet, and also by communicating with students in Steubenville.  Legal lines were crossed, however, when they hacked the servers of a privately owned fan site for the Steubenville football squad, defaced the site’s homepage, and broke into the owner’s e-mail account and dumped its contents onto the net; since then, the local sheriff’s office has become a target for even less discerning internet elements.  The national cachet of Anonymous amplified the focus on Steubenville, and Knight Sec’s choice of target essentially cemented (rightly or wrongly) the topic of “runaway football culture” within the media narrative.

It used to be that you needed an informant or a warrant to get behind locked doors.  Hacking has turned this model on its head, so much so that higher-ups at News International resorted to these measures themselves. Anyone who followed this scandal or Anonymous’ exploits knows that the security of personal technology is universally lagging, and that implementation of the defenses that are available is spotty.  If the past few years are remembered in any way for changing how the public gets news, I think it’ll be because hackers–whether “hacktivists” or simple miscreants–will become a larger presence, and break more and more stories (and pile up more and more collateral damage.)

Football could fall into such a trend.  Large, easily accessed networks like those run by corporate institutions and large universities are frequent targets for hacks, as are all manner of e-mail accounts and personal wireless devices.  Imagine a hastily drafted confessional memo on concussions stolen from an NFL server, intercepted e-mails proving collusion or interference with player contracts, or a text message on steroid deals yanked from the ether. Or, instead of focusing on a small town in Ohio, hackers turned their attention to the recent death of a Notre Dame student working for the football team, and in doing so made public every e-mail in Brian Kelly’s account.  If football, at any level, does become a frequent target for less-than-legal inquiry, there is one aspect that will be routine: it will be just the latest in a long line of challenges for traditional sports reportage.

Bryant and Saban

Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban.

[Saban’s] got a nice little gig going, a little bit like Calipari. He tells guys, ‘Hey, three years from now, you’re going to be a first-round pick and go.’ If he wants to be the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win, because they’ve always won there at Alabama.”  –Steve Spurrier


With Alabama’s rout of Notre Dame, Nick Saban achieved something Bear Bryant never did–he beat the Fighting Irish, and for a national championship, no less.  True to his MO, Saban’s post-game demeanor was that of a man walking back to the office after a good working lunch.

Saban may well be on his way to owning more national titles than any other coach in college football, including the six generally attributed to Bryant.  Aside from sharing their best-known employer, Bryant and Saban have a handful of similarities.  Bryant had the same unshakable focus of Saban: Texas coach Darrell Royal once said “the difference between me and Bear Bryant was that I was a guy who coached football and then moved on. […]  Coach Bryant was a man on a quest, a quest for immortality.”  They are the only coaches to win SEC championships at two different schools.

Both Bryant and Saban will be remembered as taskmasters, with Bryant’s infamy owed to his reign, later regretted, over a Texas A&M squad in Junction, Texas, and Saban’s arising from a stream of demands and tirades that seem to peak when his team is destroying opponents, and an obsession over issues of discipline bordering on compulsive.

Both built teams by out-recruiting the competition and pushing rules on player eligibility.  Biographer Keith Dunnavant writes that Bryant “was probably responsible for the implementation of more new regulations than any coach who ever lived, because he was determined to use every loophole to his advantage.”  He signed players as athletes in every college sport besides football, “taught” courses in football that were de facto live practices for his team, and bought players expensive team gear to add class and distinction to the program.  Saban has taken on efficient (or ruthless, depending on your perspective) methods for culling weak links from his squads, hedging his bets by intentionally oversigning recruits, and running a marketing enterprise that pitches Alabama football in a way that puts Apple to shame.

On the field Bryant and Saban are known for efficient, well-drilled squads.  Conversely, neither are remembered as chalkboard innovators: Bryant gave credit to the trends he adopted and adapted, and while Saban is the most vocal proponent of his route-reading pass defenses, Bill Belichick is owed at least half the credit for developing the technique.  On offense, Saban’s approach is more related to Bryant’s pro-style squads than it is to today’s hottest systems.

Finally, both Bryan and Saban came to latent Alabama powerhouses that were distanced from their national title days, but not so distanced as to be forgotten or rendered moot.  If there is a football-focused caveat to Saban’s career, it is this last similarity.  His greatest successes came at LSU and Alabama during an era when membership in the no-holds-barred SEC is almost a requisite for winning a national title.  No other conference has the money, fan-base, or creative “intangibles” of the SEC, and no other conference has been close for over a decade.

This commonality is an introduction to where Bryant and Saban diverge.  Most recent out-of-conference challengers–Southern Cal, Ohio State, Miami, and Florida State–to the SEC ended up relying on their own cocktail of NCAA infractions to help leverage their legitimate attributes, though they eventually proved to be amateurs compared to the big-business SEC.  I say this knowing that violations, whether of institution policy, NCAA fiat, or public law, happen at every school at every level of play.  The SEC has just insulated itself from the consequences far better than other conferences by both practice and by its tremendous importance to the revenue side of collegiate athletics.

Alabama was coming off historic failures when Bryant arrived, and the SEC football monopoly simply did not exist in his day.  He won his games in an era far more formidable than Saban’s: Paterno, Osborne, Hayes, Switzer, Bowden, and Holtz were all in their prime at one point during Bryant’s career.  Meanwhile, Saban’s challengers are a ragged lot: the best pure coaches work at non-traditional powers, while his nearest rivals in major conferences are prone to self-destruction.  At the same time, Alabama is (and has recently been) without doubt the alpha of the SEC pack.  Look no further than hapless Mike Shula, who not too long ago earned a 10-2 season with the Crimson Tide.

Bryant also wisely avoided the NFL pitfall that has soured fans in both Baton Rouge and Miami.  Strangely enough, Bryant’s opportunity also came from the Miami Dolphins; his stated reason for turning down the Dolphins was that he would never leave Alabama just for a bigger paycheck.  This speaks to what might be a persona deficit that could hamper Saban’s status as historical icon: it’s rare for a man described as aloof, taciturn, and mercenary to hold sway over the imaginations of football fans and historians. Personality is partly why we “know” Bryant better than Bernie Bierman,  Barry Switzer better than Bud Wilkinson, and Jimmy Johnson better than Dennis Erickson.

There is one comparison to still be made between Bryan and Saban, and that’s their adaptation to changes in the game itself.  Bryant eventually had to adopt the Wishbone to successfully close out his years.  Saban, meanwhile seems to have a chink in his armor: the spread-option coaches among his competitors–Urban Meyer in particular–have managed to needle soft spots in the Alabama coach’s vaunted system. Today’s concepts threaten to strip him of the strict sidelines-control he values; if they become a long-term component of the game, it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts.  (Saban also may suffer comparatively by virtue of the fact that Belichick has adopted and mastered shifts in the game with great success in the NFL.)

All said, the jury is out on Saban’s final spot in history. Every coach is one calamitous decision or revelation away from public failure and humiliation, though if anyone is relatively safe from this, it seems to be Saban. The quote that began this entry reflects this reality, and while Spurrier’s words were more psychological warfare than anything, they also have a measure of truth when it comes to assessing Saban’s legacy up to this point.  Saban has had good stints with Toledo and Michigan State, and his success at mighty LSU reached its apex with an asterisked split-championship many think rightfully belongs with Pete Carroll and the Trojans. Given that the NFL is full of coaches just like Saban (and is adopting the same spread tactics he’s publicly lamented), it seems unlikely he’ll find redemption there, or a way to burnish his legacy the way Johnson and Switzer did.

There’s no doubt Saban is a tremendous coach, and perhaps the best in the NCAA right now.  But for him to be considered an all-timer, he has to personally surpass the mythos of Alabama and all it represents, and that likely means putting Bear Bryant’s achievements numerically and unequivocally in the rearview mirror.  Anything less and he may be remembered as the football equivalent of a jockey fortunate enough to have ridden Secretariat.

Give the Finger, or Save It?

If there was an award for “Most Valuable NFL Receiver of the Past Few Weeks,” Dallas’ Dez Bryant would probably win it.  His touchdown catch versus the Steelers this weekend helped add a fifth win to the Cowboys’ recent 4-1 run and kept the team’s playoffs chances viable.
A pre-injury Dez Bryant warming up; image courtesy

Bryant’s done this with a broken index finger on his left hand.  Even though the finger needs surgery to heal, he’s stated his intent to play until the Cowboys’ season is over.  He played the Pittsburgh game with a splint that he’ll wear until the operation date.  More than one media outlet has praised Bryant for this decision, calling his choice to play through the injury a sign of maturity from a volatile player. They say he’s learning from his teammates, who’ve played through torn spleens and punctured lungs.

That said, their declaration might be mistaken.  Bryant could be sacrificing an irretrievable measure of talent just to help an inconsistent and injury-riddled squad, one that seems as likely to lose the remainder of its schedule as it is to win it.  To put things another way, the Cowboys aren’t going to win a Super Bowl this year because the “Mayan Apocalypse” will happen first.

Make no mistake about it: football is hell on fingers.  They get caught in jerseys and facemasks.  They get cleated.  They take crown shots from helmets.  They get pinched and sometimes the skin “de-gloves,” which is exactly what it sounds like.  They get cut and slashed over and over until the scabs finally have time to settle into mottled scars.  They get twisted and bent backwards beneath piles.  It can be unpleasant.  Ask Anthony Munoz, Brian Baldinger, or Torry Holt.  Or if you can’t, let them show you:

Anthony Munoz


Brian Baldinger


Torry Holt.
Damage the tendons, ligaments and joint surfaces enough, and eventually those fingers will stop popping back in place and start sticking out sideways.  Along the way, you can get arthritis and bone cysts, among other pleasant side effects.

The most famous situation is the tale of 49ers’ safety Ronnie Lott, who in 1985 shattered the tip of his pinky finger while making a tackle.  His options were to get a bone graft to repair the finger (and miss the post-season) or to get a third of the ragged digit amputated (and miss part of his finger.)  Lott went with the amputation and added more mystique to his Hall-of-Fame career.

Football is hell on fingers, and more often than not, injured ones just get in the way.  Willie Young, a current defensive end for the Detroit Lions, thought seriously about amputating part of his middle finger.  Heck, a few years ago an o-lineman for D-II Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University) opted to have a dislocated pinky removed rather than wait for it to heal.  Football isn’t unique, by the way.  It happens in rugby, mixed martial arts, and other sports, too, with non-essential fingers and toes ending up on the chopping block.

Notice that I didn’t mention basketball players.  While they probably get more jammed fingers than anyone (including nasty avulsion injuries where tendons tear and take pieces of bone with them), their hands are so important that protecting them is a must.  The same is true for wide receivers.  A working index finger is essential to excelling as a wide receiver, and by forgoing surgery Bryant may be hurting his career down the road.  Doctors have warned him that his finger could stiffen without surgery.  That may not sound like much–I imagine plenty of readers would trade their back, hip, knee, or shoulder problems for an uncooperative digit–though when it comes to handling a football, the index fingers are critical.

The index finger is the key finger for securing the football when a player’s running down the field.  It hooks over the end and helps pin the ball against the runner’s forearm and upper arm.  Hooking prevents defenders from grabbing the tip and ripping it out, while pinning keeps swats and punches from dislodging the ball. If the finger can’t contract against the ball then it’s useless on either account.  Probably more important to Bryant, though, is that the index fingers are the first to make contact with the ball on any passes caught while facing the quarterback.  That’s about 90% of the passing tree.  If that finger doesn’t give or flex like it needs to, it could pretty much act like a pinball flipper and knock passes away.

A semi-functional finger might not be a big deal when he’s open and gets a lob to the chest (like his touchdown catch this weekend), but it could become a very big deal when he’s covered in defenders and has a spiral screaming in on him.  And any lingering health issue he develops now is going to loom larger later in his career when he’s slower and can’t beat guys one-on-one like he used to, or pull away from guys who are trying to tomahawk a fumble.

My thought is that he’ll be okay.  He hasn’t fully tapped his talents, the season will end more quickly than America’s Team hopes for, and Bryant will have surgery before he ends up with an arthritic club on the end of his hand.  He also plays for a team with plenty of weapons on offense, so he won’t find himself put in positions that play against the injury.  If anything, Bryant’s career probably rests more on this assumption that he’s grown up in the last few weeks.  That, and the blessing of fortune every football player needs in order to avoid career-ending injuries and the pitfalls of fame and wealth.

The WAC Changes the Realignment Game

While it’s not getting as much media attention as the upper-level musical chairs games being played among the Big 10, ACC, and Big East, this week the WAC might’ve shaken things up more than any of its bigger neighbors by bringing Grand Canyon University into the fold.  Pending final NCAA approval, in 2013-14 the GCU Antelopes will be the first for-profit school to join a Division I conference.

While not exactly clean (they’ve been sued by the Feds for illegal admissions practices), GCU has a better reputation than many for-profit schools, and it has boosted its campus-centered income by leveraging the barely-tapped resources of online classes better than any school this side of the University of Phoenix.  Investors have so far liked the move enough to add a few dollars to the stock’s value (currently at $24.24 per share) since the announcement.

In terms of the general quality and dollar-value of a GCU education, though, any statements are at best damning the school with faint praise:  horror stories of its failures are easy to find, and GCU’s 24% four-year graduation rate (which is their publicly stated rate, mind you) is abysmal by any standard.

But this isn’t about academics.  It’s about a struggling conference and a cash-flush school with athletic aspirations teaming up, which is the same situation we’ve seen repeated across the country, though perhaps not as vividly as here.

The WAC has eroded members over the years.  Including GCU, it’ll have six members at the start of the 2013 school year, and will soon be the first big conference since the imploded Southwest Conference in ’95 to drop football. While the WAC is dropping football, it still is home to the usual retinue of less-expensive collegiate sports; keeping in mind television revenues for sports like basketball, there’s still a reason for the conference to exist as a point of contact for media deals.  GCU, meanwhile, boasts 20 varsity squads, including a men’s volleyball team that already competes in D-I; success in any of them on this bigger stage will only raise the school’s profile.

There is the obvious correlation: in the free-market world of collegiate athletics, it makes sense for conferences (which are money-making enterprises) to take on for-profit partners, particularly if they have revenues like the Antelopes do.  It’s also another sign that notions of unified geography and academic pursuits within conferences are, for better or worse, becoming as quaint as the idea of attending classes in suit and tie.

What’s most interesting to SLF readers, though, might be the school’s past ambitions to start a football program.  As recently as 2009 the school’s CEO (now Chairman of the Board) was making public comments about adding football to their list of D-II sports.  Provided the current model of for-profit online education doesn’t crash and burn (and it’s got some trademarks of a bubble), GCU is actually in a good position to improve its financial position.  If the school finds itself competitive in the WAC and still thinking about the gridiron, there’s a chance it makes another go at football at the D-11 level.  If GCU has any measure of success, it could change conferences again, only this time for a mid-major with a pigskin presence.

Who knows how this ends up?  Maybe we’re seeing the future of collegiate sport, or of the university model itself.