Feinstein: College Football Coaches Our Last Great Dictators

As long as a coach wins, fans will forgive anything, John Feinstein says

John Feinstein
August 22, 2018 - 12:56 pm

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Believe it or not, the college football season begins on Saturday with four games, part of what the NCAA officially calls, “week zero,” another of its fabulous euphemisms.

The reason for “week zero,” is to try to hide, at least a little, the lengthening of the season. Fifty years ago, teams played 10 regular-season games and a handful of them played an 11th game in a bowl somewhere. There might have been a dozen bowls in those days, and you had to be good to play in one.

Then the season was lengthened to 11 games and bowls began to proliferate. College presidents continually resisted the notion of a playoff, insisting it just wouldn’t be right for the "student-athletes" to have their seasons lengthened by two or perhaps even three games—in the case of two teams if there was an eight-team playoff.

While the presidents were wringing their hands and railing against asking too much of those cherished "student-athletes," they quietly added a 12th game to the regular season—guaranteed income for the big-time schools who added an extra home game, usually against a walkover opponent.

The "student-athletes?" Well, um, we’ll use a little bit of that extra money to pay for tutors.

Yeah, sure.

Then came conference championship games, meaning a handful of big-time schools were playing 14 games: 12 in the regular season; a conference title game and a bowl game. And, finally, because there was just too much money on the table to say no, the College Football Playoff. Last year, Georgia played 15 games; Alabama, "only" 14 because it didn’t make the SEC Championship game.

Student-athletes?

As the new season begins, the following college football stories are ongoing:

--Maryland is investigating the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who collapsed during an "off-season workout" in late May and died two weeks later. So far, one of the two investigations the school is conducting has found that no one on the field that day bothered to take McNair’s temperature or routinely pack him in ice. According to health officials, if someone suffering from heat stroke is iced within 30 minutes he WILL NOT DIE. Period—100 percent.

McNair died.

Maryland did little other than say, "We’re really sorry about this happening," until an ESPN investigation found a toxic culture within Coach D.J. Durkin’s program, led by his right-hand man, strength coach Rick Court.

Court "resigned" with a $315,000 buyout in hand, and Durkin and two trainers are on administrative leave while the investigation continues. Many Maryland players and their parents have come forward to defend Durkin, but a report on Monday by Chick Hernandez, a respected local journalist and Maryland graduate, said that when all is said and done, Durkin, Athletic Director Damon Evans and President Wallace Loh will be looking for work.

--At Ohio State, legendary coach Urban Meyer, whose record since arriving there is 73-8, including a national championship, is also on administrative leave in the wake of a domestic-violence scandal involving now-former assistant coach Zach Smith.

Meyer’s defenders—most living Buckeye fans—say he’s been unfairly swept into this and point out that local police never arrested Smith for allegedly beating his wife and have turned the entire affair into a "he said, she said" trying their very best to paint Courtney Smith, the alleged victim, as the real perp in all this.

Meyer fired Zach Smith in July after a report by former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy about the Smiths’ past that included the fact that Courtney Smith had just received a civil protection order against her now-estranged husband.

Many fans have tried to make McMurphy the bad guy because there was no arrest in 2015, as he initially reported, just a police investigation and numerous calls to the Smith house. McMurphy, according to most OSU fans, is also responsible for the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby; Judge Crater’s disappearance and Global Warming.

The Columbus Dispatch reported earlier this week that Meyer will probably be "suspended" for "time served" during August—meaning he will miss no games at all and be cheered on by his adoring fans even though he lied to the media at Big Ten media days by claiming he knew nothing about what had happened in 2015. Later, he amended that comment to say he DID know and reported the allegations up the line.

Meyer had a history of players getting arrested while at Florida but is a hero there. Why? He won two national titles. The same will be true now.

--Earlier this week, a former Texas A+M player, Santino Marchiol, alleged that new coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff broke a number of NCAA rules—giving him money to pay for un-official recruiting visits; organized workouts beyond what’s allowable; and were perhaps too tough (not an NCAA violation) on players. Marchiol is trying to become eligible to play for former A+M coach Kevin Sumlin at Arizona and made the allegations as part of his appeal to the NCAA.

Fisher has talked repeatedly since signing a huge bucks contract to leave Florida State about the need for A+M’s players to be "tougher" and about "changing the culture."

That’s what D.J. Durkin talked about when he arrived at Maryland almost three years ago after stints under both Meyer and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh.

"Changing the culture" has become the cliché du jour among new coaches in almost any sport at any level. It’s supposed to mean changing attitudes; making players believe in themselves; recruiting tougher players—players who won’t collapse in the middle of an offseason workout and die.

The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins wrote a superb column on Wednesday about the macho culture of college football. She pointed out that no NFL player has died of heatstroke since the Kory Stringer tragedy 17 years ago in Minnesota because the NFL is hyper-careful about how far it pushes its players in workouts—during both the season and the offseason.

Jenkins pointed out that McNair was the 27th college football player to die during conditioning drills in that same time period.

The number is stunning and the fact that they all happened during conditioning drills appalling. Jenkins used no euphemisms. “The heat didn’t kill McNair any more than the grass did,” she wrote. “What killed him was an overheated attitude that came straight from the top.

“Durkin is not an outlier as a coach and he’s not specific to Maryland. Far from it. He’s an acolyte of Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. He has coached at Notre Dame, Stanford, Florida and Michigan. He has worked under Will Muschamp and Jim Harbaugh. He has been everywhere. He is the all-too-common NCAA coach. You’ve seen and heard coaches like Durkin a million times.”

No doubt many football people will write Jenkins off as a snowflake or as someone who "never played the game." One problem: she’s 100 percent right. The macho mentality that surrounds football at all levels is often dangerous. We’re seeing it right now with all the complaining about the NFL’s new rule on helmet-to-helmet hits. “Flag football,” people are screaming—including the President of the United States, who—like many—sees football much the way the Romans saw the gladiators being marched into the Colisseum.

College football coaches—and to a lesser degree their successful counterparts in basketball—are our last great dictators. If you win, people will defend almost anything that you do.

Durkin will probably be fired not so much because one of his players died, but because one of his players died and he’s 10-15. Meyer will continue to coach because he’s 73-8 and has won, in all, three national titles.

It was the current president who claimed early in his campaign in 2016 that, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters.”

The same can be said of successful college coaches.

One night, years ago, when I was researching “A Season on the Brink,” I was at dinner with Bob Knight.

“Don’t think I don’t understand how this works,” he said to me. “I know that as long as I keep winning, our fans will view me as eccentric when I misbehave. If I ever stop winning, they’ll see me as an embarrassment.”

Knight won a third national championship in 1987. In 1992, he went to the Final Four. Then he stopped going to Final Fours. In 2000, when he was first accused of choking a player and then grabbed a student who called him, “Knight,” he was fired.

I would make the case that if Knight had been to the Final Four the previous winter, there’s no way he would have been fired. He was no longer eccentric. He was an embarrassment.

It is the way of the world in college athletics.

Enjoy “week zero.”
 
 
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list and will be published in paperback next month. His new novel, “The Prodigy,”—which is set at the Masters, will be published next week.