Leaders … or Cheer – Leaders

(This column was originally posted at the Sport+Fitness Network blog June 16, 2014)

Do the faculty at your institution act as leaders regarding athletics … or as cheerleaders?

Since the summer of 1852, when crews from Harvard and Yale rowed against one another on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee in the first intercollegiate athletic competition, the place of sports on campus has been a topic of debate. By the early 1900s, issues including player eligibility, safety, finances, time, attention, and academic integrity created both a call for reform of college sports and a struggle for control of those reforms.

In his book Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform, Dr. Ronald A. Smith explains that five groups vied for control of college sports (and still maintain influence): students, faculty, college presidents, governing boards and agencies, and alumni. Add modern media entities to the mix and that roster has not changed much.

Although faculty joined the fray for a while, for more than a century the prevailing wisdom regarding college athletic reform has focused on the role of the college president. Smith cites various sources that all come to the same conclusion … significant reform must be driven from the presidents. Smith then rightfully points out that the prevailing wisdom is wrong.

Presidents have been mostly inept in enacting significant reform – especially reforms associated with academic integrity – and they’ve been at it since around 1905. Granted, it is a difficult challenge as presidents must answer to demanding constituencies who do not always put academic interests ahead of the numbers on a scoreboard. But far too many presidents fall into the cheerleader role in handling athletics … pouring money into facilities and coaching hires; measuring program success by wins and losses; allowing marginal students into the institution due to athletic prowess. It’s a much easier and more popular path to be a cheerleader than a leader.

So, if presidents have proven mostly inept at enacting reform, and the other invested groups are typically more interested in reforms focused on the sport instead of academics (competitive contests, player safety, money, etc.), what are faculty to do?

Here are five tips I would recommend to faculty who want to act as leaders with regard to college athletics:

Get Engaged with Athletics … Faculty stay plenty busy handling the trifecta of professorial duties – teaching, service, and scholarship. Still, learning about the school’s athletic programs would be useful to even the most accomplished academicians. Find out what teams the institution fields and the athletic conference to which the school belongs; know the Athletic Director and the head coaches (if not the assistant coaches when feasible); realize when contests and championships are being contested. All of this information is readily available on the websites of the most modest athletic program. Even if a professor has little interest in sports, staying engaged is demonstrating leadership.

Recognize the Significance of Athletics to the Students … As a professor, I may not like it but some students are at the university because of their sport. This holds true at all levels of competition. Going back to Ron Smith’s book, he notes that differences among the various levels of intercollegiate competition are of degree, not of kind. NCAA Division III and NAIA schools (typically smaller institutions) follow a very similar athletics model as the big-time giants like Alabama and Oklahoma. They have professional coaches, a significant conditioning regimen, and a demanding practice schedule. They recruit. They compete for championships. The list goes on. Even students not on athletic teams are much more likely to attend a football game than a campus play or concert. So, sports are significant to students. Accepting the reality is another act of faculty leadership.

: the Significance of Athletics to the Institution … We know that big-time college sports generate huge revenue. On May 30, 2014, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) announced revenue distribution of more than $309 million to the fourteen member schools. The Big 12 distributed $212 million to its ten members. The Big Ten is expected to divide over $320 million among fourteen institutions later this month. Revenue generation is not limited to the big schools. If you wonder why so many small colleges have added football teams in the past decade, simply calculate the math. A typical NAIA program may allot the equivalent 24 scholarships with a team enrollment goal of 100 players. Regardless of how the scholarship pool is divvied up, an equivalent of 76 students will be paying tuition. Ask any small college if an additional 76 students is significant. The answer is yes.

Hold Players Accountable … An easy test to determine whether a faculty member is a leader or a cheerleader is to assess whether they hold players to the same academic standards as every other student. We do not have to treat every student the same, but we should treat every student fairly. A baseball player should not get extra time to study for an exam because his team had a road game, a football player should not get to stroll into class ten minutes late because his touchdown was replayed on ESPN, an athlete should not be able to miss multiple class sessions without consequences because of “excused” absences for travel (which is a misnomer anyway). Expect good work from students, whether they are on an athletic team or not, and hold them accountable for academic performance. Doing so is the act of a leader.

Avoid Using Coach as a Crutch … If you are a faculty member, when is the last time the basketball coach called to ask you to help a post player with footwork on the block? Or, when has the football coach sent an email asking you to work with a safety on his backpedal and route recognition. How about the baseball coach calling to get you to work with the second baseman on a double-play pivot? My guess is none of those have ever happened. Yet, some faculty members are quick to contact a coach to help motivate a player to attend class or complete assignments more punctually. Yes, coaches have special relationships and influence with players, and yes most coaches would welcome such contact from a professor … but it is MY job as a faculty member to motivate students in the classroom, to get them to submit work on time, to interest them in our course content. A leader takes responsibility for what goes on with students; a cheerleader is quick to call the coach for help.

Academics should always take precedent on campus. Colleges and universities exist for that purpose after all. But, athletics are significant too – and the concerns associated with college sport are significant enough to warrant attention. Successfully addressing those concerns requires healthy communication between academics and athletics.

Higher education institutions benefit most when faculty act as leaders in the cause.

A Healthy Tension

Tension about the role of athletics on the college campus provides regular fodder for those interested in the scholarly study of intercollegiate sport.  Hardly a semester goes by, and certainly not a calendar year, without another controversy or scandal creeping into the public eye.

Most of the issues that garner attention are associated with big-time college sports.

To cite just a few …

  • Football players at Northwestern University announced plans this week to form a labor union with the purpose of representing the interests of college athletes.
  • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill remains embroiled in an investigation of academic fraud involving the university’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies between 1997 and 2011.
  • Head football coaches at big-time institutions often make far more in salary and benefits than do their athletic directors and school presidents (nominally the bosses of those coaches).
  • Athletic conferences undertook major realignment the past couple of years with little to no regard for tradition, rivalry, or geographic common sense, but with an eye to the economic ledger and huge television rights payouts.

Such a list could go on and on and on.

However, potential problems concerning the role of athletics on campus are not limited to big-time schools – they certainly extend to smaller schools too.  The issues may be different, but are no less troublesome for trustees, administrators, faculty, athletic staff, and anyone interested in protecting the integrity of academics and athletics on campus.

Here are three factors leaders at small schools should consider with regard to the place and purpose of intercollegiate athletics on campus.

Mission: What is the true purpose of athletics on the campus?  Are the teams meant to promote the college name and “brand” by producing winning teams with an ultimate goal of attracting more students?  Or, is intercollegiate competition meant to develop character, leadership, integrity, sportsmanship, and other traits those of us involved in sport love to tout?

Every leader will answer this question the same way.  “We expect both.”

That’s admirable, but what do the actions of the leaders at a school demonstrate?  For example, is a coach more likely to get fired for having a few consecutive mediocre seasons (while fielding a squad of fine students who stay out of trouble and represent the institution well), … or for having outstanding won-loss records (while fielding a team of students who drift in and out of school, fail to take academics seriously, and create problems on campus)?

Enrollment-Driven Recruiting:  The economics of small-school college athletics are interesting.  While sports can generate revenue for the institution, those monies come mainly from enrollment dollars (tuition), and not from ticket sales, merchandise, concessions, licensing, and the like.

Let’s say the full cost of attending School A for a year is $25,000.

Every sports team at the school has an enrollment target.  For example, a basketball squad could be allotted the equivalent of six full scholarships to be divided as the coach sees fit.  That scholarship cost is $150,000 (6 x $25K = $150,000).  The squad’s enrollment target might be 18, meaning the team must have 18 students enrolled.  Those students would generate revenue of $450,000 (18 x 25K = $450,000).  When we subtract the cost of the six scholarships from the gross revenue of the eighteen students enrolled, the basketball squad generates a gross of $300,000.

Want to know why football is so attractive to small schools?  Use the same figures for a football team at School B with larger numbers involved in that sport.

If the scholarship allotment is 24, the cost to the institution is $600,000 (24 x $25K = $600K).  If the enrollment target is 100 (which is not uncommon for small schools), those students would generate $2.5 million (100 x $25K = $2.5M).  Using those numbers a football team would generate $1.9 million annually for the college.  Not bad money.

Those figures are a bit simplistic and do not take into account other expenses that increase as the number of athletic department teams and players grows (travel, lodging, facilities, staffing, etc).  But, any leader on campus should comprehend enrollment-driven recruiting.

Resource Allocation: Another pressure point involves resource allocation.  At many small schools, already low faculty and staff salaries have been relatively stagnant for years, classroom resources are typically limited, and research funding sometimes virtually nil.

Juxtapose those conditions with a very visible increase in the number of coaches hired, new or upgraded athletic facilities and equipment, and the attention given to sports on campus, and campus leaders are faced with managing a potentially volatile relationship between the school’s academic interests and athletic interests.

So, issues associated with college sport are not limited to big-time schools and conferences.

Leaders at smaller institutions must remain vigilant as to the place of athletics on campus.

Author’s Note: This article was originally published on the Sports and Fitness Network

Autumn Closing In

“Strange how the night moves,
with Autumn closing in.”

Night Moves (click to listen)
Bob Seger (1976)

How many times have you had your heart broken?

You’re not too old or jaded to remember the feeling, right? Can’t focus, can’t eat, can’t sleep … your thoughts flowing toward the object of your affection like a mountain stream moving downhill, sometimes rushing fast and other times just trickling along … but never ceasing and never really under control. Yeah, you remember.

I don’t know how many times my heart’s been broken, but I sure remember the first time.

I remember because an eight year old’s heart is a tender thing. But, damned if that gray-haired old Jim Northrup cared. Neither did big, fat Mickey Lolich, or the gambler Denny McClain, or moon-faced Bill Freehan, or any of the other dastardly Detroit Tigers of 1968. Forty-five years ago this week (October 10th, 1968, to be precise), my favorite boyhood baseball team – the glorious and unbeatable St. Louis Cardinals – were beaten by the inglorious Tigers. Boy, did I cry.

It all came down to Game 7.

My Cards, defending champs from 1967 (having disposed that year of the pompous Boston Red Sox and giving me bragging rights over some cousins and an uncle who should have known better than to pull for the Beantowners), looked like they’d cruise to another World Series championship. In Game 1, Bob Gibson – my favorite player, the best pitcher I’ve ever seen, he of the glowering, glistening, menacing countenance – struck out a Series record 17 (!) Tigers in a 4-0 shutout. Gibby came back in Game 4 and pitched another gem, yielding a single run (off a homer by Northrup) in a 10-1 victory. That the portly lefty Lolich kept winning games for the Tigers mattered little to me. Gibson would go in Game 7. Gibson would win Game 7. Gibson was the best.

The other Cards were good too. Fast Lou Brock in left, smooth Curt Flood in center, solid Roger Maris in right, baby bull Orlando “Cha-Cha” Cepeda at first (so good he needed two nicknames), light-hitting Julian Javier at second, non-hitting Dal Maxvill at short, stout Mike Shannon at third, athletic Tim McCarver catching … wake me up from a dead sleep any day of the year and I can name that roster for you. Of course Gibson would be perpetually on the mound for me. He set a modern day record in 1968 with an earned-run average of 1.12 and went 22-9. How the man lost 9 games is a mystery worthy of national security investigation.

On the day of Game 7, I had a problem. It was called third-grade.

Yes, all World Series games were played during the day in 1968. The first World Series night game wasn’t until 1971, and it would be 1987 before day World Series games would become wholly a remnant of the past. So, I found myself sitting in Ms. Nicholson’s class thinking of my team – of my first love – of my Cardinals. No radio, no television, no smart phones … just a fall Thursday that crept past minute by slow minute. Why my mama didn’t let me skip school that day baffles me. I should have been crafty enough to feign an illness. Finally, the bell rang, I dashed to the bus, leaped off at my stop, sprinted through our front yard, and burst into the house and turned on the television.


It was the 9th inning and the Tigers led Gibson 4-0.


Lolich had shut down the Cards yet again. The impeccable Flood had misplayed a 7th inning Northrup line-drive into a triple to break a scoreless tie (the god-like Gibson had only given up one hit going into the seventh). A Mike Shannon homer in the bottom of the ninth gave me a glimmer of hope (and made me realize the Cardinals would surely have won had I only the foresight to skip school and watch the whole game – after all they outscored the Tigers 1-0 while I was tuned in), but it was not to be.

The Cardinals lost. Bob Gibson got beat. My heart got broken for the first time.

Thankfully, an eight-year old heart heals fast. A few weeks later, a slouching quarterback wearing white shoes would lead the upstart New York Jets through the playoffs and eventually to a win over the stodgy Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. I had a new team and a new hero – Joe Willie Namath and the Jets.

As Autumn closes in, seasonally in north Georgia during this beautiful October and metaphorically in my life, it is strange how the night moves. While I still like the Cardinals, the hometown Atlanta Braves became “my team” in the 1970s (when they were bad by the way). The Pittsburgh Steelers (when they got good) eclipsed the New York Jets the day Franco Harris caught the Immaculate Reception and remain my NFL team to this day. College football already had a grip on me by 1968, and soon the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Georgia Bulldogs would become my lasting sports passions.

Sports reflect life in so many ways … in both there have been a few heartbreaks along the way for all of us. I still remember my first one.

Boy, I don’t like the Tigers.

Johnny Football and Archie Who

In October of 1969, Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning set the SEC record for total yards in a game. The record would not be broken for more than forty years.*

Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M has eclipsed that mark three times in the past calendar year.

Seems to me, Johnny Football deserves more credit than he is getting for breaking perhaps the most storied record of the nation’s most history-conscious conference.

Manziel first broke Manning’s record a year ago this week as a redshirt freshman. Accumulating 557 total yards, he passed for 453 yards, rushed for another 104, and accounted for four touchdowns (three passing and one rushing) in a 58-10 rout of Arkansas at College Station on September 29, 2012. It was only the fourth start of his college career and he was just getting warmed up.

Two weeks later (October 13, 2012) the Aggies traveled to Shreveport for a neutral site game with Louisiana Tech, and Manziel surpassed the total yardage mark again. In a wild 59-57 shootout (in regulation no less), Manziel upped his own record to 576 yards by shredding the Bulldogs for 181 yards on the ground and 395 more through the air. He tallied six touchdowns, spread evenly via run and pass. It was a scintillating performance and national attention started to simmer around the former schoolboy sensation from Kerrville, Texas.

That attention came to a boil a month later (November 10, 2012) when the legend of Johnny Football was truly born in a 29-24 upset victory over top-ranked and defending national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Manziel accounted for a relatively modest 345 yards, but his weaving runs and scrambling play-making captured the nation’s attention and catapulted him to Heisman Trophy frontrunner (he would win the award in December, the first freshman to do so).

Alabama played the foil again in Manziel’s third and (to date) last assault on Archie’s old record.

On September 14 of this year, Manziel rolled up 562 yards against the Crimson Tide in a 49-42 loss at Kyle Field in College Station. Those totals include 464 yards passing, 98 rushing, and five touchdown passes. He still has over half of this season left, plus two more seasons of eligibility but in all likelihood he will be off to the NFL after this season (as a redshirt sophomore he is eligible to declare for the draft).

As great as Manziel has been, he may never reach the lofty status of Archie Manning among southern football fans.

Manning’s record stood for forty-three seasons and is one of the iconic moments in Southeastern Conference football history.

Manning set the standard of 540 yards on October 4, 1969, against Alabama and coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Legion Field in Birmingham. The Rebels lost the game 33-32, but Manning won the night along with the hearts of football fans across the nation – and especially fans in the South. The leading character of the upcoming documentary Book of Manning passed for 436 yards and two touchdowns that Autumn evening, and added 104 rushing yards and another three touchdowns on the ground. 540 yards and 5 touchdowns. Those were myth-making numbers.

The novelty of that Ole Miss-Alabama game contributed to its enduring legacy and to Manning’s status as a favorite son of the South.

When the Rebs traveled to the heart of Dixie to face the Tide, the teams played only the second nationally televised prime-time college football game ever shown (Alabama and Miami had played the first in late 1968, a game that didn’t generate much attention). To contemporary fans, college football on television was in the dinosaur age back in the late 1960s. Now we can watch college football most days of the week from September to January, and games start whenever ESPN (still over a decade away from its origins that 1969 night) or other networks dictate. But, when Archie set the record the nation was only three months removed from Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, starting to learn of the Manson family murders of two months earlier, and just tuning in to a brand new show called The Brady Bunch. Saturdays featured one national college football game, and on some weekends bonus coverage of a regional contest.

Archie Manning’s play that evening ushered in the modern era of college football according to ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. I agree.

Manning’s antics were every bit as exciting as Manziel’s would be four decades later.

His scrambling and throwing supposedly caused Coach Bryant to fire defensive coordinator Ken Donahue three times during the game, and future Alabama AD Mal Moore (secondary coach that night) said “I’m glad I was in the press box or he’d have fired me too.” (For the record, Donahue must have been “rehired” during the game because he coached with Bryant through 1982).

The performance made Archie into a southern cult hero and even inspired a catchy (or kitschy) little tune called “The Ballad of Archie Who” by the Rebel Rousers (listen and note the song is set to the rhythm of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues).

I don’t know whether Johnny Football will have songs named for him, or become the hero to Aggie fans that Archie Manning was to southerners of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I do think he deserves more attention for the records he is setting.

(*LSU quarterback Rohan Davey tied Manning’s 540 yard total in 2001 in a 35-21 win over … you guessed it … Alabama. The LSU head coach that Saturday was current Alabama coach Nick Saban)

Georgia-Clemson … That’s What I See

“I think about all the good times that we had,
It makes me happy and it makes me sad.”

When I See This Bar (click to listen)
Kenny Chesney (2013)

It sounded like a small arms battle. Or, since I’ve never been in one, the way I figure a small arms battle must sound.

It was Labor Day afternoon 1982 in Athens, beautiful like a southern college campus tends to be on game day. Pretty Georgia girls and drunk Bulldog boys milled along the top end of Lumpkin Street, drinking and flirting and getting ready for that night’s game against Clemson. I believe the game was the first played at night in Sanford Stadium, and I know it featured the previous two national champions – Georgia having won the title in 1980, Clemson in 1981 – something that had not happened before in a season opener.

Of all the Georgia games I’ve been to, this one had the most exciting atmosphere.

That tension bubbled up about three hours before the game when two buses carrying Clemson’s football team to the stadium turned off Broad Street and started easing through the crowd.

As the Dog fans realized who was on the buses, they started flinging liquor bottles, beer cans, shoes, rocks, and anything they could launch. I mean it was a pelting of the first order. The buses sped up and got on past that strip of the street. I’ll never understand why Clemson coach Danny Ford had the buses take the route down Lumpkin, but it was something else. The Dogs were ready for the Tigers that night.

When I think of Georgia and Clemson, that’s what I see.

The Fridge

The most famous player on the Clemson squad in 1982 was William “The Refrigerator” Perry and for some reason I couldn’t stand him.

I drove a little silver Chevette with a hatchback at the time. The night before the game, so we wouldn’t have to worry about a parking space the next day, a couple of buddies picked me up after I parked in a lot at the corner of Baxter and Lumpkin – right across from Sanford Stadium and old Stegeman Hall (a few hundred yards from where the Tiger buses would get showered). We walked from our apartment and tailgated there on game day … for me, nothing but fried chicken and cold caffeine. I was too hyped for the game to drink anything but Coke (which didn’t really calm me down come to think of it).

After the bus pelting, a couple of us went into the stadium as soon as the gates opened. There couldn’t have been ten people in there yet. We hustled down behind the hedges and stood back of the Clemson sideline. A few minutes later Danny Ford brought his Tigers – still in dress clothes, not uniforms – out for a walk down the field.

As they got close to us, we started really giving it to Ford and Perry. No cussing or anything, just silly stuff like holding up a thumb and hollering about whether Herschel Walker would play that night (he had an injured thumb) [as an aside – typing this as a middle-aged man is pretty humbling; I rarely raise my voice at a game – any game – anymore, and haven’t in a long, long time].

Ford and the Fridge were actually really cool. Ford laughed and shook his head at me when I asked where he parked his tractor. When I told Perry he was too fat to tackle Herschel he feinted like he was coming after me, and I scrambled up about 10 rows. I looked back and a bunch of the Tigers were doubled over laughing.

But, I just held up my thumb and laughed back. I’m from the Larry Munson school of Bulldog fandom (it’s bad for us and always about to get worse), but knew Georgia was going to win that game on that night.

Danny Ford and the Fridge.

When I think of Georgia and Clemson, that’s what I see.

“I see a kid, coming into his own
and I see a man, learning to move on.”

Herschel had a sore thumb.

The best college running back I ever saw – here he is – was the story leading up to the Labor Day opener. Herschel Walker should have won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman in 1980 and would win it at the end of the 1982 season, but nobody knew if he’d play in the game that Labor Day night because he had a broken thumb. The Clemson game was special for Bulldogs of that era, probably more for Herschel than most.

Clemson had recruited him hard. He waffled back and forth between the Tigers and the Dogs for a long time, and the process wasn’t always pretty. Herschel didn’t sign with Georgia until Easter time of his senior year in high school, months later than usual for a top player. His recruitment was a drawn out affair full of intrigue and rumors, a saga that probably signaled the modern era of recruiting in college football (best captured a few years later by Willie Morris’ great The Courting of Marcus Dupree).

Herschel immediately led Georgia to a national title as a freshman in 1980, a season that included a tough 20-16 home win over Clemson. Herschel wasn’t the star of that game though, as Dog defensive back Scott Woerner had two long returns – one of a punt and one of a late interception – to secure the win.

The next year, Herschel’s sophomore campaign, the Tigers would handle the Bulldogs 13-3 at Death Valley, handing Georgia its only regular season loss during the Walker era. That game saw a Dog offense with about three times more fumbles than points. Herschel was kept in check by a Clemson defense the included three future NFL first-round picks in Terry Kinard, Jeff Bryant, and of course my future friend the Fridge. The win over the Bulldogs set the Tigers on their way to a national championship in 1981.

As the ’82 game approached, Walker’s thumb injury provided Georgia coach Vince Dooley an opportunity for a little scheming.

To call Dooley a conservative a coach would be akin to calling Barry Goldwater a conservative politician, but Vince had his moments. The Kirby Moore to Pat Hodgson to Bob Taylor 73-yard flea-flicker to upset Alabama in the 1965 season opener. The 1975 80-yard end-around pass from Richard Appleby to Gene Washington to knock off Florida. The man could pick his moments and he had picked one for the Tigers.

Leading up to the game, Dooley more or less insisted Herschel Walker wouldn’t play because of the thumb. However, in the second quarter – after Clemson jumped to a 7-0 lead courtesy of a fumbled snap – here came Herschel. As big #34 jogged to the huddle, Sanford Stadium cranked up like a jet getting ready for takeoff. Georgia quarterback John Lastinger turned to give the ball to Walker on the sweep play everybody expected (especially the Clemson defense) but instead handed it to speedy freshman Tron (Electron) Jackson on a reverse that went for a 40-yard touchdown. Although the euphoria was brief – the play was called back on a motion penalty – the momentum had shifted.

Herschel eventually convinced Vince to use him as more than a decoy and he would play quite a bit in the second half (he scored a touchdown but it was called back on another penalty). The Dogs would gnaw their way to a 13-7 lead, and finally hang on for the win when the “Tifton Termite” Nate Taylor intercepted a Clemson pass late in the game.

The game was over, the Dogs had won, and all was right with the world.

When I think of Georgia and Clemson, that’s what I see.

It makes me happy and it makes me sad.

Tiger and Jack – The Biggest Story

While fans today enjoy more events, better coverage of those varied events, and increasingly wonderful ways to consume our beloved games – HD televisions with pictures clear enough to put you courtside; hand-held devices with apps for every team and athlete; satellite radio available twenty-four hours a day – expect one story to dominate the sports landscape the next five years or so.

Tiger chasing Jack.

Not the NFL and that league’s looming battles over past cases of head trauma.

Not the college football national championship playoff, which will culminate in Dallas a couple of years hence.

Not the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit that threatens to overturn the American college sport model in place for more than a century.

All those are big stories, and others will arise as the calendar pages turn, but my prediction is that the biggest and best of all will be Tiger chasing Jack.

Jack Nicklaus holds the record for most professional golf major championships with 18. Tiger Woods ranks second on the all-time list with 14.

[* For the non-golf fan, “majors” are played annually and considered the most important professional tournaments. The current majors are The Masters (played the first full week of April at Augusta National golf club), the U.S. Open (played in mid-June to finish on Father’s Day on a variety of American courses), the British Open (played the third week in July on one of nine courses in England or Scotland), and the PGA Championship (played four weeks after the British Open on a variety of American courses). The tournaments that constitute “majors” have changed over the decades – originally amateur versions of the US and British Opens counted.]

Five years ago Tiger Woods seemed a lock to eclipse Jack’s record.

When he outlasted Rocco Mediate in a terrific eighteen-hole playoff at Torrey Pines to win the 2008 U.S. Open, Tiger was 32 years old and a full three years ahead of the Golden Bear’s pace (Jack won his 14th major at age 35 in 1975 – the same year Tiger was born). As he limped off the course that day, Woods had won six majors the previous four years. The question was not so much whether he would surpass Jack’s record; instead we wondered how soon he would reach the milestone and how far past it would he push his career total.

Tiger has not won a major since.

No one explanation adequately addresses his majors drought, but I remember a frequent comment from Jack Nicklaus that seemed astute every time he said it, and that holds up even better today. Each time a reporter asked if Tiger would break his record, Jack replied to the effect that “yes, I believe he’ll break my record, but let’s let him do it first … a lot of things can happen.”

Jack is a smart man.

A lot of things happened to Tiger.

First, his body broke down a bit. He has a chronic problem with his left knee and leg, having at least two surgeries on the knee and probably more. He’s also suffered a ruptured disc in his back, and injured his Achilles on the left leg. Some of those problems must be due to longevity. Tiger has been on the national stage since the age of two when he appeared on the Mike Douglas television show (and of course smashed one right down the middle). He was a prolific amateur golfer and was by far the biggest star on tour by age 21 when he won his first major (1997 Masters). That’s a lot of golf. Some of the health problems are also the result of Tiger’s style of play. Throughout his career he’s taken some of the most violent swings you’ll ever want to witness, slashing from the deep rough or pounding out of bunkers. The amount of torque he places on his back, spine, hips, and lower legs must be immense.

Emotional scars cannot be dismissed as part of Tiger’s current five-year majors gap either.

The notoriously private Woods created a well-documented media firestorm in November of 2009 when the first reports of his marital infidelities came to light. Over the next several months, Woods and his family endured searing attention and Tiger faced the public humiliation of recorded phone conversations, the loss of sponsorships, and ultimately the breakup of his marriage.

Between the physical and emotional problems Tiger faced, many fans and pundits dismissed his chances to pass Jack’s record, while everyone who followed sports recognized that the odds of him doing so had at least gone down significantly.

That mindset is probably changing as you read.

Woods has won four of the nine tournaments he’s entered this season, including a convincing victory in The Players Championship, which boasts a field comparable to or better than the majors. He will be a huge favorite heading into the U.S. Open at Merion. That’s the site where, in 1930, Bobby Jones completed golf’s only Grand Slam (at the time the U.S. Open and Amateur versions, and the British Open and Amateur). Surely, Tiger embraces the chance to reignite his pursuit of the career record at a place of such historic significance.

So … will Tiger break Jack’s record?

Yes, I think he will.

Tiger has a few things going for him.

At 37, he is still a year ahead of Jack’s pace, although the three majors Nicklaus won in his 40s will be tough to duplicate.

Physically, Tiger has always kept himself in great shape. He is a workout and nutrition fiend by all accounts, and with an emphasis on fitness that was not around during the Nicklaus heyday (unless you were Gary Player), he should have another decade or more of competitive greatness. Emotionally, Tiger also seems to be back on track. He is in a new relationship with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, and his on course confidence, even intimidation, appears to have returned.

This point will be blasphemous to some, but in my opinion Tiger plays against easier – albeit deeper – competition. There are more good players on tour today than in the 1960s and 1970s when Jack won most of his majors. But, there aren’t nearly the caliber of champions. For example, Tiger has finished second in majors six times, losing to fellows named Beem, Yang, Campbell, Johnson, Immelman, and Cabrera (the only one of the group with multiple majors). By contrast, Nicklaus finished second in majors a whopping nineteen times, falling to such giants as Palmer, Trevino, Watson, Miller, and Ballesteros among others. So, Tiger may have to beat more good players, but there are far fewer great champions he must overcome.

Finally, and this is the deciding factor in my opinion, Tiger knows what he has to do. He has to get to 19 professional majors to break the record. Just like Roger Maris knew he had to hit 61 homers and Hank Aaron knew he had to get to 715 career homeruns (both to pass Babe Ruth), Pete Rose knew he had to get to 4192 hits to supplant Ty Cobb, and the next great sprinter knows he has to run 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds (good luck) to set a world record … Tiger knows he has to get to 19 to move beyond the Bear.

The person chasing the record always has the advantage.

I think Tiger finishes his career with 20 majors.

March Madness 2013 – The Three Card Monte

March Madness, one of America’s favorite annual sporting events, tips off March 19.

We hope for three weeks of buzzer beaters, nail-biters, and bracket busters as teams try to reach the Final Four in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome April 6-8.

If this season’s tournament holds true to form from previous NCAA championships played in years that end with a “three” it should be quite the treat. Like a game of Three-Card Monte, you never know what is going to turn up, and since the tourney began back in 1939, those “3” years have provided some memorable moments.

1943 – Champion vs. Champion

In only its fifth year, the NCAA championship still played second-fiddle to the slightly older (by one year) National Invitational Tournament (NIT), which had a stronger East Coast presence, received more media coverage, and played at its permanent home in already fabled Madison Square Garden in New York City. Wyoming won an eight-team NCAA tournament by beating Oklahoma and Kansas in the West bracket (the tournament only had East and West brackets) in Kansas City, Missouri. The Cowboys then traveled to Manhattan and defeated Georgetown 46-34 in the finals at Madison Square. Star for the Cowboys was guard Ken Sailors, a early pioneer of the jump shot, but the most famous player in the tournament was George Mikan, one of the game’s first true big men; his DePaul squad lost in the semifinals to Georgetown.

The NCAA event got less attention than hometown St. John’s taking the NIT crown behind legendary coach Joe Lapchick. Two days later, in what may be the only time this happened, the champions of the two post-season tournaments played a charity game at Madison Square Garden to benefit the Red Cross war effort in front of 18,000 fans. The Cowboys downed the Redmen 52-47 in overtime, a precursor to the NCAA overtaking the NIT in prestige and power.

1953 – The Hurryin’ Hoosiers

The 1953 NCAA championship matched two of the sports titans, Indiana and defending champion Kansas, at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri.

Seeds for the Hoosier title run were planted a season earlier when the NCAA temporarily suspended the freshman eligibility rule due to the military draft for the Korean War (freshmen, ineligible for varsity competition in football and basketball until 1972, were allowed to play in 1951-52). The relaxation of that restriction freed up “the Ox.” Big Don “Ox” Schlundt, a 6’10 post player from South Bend, played as a freshman in 1952, averaging 17 points, and would go on to become the most prolific scorer in Indiana and Big Ten history to that point, a three-time All-American, and the vital cog of the 1953 NCAA champs. He still holds the record for average points per game for a career at Indiana (23 ppg). Schlundt teamed with Bob “Slick” Leonard, a feisty guard and future ABA and NBA head coach (he would lead the Indiana Pacers to three ABA titles), and forward Dick Farley. They all played for the great Branch McCracken, a Hall of Famer who led the Hoosiers to championships in 1940 and 1953 (both times defeating Kansas and Phog Allen).

The game went to the wire and was very contentious. Played in front of a pro-Kansas crowd (the game was played just about 40 miles from the KU campus), McCracken and the Hoosiers were incensed when Jayhawk star center B.J. Born was allowed to return to the game after receiving what was reported as his fifth foul. McCracken and Allen both argued at the scorer’s table. Slick Leonard converted a free throw with less than 30 seconds remaining, Kansas played for the final shot, but a desperate shot at the buzzer was off target. Indiana won 69-68.

That 1953 Final Four was a “Who’s Who” of mid-20th century basketball. Kansas coach Phog Allen ruled the sidelines in Lawrence for nearly 50 years, and actually played under the inventor of basketball – James Naismith. Dean Smith played on the 1952 Jayhawk team that won the championship and the ’53 squad that lost to Indiana. Smith would go on to win more games than any college basketball coach (a record since surpassed). Kansas whipped Oklahoma A&M (now OK State) in one semifinal … the Cowboys were coached by Hank Iba, who won 751 games himself and coached three U.S. Olympics teams. In the other semi, Indiana beat LSU and the great scoring forward Bob Pettit, considered the nation’s best player and a future NBA all-star and Hall of Fame inductee.

1963 – Ramblin Fever

The Ramblers of Loyola University won the 1963 championship in an NCAA tournament with racial overtones and historical implications.

Loyola whipped two-time defending champ Cincinnati 60-58 in the finals at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky. That victory alone was historic. Coach Ed Jucker’s Bearcats were trying to become the first team to win three NCAA titles in a row and were playing in a fourth straight Final Four. This would also be the last season before John Wooden’s UCLA championship run. From 1964-1975, the Bruins would win ten of twelve championships including seven in a row at one point.

Before reaching the finals, Loyola played a second-round game against Mississippi State of the SEC. The Bulldogs of coach Babe McCarthy and star Bailey Howell had been kept out of the tournament three of the past four seasons because of unwritten, but typically unbroken, racial codes that prohibited white Mississippi teams from playing against integrated competition (as the Bulldogs surely would in the NCAAs). This time McCarthy and the team pulled a ruse and essentially snuck out of the state to make the trip to play the NCAA game in East Lansing at the home court of Michigan State (Miss State got a bye in the first round; the game was Loyola’s second round match). In a well-played, respectful game, the Ramblers beat the Bulldogs 61-51 to advance.

The championship game against Cincy was a thriller. In overtime, Loyola’s Vic Rouse tipped in a missed shot just as the horn sounded and the Ramblers had a championship. Rouse and Jerry Harness (Loyola’s star) were two of four African Americans to start for the Ramblers … the Bearcats sent out another three as starters, marking the first time a majority of starters in an NCAA final were African American. By the way, Rouse hailed from Pearl High School in Nashville, Tennessee, where he might have run into young Perry Wallace, who would go on to desegregate basketball in the SEC when he played at Vanderbilt from 1966-1969.

1973 – The Streak

The 1973 Final Four at St. Louis Arena, featured the man who’d already won more NCAA national championships than any other coach (John Wooden of UCLA), the man who would succeed him in Westwood (Gene Bartow of Memphis State), a brilliant and fiery young coach in his second season at Indiana who would go on to win three titles and more games than any coach in history (a total since surpassed by his top protégé) (Bobby Knight), and a gentleman from the East who would be the driving force behind the formation of the most successful basketball conference in America within a decade (Dave Gavitt). What a collection of coaching talent.

A big story before the tournament was one team that couldn’t play. North Carolina State, coached by Norm Sloan and starring the leaping legend David Thompson, 7’2 center Tom Burleson, and fireplug point guard Monte Towe, marched through an unbeaten 25-0 regular season then won two games and the ACC tournament. However, the school was on probation and ineligible for national post-season competition. The Wolfpack would be heard from a year later.

Wooden’s UCLA squad, led by the incomparable Big Redhead Bill Walton, won a seventh consecutive NCAA championship by beating Knight’s Hoosiers in the semifinals and Bartow’s Tigers in the finals. The championship game was played on Monday night for the first time, starting a new tradition in American sport that endures today. The Bruins, in the midst of a winning streak that would eventually stretch to 88 games, were never seriously challenged in the tournament, winning four times by an average of 16 points. The title was Wooden’s ninth and the UCLA dynasty was at its zenith.

That championship would be Wooden’s next-to-last. The long winning streak would end in 1974 in a regular season loss at Notre Dame, and when the Bruins lost back-to-back games later in the season to Oregon and Oregon State, the tiniest of cracks first appeared in the dynasty. Still, the Bruins made it to yet another Final Four in 1974, but lost a double-overtime semi-final classic to N.C. State. The Wolfpack would go on to take the title and erase the empty memories of 1973.

“The Wizard of Westwood” had a final charge left in him. His relatively unheralded 1975 team closed out Wooden’s career by winning the 1975 NCAA championship, the tenth in twelve seasons. It is a record that will not be matched.

1983 – Jimmy the Jester

When the basketball world descended on the desert for the 1983 Final Four at The Pit in Albuquerque, a coronation was supposed to take place. Or perhaps an induction ceremony. The brothers of Phi Slamma Jamma, the Houston Cougar’s coolest, quickest, baddest, and most exclusive fraternity was going to soar up and over powerful Louisville and upstarts Georgia and N.C. State to take the NCAA championship. Instead, a jester of the court slipped in and stole the crown.

One of the most storied Final Fours in the tournament’s history started with a workmanlike win by State over Georgia in the first semifinal game. That game figured to simply be the stage-setter for a dunk contest between Houston’s fly boys of Phi and the Doctors of Dunk from Louisville. The second semi-final lived to its billing as one of the most exciting games in tournament annals. The Cougars, featuring Akeem “the Dream” Olajuwon (he changed to Hakeem later), Clyde “the Glide” Drexler, and Benny “the Jet” Anders (they had the best nicknames too!), raced past a Louisville squad that included Milt Wagner, Billy Thompson, Rodney and Scooter McCray, Flash Gordon, and Charles Jones. The final was 94-81 and most thought the championship game had already been played when the show ended.

Jim Valvano of N.C. State had other plans. His Wolfpack used a controlled offense, played behind the Cougars on defense to limit their dunk opportunities (the Pack chanted “One Slamma Jamma” after the game in reference to the number of stuffs allowed to Houston in the title game), fouled and fouled the notoriously poor free-throwing shooting Cougars, and finally received a gift from Houston coach Guy Lewis inexplicably put his team into a spread delay with about 10 minutes to go in the game.

The game ended with a famous dunk, but it was by State’s Lorenzo Charles who caught a last-second desperation air-ball from Dereck Whittenburg and stuffed it through at the buzzer. State won 54-52, and Valvano scurried across the court looking for somebody to hug. The jester had stolen the crown.

1993 – Flub Five

Michigan’s Fab Five exploded onto the college basketball scene during the 1992 tournament. Wearing black socks and black shoes, the freshmen quintet strutted and smack-talked all the way to the finals before getting pasted by Duke 71-51. The next season, they stormed to the finals at the Superdome to meet another team from the ACC … this time the North Carolina Tar Heels and venerable coach Dean Smith.

The Final Four was basketball royalty. North Carolina knocked off Kansas in one semifinal, and Michigan took care of Kentucky in the other. It set the stage for a contrasting matchup on Monday night.

The Heels were the antithesis of the Wolverines in the eyes of the public. Smith’s system called for players to point at a teammate after a good pass, to subjugate individuality to the team, to never show up an opponent. Even the great Michael Jordan bought into the Tar Heel way, and on the Superdome court eleven years earlier he had clinched the beloved Smith’s first championship with a late jump shot.

The Fab Five showed little respect to anybody. Their attitude reflected (at least in their own eyes and those of some social commentators) the breakthrough of hip hop culture into the mainstream of America society. With their sagging shorts and in-your-face on-court personality, the Wolverines embraced the bad guy persona.

It was quite a contrast.

In the end, the system won and the upstarts again folded under the pressure of the finals.

The most infamous play came late in the game. Chris Webber, the most talented and vocal of the Fab Five got flustered when double-teamed and called a timeout even though the Wolverines had none left. The resulting technical sealed the 77-71 victory.

Dean Smith would go on to become the first Division I men’s coach to win over 800 games and the 1993 championship would be his last. The Fab Five never won a title and ended up vacating the entire 1992-93 season due to NCAA violations.

2003 – Cupcake

Jim Boeheim of Syracuse is a great coach. He has taken the Orangemen to the post-season every one of his 34 years at the helm except 1993 when the school was ineligible. He has never had a losing season, and has won more games at one school than any other D-I men’s coach. He trails only Coach K of Duke in total wins and may surpass him depending on who holds off retirement the longest.

Still, for much of his early career coaching the Orangemen, Boeheim’s schedules were ridiculed for being soft … filled with easy opponents … cupcakes so to speak. That sentiment seemed to always bear out come NCAA tourney time when the Cuse could never quite get over the hump to win a national title. Trips to the championship game in 1987 (loss to Indiana) and 1996 (loss to Kentucky) only provided more fuel to detractors.

Finally, back in New Orleans at the site of that excruciating 1987 last-second loss to Indiana and Bobby Knight, Boeheim got his championship. Carmelo Anthony, only a freshman, earned outstanding player honors as the Orange overcame a strong Kansas team 81-78 in the finals.

2013 – ???

There are a lot of story lines for the 2013 version of March Madness. Can Syracuse or Louisville claim a title for the Big East in its last year as currently comprised? Will the powerful Big Ten lineup of Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and the like take a championship back to middle America? Will Coach K further stake his claim as greatest coach since Wooden (and perhaps of all time) by winning a fifth championship at Duke? Can one of the upstart mid-majors like Butler or Gonzaga grab the crown?

Tune in the next three weeks for one of America’s great sporting spectacles.

Thanks for visiting The Campus Game.

In the Zone with Jim Gumm

If you enjoy sports talk radio, please visit ESPN Chattanooga and the In the Zone with Jim Gumm Show from 3:00 PM – 7:00 PM ET daily.  I’ve been on as a guest a few times and always enjoy visiting with Jim and Wells Guthrie.  They are both knowledgeable and friendly.

By the way, new Tennessee football coach Butch Jones will be In the Zone on Thursday afternoon.

Crimson and Clover – The National Championship

“Crimson and clover, over and over …
What a beautiful feeling,
crimson and clover … over and over”

Crimson and Clover (click to listen)
(Tommy James and the Shondells 1968)

Will the power and poise of the Crimson Tide overcome the four-leaf clover luck of the Fighting Irish in the BCS national championship?

After a month of waiting, the game – and the answer – is upon us.

Beautiful Feelings

Alabama and Notre Dame evoke beautiful feelings for the college football traditionalist. Over the past century, the two schools won their way into the American sporting consciousness with victories on the gridiron, while symbolically representing much more than football success to their followers.


The Irish first garnered national headlines when, in a 1913 game against powerful Army, quarterback Gus Dorais and end Knute Rockne helped popularize the forward pass (legal but seldom used previously) by routing the Cadets 35-13. Rockne of course would go on to coach Notre Dame from 1918-1930, compiling the highest winning percentage in college football history, staking claim to multiple mythical national titles, and becoming the prototype of the modern, superstar football coach … part salesman, part recruiter, part public relations master. All who have followed are simply revising what Rockne originated.

One of Rockne’s victories came in the 1925 Rose Bowl when the Irish swamped favored Stanford, coached by Pop Warner and led by Ernie Nevers. The Irish would not play in another post-season game for more than forty years. Notre Dame’s administration, concerned that such games interfered with academics, imposed a bowl ban that lasted until the 1970 Cotton Bowl.

Notre Dame’s next glory years stretched from the mid-1940s through the early 1950s under Frank Leahy. One of only two coaches to claim four AP national championships (more on that below), Leahy established the Notre Dame tradition of producing Heisman Trophy winners (Angelo Bertelli, Johnny Lujack, Leon Hart, and John Lattner) and of playing well in huge games, most notably the 1946 tie vs. Army that stopped a 25-game win streak.

After Leahy’s health caused him to retire, the Irish endured a decade of mediocrity before the dashing Ara Parseghian bounded into South Bend in 1964. Over the next eleven seasons, Ara won two national championships and narrowly missed a couple more. His most famous victory? A 24-23 win over Alabama and Paul “Bear” Bryant in the 1973 Sugar Bowl.

Dan Devine and Lou Holtz added titles in 1977 and 1988 respectively. The Irish haven’t won one since.


A year after Notre Dame won the 1925 Rose Bowl and claimed a national championship, Alabama rolled west to Pasadena and whipped Washington. The Elephants and coach Wallace Wade, largely propelled by the publicity from that game and a return trip to the Granddaddy the next season, became the first team from Dixie to emerge as a national college football power. Between 1926 and 1946, Alabama made six Rose Bowl appearances, winning four, losing once, with one tie.

Ironically, Frank Thomas – a former Notre Dame quarterback that Rockne once called his smartest player – coached Alabama to the last three of those Rose Bowls before ill health caused him to retire after the 1945 season (a year in which the Tide finished unbeaten, untied, and uncrowned … their Rose Bowl victory over USC not enough to claim the AP title from Army – not the last time Alabama fans would feel burned by pollsters).

The Tide receded in the 1950s before the iconic football coach of last half of the 20th century came home.

Former star player Paul Bryant, after stops at Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M, returned to Tuscaloosa. Starting in 1958 and continuing for the next quarter century, the Bear led Bama to unsurpassed heights on his way to winning 323 career games and five national championships (hold on to your houndstooth hats Bama fans – he only won five AP titles – the measure being used for the pre-BCS era).

Both teams boast eight AP national championships. Both teams were coached by the most famous men in the profession.

Alabama and Notre Dame … Bryant and Rockne … Crimson and Clover …

Symbols of Excellence

Success on the gridiron created symbolism off it.


Notre Dame, a small, private, Catholic college in the remote northern Indiana woods, faced bigotry on the way to football significance.

The great Michigan coach Fielding Yost essentially blackballed Notre Dame after a loss to ND in 1909, refusing to even schedule the Irish again (Yost retired as Wolverine Athletic Director in 1941). It was a mistake. Due to scheduling difficulties caused by other schools following Yost’s lead, Notre Dame would embark on a coast-to-coast scheduling strategy in the 1920s and 1930s just as college football popularity soared. Rockne’s Ramblers evolved into the nation’s most famous football team, “subway alumni” making the Irish the most beloved team in America (and the most despised too for that matter).

An enduring example of the animosity toward ND took place in 1924, just months before the famous Rose Bowl win over Stanford. Notre Dame students scrapped with Ku Klux Klan members who were descending upon South Bend in an effort to curb what they believed to be a growing Catholic influence in the U.S. – an influence epitomized by the university. Like Yost, the Klan lost … not just that fight, but also the broader battle for public opinion, the hooded heads losing power across most of the nation during the same decades the Irish football team rose to prominence.


Alabama faced its own bias and slights.

Like the rest of the deep South, the state lagged economically and educationally in the aftermath of the Civil War and well into the 20th century (by most measures, the region still trails most of the country). When the football team began to have success, southerners – not just Alabamians – began to identify with the Tide.

This regional pride reached a peak under Coach Bryant’s leadership when his teams – often small, and until the early 1970s all white – competed and won against all the big boys of the college football world. The losses in the polls seemed to verify this bias against Alabama – and by extension the whole of Dixie – not just 1945, but 1966 when Alabama had not a blemish but got out-voted in favor of a Notre Dame team that played for a tie against Michigan State and didn’t even go to a bowl. Or, 1977 when Notre Dame jumped from 5th in the polls to a national championship, leapfrogging – you guessed it – Alabama. That similar voting inconsistencies cost Notre Dame titles too (1964 for example) holds little truck with southerners sure of anti-South bigotry.

Perhaps remnants of this regionalism surface in the chants of “SEC – SEC – SEC” so common among Southeastern Conference fans during intersectional games or bowls. The South may have lagged for decades, but one of the first aspects of southern life to match – really to exceed – the rest of the nation was the Alabama football team. The Tide was a powerful symbol for a region that didn’t get to boast about much in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and into the 1960s and 1970s.

The Series and the Records

Alabama and Notre Dame have played five times, but all the contests were in a condensed fourteen-year time period from 1973 to 1987.

The most famous game was the 1973 Sugar Bowl that pitted unbeaten teams coached by the titans Bryant and Parseghian. Notre Dame prevailed 24-23 in a game that had a half-dozen lead changes. The next season the schools met in the Orange Bowl and the era of Ara ended with a 13-11 Irish victory. ND swept games in 1976 (in South Bend) and 1980 (in Birmingham), and the teams split a home-and-home series in 1986-87, with Ray Perkins finally breaking the drought with a home win in 86 and Lou Holtz and the Gold Domers prevailing the next year.

As for national titles, the championship count varies depending on who is doing the accounting, but the most accurate measure would leave the teams tied at 8 titles each.

The oldest well-respected poll is the Associated Press (AP) ranking, which first appeared in 1934. It has been published annually since 1936. The current cake taker is the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings which started with the 1998-99 season, and now constitute the premier determinant of the college football national championship. Counting championships prior to 1936, or combining different polls (even the well respected United Press International – or UPI) introduces faulty logic and results in silly claims of excessive championships. If Alabama counts 1973 (when the Tide lost to the Irish), then ND claims 1964 and 1967 … and Alabama claims 1977, and … well, you get the drift.

The true count is eight to eight.

Alabama AP/BCS National Titles: 1961, 1964, 1965, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009, 2011
Notre Dame AP/BCS National Titles: 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1988

Not surprisingly, these schools also feature the only men to win four or more national championships using the AP/BCS method.

Bear Bryant can lay claim to five AP titles (1961, 1964, 1965, 1978, 1979). He cannot claim the 1973 UPI crown unless he gives up the 1978 championship (when USC won the UPI) … so you see why the AP/BCS measure works best.

Frank Leahy claims four national titles (1943, 1946, 1947, 1949).

Should Alabama coach Nick Saban lead his Crimson Tide to the title this season, he will join that rarified air of men with four or more national titles. Saban won BCS titles in 2003 at LSU (USC won the AP that year, but the BCS rankings had surpassed the AP by then), and added titles with the Tide in 2009 and 2011.

The National Mood

For the first time in my memory (and I’ve been an avid follower of college football since the late 1960s), it seems more people will be rooting for Notre Dame than against the Irish. A few factors seem in play here.

First, it's been a long time since Notre Dame was truly an impact player on the national stage. The Irish haven't won a title since 1988 and haven't contended for one since 1993. The old animosities about preferential treatment in polls, resentment about national coverage and having a special television contract … all of that is old news for everybody except some of us old-timers. Everybody is on television every game these days. If anything, Notre Dame would probably get voted out of a polling contest against the power conferences.

Second (and third) is the SEC fatigue factor. The conference has won six national titles in a row and is strongly favored to get another. Unlike most conferences, where rivals would pull for nearly any team over their arch enemy, you can bet all the SEC fan bases (excepting Auburn) will by and large pull for the Tide in this game. That rubs pretty much everybody else the wrong way. A similar sentiment is settling in regarding Alabama and Nick Saban. Yes, he is a great coach and the Tide is a juggernaut of a program, but I would guess people across the country are thinking enough already, let somebody else in on the fun.

The Big Game

Alabama is a solid favorite and it’s hard to argue against the conventional wisdom. More words and better analysis can be found at other sites, but here are my keys to the game:

1. Everett Golson: Alabama struggles on occasion with mobile quarterbacks, and the Irish redshirt freshman can extend plays. He is no Johnny Manziel (who is?), so don’t expect him to snap off any 30-yard scrambles, but he can avoid the pass rush and does have a strong arm. If Golson can handle the pressure – literally from the Tide pass rush but also figuratively from playing in the biggest game of the year – the Irish might be able to score enough points to make the game interesting late.

2. UA Offense and ND Defense Line of Scrummage: Yes, scrummage is the correct word because these two groups figure to have a rugby scrum on most plays. Alabama has the best offensive line in the nation and the group typically imposes its will (see 2nd half of Georgia game) by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. Still, Barrett Jones and company will be in for a tussle because the ND front three of Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, and Kapron Lewis-Moore is a big, seasoned, and tough group. They are not deep however, so keeping the Tide from dominating the clock will be important.

3. Loose and Clutch: Ever let the clutch out on your car too loosely or quickly and killed the motor? Or, kept the clutch pressed too tightly causing the engine to rev and stall? Combine a long layoff with a hugely important game and these squads might be too tight. The team that finds the balance between being loose, but playing well in the clutch will have a big advantage. It’s tough to do after a half-season’s layoff and neither team played a truly tough schedule to get them ready. Listening to and reading pundits and fans, many seem to feel Notre Dame had an easier schedule, but neither team played a gangbuster slate. Alabama’s games at Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee were much easier than expected and the Tide choked a little in a home loss to Texas A&M. The best Bama win came against Georgia in an epic SEC championship game. Notre Dame’s wins over USC, Michigan, Michigan State, and Oklahoma look less and less impressive in retrospect, and the Irish tried to give away a game to a Pitt team that just got demolished by Ole Miss. ND barely held off a very good Stanford for the top Irish win of the season. Loose and clutch … watch to see who plays that way.

A final topic worth noting is attitude.

Notre Dame fans feel they’ve already won this season just by getting to the BCS title game, a totally unexpected run after back-to-back 8-5 seasons in Brian Kelly’s first two years in South Bend. A loss to Alabama will hurt, but not diminish the pleasure of a return to elite status after two decades. The players may feel differently, but I cannot imagine that they are anything but thrilled to be in the last and biggest game of them all. Whether that translates to a relaxed, confident team or not is to be determined.

For the Alabama contingent – players, coaches, and fans – nothing less than a third national championship in four years will mark this season as a success. A loss to the team many Bama fans despise above all others would be a sting that would linger. The last time Alabama lost a game that really hurt was the 2010 Iron Bowl when Auburn overcame a 24-0 deficit and moved on to a national championship. In some ways, I think this group still plays with a chip on the shoulder from that loss.


Alabama should win the game, and probably will, but I won’t make a prediction.

This one is too much fun. The nation’s most famous programs. The nation’s top two teams. The season’s final game.

Crimson and Clover … over and over … Crimson and Clover …

I could watch this one over and over.

Enjoy the game.

Destiny or Dynasty?

“Great moments are born of great opportunities …
You were meant to be here. This is your time.
Their time is over … this is your time!”

Herb Brooks to 1980 US Hockey Team (as played by Kurt Russell)

Can the 2012 Georgia Bulldogs become the team of destiny their fans have dreamed of for three decades?

Can the Red and Black, last champions of the college football world in 1980, conjure up an inspired effort like the gold-medal winning Red, White, and Blue U.S. Hockey team from that same year?

Can this team, this underdog, take down its very own crimson menace, and the sport’s reigning bully?

To win … to become this team of destiny … Georgia has to dethrone a dynasty – the mighty Crimson Tide of Alabama.

When Georgia and Alabama meet in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday in Atlanta, the Bulldogs face not only a fearsome opponent, but also the pent up frustration of chronic unmet expectations. Bulldog players, coaches, fans, and followers consider the program elite, but since Georgia last won college football’s grand prize in 1980, five Southeastern Conference programs have captured a combined ten national championships. Imagine a grating drum roll for Georgia fans as you read the list.

1992 – Alabama
1996 – Florida
1998 – Tennessee
2003 – LSU
2006 – Florida
2007 – LSU
2008 – Florida
2009 – Alabama
2010 – Auburn
2011 – Alabama

Think that championship roster doesn’t gnaw at Dog fans? The perception of Georgia nationally is at odds with the Red and Black base. Fans in Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, and Baton Rouge … talk radio hosts in Birmingham, Nashville, and Atlanta … the pretty boys and girls talking on ESPN and Fox … all of them consider Georgia underachievers.

These five keys should decide whether Georgia can overcome the doubters and become a team of destiny Saturday afternoon.

1. Aaron Murray must outplay A.J. McCarron. If Murray comes back for his senior season, he will become the most prolific passer in SEC history. While the Dog QB has been maligned for coming up short in big games, those criticisms are perhaps off base. In losses to South Carolina this season, LSU (last year’s SEC title game), Boise State (last year’s season opener), and others, Murray faced defensive fronts that shut down Georgia’s running game and nullified any play action passing with a fierce pass rush. A.J. McCarron heard similar questions about whether he could handle the big stage until he proved himself in last year’s national championship game. That title game success muted criticism of McCarron’s less-than-stellar play in the Tide’s loss to Texas A&M. Murray should be the equal of McCarron (or better) and can prove it Saturday. But, he will need help … which takes us to a second key.

2. Georgia’s offensive line must play Alabama’s defensive front to a near-stalemate. The Dogs will not dominate Alabama up front. The Tide is too well-coached, seasoned, and disciplined on defense to get pushed around. But, they are not that big and they do not generate much of a pass rush from their front three. Nick Saban has a history of trying to completely take away at least one aspect of an opponent’s attack. I expect Saban and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to do whatever it takes to stop Georgia’s rushing attack. As a counter, watch for Georgia to throw the ball a lot early … instead of running to set up the pass, Georgia should pass to open up some running lanes for Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Gurley doesn’t need much space to keep the chains moving. If the Georgia offensive line can at least hold its own, that would be a net plus for the Bulldogs. While much attention has been paid to the pairing of Alabama’s great offensive front taking on Jarvis Jones and the Georgia defense, I think this is the more important matchup.

3. Alabama may be able to advantage of the aggressive Georgia secondary. Georgia has more talent on defense than anybody – including Alabama. Period. The Dogs are bigger and faster, and their edge in the secondary (even considering the Tide’s terrific Dee Milliner) is the most pronounced of the defensive position units on either side. The Bulldog defensive backs, especially safeties Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo will support the run defense aggressively and deliver a strike. Still, they are at times too aggressive (a trait sure to be amplified in the heat of such a big game), prone to penalties and to biting on play fakes. Watch for Alabama to bait the Dog DBs with pump and go action, or simply with play action passes, and try to hit some deep balls. The Dogs secondary boasts great athletes, but they must play with controlled aggression.

4. Which team will deliver the big plays? Will Eddie Lacy rumble through tacklers for the Tide? Will T.J. Yeldon take a McCarron screen pass to the land of milk and honey like he did in the showdown with LSU? Will Milliner pick off Murray? Or, will the sublime Dog duo of insider linebacker Alec Ogletree (the best athlete on the field) and Jarvis Jones control the action, with Ogletree chasing down Tide runners sideline to sideline and Jones wreaking havoc in the Alabama backfield? Will Gurshall (the nickname for Gurley and Marshall in homage to the great Herschel Walker) provide the Dogs with a little thunder and lightning at the running back position. Will either team break a punt or kickoff return? Remember that the Honey Badger – Tyrann Mathieu of LSU – undid the Dogs in last year’s title game with punt and interception returns. Somebody is likely to make a big play … who?

5. Does Alabama realize the intensity they will face Saturday? Few of these Tide starters have played significant roles in an SEC championship game, many of the Dogs have. This is a hungry Bulldog team with unfinished business in the Georgia Dome. Last year they soundly outplayed LSU for a half, but crumbled under the pressure in the third and fourth quarters and got humiliated. Alabama took the backdoor into the national title game and missed the SEC championship. The Tide hasn’t been here since 2009 and it is an intense setting (the teams do not have five weeks to rest and prepare as they would in the national championship game). Beyond the players and staffs though … there is something deeper that I’m not sure many people have calculated. The Bulldog crowd, disappointed and mostly dormant for three decades, will absolutely dominate the Dome on Saturday afternoon – in numbers and intensity. If Georgia gets off to a quick start, it will ignite a passion – even fury – from Georgia fans that has not been seen since Munson was at the mike, since big #34 was stalking the end zone, since … since the Dogs were national champions. It would surprise me if Alabama realizes that potential factor.

Destiny … or dynasty.

This is Georgia’s game. This is Georgia’s season. This is their time.

Georgia 24 Alabama 20