Scandals Taint College FB Season Opening

With the opening of the college football season two weeks away, we should be eagerly anticipating another year of thrills, upsets, color, pageantry, tailgating, dazzling plays and dramatic finishes. Because nothing—sorry NFL—matches the excitement, tradition, and unpredictability of college football.

Unfortunately, no one’s been talking much about Stanford superstar Bryce Love, Alabama’s quarterback controversy, Clemson’s all-NFL first round defensive front, or Arizona wunderkind Khalil Tate.

Instead, the national conversation has been dominated by the scandals at Maryland and Ohio State.

Last week Maryland coach D.J. Durkin was placed on leave following numerous allegations of player intimidation, abuse, and mistreatment by the coaching staff. Maryland offensive tackle Jordan McNair died of heatstroke in June, and in the intervening two months disturbing details have emerged about the methods of strength and conditioning coach

Rick Court (now departed) and the abusive culture created by Durkin.

At Ohio State, wide receivers coach Zach Smith was fired after his wife filed a domestic violence protection order. When Smith’s nine-year history of abuse was revealed, Buckeye head coach Urban Meyer—who had employed Smith both at Florida and Ohio State—was questioned at Big Ten Media Days about how much he knew, and when.

Meyer—a three-time national championship coach whose stature in college football is second only to Alabama’s Nick Saban—initially denied knowing anything about a 2015 incident. That was a lie. He later recanted, saying he was “not adequately prepared” for the questions and had “failed with my words.” Meyer was then put on administrative leave while a six-person committee determines his fate.

These developments are particularly troubling for the Big Ten Conference, which has been in turmoil since 2011 and in the last year alone has had to deal with the horror of former Michigan State team doctor Larry Nassar, who sexually assaulted over 100 female athletes, and former Ohio State team doctor Richard Strauss, who abused dozens of wrestlers.

Seven years ago, of course, the Jerry Sandusky scandal nearly brought down the Penn State football program. Over the next several seasons, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood was fired for fudging player academic records, Illinois coach Tim Beckman was dismissed amidst player abuse allegations, Indiana’s Kevin Wilson resigned under the same cloud of player abuse, and Minnesota’s Tracy Claeys was fired after supporting players accused of sexual assault.

Lest we be accused of being too critical of the BIG here, let’s remember that these episodes are not limited to one conference. You’ll recall the epidemic of sexual assault by players at Baylor and a sprinkling of such incidents at USC, Florida State and elsewhere around the country. In almost every instance, the head coaches involved tried to sweep these crimes and misdemeanors under the rug.

What’s going on here? Why are so many coaches abusing players and creating a culture of fear and intimidation? Why are so many coaches turning a blind eye to players, assistant coaches and team physicians guilty of sexual assault?

It all boils down to two things: power and money.

Head football coaches at Power Five conference schools comprise an all powerful, highly-paid species. For all intents and purposes, they control not just the football program, but set the tone for the entire athletic operation. They demand not only high salaries for themselves and their assistants—many of whom are now paid over $1 million—but luxurious offices, locker rooms, player recreation areas, training facilities, and practice fields.

Some programs, such as Alabama, count more than 60 people associated with the football operation—assistant coaches, grad assistants, interns, quality control people, consultants, analysts, operations staff, recruiters, strength and conditioning coaches, and on and on.

All of this costs a lot of money, of course. Between salaries and the facilities arms race, there is enormous pressure to win and to generate revenue. The Athletic Director—who makes a small fraction of what the head coach is paid and whose job is basically to raise funds and build facilities—is in no position to deny the coach what he needs to win.

So when the coach decides to close practices, limit media access, and operate in virtual secrecy, his word is law. If abuse is taking place, or if assaults are unreported, few people outside the football team will know about it.

It’s important to note here that not all coaches are Neanderthals, not all programs are corrupt, and good guys can still win. I’ve had the honor of working with men like Bill Walsh, Tyrone Willingham, Denny Green and David Shaw, all of whom ran (and still run) honest programs at Stanford and treated their players with respect.

There are, and have been, many others around the country—like Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, Mike Riley at Oregon State and Kenny Niumatalolo at Navy. When Pete Carroll was winning national championships at USC, he ran the most open program in the country.

But it’s a brave new world, and as a coaching friend of mine likes to say, “you’ll be fired a lot faster for losing than for cheating or being too hard on your players.”

Forty-four years ago, when I was a wet-behind-the-ears sports information director at Stanford, head coach Jack Christiansen was embroiled in a quarterback controversy that sparked a lot of criticism in the media. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Glenn Dickey, among others, was going after Christiansen practically on a daily basis.

One morning, after a particularly negative Dickey column, Christiansen barged into my office and demanded that I revoke Dickey’s credentials and ban him from practice, the press box and the locker room. With the red-faced NFL Hall of Famer towering over me, I politely explained that I couldn’t—and wouldn’t—do that, whereupon Christiansen told me, “I’m going to get your a** fired.”

At that point, he stormed upstairs to Athletic Director Joe Ruetz’s office and told Ruetz that I had to go. Without hesitation, Joe backed me up, suggested that I wouldn’t call any plays if Christiansen let me handle the media, and ended the discussion.

If that happened today, I'd be gone in a heartbeat.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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