Once every comet or so, somebody in sports does something so brain-boggling that you drop your spoon in your raisin bran, fall over backward in your chair and scream to the Saint Bernard, "I'll be dog-damned!"
Well, two weeks ago it happened.
It was in college golf. The Tulsa men's team was tied with Southern Methodist at the end of 54 holes for the Western Athletic Conference championship. The day had crawled along at Squire Creek Country Club in Choudrant, La., and now there would be a sudden-death playoff, with Tulsa's five players going against SMU's five for the title.
But it was 3:20 p.m., and Tulsa had to catch a 4:30 flight, the last one out of town. It was a half-hour drive to the airport. Ten guys in a playoff hole could take almost an hour, and Tulsa was supposed to be in the car and on the way five minutes ago. The players would never make their plane, and three of them had final exams in the morning. Four of the five had GPAs of 3.2 or better.
That's when Tulsa coach Bill Brogden did something so insane, so unheard of, so slap-the-priest new that he runs the risk of being barred from coaching forever.
"We have more important things than this," he told his boys as he herded them to the airport to get on that plane. He chose academics over athletics, No. 2 pencils over No. 2 irons. He finally let the dog wag the tail.
A coach looking out for the "student" at the expense of the "athlete"? Does the musher suddenly pull the sled and let the husky ride? What part of the term college golf factory doesn't Brogden understand? Who does he think he is, Coach Carter? "The guys were disappointed," Brogden says, "but I told them I had to do what I thought was right. By the time we were in the air, I think they agreed it was the only thing to do."
The only thing to do? Is he bats? Nobody does this! Ever! This is college sports, in which NFL defensive end Dexter Manley finished four years at Oklahoma State and couldn't read! In which Nicholls State just got four years' probation because a coach and an academic adviser did course work for more than two dozen jocks! Hell, what Brogden did has to be a shock at Tulsa, where only 42% of athletes who entered in 1997 had graduated in six years, the seventh-worst rate in Division I-A.
No wonder Tulsa president Steadman Upham wrote a memo to every faculty member at the school. "I have never been more proud of a coach or a team," he said, adding that the decision "shines brighter than any trophy."
Here's something stranger: Even the parents back Brogden. "When we first heard about it, we were kinda mad," said Tulsa golfer Sam Korbe's dad, Greg. "But once we heard the situation and thought about it, we were really proud of him."
"It was kind of a bummer," says Sam, the team's best player and a 3.8 student. "We'd been working so hard all spring, and we wanted to win it so bad. But I know it's the best thing overall for us. I admire Coach for what he did. A lot of coaches would have cared only about the sports half of our lives."
Now, wait: Don't paint Brogden as some feel-good New Age gym coach. This guy wants to win the way moles want to dig. He's won 14 conference titles in his 36-year career and coached 22 All-Americas, including PGA Tour regular Bill Glasson. In fact, Brogden tried to leave Louisiana with his integrity and the title.
He and SMU coach Jay Loar agreed to share the championship so Tulsa could catch that plane. But into every logical, happy solution a bureaucrat must fall, and WAC assistant director of championships Joe Menaugh had his boxers in a bunch over the idea.
"You can't do that," Menaugh sniffed, according to Brogden. "There's no provision in the bylaws for that. We have to declare a winner."
So it was a choice: tests or title?
Two Tulsa and two SMU players had already hit their drives. Three more golfers on each team were waiting on the 18th tee box when Brogden turned and said firmly, "We're outta here."
The four sets of Tulsa players' parents on site were shocked. "What in the world are we doing?" one asked.
"Packin' and goin'," Brogden explained.
Most every coach you've ever heard of would've stayed and played. Know how you know? Because when the Tulsa professors heard about Brogden's decision, they almost swallowed their pipes. "That was a very courageous act," says math prof William Hamill, who gave Korbe his Calculus III final the next morning. "I've never seen that before. I've never even heard of that."
To Brogden it was simple. "When I recruit these kids, I promise their parents I'm gonna graduate 'em. Most of 'em are not gonna be Tour players. We've got to remember why they're here: to get a degree."
Uh, Coach, can you excuse us a second while we fall over dead?