College Football Overtime (cont.)
Cam Newton hits the awards circuit this week, which means more stories about the NCAA's controversial decision to reinstate Newton without penalty will continue to appear. The question is, will they then fade away, or will the sins of his father follow Newton all the way to Glendale?
The Newton pay-for-play scandal was unusual in its details and unprecedented both in its timing and in the star wattage of its subject. But the nearly four weeks of relentless outrage from Auburn fans over the reports and speculation about Newton's status were nothing compared to the immediate and nearly uniform national backlash after the NCAA's decision. When has an NCAA eligibility investigation ever elicited fervent opinions from the likes of Jim Delany, John Swofford, Pat Haden and even basketball sneaker maven Sonny Vaccarro?
The NCAA "missed an opportunity to step up" and crack down on third-party brokering of players, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told The New York Times. Jo Potuto, a Nebraska law professor and former chair of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, told USA Today: "I'm a former prosecutor, and I think, with regard to deterrence and trying to keep a handle on these sorts of behavior, I would have come down the other way."
The NCAA itself, usually so reticent to discuss investigations, even took the unusual step of releasing a statement from president Mark Emmert acknowledging the criticism and attempting to explain (without mentioning specifics) the rationale behind the decision. It was no use. The NCAA enforcement process is so maddeningly confusing to anyone without an encyclopedic knowledge of it that nothing would have helped.
Long story short: There was no specific bylaw in the NCAA's behemoth rulebook that says a player is ineligible if a parent shops his son to another school but doesn't actually receive anything. A violation of some sort did occur, but the staff must interpret each case based on the circumstances and decide whether or not it merits punishment. In this case, the fact that the NCAA couldn't prove the player had knowledge of his father's scheme caused it to take mercy.
This was a no-win situation for the NCAA. Whatever justification it offers, the public still sees it as the same organization that dealt USC massive sanctions based on similarly egregious accusations (even though it's a different arm entirely that investigates a player's active eligibility) and took months to render decisions on players like A.J. Green and Marvin Austin earlier this year as opposed to the rather conveniently swift resolution of Newton's case. (Though again, those guys took stuff; Newton, as far as we know, did not.)
But had the NCAA gone the other way and tried to suspend Newton on the eve of the SEC Championship Game, it would have faced a whole different headache full of injunctions and appeals. Or it could have kept on investigating and let the questions and speculation grow ever heavier between now and Jan. 10. Clearly it felt pressure to act.
Let's be honest: No one outside of Auburn, Ala., believes the Cecil Newton scheme began and ended with one call to Mississippi State. But no one -- not the NCAA, not the SEC, not the media -- has any proof to the contrary. Both Emmert and SEC commissioner Mike Slive promised to close the "loophole" in the rulebook that allowed Newton to go unpunished, but not before he'll win a Heisman and play for the national title. You're entitled to your opinions about the player, but as of today, the adults on both sides look far worse than the kid.
Fans have every reason to be furious that the BCS allows for an unranked, four-loss Connecticut team to play in one of the five major bowl games. But hate the system, not the team, because the rise of Randy Edsall's program from FCS to BCS is pretty darn heartwarming, whatever the circumstances.
I remember visiting Storrs during preseason camp in 2004, when the Huskies were preparing to begin their first season in the Big East (a year earlier than expected due to the departures of Miami and Virginia Tech). UConn had moved up from I-AA just four years earlier, had moved into brand new 40,000-seat Rentschler Field just a year earlier (upgrading from its old 16,000-seat venue) and barely yet resembled a BCS-conference program. With the football complex still under construction, Edsall held his weekly news conference in a dormitory lounge. Among the topics that day, the team's beat writers asked Edsall to explain how the bowl eligibility process works.
The Huskies' quarterback that season was a guy NFL fans are long familiar with, Dan Orlovsky, who did in fact lead Connecticut to its first bowl game that season (the Motor City Bowl against Toledo). Edsall, the Huskies' coach since 1999, endured two losing seasons before sharing a Big East title with West Virginia in 2007 and producing two eight-win seasons after that. Edsall has long been respected throughout the profession (and has turned down numerous overtures over the years), but his team remained largely under the radar.
The turning point may have come late last year, when the Huskies went to South Bend and knocked off Notre Dame -- their first victory since the stunning murder of cornerback Jasper Howard -- after which Edsall gave a heart-wrenching postgame interview to NBC.
The 2010 season did not begin well, with losses to Michigan, Temple, Rutgers and Louisville. But behind Jordan Todman, the nation's No. 2 rusher, and playmaking linebacker Lawrence Wilson (who had a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown Saturday night against USF), the Huskies won their last five games, capping that stretch with Dave Teggart's game-winning 52-yard field goal to clinch the BCS spot.
It took 10 years for the Huskies to get to this point, and now, their crowning achievement comes mixed with a heavy dose of backlash.
"It's kind of been the story ever since we made this jump [to I-A], to be the underdog. I know I get a little bit more fired up when people think that you can't do something," said Edsall. "... the rules are what they are. The Big East has an automatic qualifying spot with it, we win the Big East, we go. There have been other 8-4 teams that have won their conferences and gone to the BCS. So don't get on UConn for what the system is."
Mini-previews for three big bowl games:
Wisconsin vs. TCU (Rose Bowl), Jan. 1: If you were talking to someone brand new to college football, how would you explain the various rules and tiebreakers that allowed these teams to get here? You wouldn't. It's too hard. You'd just tell them to sit back and watch the redheaded quarterback from TCU, because he's really good.
Ohio State vs. Arkansas (Sugar Bowl), Jan. 3: Ryan Mallett proclaimed himself a legend. Terrelle Pryor recently lamented on Twitter that: "Damn I must be the worst QB/player" after being left off the All-Big Ten teams. Their respective talent levels lie somewhere in between and should make for an intriguing duel.
Auburn vs. Oregon, (BCS Championship Game), Jan. 10: Darron Thomas isn't contemplating any such QB battle himself. "I'm not really worried about Cam Newton," he said. "I'm just worried about [Auburn's] defense." For all the talk about fireworks, one of the sides' defenses will ultimately determine the outcome.