Top college football stories of 2011
Negative stories at Penn State, Ohio State and elsewhere cast a pall over 2011
Robert Griffin III captured the nation's attention from the season's first night
Conference realignment, the big story of 2010, again dominated the headlines
(NOTE: Technically, Auburn won the national title on Jan. 10, 2011. But for the purposes of this article, we're considering only the 2011 season and the events of this preseason.)
If someone elects to one day make a movie about college football in 2011, an apt title might be: The Kids Are All Right -- The Adults, Not So Much. The glut of ugly stories that overshadowed actual football for much of the year shared a common theme: breakdowns in leadership from seemingly upstanding professionals like Jim Tressel, Joe Paterno, John Junker and all the university presidents who made a mess of conference alignment.
For relief, the best option was to focus instead on a refreshing crop of youngsters like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Eric LeGrand, who give us hope that the future of the sport may be brighter than the present.
1. The Penn State nightmare. In the years to come, Nov. 9, 2011, will go down as a universal "Where were you?" moment. As in: Where were you the night Penn State's board of trustees fired Joe Paterno, the school's revered coach of 46 years? The images of a frail Paterno (since revealed to be fighting lung cancer) thanking supporters on his lawn as students rioted on campus won't soon be forgotten. Unfortunately, neither will the heinous images depicted in a grand jury indictment of alleged child molester Jerry Sandusky, nor the knowledge that Paterno and other Penn State administrators failed to take appropriate steps after learning of the defensive coordinator's alleged atrocities. That silence cost Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley and university president Graham Spanier their jobs, and will likely stigmatize the previously celebrated program for years to come.
2. Jim Tressel's demise. During his years at Ohio State, Tressel's trademark sweater vest came to symbolize the conservative Midwestern values for which a rabid fan base adored him. That persona made it all the more stunning when it was revealed in March that Tressel knew several of his players (most notably quarterback Terrelle Pryor) had received impermissible benefits from a local tattoo parlor owner but kept silent for eight months until federal authorities notified the school in December 2010. Amid mounting public pressure, university president Gordon Gee and athletic director Gene Smith forced Tressel's resignation May 29, sending the Big Ten's bedrock program into a state of turmoil. The saga culminated in December with the hiring of former Florida championship coach Urban Meyer and the resolution of an NCAA investigation that dealt the school a postseason ban in 2012 and Tressel a five-year penalty that will likely preclude an imminent return to coaching.
3. Conference realignment II. The biggest story of 2010 reared its head again in 2011, this time when Texas A&M brass decided it'd had enough of Texas and its Longhorn Network and fled the Big 12 for the SEC. In the weeks and months following A&M's decision, Missouri also chose to join the SEC; Big East charter members Syracuse and Pittsburgh abruptly bolted for the ACC; TCU skipped out on the Big East for the Big 12 before ever playing its first game in the former; West Virginia went the same route, lawsuit in tow; and schools from four different time zones (San Diego State, Boise State, Houston and SMU, UCF and Navy) all decided to join the Big East. Lingering instability from last year's Big 12 defections set off the first domino; from there, it was a matter of schools not wanting to be left behind. Most will benefit financially from richer TV deals, but the residual costs include the severing of century-old rivalries like Texas-Texas A&M.
4. LSU-Alabama rematch. This season, the SEC's dominance reached unanticipated and, for many, unwanted heights. Beginning in late September, it became clear that LSU and Alabama would be playing for a spot in the BCS championship when they met in the purported "Game of the Century" on Nov. 5. There was talk of a Jan. 9 rematch going in, but the Tigers' aesthetically unappealing 9-6 overtime victory seemed to squelch that possibility -- that is until every other viable contender (Stanford, Boise State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Oregon) lost over the next two weeks. The Tide rose back to No. 2 and stayed there despite failing to reach the SEC championship game and despite an 11th-hour push by the Big 12 champion Cowboys. The sport's first intra-conference national championship game has not been well received outside of SEC country.
5. The Miami expose. Allegations of NCAA violations seemed to pop up at a different school every week this summer, but the most salacious by far were those levied against Miami in an August bombshell report from Yahoo! Sports. Nevin Shapiro, who was convicted last year for his role in a $930 million Ponzi scheme, told Yahoo! that during his time as a big-money booster with sideline and practice-field access from 2002-10, he lavished 72 Hurricanes players or recruits with impermissible benefits ranging from cash, nightclub VIP treatment, parties on his yacht and even prostitutes. Just before the season, the NCAA suspended eight active players implicated by Shapiro. In the days after the story broke, the words "Death Penalty" got tossed around as a possible punishment for the program. That initial frenzy has since quieted, but the investigation continues, and Miami elected not to play in a bowl game this season as a preemptive punishment.
6. The rise of RG3. Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III's talents were already well known in Big 12 country, but because the Bears had been irrelevant for so long, the rest of the country hadn't given much thought to Griffin as a Heisman contender. A five-touchdown performance in a 50-48 upset of reigning Rose Bowl champ TCU on the first Friday night of the season put Griffin in the heart of the conversation, while a relentless promotional campaign by the school kept his name on voters' minds. For most of the season, Stanford's Andrew Luck remained the consensus favorite, but when Luck stumbled Nov. 12 against Oregon, the window opened for a challenger. Griffin promptly filled the void the following week with a last-second touchdown to beat Oklahoma on a 551-yard night. Another big game in Baylor's season finale against Texas helped Griffin pull away from Luck and capture Baylor's first Heisman.
7. Fiesta Bowl corruption. Christmas came very early for the BCS' numerous critics when on March 29 the Fiesta Bowl released a 284-page report detailing tawdry practices by longtime CEO John Junker and other bowl officials. The document validated a December 2009 Arizona Republic report claiming Fiesta employees were urged to donate to political figures, then reimbursed accordingly. It also exposed a culture in which Junker had free rein to expense, among other things, a birthday party at Pebble Beach, golf memberships, lavish employee gifts and a $1,200 strip-club visit. Junker, who had previously been placed on leave, was immediately fired and eventually replaced by former Arizona president Robert Shelton. Fiesta officials appeared before a special BCS task force charged with reviewing the bowl's status, and while the task force ultimately left the game intact, it levied a $1 million fine. The bowl has since undergone a massive reorganization.
8. The free-agent quarterback. Last spring, NC State coach Tom O'Brien decided he could no longer wait for three-year quarterback Russell Wilson to decide between his budding pro baseball career and a final year of college football. So he cut Wilson loose. NC State's loss was Wisconsin's gain. Proving a perfect fit for coordinator Paul Chryst's run-first, pro-style offense, Wilson led the nation in pass efficiency for most of the season (he finished No. 2 to Griffin) and helped the Badgers to an 11-2 record and second straight Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth. Wilson's success will likely prompt other established quarterbacks to take advantage of the graduate-transfer waiver to move to more favorable situations for their final year.
9. Records galore. When the updated NCAA record book comes out next summer, expect "2011" to appear on a whole bunch of pages. Among the milestones achieved this season: Houston quarterback Case Keenum broke career records for yardage (18,685), completions (1,501) and touchdowns (152); Boise State's Kellen Moore became the winningest quarterback in FBS history (50); Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles set a new mark for career receptions (349) before a season-ending injury; and, just before his unforeseen ouster, Penn State's Paterno broke Eddie Robinson's Division I record for career coaching wins (409).
10. Eric LeGrand inspires. A year after getting paralyzed while making a tackle on a kickoff return against Army, the former Rutgers player led his team out of the tunnel before an Oct. 29 game against West Virginia in a scene Sports Illustrated readers later voted the best moment of 2011. At other points in the season, the ever-smiling LeGrand served as a guest analyst for CBS and offered frequent Twitter updates on his recovery, from standing up for the first time to walking on a treadmill. "Oo yea I will be back on my feet," he wrote last week. LeGrand's refreshingly upbeat attitude amid such adversity brings a smile to peoples' faces -- and, as you can see from most of the items on this list, was very much needed this year.