Every so often a
problem comes along that vexes even the brilliant among us. How can Fermat's
last theorem be proved? Is cold fusion possible? What happened to Roanoke
Colony? Why does dropped toast always land butter-side down? The most recent
conundrum to vex thinkers on campuses (and sports talk radio shows) is perhaps
the toughest to answer: What in the name of Stephen Hawking is going on with
all these nerds winning football games?
It all started in
late August, when Duke, Northwestern, Rice, Stanford, Wake Forest and
Vanderbilt all won on the same week, something that last happened when
Archimedes was in short pants. (O.K., it happened in September 1950.) It came
to a head last Saturday when Duke came to Vanderbilt and played a game that
actually meant something. To both teams. The Blue Devils, 4-42 in the past four
seasons, arrived with a 3-3 record and postseason dreams. The Commodores were
5-2, a win away from becoming bowl-eligible for the first time in a quarter
century. Two days earlier Vanderbilt linebacker John Stokes, who is pre-med and
has a 3.73 GPA, called it "the biggest football game of any of our
lives." Fittingly, the game--won by the Blue Devils, 10-7--was played two
days after the American Football Coaches Association released its Academic
Achievement Awards, based on graduation rates of players; Vandy and Duke were
two of just six schools to score above 90%.
to be an excuse for losing. Seeking solace after beatdowns by football- factory
schools, fans and coaches at academically elite institutions would say that,
yes, they were handicapped by stricter admissions policies, but in the long
run, brains win out over brawn. Witness the sign a Vanderbilt fan held up when
ESPN's Gameday was at the school last month for the Commodores' biggest SEC
game ever: my butler went to auburn. But a funny thing happened that Saturday:
The Commodores beat the Tigers 14-13, their first regular-season win over
Auburn since that glorious nerdfest of a day back in September of '50. The
geeks are, as another Gameday sign proclaimed, inheriting the turf.
tough to tell if the Top 25 list was put out by the AP or US News and World
Report. Besides Duke (No. 8 on the US News list of top national
universities) and Vanderbilt (No. 18), Stanford (No. 4) is 4-4, Northwestern
(No. 12) is 6-2 and Rice (No. 17) is 5-3. Last year those schools averaged 3.8
wins, and not one had a winning record.
of higher learning and heretofore lower footballing have this in common:
They're all private schools with lofty academic standards that, until recently,
were coveted as opponents by schools in need of a walkover. One or two of them
might be decent in any given year. (Remember how Northwestern won 10 games in
1995 and went to the Rose Bowl?) But all of them? (Remember how Vandy, Duke,
Wake and Rice combined to win eight games in '95?) Come on.
What could be
causing this? There's no obvious answer. Asked about the phenomenon, Vanderbilt
coach Bobby Johnson shrugged, then noted that the emphasis in college football
has shifted away from size to speed, which is a bit easier to find. Indeed, one
of the first things David Cutcliffe did when he took over as Duke's coach last
December was to put his squad, which he says was "bar none, the fattest,
softest team" he'd ever seen, on a diet. They dropped over 500 pounds as a
group and now are quicker and more durable.
But can this whole
trend come down to healthy living? At the site of last Saturday's Duke-Vandy
smackdown, even the great minds there weren't sure. "It's only in the last
100 years or so that we're beginning to understand that nothing is universal
and nothing is necessary," said John Lachs, Centennial Professor of
Philosophy. "We've surrendered ourselves to contingency, to the
happenstance. Nobody can explain it, but there it is: It happens to be a year
when the dorks are doing well at football."
In the physics and
astronomy department, Keivan Stassun suggested we're in the midst of a syzygy,
a rare and portentous alignment of things in the universe. "One of the
biggest mysteries in astronomical research is dark energy," he said.
"In the last couple years we have clear evidence that there's some kind of
force at work that is causing all of the matter of the universe to fly apart in
an accelerating way. It seems more than a coincidence that at the same time
we've discovered this mysterious force, Commodore football is on a roll. You
hear all the time about somebody opening a can of whoop ass on someone. That
whoop ass has to come from somewhere. Maybe what we're seeing is a
gravitational warping of space-time focusing all that energy on
Solutions that didn't involve the breaching of the space-time continuum were
harder to come by. Are these kids winning because they have more heart? The
med-school profs would say no. And suggesting that players are winning because
they're giving 110% draws cross-eyed looks from professors of both creative
writing (it's a cliché) and physics (it violates the law of conservation of
energy.) Equally difficult to figure is what this success might mean.
"There are a couple of things in the Book of Revelation about the end time
that pop up again and again," says Susan Hylen, Mellon Assistant Professor
of Religious Studies. "One is that the order of the universe is
disrupted--the sun is dark, and the moon turns to blood. And the other is that
the great and powerful are brought low. When Vanderbilt plays Duke and anyone
is noticing, you could certainly take that as evidence that the ways of the
universe have been disrupted."
Assuming that a
slate of bowl games dominated by eggheads doesn't bring about the end of the
world, Lachs, the philosophy prof, thinks we should stop trying to explain
what's happening. "Just enjoy it while you can," he says. "Because
soon enough, like all of life, it'll be over."