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OU/Texas: The Best Rivalry In College Football?

Image from "EDU In Review" - click link for commentary on Top Ten Red River Rivalry Games

(Note: Originally published Oct. 1, 2010)

by Rob Loeber

College football is full of rivalries, and there are some great ones…

Michigan/Ohio State has tradition, but hasn’t been worth much the last few years.  The Iron Bowl between ‘Bama and Auburn is the best of what the South has to offer, but it still misses the mark.  Oregon and Oregon State call their battle the Civil War, but something about Ducks fighting Beavers just doesn’t inspire me all that much.  Bedlam is up there for sure, but you get the feeling it means just a little more to the side in orange.

OU/Texas is the gold standard in rivalries and here are the reasons why.

The Cotton Bowl is the perfect setting.  It’s almost exactly halfway in between Norman and Austin.  The stadium is split at the 50 yard line.  Sooners on one side, Longhorns on the other.  Show me another event like this in all of sports.  Go ahead show me.  You can’t do it.  The atmosphere alone makes this game what it is because you can feel the tension in the stadium and all around the fairgrounds.  Nothing but burnt orange and crimson as far as the eye can see.  The Texas State Fair is part of the experience.  Ride the ferris wheel, win a teddy bear, eat something fried, eat something else fried, almost get sick, drink beer, feel better, watch football.  If I’m not mistaken that might just be the meaning of life right there. Continue reading OU/Texas: The Best Rivalry In College Football?

Want To Be A Coach? No You Don’t.

Scott Brooks' job only looks glamorous, there's many more moments full of frustration. (courtesy aolnews.com, nba/getty images)

The coach is always an easy target.  If your team looks bad, the knee-jerk reaction is always to blame the coach.  If players aren’t living up to their potential, must be the coach’s fault.  If there’s a key breakdown at a crucial moment in the game, the coach is clearly an idiot.  If your team’s fortunes don’t turn around immediately, this coach must not be the right man for the job.  If your kid isn’t getting enough playing time, the coach must have no idea what he’s doing.

Professional and collegiate coaches get paid big bucks, and I’m sure many of you would trade places with them in a heartbeat.  Not me.  No thank you.  I’m not sure the paycheck is worth the constant pressure, scrutiny, hatred, name-calling and second-guessing that coaches put up with from fans, players, and media.  Even if you can handle it, what about the toll it takes on your family?  Every day, your kids get to hear about why you stink at your job.   Entire websites are created just to promote and encourage your firing.  Your demise is almost imminent from the moment you take the job, because there is no sympathy, no grace, and zero tolerance in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of sports.  These days, owners fire coaches like it’s a bodily function.

Let’s say you’ve got thick skin, and can get past all the material pointing out every reason why you’re an imbecile.  Good for you.  Now all you’ve got to do is take a group of men, women, or children and turn them into winners.  Do that by managing several different personalities, varying backgrounds, an assortment of skill levels, and a dizzying array of attitudes.  You have to know who to coddle and who to criticize.  Who gets treated tenderly and who gets a dose of tough love?  Make sure you earn your players respect, but don’t be too hard on them.  Keep things fun and entertaining, but not too fun, because then you’ll lose that respect.  Keep players happy with minutes and playing time, and you better know how to massage the ego of your stars and high draft picks.  And if you happen to be a high school coach, good luck explaining to parents why Timmy didn’t make varsity.  That’s a fun conversation.

Continue reading Want To Be A Coach? No You Don’t.

Laying Blame for College Sports Scandals

As a sports fan, I am no longer shocked or surprised by anything.  I’m guessing I’m not alone here.  Athletes get arrested at an alarming rate.  Rarely does a day go by without hearing of some sort of cheating, whether its performance enhancing drugs or marital infidelity.  Suspensions, violations, and probations are now expected during the course of any professional or college sports season.

Manny Ramirez got busted for taking a female fertility drug.  Yawn.  Brett Favre allegedly sent pictures of his privates to a woman while playing with the Jets.  Whatever.  Ben Roethlisberger had an “encounter” with a college student in the bathroom of a bar.  Double yawn.  Tiger Woods led a secret life, and slept with who knows how many women in who knows how many states.  I give it a shoulder shrug and a raised eyebrow.  Even if Lance Armstrong, the last hope for integrity and truth in sports, is proven guilty of doping, will we really be blown away?  I might bat an eyelash, but I’m not going to be floored.  In fact, my initial thought will probably be something along the lines of, “that took longer than I expected.”  Sad but true.

Scandal has become synonymous with sports.  It’s like acne on a teenager, it’s assumed.  We’re not nearly as appalled at the sports landscape as we used to be.  When was the last time you really gasped at a scandal?  It’s been a while hasn’t it?  There’s no more surprise, no more shock, no more asking “how can this be!?”  American sports fans are desensitized and apathetic toward all of it.

Former NFL agent Josh Luchs confessed to paying players (photo courtesy of SI.com)

 The latest example came this week when Josh Luchs, a former NFL agent, admitted to Sports Illustrated that he broke NCAA rules and regularly paid college football players.  In his first person article, Luchs says he gave hand outs to players in hopes they would sign with him.  I appreciate Luchs’ candor and the glimpse behind the scenes of what really goes on between agents and college players, but am I stunned by any of his revelations?  No. 

This is simply another kind of behavior that has come to be expected in the world of college athletics.  At this point, if you’re like me, you’re almost completely numb to any kind of NCAA violation.  Big schools cheat.  Small schools cheat.  Coaches have impermissible contact with recruits.  Players take money.  And the world turns.

Sure, there have always been schools out there breaking the rules, but today these violations are so pervasive it’s hard to find a university that doesn’t have a blemish on its record.  Our alma mater may cheat, but as long as we’re winning, it’s pretty easy to look the other way. 

I think I’m ready to come out of my scandal induced coma, and propose some real changes.  Not because I’m angry or disappointed or betrayed, but because I’m just so sick and tired of hearing about it.

There is plenty of blame to go around here, but a good chunk of it lands right in the lap of the NCAA.  It’s an archaic, poorly run bureaucracy that needs to be fixed.  When I think of the leaders of the NCAA, I think of a group of old men sitting around a table in a dimly lit room.  They are wearing glasses, suspenders, and bow ties, and they’re churning out new rules so quickly that their typewriters are smoking.  They are so far removed from what life is actually like on a college campus.  They know nothing of what a coach has to deal with or what it’s really like to be a “student-athlete.”  And they don’t care.

Listen up NCAA…there are TOO MANY rules.  How much time, effort, and money do you spend as an organization just investigating infractions?  I’m willing to bet it’s a bunch.  Why?  Because you’re creating rules faster than you can enforce them. 

Why not lighten up on the recruiting rules?  There are hundreds of rules coaches are expected to follow, and I can’t blame them for slipping up from time to time.  There is a limit to the number of phone calls and number of texts a coach can send.  There are only certain times of the year when recruiting is “open.”  It’s kind of like deer season.  There are certain periods when the recruit can sign a letter of intent.  There are rules for how a coach can recruit a high school junior and different rules for a high school senior.  There are rules for when and how a recruit can take a visit to a campus, and there are rules for what can and cannot happen during that visit.  Try reading the NCAA recruiting guidelines for division one football.  Go ahead try it.  It will make your head spin. 

A simple logo for a complex organization (courtesy ncaa.org)

The NCAA could do away with most of these rules.  The NCAA will tell you there must be a level playing field, and the kids have to be protected.  Remember the NCAA really cares about the kids.  Since when is a high school kid incapable of turning off his phone or throwing away his mail?  Let coaches pursue the kids, and let the kids decide when and how they want to.  Less red tape would mean fewer violations, fewer probations, and maybe coaches could get back to coaching.

Not only do these silly rules cost the NCAA money to enact and enforce, they cost the universities millions of dollars every year.  Every school now has to hire a compliance staff to keep up with the ever-changing NCAA legislation.  These compliance officers are paid to make sure players are eligible, see that no violations are occurring, and educate the coaching staffs to the new rules.  Have these compliance staffs solved the problems?  Are there fewer violations now than there used to be?  No and not even close.

This isn’t to say that some rules are needed.  I don’t think players should be allowed to take money from agents or have contact with agents.  But it’s the agents who deserve the brunt of the punishment, not the players, and certainly not the entire program.  Should the current players on the USC football team really suffer because Reggie Bush accepted benefits from an agent?  It’s absurd.

Why should current Trojans be punished for Reggie Bush's transgressions? (courtesy renovomedia.com)

The NCAA seems to think more regulations will equal cleaner programs.  It’s a nice concept, but it’s wrong.  There are more regulations than ever, and there’s more cheating than ever before.  Everyday brings a new headline.

UConn Men’s Basketball Team Admits Major Violations, Florida Football Misuses Facebook Commits Four Minor NCAA Violations, NCAA Accuses Michigan Coach of Violations, Memphis Forced to Vacate Wins from Final Four Season, NCAA places Alabama football on Probation, Trojans Hammered for Lack of Institutional Control…

And on, and on, and on we go.

I’m not naive enough to think that cheating can be eradicated from college sports or any sport for that matter.   Coaches and players will continue to come up with ways to cut corners and gain a competitive edge.  Those that do should be punished.  However, I’m exasperated by the callous nature of the NCAA and the complete refusal of this institution to look inward and recognize that widespread changes need to be made.  I don’t think we have to be so far away from cleaning up the landscape of college athletics.  I’m frustrated by the stubborn refusal of an organization to change.

I think I will remain mostly numb but I don’t want to feel this way anymore.  So please NCAA, please help me change.  Help me to see violations as the exception, not the norm.  Help me to care, help me get rid of the cynical sports fan inside of me.  That way if I am shocked, it will mean that scandal is rare instead of prevalent.  I want to feel again, I want to care, I want to be the sports fan of my youth.  Please NCAA, look deep into the blackness that is your soul, and try to change so I can change.

Home of the Sooners or Home of the Brave?

Tradition matters to me.  Maybe it’s because I don’t like change, or maybe I just like knowing what to expect.  Christmas Eve is a big one.  I want the same routine every year.  Get dressed for church  and sit in the living room by the tree eating cookies we decorated.  Listen to music while sipping sparkling cider.  Pile into the Suburban, drive around looking at Christmas lights then off to candlelight service at 11.  Open presents Christmas morning.  From this there must be no deviation or it simply isn’t Christmas.

I’m not sure when it started or how it happened, but yelling “SOONERS” instead of the word “brave” at the end of the national anthem, has become a tradition in Norman.  Most OU fans probably didn’t pay much attention to the lyric change until last weekend.  With the Air Force Academy coming to Owen Field, Bob Stoops asked the Sooner faithful to not only cheer for the Falcons when they entered the stadium but to break tradition and sing the word “brave” out of respect to the young men serving our country.  The previous Saturday, the ninth anniversary of 9/11, the school made the same request to fans, only to hear “SOONERS” drown out any bold enough to say “brave.”

I’ve been in that stadium and trust me, there’s something powerful about hearing “SOONERS” spring from the throats of 85,000 people.  I never thought much of it; just a small part of the OU gameday experience.  There is way too much political correctness in this country. But there is a time for reflection and sensitivity and I think that time is now Sooner fans.

Is it time to change tradition? (courtesy myxer.com)

No matter where you’re from or what football team you support, I believe you are an American first and a citizen of your state second.  College football isn’t just an Oklahoma thing, or a Texas thing, or an Arkansas thing.  It’s an American thing.  It’s part of our sports identity as Americans.

Now ask yourself, “What allows me to be here on this gorgeous fall Saturday?  What allows me to tailgate, wear what I want, scream like an idiot when it goes our way and mope when it doesn’t?  What allows me to bring my son or my daughter to this place for the very first time and share with them the magic of a football Saturday?  Simply stated, what allows me to be a fan?”

The answer is blood.  The same answer for why we enjoy so many spectacular freedoms in this country.  Blood shed around the world and here at home, by men and women who sacrificed to make America the great country it is today.  “Brave” isn’t just a word that closes out a catchy tune.  It means someone left home, left their family, voluntarily went into harms way and paid the ultimate price for you.  I’m guilty of going through the motions with the national anthem.  Let’s get the game going already.  But a little reflection on its words goes a long way toward changing my attitude.

The fans who choose to say “SOONERS” aren’t being intentionally disrespectful.  They’re not going out of their way to diminish the anthem or try to make some kind of statement.  They’re red-blooded, patriotic Americans, embracing a tradition.  However, sometimes tradition needs to be put aside.  Can’t you still get chills from tens of thousands yelling “brave” instead of “SOONERS?”  I’d hope so.  Cutting out the “SOONERS” doesn’t make you less of an OU fan.  Come on, nobody is mistaking you for a neutral party when you’re decked in crimson from head to toe and you’re wearing a schooner hat.

There are plenty of traditions already in place in Norman (courtesy replayphotos.com)

Plus, there are plenty of perfectly good traditions already in place.  The drum major strutting his way across the field.  The giant Oklahoma flag and the way the P.A. announcer says, “It’s footbaaallll tiiime in Okkk-la-homaaaaaa!”  There’s the singing of the alma mater, and the video that declares, “There’s only one Oklahoma.”  One side of the stadium chanting “Boomer” and the other side screaming “Sooner.”  You’ve got Ruf-nex firing shotguns, a pretty girl in a covered wagon, and that moment when you’re team finally takes the field.  How much more fired up do you need to get?  If you still insist on yelling “SOONERS” why not do it at the end of the Oklahoma state song?

We’re only sayin’, you’re doin’ fine Oklahoma!  Oklahoma, O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, Oklahoma!…SOONERS!.

Sing it in your head.  It works – believe me.

Old habits die hard, Sooner fans.  This is the right thing to do.  After all, new traditions have to start somewhere.