Is it still OK to love college football?
Words don?t come easily when talking about what happened over the past offseason. They don?t seem to be enough. Appalling perhaps begins it.
And in a real sense, college football is the culprit behind what was appalling.
College football created the myth of Joe Paterno, that of a humble and honorable maker of men who should be trusted to do the right thing as he oversaw his Grand Experiment. College football created the program Paterno led, a sports team that was the most popular and celebrated part of an institution of higher education. College football created a circumstance where that team became more favored than right and wrong.
College football did not create Jerry Sandusky.
Sandusky is a deviant. He?s a serial rapist of young boys who could have been a carpenter or cobbler just as easily as he was a college football coach.
But college football created the environment in which saving the sanctity of the program was valued above saving the sanity of the children whom Sandusky targeted.
Sandusky, of course, was a longtime assistant of Paterno?s at Penn State, the defensive coordinator for two teams that won the national championship. But in 1998 Paterno and other Penn State administrators were made aware of Sandusky?s deviance.
According to the investigation commissioned by Penn State and conducted by former FBI director David Freeh, Paterno, former president Graham Spanier and former athletic director Tim Curley initially decided to tell law enforcement what they knew. But then Paterno, the supposed paragon of virtue, changed his mind, and convinced Curley and Spanier to change their minds.
To save the reputation of Penn State football.
Penn State has gotten its punishment.
Nothing will take away the memory those boys must live with. But at least Penn State has been shamed.
Whether the NCAA should have gotten involved in a way it?s never gotten involved before, punishing a program not for NCAA violations but for moral neglect, is debatable. But what?s not debatable is the that the primal desire for Penn State, beyond simply the individuals involved, to be punished was satisfied.
What remains, though, is the sense that Penn State is far from alone.
Not in the sense that other schools are covering up child rape, but in the sense that the football teams are placed on the same pedestal above all else at the school as Penn State?s.
If you think Oklahoma?s football team isn?t as revered in Norman as Penn State?s was - and to some degree still is - in Happy Valley, you?re naive. Same with Alabama and Tuscaloosa, Ohio State and Columbus, Florida State and Tallahassee, and a host of others.
So if college football creates monster programs where football is so revered that people are willing to put winning and losing above right and wrong, is it still OK to love college football?
There?s no universal answer.
It lies within each of us as individuals.
There has to be perspective. There has to be an ability to love without lionizing, to watch with wonder while realizing the men on the sidelines are just that, men, nothing more.
The statues of coaches like Bear Bryant at Bama, Bobby Bowden at Florida State, Barry Switzer and Bud Wilkinson at Oklahama, are nice. They?re monuments to honor people who have brought joy to their schools. But don?t mistake those statues as anything other than honoring wins. They?re not monuments to men who altered the course of history, who were indeed great men.
They?re monuments to fallible people.
The games themselves remain beautiful.
More than 100,000 strong at Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama on a fall Saturday is a spectacular sight. The excitement of Matt Barkley?s arm, Montee Ball?s legs, and Tyrann Mathieu?s athleticism - once he has his drug problems under control - are worth watching.
But there was a lesson.
Never, never, should a college team be bigger than the university it represents.
Nick Saban should never be allowed to become bigger than Alabama. Bob Stoops should never be allowed to become bigger than Oklahoma. Same goes for Les Miles at LSU, Mack Brown at Texas, and any other longtime coach at a big-time university.
Love college football. Love the games. But understand that the men at the helm are merely coaches.
What We Learned
The Honey Badger is not walking through that door, not this season.
With Tyrann Mathieu, LSU had a superb chance of winning its third national title in the last decade. But Mathieu was dismissed from the LSU team for repeated drug violations, and his father has said that rather than transfer to an FCS school and play this year, Mathieu is taking time away from football and currently in a rehab program.
Some say it?s no big deal - from a football standpoint - that while Mathieu did some spectacular things he wasn?t actually a great cornerback, and so he won?t be terribly missed.
Mathieu was a massive reason LSU went 13-0 before losing to Alabama in the national title game.
It was his forced fumble that turned LSU?s opening weekend showdown with Oregon in the Tigers? favor. It was his punt returns for a touchdowns that sparked LSU?s win over third-ranked Arkansas the final week of the regular season and its victory over Georgia the next week in the SEC Championship Game, both of which the Tigers trailed.
To truly believe that the absence of such a dynamic player won't matter is denial.
When Mathieu was suspended, the chase for the championship changed.
LSU, which is breaking in Zach Mettenberger as its new starting quarterback, dropped from a favorite on par with USC and Alabama to third.
"I certainly am rooting for Tyrann and whatever his future is," LSU?s Miles said on Aug. 14, four days after Mathieu?s dismissal. "But I?m not focused on that. I?ve got games to play and I?ve got 104 guys I have to be ready for."
While Mathieu is missing, Matt Barkley isn?t.
Suddenly, USC looks like it might just be the team to finally break the SEC?s six-year strangelhold on the crystal football. Alabama will no doubt reload rather than rebuild, but seven new starters on defense is a lot to overcome, especially when two of those no longer wearing crimson and cream are Dont?a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, both finalists for the Butkus Award.
USC, meanwhile, brings back nine starters on offense and eight on defense - plus both specialists - from a team that lost just two games last year (one in four overtimes to Stanford) and got better as the year progressed.
And Barkley, well, he?s clearly on a mission.
He could have been a top NFL pick, but as the man who helped keep the Trojans together when it looked like things were falling apart as NCAA sanctions hit, he chose to stay at USC for his senior year. He chose to stay in order to win a national title.
If USC is vulnerable it?s because of the defensive line. But USC?s vulnerability is no worse than LSU?s or Alabama?s, and its strength - Barkley - is stronger.
Is this the year someone outside the SEC wins the championship for the first time since Texas at the close of the 2005 season?
With Mathieu missing, um, maybe.
Oh, and by the way, beyond learning that Mathieu?s absence will impact a wide open chase for the national championship, we also learned that we only have to put up with two more seasons of the asininity - yup, it?s a word - of the BCS.
Finally, a playoff is coming.
Game of the Week
Last year it was Oregon and LSU. This year it?s Alabama and Michigan.
The season began Thursday night, but the season?s first meaningful game happens Saturday night, with the Crimson Tide and Wolverines meeting at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.
As usual, most ranked teams are opening with easy opponents, like No. 6 Georgia taking on Buffalo. But Bama and Big Blue are taking the risk of playing each other to the delight of a nation.
The risk for second-ranked Alabama is of being knocked from national title contention right away. The risk for No. 8 Michigan is of being embarrassed, exposed as overrated before ever reaching the Big Ten portion of its schedule.
"It?s great for college football to have these kinds of games," said Alabama?s Saban on Tuesday. "We enjoy playing in them, and it will be very challenging for us. It will show us where we are as a team."
Expect Alabama to win. The mystery is by how much.
Michigan is in just its second season post-Rich Rod, and a favorable schedule last year helped the Wolverines win 11 games. If they?re able to hang with the Tide into the second half it will be a signal Michigan is right on schedule in its recovery. If they somehow pull off the upset, it will signal that Hoke is putting together something special in Ann Arbor, and that Denard Robinson might be headed for the Heisman.
"I do think (this game) is a great marker for where we?re at as a program and what we can be," Hoke said on Tuesday. "I think every first game, though, you learn a lot about yourselves. You go into it because every team is different. I went back and thought about last year at this time, and I didn?t know if we were going to win two games let alone 11. ... We?ll find out about ourselves."
Meanwhile, Alabama is coming off its second national title in three years. It lost five starters on offense, including running back Trent Richardson, and seven on defense, Hightower and Upshaw among them. But Bama?s replacements are expected to be every bit as good as their predecessors, making them part of the short list of contenders to play in Miami on Jan. 7.
Should the Tide win, they?ll be one step closer to history, three titles in four years. Should they lose, the season will already seem like a failure.
"It will be a good challenge for us come Saturday," said junior quarterback A.J. McCarron, "and it?s something I?m looking forward to."
My Top 10
1. USC (0-0): Beating Oregon twice will be no easy feat.
2. Alabama (0-0): The revamped defense is the question.
3. LSU (0-0): How much will Mathieu be missed?
4. Oregon (0-0): The Ducks could easily replace Southern Cal.
5. Oklahoma (0-0): Expect more from the ?D? this year.
6. Georgia (0-0): Nine starters return on defense.
7. Florida State (0-0): The best of the weak ACC.
8. Michigan State (0-0): The best of a Big Ten full of flawed teams.
9. South Carolina (0-0): Spurrier?s strength is his ... defense.
10. West Virginia (0-0): The Big 12 won?t beat up the Mountaineers.
Eric Avidon can be reached at 508-626-3809 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ericavidon.