The message of college football 2009

What’s the overarching message of this year in college football in 2009? I’ve heard it, and now I’ve written about it over on Most Valuable Network’s Football Wire. You can read about this message below in an archive from MVN.

There is one overarching message that I keep hearing as I watch college football this year, and it’s this:

When you have the chance, go pro.

Ask Sam Bradford or Jermaine Gresham of Oklahoma. Both were sure-fire first-round picks in 2010. Both chose to return to Oklahoma. Both are now hurt, and both are losing money.

Ask Tim Tebow. No matter where his draft stock settles, he was certainly going to be drafted. Now he has a severe concussion, and any player only gets one or two of those before his career (and sadly, often his life) is irreparably damaged. He should sit for a month. But he wants to play next week, and his coaches may let him. He too should have gone pro.

I’ve covered pro football full time, and college football pro time. I far prefer pro football, because the players determine their own path. They sign their own contracts. They make their own choices. They can protect themselves in most circumstances.

But in college football, coaches hold all the power. They can yank a player’s scholarship at any time – for violating team rules, for inadequate performance, or for no good reason at all. The players do get an education, but they also get jerked around. They’re in a business that they get no say in.

And the simple fact is that most college coaches will never put a player’s professional interests over their own. They want the players to play, even if they’re hurt, even if they’re concussed. They want the players to come back to school, even if doing so would cost the player millions of dollars and unbelievable opportunities. Remember that Pete Carroll wanted Mark Sanchez to return to USC this year. He said Sanchez wasn’t ready. Sanchez is. Maybe Carroll was just wrong, or maybe Carroll thought he would win more games and have a better shot at a national title with Sanchez starting instead of freshman Matt Barkley. Sanchez’s professional future was best served by leaving; Carroll’s professional future was best served by Sanchez staying. It’s no surprise which side Carroll fell on. Just about every college coach would have fallen on the same side.

College coaches want to keep their jobs, and they will use players to do that. They’ll couch it in terms like what’s best for the team or the program, but the dirty little secret of big-time college football is that the main motivation is the coach’s own job security.

After covering the NFL full-time for four years, I was moved to cover Clemson’s football team in 2000. That was an interesting team, and one of the best players was Nick Eason. Nick was a defensive end coming off a really good sophomore season, and he was starting to get some buzz from scouts as a burgeoning pro prospect.

But in his junior season, coaches moved Nick Eason to defensive tackle. He wasn’t big enough to hold up there, and he started getting banged up. It wasn’t his best position, but the coaches (in the midst of a 6-5 season) needed help at tackle, and Eason was their best defensive linemen. So they moved him.

That was a job security move, not a move determined by what was best for Nick Eason’s pro future. Nick suffered more of a pounding and more injuries because of the move. It hurt his draft stock. After having 8.5 sacks as a sophomore, he had only 6.5 more in his last two years. He fell from a potential high-round draft pick to a fourth-rounder who never played for the team that drafted him, the Denver Broncos.

Interview sessions at Clemson (like at most colleges, I think) were usually group sessions. But one day, late in the season, I ended up interviewing Nick with only one other reporter in the room. So I went for it. I asked Nick if he thought the coaches had done him wrong by moving him inside. I asked him if he thought the move had hurt his future NFL career. I tried to find out if Nick was upset about it.

Nick didn’t bite on my questions. He was a good team player. Just like Jermaine Gresham or Sam Bradford or Tim Tebow, Nick bought that what the coaches said was best for the team was probably best for him – even though it wasn’t.

Nick ended up OK. He’s been in the NFL since 2003, and he’s found a role as a backup defensive linemen. He even got a Super Bowl ring with the Pittsburgh Steelers last year.

Not everyone should go pro. A player should make sure he will be drafted. A player should never go pro thinking he is better than he really is.

Take Rodney Harrison. He went pro a year early, and in an interview he said it happened because his family needed financial help. Rodney got cut in his first training camp and spent a year on the practice squad before making it with the Chargers. Going pro doesn’t lead to an automatic success story. But it is an opportunity that players need to seize when it comes.

But when I see Jermaine Gresham missing the year after skipping the draft, or when I see Sam Bradford lying on the ground in pain, I think of Nick Eason. I think of how what was best for the college coaches wasn’t really what was best for the players.

And once again, I hear the message.

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One response to “The message of college football 2009

  1. Pingback: FR: April pre-draft signings « Football Relativity

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