Monday, January 30, 2012

Brace Up the Falling Sky

This hasn't exactly been a great few weeks for Michigan recruiting; we can get this statement out in the open right away and I don't think anyone will object to it.

The fact of the matter is Ohio State has done what Ohio State has been wont to do for many, many years -- the Buckeyes brought in a great class loaded with talent.  Meanwhile the nerves of a significant portion of the fan base have worn down to the tiniest thread that simply wasn't equipped to handle a 24-hour period in which four commitments went the wrong way (even though all four were around 50/50 propositions.

- Alex Kozan decided to commit to Iowa: the same school he has been high on for a long time while Michigan cooled then jumped back in on him.

- Armani Reeves decided to commit to Ohio State: the school he was 50/50 on last week despite his best friend committing to the Buckeyes earlier in the month and his godfather (father of said best friend) handling his recruitment.

- Monty Madaris  decided to commit to Michigan State.  This one was more of an "insult to injury" type hit because Michigan had been out of it for him for a couple weeks, but some people can't handle success in East Lansing.

- Finally, this morning Sam Grant committed to Oklahoma.  This was a bit more shocking than the rest because Oklahoma has three TE's in the class already (mind you, Michigan has two so it isn't like he is walking into an empty depth chart in either place) and his good friend Kyle Kalis is already a Michigan commit.

Between these events and the end of Josh Garnett's recruitment on Thursday, Michigan has seen five high profile targets go elsewhere, and each of these targets was at one time at least heavily interested in Michigan, if not holding the maize and blue as an outright leader.

If you know anything about Michigan football and its fickle fan base -- which, why the hell are you reading this if you don't -- you can imagine that message boards and twitter are absolutely insufferable now.  I won't point out names (I want to, but I won't), but some people act like Hoke just got a call that the 11-2, BCS bowl winning season we just had got switched overnight to 7-6 and all the gold that Hoke has pooped these last 12 months has been nothing but pyrite.

I'm damn near tired of this, so here goes.  This is my attempt to get everyone breathing at a normal rate again:

First, who here didn't expect Ohio State to sign a monster class with Urban Meyer running point?


Exactly.  I don't care how much Urban Meyer glowed last season about Mattison's recruiting prowess, if you really thought that Meyer would be struggling to reel in a bunch of three-star who-dat's then I have some real estate on the moon I think you might be interested in.

He has done a good job bringing together a class with two full months to devote entirely to recruiting (and don't start about the waiver from the NCAA because everybody gets that).  He flipped the guys who were soft elsewhere for whatever reason (Pittman), drank Penn State's milkshake (Schutt, Spence, Williams, Reeves), and brought in heavy OSU leans just waiting for an excuse to join the class (Washington -- who didn't even need to hear the official Meyer-to-OSU announcement before going all-in).  Add in guys like Taylor Decker and David Perkins and you have one helluva haul.

"You get an  unwanted medical redshirt, and you get an
unwanted medical redshirt..."
Guess what?  This doesn't mean the end of the world.  Meyer isn't perfect, and odds are some of these guys are going to flame out or leave the program or fail to develop all the way to their five and four star ceiling.  That's life when you bring aboard a bunch of mid-pubecent 18-year-old man-children and try to turn them into football players one notch below the highest level.  Same thing will happen to a handful of Michigan's recruits, Texas's recruits, Alabama's recruits (you know, the ones not bound for St. Saban's Memorial Hospital), et al.

Don't freak out that Rivals assigns more points to Ohio State's class because of an arbitrary formula -- since those always work out well in college football -- just be thankful that Michigan has a great class.  Which leads me to...

Second, who here isn't pumped about Michigan's class as it stands today?  I remember thinking in August, "man, if we finished with this class it would still be awesome."  In August.  Think about just how well the coaches did putting together a top notch group of talent.  Now think about how excited you are for guys like PeeWee Pipkins, Joe Bolden, Jarrod Wilson, Erik Magnuson, Kyle Kalis, James Ross, RJS and TRich, Wormley, Stroble, Godin, and the rest.

If you spent the last year obsessively reading about these kids -- and let's face it, if you are taking the time to read my rant then you have -- then there isn't anything that should put a damper on your excitement for the 2012 class.  Not only are these kids great football players but they are solid young men and high character individuals that we can all be proud of.  Some of them will develop into the next generation of Mike Martins and David Molks, and some of them might ride the bench, get a degree, and walk away from campus in five years Michigan graduates.  Get excited about that.*

*(A quick aside: don't be the asshole who thinks that because a kid doesn't commit to your school he is either a) a low class slimeball not good enough for the winged helmet, b) a pawn of some malfeasence on the part of evil parents, coaches, etc, or c) GETTING PAID, AMIRITE?  Just stop.  You make us all look worse.)

Finally, remember that the team that won 11 games on the field this year, that team they called Team 132 was so ravaged by attrition, beaten up by a media witch hunt, and subjected to multiple coaching changes and inane schemes that no one expected them to accomplish near what they did.

You don't need the best kids.  You need the right kids.

I'll be damned if the 23 kids (plus maybe two or three more) destined to make up the 2012 class aren't the right kids.  I'm excited for them.

You should be too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Two Irreconcilable Sides of Joe Paterno

(Some background:  For those of you who don't already know, I write for Bleacher Report (gasp!) as the Featured Big Ten Columnist.  This job pays a meager salary and helps me pay rent while giving me a platform on which to write.  I'm not a big B/R supporter, but don't bite the hand that feeds.

Anyway, in the wake of Joe Paterno's passing I wanted to write something, but was advised by my editor -- yes, they have those there -- that we were to hold off on any talk of Jerry Sandusky and the scandal to allow enough time to reflect on Paterno's positive impact (which was great).  I gave it my two days, wrote what I thought was appropriate and respectful, and put it on the site.  The way it works is that I submit my links to the editor and he posts my articles in the tri-weekly newsletter sent out by email, and also to the Big Ten specific site.  Instead of my article being put in its normal places, it was relegated to the Penn State team page, so basically buried.  

I'm not too stoked about any of this, so I am moving it over here -- after giving it 24 hours on B/R -- in the hopes that it gets either A) a little more exposure or B) some comments that aren't from blue-blooded Penn State fans that think I am a "hater".

So, here it is.  I hope you enjoy it and I look forward to any reasonable feedback (for once).)

My mother works with a young man about my age, and the last time I was at home she told me a story about him. He never went to college and wasn't much of a student, but he eventually found his calling doing in-home care for underprivileged families—and to that end he has worked hard because he was passionate about what he was doing. My mother gushed about his positive attitude and hard work; he is always the first one to volunteer when a job needs to be picked up, and he is one of the the best people she has seen when it comes to dealing with children.

One night a few months ago this young man went out with some friends and had a few drinks. By his own admission he wasn't drunk, but as we know that hardly matters in the eyes of the law. All that was important was that his blood alcohol level was above the legal limit, and while driving innocuously through an area of town notorious for its tough stance on drunk driving, he was pulled over and given a breathalyzer test, which he failed.

For anyone who has brushed up against the law, or known someone who has, when it comes to drunk driving the following won't be much of a surprise. Despite it being his first offense he lost his license, which means he is no longer able to provide in-home care for lack of proper transportation. His only opportunity to do what he loves is to work in-house at the shelter and try to pick up as many shifts as he can to help pay down the myriad of fines and fees associated with a DUI. He also has daily breathalyzer tests to attend as well as Alcohol Anonymous meetings, all without a car.

One mistake has now had a vast effect on this young man's career and future.

A week ago this analogy was enough to explain the Joe Paterno situation. A lifetime of good work was undone by a lapse in judgment that put others at risk, and since we live in a society that puts a premium on stopping both sexual abuse and drunk driving, both men rightfully lost a lot of things they worked hard to get.

The young man who works with my mother is now forced to take taxis to work and bum rides from friends and co-workers, and he can barely work enough hours to pay the bills because of it.

Joe Paterno lost the job he poured his life into because his inaction allowed a sexual predator to walk the streets a free man. Neither man meant the harm they brought—or could have brought—on the world, but intentions mean nothing when you get down to brass tacks. Both men took the easy way out and ignored the problems inherent in what they did.

With the passing of Paterno over the weekend, things have come to be more complex, and the analogy doesn't fit any longer. The young man who works with my mother is just that: a young man. A largely faceless cog in a society of people just like him. He is still free to overcome his mistake and redefine his legacy to those people his life directly influences. We aren't here to piece together his legacy, because in anything but a local sense he won't have one in the same way that you or I won't.

Paterno, on the other hand, was already a myth long before evidence arose alleging impropriety by Jerry Sandusky, and Paterno has had a place in the national consciousness as one of the biggest figures ever to coach sports in America for at least the last two decades. Paterno embodies Penn State football in a way that no other coach in history embodies his team. On top of that ,he is the patriarch of college football as we know it. He isn't a man; he ceased to be a that years ago. He is an institution, a name, a statue*.

Therein lies the problem with trying to come to terms with Paterno's legacy upon his death while still taking into account the last three months of his life. How can one mistake, one unfortunate circumstance, undo over a half century of good work and dedication to making a difference in the lives of others?

If you need a reminder of just how far-reaching and well-thought-of Paterno was for the last 50 years then you only have to take a step in any direction before you trip over a fawning ode to the man and his influence on the sport.

We are all guilty of being caught up to a certain extent in the myth of JoePa. I grew up in the '90s loving the Michigan Wolverines more than life itself, and while I genuinely disliked the men who stomped up and down the opposing sideline—men well known in their own right, like Nick Saban, Barry Alvarez and John Cooper—I was always awed by the short Italian-American in black glasses and a tie who looked like he had wandered into the stadium from another decade.  To begin with, he was already older than all but few of his contemporaries, and his legacy of success at the college game was largely written. In the coming years his Penn State team would regress among cries for his gentle ouster before storming back for one last brush with the national elite, but the reverence with which his name was spoken by everyone I knew—from my father to my high school coaches to the sports media—never wavered.  I listened to the 1997 Penn State game on the radio as a middle schooler when Michigan demolished the highly ranked Nittany Lions on the way to a a split national title. Later, I was in the stands as Michigan upset the Nittany Lions on a last-second pass to Mario Manningham to ruin a perfect Penn State season. Lots of games have come and gone since those two, but there are few I remember more.  No matter what season, the game against Penn State stands out in large part because of the old saying, "If you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best." As long as I could remember, there wasn't any better coach than Joe Paterno.

And really, who can remember any different? The man outlasted them all. He paced the sidelines as a head coach for Penn State longer than many people work as adults. He was a highly successful coach already in-between back-to-back undefeated seasons when Woodstock happened in 1969. If he would have walked away from coaching after I was born in December of 1984 he would still be a Hall of Fame coach with a national title, three undefeated seasons, seven consensus top-five finishes and a bowl record of 11-4-1.  Instead, he hung around for another quarter of a century.  Is it any wonder that most sportswriters will spend pages extolling the man's virtues while tiptoeing around the biggest scandal in the history of college athletics? The vast majority of sportswriters have spent their entire adult life with the implicit understanding that every time Paterno laced up his black Nikes and strode up and down the sideline yelling out instructions and praise in his iconic Brooklyn accent that they were watching one of the best to ever coach the game. This kind of cognitive dissonance is a hard thing to reconcile when it consists of almost everything you've ever known pitted against the most shocking scandal to ever come out of college athletics.

But the last three months still exist, and they loom large like a shadow over 85 years of hard work and a commitment to education, excellence and doing it "the right way." In fact, the vast majority of Paterno's life is impossible to square with his role in the Sandusky scandal for the very reason that the ideal the Paterno myth is based around is absolutely incompatible with his inaction. There is no way one could argue that doing things the right way includes not doing anything more than passing it on when someone you know is accused of child rape and you are Joe Paterno.

People who disagree and want to defend Paterno argue that on the grand scale of things the good he did vastly outweighs the partial sin of him being one broken link in a chain full of them. He gave the accusations to the right people, or he didn't get a full account of the gory details. That it was failure above him or below him that ultimately led to Sandusky living free for a decade after serious accusations surfaced.

That is one way to look at it, but I don't buy it. What I do buy is that there was no single thing in Paterno's life, no decision or uncomfortable problem, that was as singularly important as stepping forward, helping bring Jerry Sandusky to justice and saving dozens of young boys from sexual abuse once there was evidence of wrongdoing.

This was the most important opportunity for Joe Paterno to prove to himself and the world that he really was committed to doing things the right way. Instead, he took the easy way out. He told a couple of administrators and promptly forgot anything even happened for the next 10 years as Sandusky walked the halls of the Penn State football complex, spent time with the team before, during and after games, or organized and ran camps for young boys the same age as the one Paterno was told was raped in the shower years before. Or even worse than simply forgetting about it, he just ignored it rather than confronting something that horrendous and hoped it would all go away on its own.

All the good he did during his 85 years adds up, but it will never overshadow his single most important failure. This isn't about Mike McQueary or Tim Schultz or Graham Spanier. These men also failed, and arguably they did so to a greater degree than Joe Paterno. They deserve whatever is coming to them, be it prison time or a spot on the coaching blacklist. But not one of them is Joe Paterno. None of them has a statue on campus set in front of the words "Educator, Coach, Humanitarian." Each of them has ruined his own legacy, but all the legacies of all the men in State College, Pa. that failed to act in order to stop Sandusky would be just a drop in the bucket compared to that of Paterno. The man practically was State College.

He was bigger than all of them, and when faced with the most important choice between right and wrong in his long life he decided to be just another man like all of them.

So by all means, eulogize the man. He has earned that much through years of dedicating himself to his players, his school and the betterment of college football. Just don't forget that in the end every man is defined as much by his failures as he is his successes. Joe Paterno succeeded more than any man in the history of college football ever has, and arguably ever will. He also failed when confronted with the most dire circumstance any man in the history of college football has ever faced. It all counts in the end.

You can't pick and choose how to remember the man to make yourself feel better. It is all part of his legacy now, and it was ultimately his choice.


*(Credit where credit is due: The symbolic use of Joe Paterno's statue vs. Joe Paterno the man has already been introduced as an idea by both Spencer Hall and Brian Cook, and I would be remiss not to gently push you in the direction of both, as they are two of the better pieces of writing I have read concerning Joe Paterno's death.)