Smart Notes 8/30/09

In his discussion of the Michigan fracas, Dr Saturday steps back:

But the broader implication isn’t about the changing culture at Michigan as much as it is the longstanding culture at all big football schools, where the notion of “voluntary” workouts and hourly limits have been met with winks for years. A survey of Division I athletes last year revealed the reality: Time limits or not, big-time football everywhere is a full-time job that consumes vastly more hours than the NCAA officially sanctions — and has to be, if the competition is putting in the same work. That players will “voluntarily” go above and beyond the proscribed limits is taken for granted. (It hardly seems like a coincidence that at least 20 college players have collapsed and died following offseason workouts in the last decade, which was practically unheard of even under old school sadists like Bear Bryant.) Coaches follow the letter of the law at the peril of their records and their jobs.

In that sense, assuming that Carr’s staff really were the sticklers they’re widely reputed to be (an assumption backed up by the Free Press’ reports), the exuberance of their successors is just another case of Rodriguez and Barwis bringing the program into the 21st Century. The fact that they’re being singled out may only be because they’re doing it at one of the very few places that knows the difference.

In other words, there is a degree of hypocrisy in singling out Rodriguez, but it is only in the fact that this has become normal, and even expected. It is, in modern big-time football, the cost of winning. Maybe Rodriguez went too far (or maybe not), but it makes little sense to single out Rodriguez and Michigan, at least for most of the allegations. (The Sunday stuff, if true, does seem excessive.)

There is also little point in the NCAA having rules no one can be expected to comply with. The NCAA practice limits are quite stringent, and there are obvious reasons why a school would want their players to practice more than the NCAA limits would allow. Besides improving their overall conditioning and fitness, or their football skills, the large amounts of downtime for student-athletes who only practice about four hours a day and are, in many cases at least, barely even students can lead to a lot of time to get in trouble off-the-field. I’m not singling out football players as miscreants, but instead just pointing out that many 19 year-old males do stupid things, and scholarship football players are given a lot of freedom and privilege — a lot of rope to hang themselves with. Call it the Cesar Millan/Dog whisperer strategy: if you make kids work harder they are less likely to have the time (or energy) to get into trouble. (In high school, many teams schedule an early morning Saturday morning practice where the focus is on the younger guys; for the varsity players, the point is to make them get up early and thus deter them from staying out late after football games on Friday night.)

In any event, the point of the rule seems to be, among other things, to protect the image of players as “student athletes” — they don’t treat their sport as a full-time job. This is of course a classic case of image versus reality, and a conflict that will not go away. For every scholarship football player who spends extra time pursuing their degree, there are countless others for whom it is just a full-time job. And it is not like fans, if they are honest, would have it another way. I have never heard a player come off the field and say, “You know, I’m sorry I didn’t play well this week. I’m taking a lot of really interesting classes and I stayed up late to work on them and I skipped some extra film study so I could go to my professor’s office hours — man it was fascinating. I promise to refocus next week.” The NFL has no such identity crisis, but it’s just another symptom of college football’s dual role as a business that puts out a sports product where the employees are “student athletes” paid (primarily) with a free education. This tension won’t go away.

- Thanatos and football. As the Doc also noted, practicing football has become increasingly deadly. He says,  “It hardly seems like a coincidence that at least 20 college players have collapsed and died following offseason workouts in the last decade, which was practically unheard of even under old school sadists like Bear Bryant.”

Why football players are dying is a tricky question, and theories abound. Are they the same and they were just underreported previously? Are workouts tougher? Are kids less able to handle these workouts because they spend the rest of their time inside, playing video games, etc? Is it the supplement industry, with creatine-influenced cramping, reduced water retention, and sports/redbull/caffeine drink induced increased heart rates causing the injuries? It’s very hard to say.

In Kentucky, there’s a test case where a high school coach charged with “reckless homicide” and “wanton endangerment” in connection with the death of a 15-year old player who died while running wind sprints in practice. The prosecution’s theory is that Jason Stinson, coach of Pleasure Ridge Park in Louisville, “recklessly” ignored warning signs that indicated that Stinson was suffering, denied him water, that another player collapsed before Max Gilpin, the player who died, did. The prosecutor also asserts that, after Gilpin collapsed, Stinson called other players “cowards” and continued to make them run. In sum, the prosecution’s theory is that Stinson ignored all the warning signs under which a normal person would have called off the dogs.

But, as reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal, a group of legal experts think a conviction for Stinson is unlikely. Specifically:

“The classic example of reckless homicide is firing a gun into a crowded building and killing somebody,” said defense lawyer Steve Romines of Louisville. “Having kids run wind sprints doesn’t equate to that.”

It may be even harder for the prosecution to convict Stinson on the wanton endangerment count because it requires proof that he knew about the risks to Max’s health and consciously disregarded them, said University of Kentucky professor Robert Lawson.

“They must prove he saw the risk … and said, ‘To hell with it, I’m going to do it anyway,’” said Lawson, the main author of Kentucky’s laws on crime and punishment.

Even if prosecutors persuade the jury that Stinson made excessive demands on his players, Wicker said, “There is a difference between a football coach who was too tough on his players and a criminal — and I think jurors will see him as the former.”

. . .

But court pleadings show that the defense will make its case in part through the testimony of other coaches, including Butler High School football coach Scott Carmony and former St. Xavier athletic director Gerald Mayes. Both will say that running players for 40 to 45 minutes, resting half that time — as the defense says Stinson did — was “not excessive under the conditions of Aug. 20, 2008.” Dr. Daniel Danzl, chairman of the University of Louisville’s department of emergency medicine, will also testify for the defense that it was not “medically dangerous or unreasonable.”

And former medical examiner Dr. George Nichols and Dr. Bill Smock, a UofL professor of emergency medicine, will reiterate their opinions that Max’s heat stroke was not caused by lack of water. . . .

But [former federal prosecutor Scott C.] Cox said that “if the witness accounts are accurate, I think what the defendant did went beyond whatever even a so-called disciplinarian coach should do.”

Still, Cox said the prosecution faces a tough task: “The coach looks good and is well-spoken. ”“He  is popular in the community and will have lots of support in the courtroom. And he is not somebody you can say intentionally committed a crime.”

- And now for something completely different: Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blanche gives as good as he gets. After the Redskins’ preseason loss to the Patriots, ‘Skins DC Greg Blanche fielded a question about the play of his defensive line against Tom Brady. After giving an answer (a somewhat informative one, I thought) Blanche turns the tables, and fires the question back to the questioner, Trevor Matich. Matich looked disgusted, and Chris Chase over at Shutdown Corner questions Blanche’s decision to fire back, but I actually thought it was kind of refreshing. Blanche was generally good natured about it, and had brought up a good point, that “pressure on the QB” is not the end all be all of defense. Now, the ‘Skins’ haven’t exactly been great in the pressure department, but Blanche is right that a guy like Brady is adept at checking plays and doing things to either negate pressure or figure out when there won’t be much. In any event, judge the interchange for yourselves:

- Something I wish I understood better, from the July/August issue of Discover magazine:

[Physicist Stephen] Hawking is now pushing a different strategy, which he calls top-down cosmology. It is not the case, he says, that the past uniquely determines the present. Because the universe has many possible histories and just as many possible beginnings, the present state of the universe selects the past. “This means that the histories of the Universe depend on what is being measured,” Hawking wrote in a recent paper, “contrary to the usual idea that the Universe has an objective, observer-independent history.”…Hawking’s idea provides a natural context for string theory. All those universes might simply represent different possible histories of our universe.

- The NY Times’s Thayer Evans with a nice Houston double-play. Evans interviews Houston alumnus David Klinger, he of run & shoot fame:

While playing in Houston’s prolific Run-n-Shoot offense in 1990, Klingler threw for then-N.C.A.A. records of 5,140 yards and 54 touchdowns in 11 games and the Cougars to a 10-1 record and No. 10 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.

“In today’s environment where you get in shootouts, who knows what that offense would have done,” the 40-year-old Klingler said in a recent telephone interview.

Houston’s 36-31 come-from-behind victory against Texas A&M that season demonstrated the Cougars’ explosiveness. When Klingler trotted on the field with 2 minutes 5 seconds remaining for what would be the game-winning drive, he had a simple message for his teammates.

“Listen, we’re going to have to do something we’ve never done before: we’re going to have to take two minutes to score,” Klingler recalled saying in the huddle. “We’d score in two or three plays.”

Yet even when thinking about this era of the spread, Klingler said he would still rather play in the Run-n-Shoot, which employed four wide receivers and was predicated on stretching the field vertically with deep passes that often sailed 40 to 60 yards in the air.

“For my abilities, I was in the right system,” Klingler said.

That said, I don’t buy this part of the interview:

Yet the Run-n-Shoot took a toll on Klingler’s arm. A first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1992, he never lived up to those expectations. Klingler ended up playing six years in the N.F.L., the last two with the Oakland Raiders. He threw for 3,994 yards and 16 touchdowns with 22 interceptions during his career. But when Klingler retired, he could only throw a football about 40 yards.

“My arm was so shot,” he said. “I literally couldn’t throw much at all.”

But at a Houston practice several years ago, Klingler picked up a football and started throwing. He was stunned to discover that he could once again throw like he had in college.

“Years of rest I guess did wonders,” Klingler said.

I don’t remember what Klingler’s form was like, but if you throw a football correctly and don’t grip it too hard, you don’t really get as sore. Quarterback’s have a different shelf life than, say, baseball pitchers, where the body torques every time and the arm’s motion is an athletic-but-unnatural movement. In football most passes are routine, and there have been lots of quarterbacks, from college to pro, who throw a gajillion times and experience soreness but nothing like the arm just dying out. Now, I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, particularly when repeated throwing couples with injury. Famously, Tim Couch’s arm literally died about five or six years into his NFL career, resulting in his being cut from the Green Bay Packers camp after but a day or two.

Now, guys with awkward form or who gripped the ball too hard — Troy Aikman being a famous example — often experienced lots of soreness. But I don’t really buy the argument that Klinger’s arm died solely of overuse.

Evans follows this up though with a nice bit on Houston’s quarterback Case Keenum:

While Houston was second in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards and total offense per game last season, the second-year coach Kevin Sumlin and Keenum said that they believed that the Cougars’ offense could be even better this season.

That is why Sumlin, who keeps Ware’s Heisman Trophy in his office, is promoting Keenum as a dark horse for the award and does not shy from talk about him potentially throwing for 6,000 yards.

“There’s a lot of things that people thought they’d never see,” Sumlin said. “I wouldn’t rule it out.”

With little fanfare last season, Keenum had an F.B.S. sophomore record of 5,241 total offensive yards, which was more than Bradford, who won the Heisman. He also had more passing yards and touchdown passes (44) than McCoy, the Heisman runner-up. He topped Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the 2007 Heisman winner, in passing yards, touchdown passes and completion percentage.

These Mike Leachian numbers are not a surprise, because Art Briles, the previous UH head coach, was Leach guy. Briles left for Baylor, and in stepped Sumlin, former co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, but Houston’s current OC is another former Red Raider, Dana Holgorsen, who was Leach’s offensive coordinator at Tech, coaching there from 2000 to 2007. This is not to say that UH runs the Airraid — they use more “vertical stems,” or their routes more often begin with the receiver running straight up the field, for one thing — but the production has been there. Houston is a team I will be following this season. (See here for a good Q&A with Holgorsen before he started at UH but after he took the job.)

(As a footnote, the article mentions that Keenum is chasing former Texas Tech QB B.J. Symons’s NCAA record 5,833 yards. I have to say also that I have never seen a team chew up yards the way that Tech team did in 2003. Symons, of course, benefited greatly from Leach’s offense, and also from an outstanding group of receivers, including Wes Welker. Symons had one of the best six game runs I’ve ever seen, and the competition, while not exactly a bunch of top-ten teams, was not bad, and included shootouts with Philip Rivers and Eli Manning. Over that stretch, Tech played New Mexico, NC State, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State, winning four and losing two. Symons’s results against each, respectively: 418 yards and five TDs; 586 yards and two TDs; 661 yards and six TDs; 505 yards and seven TDs; 487 yards and three TDs; and 552 yards and five TDs. That’s a tall hill for Case Keenum to climb.)

- Fall of the House of Bowden. More from the NYT, this time on the Bowdens.

. . . All that seems to remain is the gong to be wheeled out to get the Bowdens off the stage. Except, they refuse to go quietly.

“This game ain’t over yet,” said Terry Bowden, who starts his first season as the head coach of Division II North Alabama on Saturday at Southern Arkansas. “There is nothing less important in life than the score at halftime. Well, it’s halftime with the Bowden family. I’m ready for the second half, and Dad has a finish on his career that has yet to be written.”

He added: “Who else has three family members that coached teams that were undefeated in Division I? Who else had a father-son coach at the same time, or coach against each other? Nobody, and they never will. Who has 70 years of head coaching in one family and 500-and-something wins? Darn it, heck with y’all.”

The Bowden coaching tree seems to have new blooms this fall, a revival that began July 14, which was Bowden Day at North Alabama. All four Bowdens served up their best stories and one-liners, and the brand still showed it had some cachet by raising $25,000 for the program in just a few hours.

They still have their sense of humor, too. On the practice field this week, Jeff teased Tommy about standing on the sideline in casual clothes and not helping out with the coaching. Tommy said it was fun to see Terry sweat, especially after his brother had written a column last fall arguing why he deserved to lose his job at Clemson.

“He dropped me out the third-floor window, instead of just showing me the stairs,” Tommy Bowden said with a laugh. “My wife and sisters were really mad at him, but you have to know Terry.”

The Bowdens, it seems, can be just as tough on one another, so the scorn directed at them in recent years is only an annoyance — not a reason to exit.

“We’ll go up against anybody right now, and we’re going coaching,” Terry Bowden said. “We’re not apologizing for nothing.”

  • KungFuPanda9

    I’m afraid Stephen Hawking’s condition is finally affecting his once spectacular mind. String Theory notwithstanding, the notion that time (history) is subjective, i.e., that the past is relative based on the conditions which exist in the present, has no basis in any observable perceived event. To date, we have no evidence that time travels in any more than one direction. As a consequence, the past is forever established and remains independent from the present and future.

    Quantum Theory deals with subatomic particles, and does not transcend to the big picture. It is String Theory which has tried to bridge the gap between Einstein’s Theory of Relativity for the macro, and Quantum Theory’s ability to “explain” the micro.

    I felt very uncomfortable for both the audience and the man when watching one of Hawking’s presentations (on TV) for an idea which preceded this latest refinement of his new theory. I realized the once brilliant mind had finally lost his way.

  • OldSouth

    In my dad’s day at a small D1 (now D1AA) school, water wasn’t allowed anywhere near the practice field, there were no “mandatory” breaks, the prohibitions on practices and workouts (if any) were greatly reduced, and there were no ambulances, medical staff. But no one seemed to die.

    With all that in mind, I find it hard to blame the increased workout difficulty faulting. My best guess is population growth, more widespread media coverage, and perhaps more health-risking players in the pool. (Most of these deaths aren’t deaths from exhaustion, they’re players who have a preexisting medical condition that is aggravated by the extreme workout, and the combination of the two kills them).

  • Charlestowne

    As brilliant as Hawking is, this is another attempt of theoretical physics trying to make sense of the mathematics. When Einstein was first introduced to quantum mechanics, he stated that the ‘mathematics is good, but the physics is bad.’

    Simply, one of the basic concepts in QM, is that for a specific set of initial conditions, there are several possible outcomes that are independent of intermediate steps. For example, for initial condition A, there is a 64% chance of outcome B and a 36% chance for outcome C. In addition, not only are these outcomes possible, but they both occur simultaneously. This leads to the concept of alternative universes.

    I don’t really know what he means by ‘the present state of the universe selects the past’.

    One of the problems with QM, is that because of the nature of these processes, you cannot measure these processes without effecting the conditions, therefore changing the process itself. Therefore direct measurement isn’t feasible.

    And as far as string theory is concerned, its has promise, but until it makes a testable prediction, its just really science fiction. All of this is in pursuit of the ‘Holy Grail’ of physics. A unified theory of the universe that explains everything. Maybe one day we’ll have it. Or maybe, we just don’t have the ability to comprehend.

    This ADD physics review may not have clarified much, but maybe it helped a little. I need to read that article.

  • Spy Scheme

    Great point on how many guys have died recently when the trend is if not less work (in terms of hours) at least more contained (NCAA Mandated).

    Add in Kory Stringer in the NFL to that list.

    Not a scientist or chemist but just a Fan so this is less than an educated guess but additional weight and supplements have to factor in somehwere.

    Good stuff Chris

  • beermotor

    @KungFuPanda, I think it’s a little ridiculous to dismiss Hawking out of hand simply because of his physical ailment. Sure, it may be true, but your hypothesis is no more testable (at least by us) than the quantum mechanics / string theory stuff you’re saying isn’t likely. Furthermore, I find it somewhat incongruent to imagine that of all the dimensions, Time is the only one that travels in one direction only. I’m not saying you’re wrong or that Hawking’s right, or that quantum mechanics or string theory make any sense whatsoever, I’m just saying that simply because an idea isn’t (yet) supported by observable data doesn’t mean it is incorrect: a lack of evidence is certainly not proof of wrongness. Indeed, once upon a time uplift (and volcanism) and erosion were the only processes that created continents and mountains, and now plate tectonic theory is firmly entrenched in the scientific milleu.

    I’m merely suggesting that the purpose of scientific inquiry is to push the boundaries and consider “crazy” ideas, probably the moreso when everyone seems to think your ideas are nuts. Too often “scientists” circle the wagons against all change, and thereby stifle the creative inquiries necessary for progress. With your citation to his physical condition, it looks to me like you are simply parroting the establishment/party line.

    What this has got to do with football, who knows – maybe you can tie in physics with Malzahn’s ludicrous speed offense, Chris! Come on, you know you want to do an Auburn article…

  • mlc808

    Good for Coach Blache — he is absolutely correct, many sports media types simply fire off the same boring questions game after game when their own knowledge of the game they are covering, and oftentimes the whole of the sport in general, is often lacking. Coach Blache honestly seemed to be very good natured about the entire exchange (compared to Matich who apparently takes himself entirely too seriously — grow up, you’re covering sports, not something of monumental significance to the whole of the human race).

    Besides, defensive coaches on the whole are usually not your soft-spoken kinder-and-gentler types. If you trot them out in front of the camera and ask them simplistic questions you are as often or not going to get a more interesting answer than you bargained for.

    More NFL coaches should stick up for themselves: there seems to be a lot of former players in the sports media that enjoy attempting to portray the coaches they interview as inept and bumbling. While it is true that ‘a football coach isn’t a genius, a genius is a guy like Norman Einstein’ (to paraphrase another classic former jock commentator) if the over-stuffed suits in the studio knew as much as they’d like us to think they did they’d be on a staff somewhere . . .

  • Tom

    I did not particularly like Blache’s attitude, especially because the question was a valid one. He even admitted that the pass rush was inconsistent. There may have been issues with the triteness of the question, but it’s hard to sympathize with him because he just “feels tired” of answering the same old questions every week. It’s part of the job, and that attitude is probably something that prevents him from becoming a head coach. I’m sure plenty of coaches hate dealing with the media, but they do it anyway. Total lack of professionalism on his part.

  • AERose

    Were I king I would institute a moratorium on the word “professionalism.” To Coach Blache, I raise my glass for slightly swaying my entertained-to-not entertained ratio for the day.

  • Bob W

    I say Stinking Fish to the everybody-does-it defense. It doesn’t fly at all when you are caught paying players, does it? And it may be just as true there.

  • James

    “It hardly seems like a coincidence that at least 20 college players have collapsed and died following offseason workouts in the last decade, which was practically unheard of even under old school sadists like Bear Bryant”.

    I cant really speak to any changes in intensity and demands of practice over the years, but the Bear Bryant comparison is questionable. Why? Well if you click the link it talks about exertional sickling due to having the sickle cell trait (basically they are saying people who are carriers for sickle cell anemia. NOTE: “carrier” doesn’t always mean that you are unaffected by the trait that you “carry”). Well for half of Bear Bryant’s coaching tenure at Alabama he wasn’t allowed to have black players (HINT: the sickle cell trait, which protects you against malaria, isn’t prevalent in people that come from areas that don’t have malaria, such as Europe). I’m not sure about the demographics of his teams after 1970, but I’m guessing that black players were not as high a percentage as they are today and don’t forget that this is still a rare trait (aren’t there more college football teams today as well?). Bear Bryant was probably spared by population genetics and statistics, not his coaching style.