I used to be able to get a regular chuckle out of the newspaper funny pages, but not so much these days. For, I’m sure, reasons of economy, papers have shrunk their cartoon strips to the point where their word balloons are tougher to read than the stock tables. It’s tough to laugh when you’re squinting.
Not to worry, though, because the sports pages can be counted upon to produce full-throated yuks. I had one such the other day when I read a piece headlined “Paterno Hopes Bowden Can Keep Wins.” It was about Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach, opining that his fellow-old-guy colleague, Bobby Bowden of Florida State, was being mistreated because the NCAA was considering removing 14 wins from the school’s—and Bowden’s-- record after 25 FSU football players were caught in an exam-cheating scandal involving athletics department employees. That penalty was deemed appropriate because some of the players would have been ineligible if not for the ill-gotten grades.
It’d be downright unfair to penalize Bowden for the misdeeds, declared the venerated Joe Pa, who’s known in part for long claiming to have graduated 90-plus percent of his players but not including flunk-outs, drop-outs and run-offs in the calculation. “I’ve known Bobby for 40 years. He’s my kind of guy,” Paterno said. “He’s a very humble and very, very religious guy. He’s just a good person and a heck of a football coach.”
Bowden agreed with Paterno’s conclusion, but on different ground from personal virtue. “Why do we [he and the other-sport FSU coaches whose players also were snagged] deserve it [being docked wins]?” he asked the Orlando Sentinel. “We didn’t know anything about it.”
Didn’t know anything about it? HA HA HA! This guy probably can tell you that his third-string fullback has a right foot that’s a half-size bigger than his left, likes cold spaghetti for breakfast and has a girlfriend whose youngest brother’s name is Jerome, yet he didn’t know that about one third of his squad was being coached to cheat by their so-called academic advisers. You believe that and I have a piece of land in Cave Creek I want to show you.
Funnier still-- but not in a ha-ha way-- is that the folks in charge will pretend to believe Bowden. That’s despite the fact that the latest scandal is the umpteenth during his tenure at FSU, an institution that seems to exist mainly to fill a football stadium six or seven Saturdays a year. When the stuff hits the fan, coaches like him (winners) stay clean, with the blame falling on some assistant coach or athletics department flunky whose salary is maybe 1/50th of theirs. That’s the way things are done at the big-time college level.
A head coach occasionally gets nabbed, but only when he does something truly stupid. Kelvin Sampson got the boot as Indiana University basketball boss when about 1,000 impermissible long-distance calls to recruits were traced to his phones, and Tim Floyd just quit as Southern Cal hoops coach in the wake of allegations that he’d slipped $1,000 to O.J. Mayo, the recruit who caused more damage in L.A. than a Hollywood Hills mudslide. If Sampson had watched “Law and Order,” he’d have known that the first thing detectives do when they identify a suspect is check his “luds.” If Floyd hadn’t slept through that class in Coaching 101, he’d have known to keep his fingerprints off the cash.
Do not weep for Sampson or Floyd; the former is serving his penance as a well-paid NBA assistant coach, biding his time until the dust settles and some win-hungry school calls, and the latter no doubt will do the same.
But usually there’s no penalty for rule-breaking, and the wicked flourish like so many bushy green bay trees. Exhibit A in that regard is John Calipari, who left a trail of slime from his previous jobs at U Mass and Memphis to the basketball throne (and a $4 million-plus annual salary) at the U of Kentucky, one of college sport’s premier perches. I check my wallet every time I see him, even on my television screen.
As much as I despair about ever seeing the coaching stable cleaned, there may be a symbolic remedy. I read that there’s a Spanish judge who indicts prominent wrongdoers from other lands, willy-nilly; maybe he can be prevailed upon to issue a blanket charge against every big-time U.S. college football or basketball coach for violating laws against soliciting minors for immoral purposes. At the least, it’d keep those guys from visiting Spain.