The System takes a hard look at College Football

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 9.44.52 PM          The coveted recruit, a future All-Pro football player, found nothing unconventional about his visits to a couple of Big Ten universities.  Nobody offered him anything but a few beers at alumni homes.

But then he traveled south – to the land of orange:  Tennessee and Texas.  He was flown into Knoxville in a private jet.  He was told there would be “a big bag of things to take when you leave.”

He would get much more in Austin, according to The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football. Well written and researched by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, published by Doubleday, this book tells just about everything you want to know – and perhaps a lot you don’t – about the business of college football, how players are wined, dined and bedded, as well as how they’re coached, trained, malnourished and otherwise mistreated.

Keteyian, an accomplished sports journalist, has said in interviews that his book “is not an expose.”   In a strict sense, that’s true.   There’s nothing in here to shock anyone who’s a close follower of college football.  But the details, the vignettes, the context.  When you weave it all together, as these authors have done, you have a tapestry that’s not pretty but is compelling.

You come away with a much fuller understanding of how The System works, succeeds, fails and survives.

When he visited the University of Texas, the aforementioned blue-chip recruit (who is unnamed) was treated to dinner in a private room at one of Austin’s most expensive restaurants.  Here he met “the Angels,” female weekend hostesses who accompanied recruits to a Sixth Street bar:  “Forget the fact that he was well underaged at the time.  He walked right in, no questions asked.  Three-quarters of the team was already partying inside.”

            The 18-year-old recruit did not get to sleep that night with his appointed Angel, but he was promised opportunities should he sign with Texas.  The promises were fulfilled.  Girls came on to him “in waves,” and he told the authors “you could pick the one you wanted to take home.”  Sometimes more than one.

In his junior year he was hooked up with a woman who looked like a Playboy model and was happy to share her body, her money, her sports car, her high-grade marijuana.

Although The System doesn’t directly say this, Longhorns coach Mack Brown developed a culture of entitlement in which his players get pretty much what they want.  When the Longhorns lost a game to a much weaker opponent and the players didn’t want to talk to reporters for the next week, Brown said fine, have it your way.

Some of these coddled athletes have drifted too far and there has been the occasional arrest.  But for the most part Mack’s program appeared clean, thanks to the efforts of Cleve Bryant.  He held a position in college football that’s not well known but is probably second in importance only to the head coach:  Director of Football Operations.

The System reports that from 1998 to 2011, Bryant was treasured for his creative ways of slipping money to players and also for his maneuvers to keep them out of jail.  He made friends with local police, who would tip him off when a student-athlete was in danger of finding trouble.  Bryant said his job was “to deal with the ‘holy shit’ moments.  That way Mack can spend his time on football, and I can run the program.”

Unfortunately for Mack, Bryant lost his job in 2011, after a former UT Angel accused him of sexually harassing her, a charge he denied.

Benedict and Keteyian write that Bryant’s “loss to the Longhorns program cannot be measured.”  They imply that one reason for the team’s demise is the absence of his vigilance.

   “Those in the know argued the early-morning incident involving quarterback Case McCoy and linebacker Jordan Hicks, accused of sexually assaulting a 21-year-old woman in a hotel room at the Alamo Bowl at the end of the 2012 season, would never have happened under Bryant’s watch.”

This book has many such insights into the dark side of the game.  Mike Leach, arguably the most creative mind in football (inventor of the spread formation) constantly straddles the line between “tough love” and physical/verbal abuse of his players.

You would expect someone as intelligent as Leach to learn his lesson after he was pushed out of Texas Tech for confining an injured player, Adam James (son of ex-NFL player and ESPN analyst Craig James) to a pitch-dark, windowless room while his teammates practiced.

But Leach insisted, incredibly, that he had done nothing improper, that there was no need to apologize.

When he was hired to coach Washington State in 2012, Leach did more strange things:  using the words “cowardice” and “heartless” to describe the performance of his offensive and defensive lines; physically shoving players during a locker-room tirade.

Leach so alienated star receiver Marquess Wilson that the player quit the program and released a letter to the media detailing “abuses.”

Other coaches get more favorable treatment in The System.  Most notably, a surprisingly New Aged Nick Saban, stern disciplinarian but one who cares about developing his players emotionally and mentally as well as physically.

          “Alabama is unquestionably the best-conditioned team in the country. . . . Saban brought in a string of speakers to address the team.  Some would talk about overcoming adversity or addiction. . . .  Still others would deal with relationships, stress, personal growth and expectations. . . . Saban’s genius was that he understood that no matter the skill set, he was inheriting vulnerable kids from various backgrounds.”

So this is a balanced look at college football, though you may find more scandal than glory.  The authors have much worthwhile to say about injuries, cheaters, boosters.  And tutors who are as interested in teaching bedroom skills as academic ones.

The narrative may seem a bit disjointed — 27 chapters in 400 pages — but it covers an amazing amount of ground, much of which is mud that sticks.

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