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Misplaced Priorities

Long-needed reforms are finally coming to the NCAA. And pigs will fly.

by RON MARTIN

Collegiate athletics as we know them are about to change. Participants will truly become student-athletes instead of athletes who sometimes happen to go to class. At least, this is the early word from the incoming president of the NCAA.

Myles Brand, whose biggest claim to fame thus far concerns his firing of Bobby Knight, is the president of the University of Indiana. He says he believes the priorities of collegiate sports are misplaced. At Indiana, Brand often questioned the ethics of schools that seem more concerned about win-loss records than grade-point averages. Now, he's in a position to lead the NCAA to change a system he considers broken. Brand seems almost giddy at the prospect. He could be in for a rude awakening.

Brand says he isn't naive, but in fact, he is. The horse is out of the barn, and the barn has burned to the ground. The NCAA seems driven by profit-taking at all cost. While Brand talks about putting the "student" back into the phrase student- athlete, NCAA accountants are putting millions of dollars onto their ledgers. While university presidents denounce the power of athletics on their campuses, they fire athletic directors for not making budget, which is, in most cases, dependent upon winning. "Contradiction" is the current byword of collegiate athletics.

As long as collegiate sports are driven by the all-mighty dollar, ethical corners will be continue to be cut, athletes will continue to miss classes, and high-rolling boosters will have more control over their favorite programs. The only way Brand can make a difference will be to convince his bosses -- his fellow university presidents -- to limit the dollars a booster can contribute, using a formula similar to national election reform, and reduce the number of games produced by television networks or share the revenue among all Division 1-A schools. This will never happen. The powerhouse schools have too much power to allow the NCAA president to institute such radical changes.

But if Brand can dream, so can I. There is another situation that needs to be dealt with: the lack of African-American head coaches in college football. Tyrone Willingham's success at Notre Dame (6-0) has raised the issue to a new level. Seventeen schools have hired African-American coaches. That low number has led the Black Coaches Association to issue a report and recommendations in a paper due to be released October 20th.

One popular theory about the problem is that schools are worried about a possible negative reaction by alumni if the school hires a black coach, which, quite simply, is poppycock. African-American basketball coaches have no trouble relating to the alumni, so why not a black football coach? The truth is athletic directors are afraid to hire a no-name coach, and since most African-American coaching candidates have little or no history as head coaches, their name goes to the bottom of the list. It's a catch-22.

If Brand wants his presidency to be memorable, he needs to rid the college game of fat-cat alumni influence and find new ways to fund athletic programs. The rest will take care of itself.

Flyers The NASCAR Busch Series is at the Memphis Motorsports Park this weekend, featuring driver Jamie McMurray, who just made NASCAR history by winning a Winston Cup race on his second try.

With the "where will they play?" issue heating up, it seems to me that the University of Memphis holds the trump card. R.C. Johnson should ask each arena to ante up the first multimillion-dollar donation and spearhead a drive to build the Tigers football program a new stadium. You'll never know unless you ask.

Ramblings The national respect each C-USA football program longed for in preseason is gone ... Future trivia question: Who was the only coach to stay at Florida just one year? Answer: Ron Zook ... Prediction: The most talked-about Tigers basketball player this season will be Billy Richmond ... Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill said, "Call me a bad coach, but leave my 18- and 19-year-old players alone."

Okay, Jackie: You're a bad coach.


Tiger Football: A Metaphor for Life

Is the U of M the best bad team in America or the worst good one?

SPORTS by K E N N E T H N E I L L

We're a strange crew, those of us who count ourselves among the U of M football faithful. We show up in remarkably consistent numbers, year after year, to root on our heroes. We enter each and every season full of hope, only to watch those hopes get dashed to bits, like so many leftover Cinco de Mayo piñatas.

Why do we do it? Over the years, I've been asked that question a hundred times by dozens of family members and friends, people who genuinely care about my well-being. They are always particularly concerned after heartbreaking losses like the one the Tigers suffered at the hands of Louisville, 38-32, in the Liberty Bowl last week.

Why, they ask, do you persist? Why, they say, don't you take up a pastime more satisfying? Something less painful like, say, ritual self-mutilation?

No, I quietly explain, being a Tiger football fan is more than an avocation; it's a way of life. Better yet, it's a metaphor for life. For what we do is tough -- way more difficult, and way nobler, than anything any Big Orange supporter, for example, could possibly imagine.

Hey, it's easy to be a UT fan. You win eight times out of 10, 10 years out of 12, and plan your holidays around a bowl game. How hard is that? Lots of good times, lots of glory.

But, I ask you, is real life like that? Of course, it isn't. Real life is about winning and losing, and, frankly, there's usually a bit more losing than winning for nearly all of us. And keep in mind the bottom line. As an existentialist friend of mine likes to say about life on Planet Earth: "Nobody's getting out of here alive."

See? What could be a more perfect way to train for real-life adversity than by supporting a college football team whose entire modern history has been an exercise in near-futility?

You've all heard the adage "Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades"? Well, it could be a U of M football mantra. So near yet so far, so many times that the faithful among us have long stopped counting.

Tuesday last week, for example, there we were on the verge of victory. With a couple minutes left, the Tigers had clawed their way back into a football game that half of the 44,081 in attendance had already abandoned. All around us in Section Eight, folks were going berserk. We had the ball on the Louisville 26, down just six points, first and 10, and ...

"Damn," I heard a voice next to me say, "it's starting to rain." Sure enough, out of nowhere on a brilliant autumn evening, a storm cloud had materialized just in time, as it turned out, to dampen our hopes yet again. Alas, the Tigers went four and out, failing even to get a first down and going down to defeat for the fourth time this season.

All around us were long faces. We regulars, however, were altogether calm about the outcome. After all, the last time Louisville visited the Liberty Bowl (in 1999), the Cardinals administered a painful 32-31 coup de grace with a TD completion in the end zone as time ran out. For loyalists, this was a preferable death, the kind Dr. Kervorkian could appreciate. "Must've been that damned cloud," said a long-suffering colleague as we filed out silently, the rain stopping as suddenly as it had started.

But they say that every cloud has a silver lining, and this one, certainly, was no exception. Who knows what the future holds, but at least three things stand out as positives from an otherwise distasteful evening at the ballpark:

* The Tigers showed up to play. In sharp contrast to the "Sham in Birmingham," the U of M this time around played with grit, heart, and intelligence, overcoming yet another special-teams goof in the first 90 seconds to take the lead at halftime and roaring back from an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit to take control of its own destiny in the game's final minutes. Two second-half turnovers were fatal, but the defense played an inspired game, led by Tony Brown, whose switch from defensive end inside to tackle reaped huge dividends.

* ESPN2 got to showcase a big-time quarterback. No, not Louisville's Dave Ragone but our own Danny Wimprine, who's on course to break every modern U of M passing record if he doesn't get killed running the football first. Wimprine out-passed and out-led Ragone, and, had Travis Anglin not mistakenly thought he was auditioning for a Butterfingers commercial, the Tigers quarterback may well have been all the rage on Sports Center Tuesday night.

* C-USA is all shook up, as Elvis might say. Look at last Saturday's screwball results: Tulane beats Cincinnati? South Florida knocks off Southern Miss? Who's in charge here? Evidently, no one. Which means that even three conference defeats may not be the end of the world for the U of M.

Okay, so maybe that's a stretch. But that's what makes U of M football fans so, um, unusual. We'll be back in droves at the Liberty Bowl Saturday evening as the Tigers face off against Mississippi State, expecting the worst but always hoping for the best. Hey, at least we'll never need a reality check.

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