By Mike Wise
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Three days before the slaughter -- three days before college football's now 12-game regular season opens in earnest -- the lamb is on the other end of the line. He is laughing at his certain demise.
"In my alumni newsletter I wrote, 'Hey, David got Goliath,' " said Rocky Hager, the coach of Division I-AA Northeastern, which will be fed to the Virginia Tech lions on Saturday in Blacksburg much the same way William & Mary will be sacrificed at Maryland. "Of course, we're not going in there thinking we have an automatic chance to win. But you never know."
Hager actually told his kids that the swifter and larger Hokies put on their pants one leg at a time, just like his players. He knows it's cliche, older and more tired than premier programs scheduling Meek State to pad their win-loss records. But what's a I-AA coach supposed to say? "We haven't had new sideline phones in 10 years. Hit somebody!"
When the NCAA decided that its experiment of allowing teams to schedule 12 regular season games should be made permanent, the idealists liked the prospect of their school having another game to become bowl eligible with at least six wins -- never mind that every 6-6 team might not go to a bowl game. They also envisioned one more week of Ohio State vs. Texas, or maybe Nebraska at USC.
But instead, they got this bang-up, kickoff weekend: Akron at Penn State, UAB at Oklahoma and North Texas at Texas. Really, for all the NFL preseason whining, imagine sitting through 3 1/2 hours of Florida Atlantic at Clemson?
(Do you know there is no betting line for Northeastern vs. Virginia Tech and Maryland vs. Walter & Madge? The NCAA sanctions these games, but we can't wager on them? Criminal, just criminal.)
(Editor's Note: Mike Wise will be making several sophomoric references to William & Mary. He means no disrespect to that fine institution of higher learning and/or its proud athletic tradition. But come on, William & Mary? Is that a school or a prom couple from Culpeper?)
These mismatches used to be ghoulishly referred to as body-bag games. The term came from the stretch of a notion that kids from small schools would be routinely sacrificed and carted off the field for the larger, financial concerns of their university. Today the terminology is more practical. Payday, baby.
"We have to call it our moneymaker," Hager said. "Being honest, if we didn't have that 12th game, we would have some budgetary difficulties. We need to have some revenue brought in through football, and this is one way we can do it."
Frank Beamer's people paid Hager's people between $300,000 and $400,000 for the Northeastern kids to risk emasculation in Lane Stadium. Northeastern will deposit that check in its athletic department account so others don't bounce in the spring. Economic reality, which is fine.
But the problem comes along when the big schools further load up on inferior competition and try to sell benefactors on the idea that bringing in Wilbur & Martha, Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic is good for the program. Short-term financial gain for Maryland? Yes. Long-term prominence? Not so much.
Maryland lost a kid named Antonio Logan-El to Penn State last year. The Forestville native, one of the country's premier offensive line prospects, was originally staying home until Logan-El showed up at the ESPN Zone in Baltimore to announce his college choice. When the words "Penn State" came out of his mouth, the Terps fans in attendance got nasty. Instead of stupidly calling the kid "Traitor!" they should have demanded Maryland do something about losing the best kids in its back yard to a place such as Penn State: Why not work out a home-and-home deal with the Nittany Lions?
In a good year for both programs, that game doesn't have only national appeal; it becomes a recruiting tool like the West Virginia game for Maryland. The Fridge beats JoePa, more prospects stay home. Maybe some Pennsylvania kids cross the state line to play in College Park. Trust us, the Terps will not lose any recruits to Wyatt & Melinda.
Maryland and Virginia Tech aren't alone in the ACC in ensuring they win at least three games while playing a particularly brutal conference schedule. Boston College is loading up on Central Michigan, Maine and Buffalo, which is so bad it is commanding $600,000 per game to be a nonconference punching bag. No matter what happens in Monday's season opener against conference foe Miami, Florida State's Bobby Bowden can take solace in pummeling Troy, Rice and Western Michigan.
About the only ACC guys with any nonconference nerve are Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey, who opens with Notre Dame, and -- I can't believe I'm typing this -- Virginia's Al Groh. The beady-eyed, uptight soul in Charlottesville opens the season at Pittsburgh, a real nonconference donnybrook. For that, the GrohMustGo.com server gets shut down until at least December.
I realize this is awfully snarky and unsentimental. And I know I have failed to mention all the kids from small schools who one day will boast about playing in 50,000-plus-seat stadiums against big-time programs such as the Hokies and the Terrapins.
As Jimmye Laycock, the venerable William & Mary coach who had a young Ralph Friedgen on his first staff, reminded me: "I've had kids come back from reunions and talk about what it meant to play a Penn State or a Virginia Tech, what that felt like to be on that field with those football players."
Laycock is right. Maybe I'm missing the big picture: all those proud Maryland players who can come back 20 years from now and wax nostalgic about "the day we beat Wilbur & Martha."