MADISON, Wis. — The brain that follows college football, an organ both misused and delighted, would seem to have luxuriated in a respite Saturday. Never once did it have to do the hard work of fathoming an unfathomable score. There were no indigestible upsets to digest. The College Football Playoff situation seemed to take a nap, stay stagnant.
But then there came that thing about the restaurant on the Tennessee River, and that bizarre thing about the Heisman Trophy favorite in Lawrence, Kan., and that thing about not a fake punt but a fake punt return in Los Angeles, and a few other things here and there, and soon an old truth resurfaced:
It’s college football, and it will not cease its absurdity.
Some coaching searches have begun, always a worthy glimpse into the fanatical mind, and the one at Tennessee reached a phenomenal scale of lunacy. As you may know, there has been chatter about Tennessee and the TV analyst Jon Gruden for nearly a decade, such that there ought to be reunions to mark Gruden rumors. These are based on the fact that Gruden once ate some lunches in Knoxville, and also had a graduate-assistant job there in the mid-1980s, and also married a Tennessee cheerleader. These persist even while the Super Bowl-winning coach has not coached at all in the 2010s, and has not coached in college since the early 1990s.
He has a shiny, recognizable name, so it’ll definitely work.
Six days before Saturday, Tennessee finally desisted with the mild misery of Butch Jones, meaning it has had five coaches (including interims) in the last nine years, with a record of 53-49, a winning percentage of 52 percent, amid a vast place with vast fans who do not see themselves as a 52-percent group. Between 1993 and 2007, they had nine seasons of double-digit wins; since then, they’ve had zero.
In the frenzied hope that somebody might come and restore this kingdom until it resembles again a kingdom, the game-day staple of a restaurant on the Tennessee River, Calhoun’s, apparently posted that among its diners on Saturday included Gruden, with Peyton Manning.
That led some mirth and then to a gasp of a retraction on Twitter, honorable for its earnestness:
“Final Word: Tonight we received word from our management team that Jon Gruden was dining at our restaurant with Peyton Manning. We got excited. We posted something about it. Afterwards, a staff member notified us that they weren’t so sure it was him. This is all we know at this moment. We apologize for the misunderstanding. It was never our intention to spread rumors. We are very proud of our relationship with the University Of Tennessee and it’s (sic) athletic teams. We are just as disappointed as everyone else about the uncertainty.”
Via several sources, Gruden appeared to have been studying his “Monday Night Football” ESPN assignment in Seattle, as far as one can get from Knoxville within the continental United States without lurching up to the Canadian border.
Sometimes it’s okay to laugh and cry at the same time.
Similarly and dissimilarly, Kansas and Oklahoma played on Saturday, which should not wreak any news. In fact, it probably should not even occur. There really is no point. The act of going to Memorial Stadium in Kansas to watch Kansas, as constructed, play Oklahoma, as usually constructed, is just about inexplicable in human terms, barring the presence of relatives on either roster, or some sort of mishap involving somebody accidentally finding a ticket and wandering into the gate.
Oklahoma won 41-3, dropping third-year Kansas Coach David Beaty, for whom anyone possessing a heart rooted for at the outset, to 3-32. None of it should have even registered in the brain, except that the Kansas players bizarrely wouldn’t shake hands with Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield during the coin toss, and Mayfield proved too fragile to handle the rejection, so that his fifth-grade emotions welled up until he yelled profanity toward the Kansas sideline and grabbed his crotch.
The country might be at a period in history where, for authenticity’s sake, it can stomach a creepy crotch-grabber as a Heisman Trophy winner. It probably can handle seeing Mayfield with his No. 4-ranked Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff. Surely the NFL will hire this player who clearly sees himself as more important than his team, the way he keeps detracting from their accomplishments. (In fairness, though, that occasion early this year when he planted the Oklahoma flag on the Ohio State field shouldn’t have dredged such ruckus or his apology, seeing as how the very idea that these universities even have exalted flags and revered stadium grass is, to begin with, preposterous.)
This time, though, he became a quarterback who couldn’t control himself at Kansas, which issued a protracted apology at Kansas, which has gone 15-80 in the 2010s, and where the student newspaper just got finished recommending the clearing-out of the coach and, while they’re at it, the athletic director who hired the coach.
When traveling to Kansas, one must remain aware that one is entering an unusual paradigm of melancholy.
“Let go and let God,” Mayfield’s Twitter intro reads, and while that might sound phony, maybe it’s one of those standards we all have yet know we can’t attain.
When the action is tepid at the top of the rankings, other things do bubble. Southern California (10-2) beat UCLA (5-6) with the help of a sublime acting job, fitting for a Los Angeles game. Most of the credit for USC’s fake punt return went to Michael Pittman Jr., who ran the punt 72 yards up the left sideline after UCLA chased the wrong guy, and doesn’t that just go to show? In Los Angeles, it’s often the supporting actor who deserves more credit, and so Ajene Harris did manage to convince a cadre of UCLA pursuers that the ball was headed toward him, way over on the right side of the field, while Pittman caught it on the extreme left.
Remember when sad, sagging UCLA rallied from 44-10 to beat Texas A&M 45-44?
That happened this season.
It’s worth knowing that South Carolina is 8-3 under Will Muschamp, that Arizona has reached 7-4 under the once-doomed Rich Rodriguez, and Wake Forest is 7-4 after having beaten North Carolina State, which Wake Forest probably enjoyed, that Michigan State has made 8-3 to ameliorate its 3-9 from last year, that Missouri has gone from 1-5 to 6-5, that North Texas beat Army 52-49 to reach 8-3 which is assumed to be not easy at North Texas. And do pause to process that Purdue just won 24-15 at Iowa, two weeks after Ohio State lost 55-24 at Iowa.
No brain can parse that.
Still, there’s the stability of No. 5 Wisconsin, which won sensibly over No. 24 Michigan under the appropriately gloomy skies of Big Ten November, and reached 11-0, with a coach, Paul Chryst, whose players love him because he is the antithesis of attention-needy. “Yeah, obviously he’s not the type of guy who’s going to do the best interviews, stuff like that,” tackle Michael Deiter said. “But he’s a great coach, a great person, and that’s what you want. You’d rather have a coach like that probably than someone who could sit at a podium and sound perfect.”
Maybe they’ll find out in the playoff if they’d rather have a quarterback who recovers from frequent interceptions, as does Alex Hornibrook, or a talented clown who grabs his crotch even at Kansas.