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Scandals in recruiting and under-the-table financial payments got prime attention in the late 1940s and 1950s. It was said of Hugh McElhenny, the great University of Washington running back in the early 1950s, that he was "the first National Football League player to take a pay cut after leaving college." McElhenny, a working-class kid from southern California, drove a shiny red convertible from his first day on campus and wore a camel's-hair topcoat. There were similar stories about other big-name college players. The University of Southern California's ferocious middle linebacker at the time (from nearby New London, Connecticut) was one Pat Cannamela, in whom the USC admissions office clearly saw promise unreflected in his test scores and GPA. Gene Conley, a Washington State basketball and baseball star who later played in both major-league baseball and the National Basketball Association, gained unintentional fame before college by being kidnapped and held against his will in a hotel room by rival-college recruiters before he could escape and register at Pullman.
These and other college-sports issues caused me as a Columbia graduate student in 1956 to undertake a research project on college football in particular. As part of my project, I sent a three-page questionnaire to every major-college football coach in America. I expected to get only a handful of mostly careless responses. To my surprise, the response rate was about 90 percent.
The coaches used my survey as a place to vent. Several coaches wrote several-page letters. They pursued a common theme: They hated the system in which they worked and yearned for simpler circumstances in which they could coach kids who played for love of the game.
One such coach, Chuck Mather of Kansas University (see comment above), submitted a thoughtful magazine-length essay, which any publication would have been pleased to publish. I thought: Why would these coaches be so candid, and take such risks, in responding to a graduate student's form letter? The answer, I concluded, was that it was probably the first chance they'd had to uninhibitedly express themselves on the subject.
My research paper was never published, of course, and remains somewhere deep in Columbia archives. I suspect, though, that the same questionnaire, sent to today's major-college coaches, might elicit the same responses.
Inside all but the most money- and fame-seeking coaches there probably still lies a wish to live in a world in which athletes play for love of their game and coaches coach accordingly. Instead they find themselves competing avidly for tweeting high-school recruits who believe themselves to be celebrities and future NFL and NBA stars. Some of those recruits will change their commitments two and three times before the official college-football or basketball signing day. They must cope with a few players on their rosters who turn out to be thugs or selfishly unmanageable. They must romance prospective big donors to their programs and give up precious time with their families — the same kind of syndrome, it occurs to me, that afflicts big-time politicians. Just as politicians, the coaches must make regular media appearances in which they answer repetitive uninformed questions with feigned earnestness.
The new Husky football coach, Chris Petersen, unlike predecessors Rick Neuheisel and Steve Sarkisian, appears to be exactly the kind of coach who would prefer to forego every role but coaching his kids on the field, He is paid well for it, as are his colleagues in his profession. His Husky spring practice resumed Tuesday with questions about the status of two suspended Husky stars who allegedly celebrated the Seahawks' Super Bowl victory by disrupting a street celebration and creating an incident in which a Seahawks fan was beaten. His basketball counterpart, Lorenzo Romar, is on the hot seat after two disappointing seasons, lost recruiting battles, and prospective transfer of current players elsewhere. Yet everyone will agree that he is honorable, a good coach, and an exemplary representative of the university.
This brings us to the quest for the Almighty Dollar and what it has done to college sports. Good recruits, it is said, will only come to campuses with first-class stadiums, arenas, and training facilities and, a recent trend, eye-pleasing uniforms. Without these recruits, teams will lose and stadiums and arenas will remain unfilled. Dollars will not flow and all athletic-department activities, including non-revenue and women's sports, will need to be curtailed.
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