Football Crisis Or Empty Threat?
Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards insisted he wasn't trying to scare anyone last week when he outlined the state's economic woes ahead of a special legislative session to determine a new budget. But of course he was. Otherwise he wouldn't have uttered the following words in his address to the state's citizens:
"… If the legislature fails to act and we are forced to proceed with these cuts, the LSU Ag Center and parish extension offices in every parish, and Pennington Biomedical Research Center will close by April 1st and the LSU main campus in Baton Rouge will run out of money after April 30th, as will the Health Sciences Center in Shreveport and LSU Eunice. There is no money left for payroll after those dates. The Southern University System, and University of Louisiana System, and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System are in the same boat: without legislators approving new revenue this special session, some campuses will be forced to declare financial bankruptcy, which would include massive layoffs and cancellation of classes.
If you are a student attending one of these universities, it means that you will receive a grade of incomplete, many students will not be able to graduate and student-athletes across the state at those schools will be ineligible to play next semester. That means you can say farewell to college football next fall."
In the grand scheme, the closure of hospitals—something Edwards also threatened as a possibility in his doomsday speech—would be a far greater catastrophe than an interruption of college football in the state. But Edwards is a politician. He knew which button to push. By hinting that the budget crisis could harm LSU football, Edwards turned a state story into a national one and raised the antennae of people from all walks of life whose only commonality may be their love of the Tigers.
Will Louisiana's budget deficit, which is almost $1 billion this year and could be as much as $2 billion next year, really affect LSU on the field? Probably not. All of Edwards's dire predictions were things that could only happen if the legislature does not pass a new budget. The legislature will likely pass one. Edwards, the Democrat who replaced two-term Republican Bobby Jindal in January, would prefer for the budget to include the particular tax increases and budget cuts he has suggested. More than likely, the budget that gets passed will involve some sort of compromise between the state's legislative and executive branches. That's usually how this type of thing works.
To get a little perspective on the situation, I called a Louisiana native who has worked most of his life in politics. He also might be the world's biggest Tigers football fan. LSU graduate James Carville helped Bill Clinton win the White House and is on record as saying the SEC title game should be a national semifinal. I asked him if Edwards's introduction of college football into the budget discussion was representative of the old politician's trick of re-framing a debate by threatening something that enjoys bipartisan support. "You're right, it's a gimmick that people use in politics to grab somebody's attention," Carville said. "But it's not totally a gimmick here. There's some reality under it."
Paul Kieu/The Daily Advertiser via AP
We're not going to wade too deep into the politics here—there are plenty of other websites for that—but it should be noted that Carville, like Edwards, is a Democrat. The blaming of Jindal's budget policies, which included using one-time revenues to cover recurring costs, seems to cut across party lines. Republican treasurer John Kennedy said as much in his response to Edwards last week. But Kennedy argued higher taxes are not the answer; he believes the state needs to cut spending.
We'll let the folks in Louisiana argue about how best to balance their budget. But make no mistake, Carville said, they must figure something out or some of the dire consequences Edwards described could come to fruition. "The budget situation they're faced with is really frickin' real," Carville said.
How would the issues impact the Tigers football team? If a new budget doesn't pass, LSU would run out of money on May 1. That's the day before final exams are scheduled to begin for the spring term. Since the university couldn't pay its professors, those professors would not give exams. This would result in every student receiving an incomplete in every class.
In reality, professors would probably give exams early and turn in final grades ahead of a shutdown, but the alternative remains possible if a budget doesn't pass. With the school shut down, there would be no summer classes. Without spring or summer credits, it's possible many of the players at Louisiana's state universities would be unable to meet the NCAA's credit requirements for continuing academic eligibility. This is where Edwards got to the "say farewell to college football" part of his speech.
If that unlikely event took place, the NCAA would probably provide some sort of transfer waiver for affected players. Chances are players at LSU, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, Northwestern State and Southern would get permission to transfer and play elsewhere immediately. Most would probably move in time to take summer classes at their new school.
But before coaches outside the state begin salivating at the thought of Leonard Fournette, Free Agent, remember: This probably will not happen. Louisiana's government may have a checkered history, but a serious breakdown would be necessary to keep it from passing a budget.
What's most interesting is the fact that Edwards chose to use college football as a political lever. In local politics, it's common to threaten the discontinuation of high school sports or school bus service because those things tend to rally the electorate. In 2009, I wrote about a community in Ohio that found itself nearly torn in two by a tax levy fight that briefly claimed sports in the local high schools. It makes sense that a similar threat at the state level would be calculated to inspire the same emotions.
But we shouldn't be surprised that college football now has a role in politics. When combined with the passion it stirs, the popularity it enjoys and the reach it regularly has, it makes the ideal additive for a politician or activist looking to generate buzz. The Missouri football team's protest last year also brought national attention to what was ultimately a state issue. Edwards realized more people would talk about Louisiana's budget if they thought it might affect LSU football. (Which actually helped the LSU athletic department contribute $43.5 million to the university side in the past five years.)
In some places, college football means that much. Politicians were bound to take advantage eventually.
A random ranking
A character in Ghostbusters II predicted that the world would end on Valentine's Day 2016. We're still here, so let's rank the original Ghostbusters.
1. Egon Spengler
2. Peter Venkman
3. Winston Zeddemore
4. Ray Stantz
1. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey came out strongly last week against Michigan's plan to hold three spring practices at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Of course, Sankey wrapped a competitive balance complaint in the flag of student-athlete welfare. "This seems completely counter to the dialogue," Sankey told Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com. "We have work to do on [giving athletes a] day off. We have work to do on, how do you provide a postseason break? It seems where this is one where reasonable people could say we just shouldn't be in this space."
Sankey's complaint drew a not-so-subtle subtweet from Harbaugh.
Question of the day: Does anyone find whining to be attractive? Just curious.— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) February 10, 2016
As someone whose league has been sued, Sankey probably does have some legitimate concerns about how Michigan's plan will look in the face of federal lawsuits that (correctly) claim athletes in the revenue-generating sports are treated more like employees than regular students. However, the genesis of the SEC's resistance to Jim Harbaugh's Spring Break Spectacular has more to do with football coaches complaining to the conference office about an incursion into their territory that ends with Harbaugh and the Wolverines sharing facilities with a high school super team expected to send more than a dozen players to FBS programs in the class of 2017. Off-campus recruiting rules would still apply, but that's a pretty effective advertisement for Michigan in a target-rich environment.
The competitive argument is silly, though. The Wolverines—and other teams like them who sent coaches to work satellite camps in recruit-heavy regions last summer—are simply trying to level the playing field. The majority of the best recruits live in states on the southern edge of the country. Proximity to home remains a major factor in the college choices of most of those recruits. That gives a group that includes most of the SEC, some of the ACC, the Texas schools in the Big 12 and the Southern California schools in the Pac-12 a major advantage. This is supposed to be a time of more permissive NCAA rules. The Power Five leagues, including Sankey's SEC, got autonomy legislation passed so they could loosen some restrictions that other Division I schools wanted to keep tight. The new attitude in major college sports was supposed to be this: If you want to do it, do it. If you don't, don't. That lasted until several millionaire coaches got mad at another millionaire coach trying to mitigate their competitive advantage.
SEC (and ACC) coaches got angry last summer because they were bound by a rule that keeps them within 50 miles of their own campus. They couldn't work another school's camp in a recruit-rich area like their Big Ten and Big 12 counterparts. That was their own fault. The SEC originally passed that rule because Florida didn't want other league coaches working camps in Miami, Georgia didn't want other conference coaches working camps in Atlanta and LSU didn't want other league coaches working camps in New Orleans. The SEC's leaders have agreed that if there is no nationwide ban imposed on satellite camps, they'll repeal their rule. That led to this quote from Sankey to Dodd. "The net of that is to say the Southeastern Conference is not going to be outpaced in recruiting. If the national approach is that we want to have more aggressive summer camps and coaches touring around all summer, then we will not only engage in that behavior, we will certainly engage in that behavior more actively—probably more effectively than others."
That basically translates to this …
"NOW WITNESS THE POWER OF THIS FULLY ARMED AND OPERATIONAL SABAN." -- Greg Sankey (probably) after SEC ditches its dumb satellite camp rule.— Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples) February 10, 2016
2. Should Harbaugh try to mitigate his recruiting disadvantage by taking away his players' spring break? That's another argument, and it will likely be brought forth by plaintiffs' attorneys in the various lawsuits facing the NCAA and the conferences. A counterargument is that no one worries about college baseball, softball or basketball players missing their spring breaks. Most basketball players dream of missing their spring breaks so they can play in the NCAA tournament. Baseball and softball players miss spring break during their regular seasons and then dream of missing portions of summer break so they can play deep into their respective postseasons. At least one of Michigan's best players seems O.K. with the idea.
The guess here is that Harbaugh will incorporate some sort of fun into the trip so players don't feel as if they're missing much. The control-freak coaches—that would be all of them—would rather do this than live for a week in fear of the phrases "Panama City" and "police report" appearing in the same sentence with regard to one of their players. But the smarter coaches who recruit against Harbaugh could use this to their advantage. "That guy wants to take away your spring break," they can tell recruits. "We would never do that at Big State/Tech U." Repeat after me, coaches: If you want to do it, do it. If you don't, don't.
SEC coaches can also take comfort in the knowledge that no matter how many times Harbaugh comes south, he must still convince Southern players to move north to a place where it gets much colder than it does where they live. (For people who grew up in the South, especially Florida, cold weather can be a very big deal.) No matter how creatively Harbaugh tries to put his program in front of these recruits, this fact alone makes his sales job much tougher.
3. Want to be inspired? Watch this video of Pittsburgh tailback James Conner going through drills even though he is currently undergoing chemotherapy to fight Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Afterward, Conner was his own toughest critic.
4. LSU and Auburn have now essentially traded coaches this off-season. Last month defensive coordinator Kevin Steele left LSU to take the same job at Auburn. Sunday, Auburn wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig left to accept the same position at LSU. The Craig move must be painful for Auburn. Craig played quarterback on the Plains and took a huge role in stocking the roster after he returned to the school following a stint coaching the receivers at Florida State.
Craig, who eventually wants to be a head coach (and has the chops to be one), had hit a ceiling at Auburn. Defensive line coach Rodney Garner is the recruiting coordinator. Rhett Lashlee is the offensive coordinator. That isn't going to change as long as Gus Malzahn remains the head coach. So, Craig made what appears to be a parallel move to LSU, where Les Miles seems to be loading up on excellent recruiters following the departure of assistant Frank Wilson to become the head coach at UT-San Antonio.
There is another way to look at Craig's move. The Auburn and LSU staffs will begin the 2016 season on the hot seat. Perhaps Craig has placed a bet on which staff he believes will still be in place in '17.
5. Bowling Green wide receiver Gehrig Deiter plans to graduate in May and play his final season of eligibility at Alabama.
In 2015 Deiter caught 94 passes for 1,013 yards with 10 touchdowns. The 6' 3", 207-pounder will follow in the footsteps of Richard Mullaney, a receiver who graduated from Oregon State last spring and spent his final season in Tuscaloosa helping the Crimson Tide win a national title.
6. Deiter wasn't the only player making news last week with a plan to graduate and transfer. Barry J. Sanders, the son of Oklahoma State legend Barry Sanders, plans to graduate from Stanford and play one season for his father's alma mater. The younger Sanders, who ran for 664 yards over three seasons with the Cardinal, is scheduled to arrive in Stillwater this summer.
7. Cal officially announced the hiring of former Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital for the same role. Spavital, who will coach quarterbacks, will inherit a competition to replace likely first-round NFL draft pick Jared Goff. The Bears should have four quarterbacks (Chase Forrest, Max Gilliam, Ross Bowers and Luke Rubenzer) vying to win the job during spring practice.
8. The NCAA football rules committee approved a new measure that will allow replay officials to stop games and call targeting fouls that were missed by the on-field crew. Replay officials were also given wider latitude to overturn targeting calls made on the field. Hopefully, this brings more uniform enforcement of the rule, which is necessary but has gotten a bad reputation because officials have called it unevenly.
Meanwhile, leagues will be allowed to experiment this year with using conference "command centers" for replay reviews. Such command centers are used by the MLB, NBA and NHL. This move will almost certainly result in more conspiracy theories from people who have forgotten that the officials on the field and in the replay booth also are employed by the various conferences.
9. Congrats to Notre Dame receiver Corey Robinson, who was elected student-body president.
10. Want to watch a 410-pound high schooler score a touchdown? Of course you do. John Krahn, the Riverside, Calif., native who usually plays on the line and who has slimmed down from 440 pounds, has yet to choose a college destination.
What's eating Andy?
Instead of complaining about Michigan moving a few of its spring practices, SEC coaches need to take some of that SEC Network money and spice up their own spring drills. Alabama can plant its flag in Texas by practicing on South Padre Island. LSU could tweak Alabama and Auburn by practicing in Gulf Shores, Ala. South Carolina could move practice to Myrtle Beach not for any recruiting advantage but because of the proximity to Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, S.C. Will Muschamp seems like a guy who has his culinary priorities in order.
What's Andy eating?
Last year I introduced a feature called Chains That Should Go Nationwide. I promised I would update it with some regularity, but then I ate a bunch of great food and decided to write about that. This week, the chains are back. We'll begin with a place I mentioned last week.
In describing how I wound up devouring a Gorgon at Otto's Tacos in New York, I explained that Austin-based Torchy's Tacos should be the next huge national fast-casual chain. Torchy's serves street tacos, but exchange the tortillas for bread and it's basically an upscale sandwich shop. I'm partial to the Green Chile Pork (carnitas, queso fresco, cilantro), Trailer Park (fried chicken, green chiles, pico de gallo and poblano sauce) and Brushfire (jerk chicken, grilled jalapenos, mango, sour cream, cilantro and what Torchy's calls Diablo Sauce) tacos.
There are street taco places like this all over Texas. In one taco-dense section of College Station, there's a Torchy's, the original Fuego and the exceptional Mad Taco. There are street taco places like this in most huge cities, too, but for some reason they haven't taken over the country. Torchy's is in every big city and most of the college towns in Texas, but its only outposts outside the Lone Star State are in Colorado. It would make a killing everywhere.
Of course, there is no reason a taco joint that specializes in land-based meats should only be able to take advantage of this golden opportunity. California has several chains that specialize in fish tacos, and Rubio's is the best of them. Every time I've had a mahi mahi taco or salsa verde shrimp taco there, I've thought the same thing. I live in Florida. We're close to all manner of fish and crustaceans. Why don't we have a place like this? Good news. They're coming. According to the Rubio's website, the company plans to open stores in the Orlando, Tampa and Miami areas. Like Torchy's, Rubio's has already expanded to Colorado. It's also in Nevada, Utah and Arizona. Hopefully, it will keep moving.
Switching from tacos to Chinese food, it's time those of us in Flyover Country had better options than Panda Express and our local purveyors of General Tso's Chicken. China is a massive country. Its cuisine can't be accurately represented by one type of restaurant. Xi'an Famous Foods brought the cuisine of Xi'an—a city that served as an imperial capital and one end of the Silk Road—to diners in New York. The place started in a mall food court in Queens in 2005, but tales of spicy lamb and hand-ripped noodles drew crowds. Since, Xi'an Famous Foods has added six Manhattan locations, a Brooklyn location and another Queens location.
I tasted those magic noodles for the first time in December at the midtown location. They commingle with thick slices of lamb or beef in a spicy, oily broth. The depth of flavor would shock diners typically lulled by the blandness of their hometown Chinese takeout place, but they'd quickly recover and begin sucking down noodles. The biggest issue with a large-scale expansion of Xi'an is that the best dishes (the noodle dishes) come with a disclaimer. At the front of the store and on the website, diners are warned that waiting to eat their noodles can have disastrous consequences:
Food tastes best when fresh from the kitchen. When hot noodles cool down, they get bloated, mushy, and oily. If you must take your noodles to go, please at least try the noodles in the store or right out of the to-go containers when it's handed to you, so you can get the best possible Xi'an Famous Foods experience.
This obviously would be an issue with any expansion outside the five boroughs. But careful selection of location—near college campuses or large office buildings with big lunch crowds—would produce diners willing and able to eat their noodles on site or nearby. Besides, after one taste of the cumin-spiced lamb, no one is going to want to wait until they get back to their desk to eat.
Our final entry appeals to two constituencies that seem well represented in the readership of a college football column: college students and parents with young children. Members of those groups probably know where I'm going with this. We're talking chicken fingers. When I was a student at Florida in the late '90s, it was huge news when Guthrie's came to town. Those of us who had friends at Florida State had partaken in the pleasure of the Gut Box. The Gut Box represented the culinary ideal for both 5-year-olds and drunken 21-year-olds, presumably because both are in the same frame of mind. It contained chicken fingers, crinkle fries, cole slaw, Texas Toast and a "secret sauce" that was likely Thousand Island mixed with mustard. The Guthrie's didn't last long in Gainesville, but that formula has proven quite effective for other companies.
Several chains have emerged in the fight for your chicken finger dollar, but the best is Baton Rouge-based Raising Cane's. The first store opened just outside one of the entrances to LSU in 1996, and Cane's has been pleasing diners drunk and sober ever since. Why is Cane's better than, say, Zaxby's? The fingers, plain and simple. Cane's marinates never-frozen chicken tenderloins for 24 hours before dropping them in the fryer. The result is a thick, juicy finger that is always perfectly seasoned.
Cane's has designs on opening stores throughout the world—it already has one in Kuwait—so it is the most likely candidate on this list to go truly nationwide. It has expanded out of Louisiana and into 17 other states. That's great progress, but it still leaves 32 states with inferior chicken fingers. This will not stand.