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Guessing the politics of college football coaches

I missed the Barack Obama infomercial on Wednesday night, which is too bad. I'm told the segment with Suzanne Somers, where she instructs him on proper Thighmaster techniques, is must-see TV. I'm over it, though. At T-minus four days and counting till Nov. 4, I'm approaching full political saturation.

Traveling in Pennsylvania and Ohio last week, I felt as if I were being stalked by the candidates, all four of whom are positively haunting these swing states during the final fortnight of the campaign. In fact, there was Obama, greeting me in Jay Paterno's office when I called on the Nittany Lions co-offensive coordinator two Tuesdays ago.

Obama was actually posing with Jay on the coach's screensaver. Jay was kind enough to share extensive background on the evolution of Penn State's Spread HD offense, very little of which made it out of my notebook following the team's 13-6 squeaker in Columbus. (Sorry about that, Jay. Surely those notes will come in handy in ... Miami?)

It turns out Jay is a fervent Obama supporter. Before the candidate visited campus last March, one of his people called Jay. They wanted to pay obeisance to the legend. "We know Joe can't endorse him," went the message, "but we wanted to reach out, as a sign of respect." Jay got his father on the phone with the Senator.

JoePa couldn't endorse Obama because he's a staunch Republican. Remember that Paterno actually gave a speech for his good friend, George H. W. Bush, at the 1988 Republican National Convention.

While Paterno pere wears his allegiance on his sleeve, what of his peers? When it comes to politics, college football's most high profile deciders seem to be determinedly agnostic -- determined to either have no strong feelings one way or the other, or to keep those feelings at home, locked in a 33-gallon Clear Tote from the Container Store.

Fine. Be that way, guys. I will divine your politics by reading the tea leaves of your public utterances; studying the sheep's entrails of your methods and philosophies.

And no matter how wrong I am, I'll take comfort in still having a better record than Lee Corso.

There may be no more gifted, natural politician in the coaching ranks than charming, folksy Texas head coach Mack Brown, who nonetheless remains a tabula rasa, politically. Yes, he seemed delighted to give Obama a tour of the Longhorns facilities last February. But Brown has been equally at ease with The Decider himself. George Bush was still governor of the Lone Star State when UT's new football coach met him at a Longhorns hoops game in December 1997.

"You know," Brown recalls Bush telling him that evening, "your job is a lot harder than mine."

Before he was introduced at halftime, Brown asked the Gov. for advice on what to say, and Bush did him right: "Just get up, tell them, 'I love coaching in the great state of Texas,' then flash 'em the Hook 'em Horns sign, and sit down." Brown did, and the crowd went wild.

It's easier to peg the politics of Mike Leach, the Texas Tech coach against whom Mack will match wits on Saturday. Among the tenets of Leach's radical, extreme spread -- its very name connotes socialism! -- is that, to work, it must get the ball to as many of his skill people as possible.

Leach is also obsessed with pirates -- the original "redistributionists," to borrow John McCain's clunky pejorative du jour. Clearly, Obama has at least one fellow traveler in Lubbock.

Closer inspection clouds the issue. By obstinately refusing to make star players Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree available for interviews this week, Leach seemed to be borrowing from the playbook of the Bush administration, which has elevated secrecy to an art form, and delights in ignoring subpoenas from Congressional committees.

Possible clue: Leach has befriended quintessential capitalist and McCain-backer Donald Trump, who introduced Tech's starting lineup against Oklahoma last season, then declared, "Oklahoma you're a great team, but today, you're fired." (Tech went on to upset the Sooners, 34-27.)

Yes, Pete Carroll hails from northern California's Marin County, that redwood-studded enclave of liberalism crawling with "misguided ... hot tubbers," as George H. W. Bush so memorably put it.

But what's the one thing Carroll requires before he will even consider an NFL job? (He reminds us every offseason, after entertaining his obligatory offer from some desperate NFL owner or owners.) The answer: complete control over football operations. It's Dick Cheney's unitary executive principle, applied to the gridiron.

Consider also the distilled essence of Carroll's philosophy: "Win Forever." Am I alone in hearing, in that slogan, echoes Karl Rove's grandiose vision for a permanent Republican majority?

And ponder the single most robust principle undergirding Carroll's program. The man has made a religion of competition. On this rock he has built a cardinal and gold superpower. And what is that, other than a paean to free-market economics? Maybe that's why 'SC got spanked by unranked Oregon State on Sept. 25. Simple cause and effect: that was the day WaMu became the biggest bank failure in U.S. history.

As part of his work with A Better LA, a foundation devoted to transforming Los Angeles, Carroll drives around some of the city's sketchiest neighborhoods, late at night, with an ex-gang member, stopping periodically to talk to young people on the streets and find out more about their lives. That's something I could easily see McCain doing -- provided the Senator was permitted to bring a few of his friends along.

What about Carroll's Notre Dame nemesis, Charlie Weis? We know that the flat-topped New Jersey native cranks the anthems of fellow Garden Staters Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom have performed at benefit concerts for Obama. (Bon Jovi recently asked Sarah Palin's people to cease and desist from playing the rocker's 2006 hit, Who Says You Can't Go Home?)

On the other hand, Notre Dame is a pretty conservative place, despite what you may have heard last spring about roving bands of dangerous women hell-bent on breaking the law. Although this is not the exclusive province of either party, we know Weis has a soft spot for our men and women in the armed forces. Under this patriotic ex-Patriot, Irish players stay on the field and stand at attention during the Navy Midshipmen's traditional postgame singing of their alma mater, "Blue and Gold."

How else is he ... conservative? There is reason to believe that Weis may be sympathetic to the Bush administration's controversial warrantless surveillance of unsuspecting Americans. There was a time, reportedly, when he was sympathetic to the warrantless surveillance of unsuspecting Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Weis required no such cloak-and-dagger ops to dispatch woeful Washington last week. Notre Dame's 33-7 victory ran the team's record to 5-2, dropping the Huskies to 0-7. After the so-called Ty Bowl, Washington AD Scott Emmert announced that Ty Willingham, the once and former Notre Dame coach, would be likewise be finished in Seattle after this season.

One is tempted to point out, for Willingham's sake, that Candidate McCain has proposed eliminating taxes on jobless benefits. But that would be piling on a good and decent man. It would be insensitive. And impolitic.

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