A lack of institutional control

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I never saw Petrino B.I never hope to see one,But here's the word, 'tween you and me,I'd rather see than be one!-- (with apologies to Gelett Burgess)

NFL teams wouldn't grab a guy under contract to another team, but the great educational institutions of our land find nothing wrong with it. So Bobby Petrino goes off to Hook 'em Hogs, or whatever the hell they do at the U. of Ark (famous grads, Noah and Joan of), leaving a bunch of furious NFL people who have the nerve to expect a coach to at least play out the year.

I don't include the Falcons players in that category. They are delighted to see Petrino's rear end moving in a westerly direction. I just marvel at the hypocrisy that is constantly reinforced by our leading institutions of learning.

The University of Alabama gets a double-dipper award. Nick Saban, most recently, but I remember many years earlier when they grabbed Ray Perkins while he was still under contract to the Giants. I attended the Wednesday press conference in Giants Stadium in which the president of the U. got on a speaker phone to express his joy at being able to land a coach of Perkins' quality. The guy was not only deceitful, but he was stupid, too, not realizing that he was addressing a group of New York area writers who weren't, uh, exactly in his corner.

Giants GM George Young was standing in the rear of the room, arms folded, too mad to take a seat, looking like Mt. Vesuvius in coat and tie. I asked the Bama prez some nebulous question about the morality of snatching someone else's coach, and an assistant to the president came on and announced that the press conference was over.

In 1976 I was the beat man, covering the Jets, when Lou Holtz resigned with one game to go in his first season. Ironically, the Jets' record at the time was 3-10, same as that of the Falcons. Ironically he went to the same University, Arkansas, which I just saw on the tube, delirious with excitement as Petrino led Pig Sooey cheers. There's another double-dipper school.

But what I remember about the Holtz episode is that there was very little bitterness when he left. He was noticeably unhappy in New York. He hated the cold. You'd see him out there at practice, shivering in a thin, team jacket, looking small and vulnerable, the players smirking at his misery, and you'd feel sorry for him -- at least I did. I remember writing a very soft piece about his leaving, and a day later I got a phone call from Dean Smith, basketball coach at North Carolina, thanking me for going so easy on Lou. Maybe the difference was that we all felt he was a really nice guy.

No one felt that way about Chuck Fairbanks, when he double-crossed the Patriots to get his University of Colorado deal all sewed up while a playoff season was still in progress. The record of stuff like this is endless, which is another reason why I never was much of a success at university life.

("Another copout, you mean," says my Flaming Redheaded wife, and honey, will you please be respectful when someone's trying to express real deep thoughts).

Petrino questions first, since it's the most recent item on my shattered mind.

Chad of Gainesville, Va., feels that one of Petrino's problems might have been that players today simply can't stand being pushed. "Vince Lombardi wouldn't last a year in today's NFL," he writes. Sorry, Chad, you're a good person, and from what I hear, a real snazzy dresser, but I think you're wrong here. I think a coach can get away with almost anything, and the players will go along with it, if he's got one major thing going for him, and I think it's the single greatest motivating factor -- if they're convinced he knows what he's doing. Dummies need not apply. I remember quite a few years ago talking to one of Bill Belichick's defensive tackles, Chad Eaton, and he told me, "You know what the real motivation is, playing for this guy? The fact that we all feel he's one jump ahead of whoever it is we're going up against."

And thank you, Mark of Gloucester, for what you wrote, and I can see why you'd feel that a team now would be nuts to hire one of those Joe College hotshots who skip town when things get tough. Plenty of good assistants around to choose from. Well, there's always that fear that the lure of the collegiate siren song will draw them back, but these things go in psychos ... make that in cycles. At one time that was the vogue, hiring college guys. The Cowboys had spectacular success with Jimmy Johnson. Personally if I'd hire one, I'd cover myself by having him leave a deposit that he'd forfeit if he skipped -- like his wife and kids, for example.

From Ken of Miami, who's still bitter about the Saban episode: "Where would you rank Petrino on the list of coaches who have screwed over their previous teams by quitting on them?" Eighteenth out of 149.

To Tom of Minneapolis --and I appreciate your sentiments -- out of the thousands of letters I have received, ripping this devil of a coach, yours is unique. You are blasting him for not going for the deuce after the touchdown that brought the Falcons to 31-14 down with 8:52 to go Monday night. You are right, of course. A deficit of 16 makes it a two-score margin, and under normal circumstances, a team could conceivably come back. I'll let you in on a secret. It never crossed my mind at the time. My whole focus was, "please, no time outs, nothing to drag this agony out any longer." I watch all games until the very end, and I still had work to do after that final whistle sounded. A selfish interpretation, I know, but what are ya gonna do? You are right in your overall feeling, as well, that coaches, in their obsession with the trivial, often lose sight of the big picture, such as the clock, the score, the point spread, et al.

Joel of London, Ont., and I thank you and so does Flaming Red, anyway Joel ... where was I? Oh yes ... he does not like the double standard that exists in the NFL. Hines Ward "leads with his helmet and buries it in some defender's chin" and gets nothing but praise all around. Let some defensive player do it, though, and he'll be standing tall in front of Marshall Wyatt Goodell. First of all, you can risk paralysis by drilling a guy with your hat if you're so inclined; it's the helmet to helmet shots that get flagged. Second, some players, through hard work, dedication, and a habit of saying the right things, are beloved by the league, in its desire to project the correct image. In other words, at times they get away with murder. Not naming any names, but I think you get the point. Ward plays rough, but in his defense, he doesn't whine when someone takes an extra shot at him.

Daniel of Grand Prairie, Texas ... hey, I had an old girlfriend who lived there ... she lived in The Projects, right near the row of factories ... just kidding, Dan old boy, just kidding ... anyway thank you for what you wrote and I will answer anything that's on your mind, except for that one thing nobody mentions, of course. Punting? Sure, what's the beef? Will the first punter who records a net of 40 for his career have a shot at the Hall of Fame? I doubt it. A good part of my youth was spent trying to get the old Niners punter, Tommy Davis, the greatest I've ever seen, into the hallowed chambers, and I never got very far. Ray Guy's name comes up every year and always gets rejected. A boomer who never bothered to avoid the middle of the end zone.

Which brings us to Steve of Toronto, whose aims are for modest for the Giants' Jeff Feagles, the best placement punter in the game today. Pinned the Eagles deep in the last minute with his perfectly placed effort, caused them to start on their own 11. Will these types of performances at least get Feagles into the Pro Bowl? Afraid not. Most of the voters look at numbers ... highest gross, and in rare instances, highest net. Feagles' work is appreciated only by people who understand the game, which eliminates about 90 percent of those who pack the Pro Bowl ballots.

Mike of Chicago asks about the idea of rotating defensive linemen and keeping them fresh. "I don't remember guys like Merlin Olsen, Alan Page and Bob Lilly needing to be kept fresh." Fresh? You should have heard the way they talked to their wives. "For the love of ..." Take it easy, Linda, I'm answering it ... I answer everything. As you know, Mike, I'm addicted to the past, but I have to admit that the pace of the game has changed. More pass rushing, more pursuit. It used to be a strength game, now it's a speed game. The non-stop action will burn them out if you don't give them occasional relief.

From Tony B. of San Antonio: "Haven't heard a word about national anthems this year. What's the longest you've timed so far, and how'd you like it?" The longest, in fact the longest I've timed in the last 20 years, was the most recent one, in Houston, at the Broncos-Texans game. I was watching the pregame, and during one of Adam Schefter's on the field reports, you could hear this lady practicing the anthem in the background. "Uh oh," I said to myself, "It's a blockbuster and I missed the start." Not to worry. They presented it in its entirety, for real, later on. "Houston's own" Kimberly Caldwell, an American Idol finalist, mooing and hooing and groaning through 2:19.09. For those of you who keep splits, she hit the turn ("Rockets red glare") in 58.4, reached Heartbreak Hill ("O say does tha-at star spangled ba-a-ner-er ye-et wa-ave") in 1.28.2, which is sub-two minute pace, but slowed to a crawl on the hill. The time was 19 seconds and change short of my all time record. How was it? As dismal as it gets, man. Even worse.

Mike of Pittsburgh says I'm wrong in downplaying the role that bulletin board material has on teams. It's a game of emotion, he says. Is that right? Gosh, waddya know? OK, keep telling yourself that they psych themselves by reading what's written about them in the paper. And I'll tell you that one of the big differences between the old time game and the NFL of today is the loss of the ability to laugh. The sense of humor seems to have gone the way of the $10,000 contract.

Chris of Baghdad brings something out of my process of evaluation that I never knew existed. He lists some of his favorite teams that never won the Super Bowl -- '67 Rams, '68 Colts, '69 Raiders, '83 Skins, '86 Bears, etc. -- and then asks for my choice of all time best in that category. Chris, you went fishing for perch and you landed a salmon. Not only the best team that never won the big one, but the best team I ever saw, period! And that would be the '76 Steelers, which lost to the Raiders in the AFC Championship because all their running backs got hurt. Your last line got me all psyched up ... "Don't ever think of going soft on us..." so I stalked around the house, looking for someone to yell at. Unfortunately, both the Flaming Redhead and Little Jake the tabby were asleep. Hey, did you know that there was a famous columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle named Herb Caen, whose name for that city was Baghdad by the Bay? Bet you wish you were there now, huh?

Here's another historian, and I can't get enough of 'em. Rob of Makati City, Manila, Philippines, has passionate feelings for the great offensive lines of the L.A. Rams of the '70s and '80s. He lists eight multiple Pro Bowlers, led by Hall of Famers Jackie Slater and Tom Mack, who played in these years and then asks, "Why aren't these Ram lines ever mentioned when great offensive lines are discussed?" Probably because, historically, O-lines just aren't discussed that much. Defensive lines, always, offensive, seldom. But you present very strong evidence, and yes, in the future, if I'm, say, walking down the street in Denville or Mountain Lakes or even Parsippany and someone stops me and says, "Give me your greatest offensive lines," I'll include the Rams. And then I'll say, "What team had three offensive line Hall of Famers on its roster at the same time?" If they say Packers or Raiders or Dolphins, I'll shake my head. The answer is the Cleveland Browns -- Hickerson, McCormack and ... here's where it gets tricky ... Lou "The Toe" Groza, depending on when he stopped playing tackle and remained a full-time kicker. It's late and I'm getting tired and don't I just know that someone will find a team with four that somehow slipped by me? Thanks for what you wrote about my work, Rob.

Still more O-line, which is just fine with me. Where do I rank Colts' center Jeff Saturday among current and all time centers? Very high right now. A strong consideration for my all-pro team, now that Tom Nalen is down. All-time? Gosh, I'd have to do a longer study, but off the top of my head I'd say top 20 or so. It's hard to compare him to guys such as Dwight Stephenson and Dermontti Dawson, who had such range and speed and could accomplish so much more than the normal demands of the position.

Jon of Lafayette, Colo. says that based on the NFC and AFC being tied, 27-27, head to head, do I still think that the AFC is the stronger conference? At the very top, yes. Going by my own most recent rankings, the AFC captures the first, third, fifth and sixth spots. The NFC gets Nos. 2 and 4. If it were a track meet, with scoring allotted to the top six finishers in each event, on a normal 10-8-6-4-2-1 basis, the AFC would lead, 19-12. The NFC would dominate the next six spots in the rankings, the AFC would score heavily in the last four positions, rounding out the top half of the board. Below that, who cares? Just to show that lunacy is my constant companion, every now and then, when I've got a tight deadline, or something that simply has to be done right away, I will waste large amounts of time by setting up an AFC-NFC competition in all the statistical categories. I will award track meet style points, as I did above. The results vary from week to week, but the AFC usually wins, overall. The prize is to sit by and listen while I curse myself for being a lazy idiot fool. Glad you don't think so, and thank you.

Hey, here's a good one. Brian of Green Bay thinks that the arrogance the Patriots show in continually running up scores, and the fact that no retribution is forthcoming, shows how soft the NFL has gotten. Madden's Raiders of the '70s, for instance, would have put half of them in the hospital for doing such stuff. Oh, come on, now, Hank Stram's Chiefs were always running the score up on people. Paul Brown and Sid Gillman didn't mind doing it, either. But I like the point you're making, anyway, and although I usually don't like to take a cheap shot by reporting typos ... Lord knows, I make enough of them myself ... you have one in your letter that's a classic. Here it is. It refers to how the Patriots "keep their staring QB in the game long after it's already won." I can hear two defensive guys talking now ... "I'll tell you, it gives me the creeps, the way Brady just keeps staring at you ..."

Two questions from Thom of Carlsbad, Calif., where I visited the aforementioned Sid Gillman in retirement: Philip Rivers' throwing motion looks wrong. Could Norv Turner be messing with it? And do I have any recommendations in small batch bourbons? The answer to No. 1 is that I haven't noticed it, but I'll watch it from now on. As to No. 2, well, I hate to admit that I'm not a connoisseur. Bourbon used to be my drink, but now the only time I have it is once a week when the Redhead and I visit one of our favorite restaurants, the Reservoir Tavern in Boonton, N.J. For some reason that's the only place where we do more of a number on the hard stuff than on wine. I have a bourbon old fashioned, she has a Ketel One martini with two olives. For the rare casual sipping at home, I've drifted over to Irish whiskey. But ... and you just knew that I wouldn't let this go without a story ... I once had occasion to visit a place that billed itself as the No. 1 bourbon restaurant in the world. Now here's where it gets murky. I could have sworn the name of the place was The Old House in Louisville, but I just tried to google it and it's not listed. I went there in the late 1960s when I was covering the NCAA basketball tournament. I went with some whacked out basketball types and a few writers and we set up a bourbon tasting with the object being to sample as many of the rarities as the house offered. The last thing I remembered was swiping a picture off the wall of a tuxedoed entertainer, complete with mustache and top hat, named Gallerini. It hung on my wall for many years. All this has absolutely nothing at all to do with your question, of course, but it did unscrew the light bulb of memory.

Finally, my E-mailer of the Week is Bill Johnson of Stillwater, Okla., and he gets it because his question brought me back to a time of life in which I was young and ardent, not the groveling corporate hack I am today. It refers to Mike Shanahan getting fined $25,000 by the league because he questioned the method used in testing Travis Henry for abusive substances. Mr. Johnson asks the following: "When players and coaches accept a job in the NFL do they sign a release to forfeit their first amendment rights about freedom of speech?" Yes, that's exactly what they do. Their contract prohibits actions or comments that might be interpreted as being critical of the league, thus not in its best interest. But when I was a young poop, uh, a young pup in the business, I asked the same question you did, in fiery language brought about by continual brain fever, and I kept asking it in print. Finally Pete Rozelle sat me down, and we had a talk. He showed me the contract and the operative clause. If it were a Three Stooges movie, he would have "pinged" me off the forehead with a spoon and said, "Look, schmucko!" But he politely explained that they signed it of their own free will and fully understood what it meant. I left, deflated and inwardly snarling, looking for someone in the hallway or elevator to holler at, finally settling on my ex-wife.