By Stewart Mandel
August 09, 2004

I've been getting the same question over and over the past couple of weeks: What's going to happen with Mike Williams? My answer: What does this look like, the Psychic Friends Network?

I do know, however, what I'd do if I were the NCAA: Tell Big Mike he need not report for practice tomorrow. The charade is over.

Williams has no desire to be a student-athlete. Period. Don't believe me? Check out his comments to the local beat writers Saturday about his geography and cinema classes. "It's trying," Williams said. "People don't understand the situation. How you want to get up and take a flight back home. But I owe it to these guys to stick around."

How noble. He doesn't really want to, but for the good of the team, Mike is willing to sit through a couple of classes this summer. Never mind that every one of his teammates carries that cumbersome burden of having to actually attend college, as do the other 12,000 or so individuals fortunate enough to play Division I-A football.

I know what you're going to say, college football teams are overflowing with kids who have no interest whatsoever in school. Why single out Williams? Especially when he had no control over the NFL legal process that put him in this predicament. But alas, the NCAA is powerless to police every athlete in all its sports. The best it can do is to take a stand when the opportunity presents itself.

As much as we criticize the NCAA for its rampant hypocrisy, the organization actually has made some significant strides this year in at least attempting to get things under control. First, NCAA president Myles Brand helped push through the long-talked about "incentives and disincentives" plan that holds teams accountable for poor graduation and retention rates. Then in a movement that took less than six months to go from thought bubble to reality -- the NCAA's equivalent of getting your driver's license renewed in seven minutes -- the board of directors last week rubber stamped a set of much-needed, albeit overreactionary recruiting reforms aimed at curbing the kind of excesses described in Willie Williams' infamous diaries.

In discussing the recruiting reforms, Brand repeatedly has talked about what he calls "a culture of entitlement." How's this for entitlement? Among the estimated $100,000 in expenses Mike Williams had to repay former agent Mike Azzarelli in order to be considered for reinstatement was the use of a private plane for a trip to the Bahamas. And that was after he'd been disqualified from the draft. He also got to receive world-class training at Competitive Edge Sports in Duluth, Ga. (a favorite among NFL prospects), get his face plastered on football cards and fulfill every kid's dream by landing an endorsement deal with Nike.

Sorry, Mike. Whether or not you paid back the money, whether or not you got screwed by the NFL, you don't get to live the life of a pro for four months then, when things don't work out for you, come crawling back to college. The classrooms at USC weren't designed as a place for future first-rounders to kill time.

Now, before all you Trojans fans start bombarding my inbox, ask yourself this question: Do you really want him back?

Oh sure, what team wouldn't want a last-minute ringer who happened to catch 95 passes last season? But, to use an analogy Angelenos will surely understand, if games were won on talent alone, the Lakers would be world champions right now. An equal, if not more important, element, especially among fragile 18-to-22-year-olds, is chemistry, and adding Williams to the mix at the last minute would create a circus even Shaq and Kobe would admire. Williams' teammates would say all the right things publicly, but some of them would surely resent him for essentially big-timing them. He wasn't toiling in the weight room with them all winter, spring and summer. Heck, this is the same guy who publicly questioned their work ethic on the way out of town. The Trojans are loaded with or without him -- why bother with such a potentially divisive distraction?

The ruling could come down as soon as Tuesday, the last day of Williams' summer classes. It's an unprecedented situation to say the least -- and will be the last one of its kind if the NCAA does the right thing.

Now then, I didn't forget that this actually a Mailbag. First off, thanks to the many of you who offered kind words about last week's Myths and Realities feature. There's plenty more preview coverage to follow in the coming weeks. In the meantime ...

Why does the media give no respect to the Maryland Terrapins? Outside of the big upset at NIU last year and the usual loss to FSU, they were 11-1. They are one of only a few teams to win 10 games or more the last three seasons. What's up with this? --Marty Nicholson, Comstock Park, Mich.

Outside of getting sentenced to jail and losing control of her company, Martha Stewart had a great year last year, too. Not to take anything away from the Terps, who have come a long way in just three seasons under Ralph Friedgen, but you pinpointed exactly why they're not yet treated like a powerhouse. Yes, they've won 10 games, but they've yet to beat Florida State, who until this year was the one true power in their conference. They lost to Notre Dame, got waxed by Florida. In fact, the highest-ranked team they've beaten in the past three years was No. 14 N.C. State in 2002. This year should bring at least a few more opportunities to score that signature victory -- Maryland plays Florida State, Virginia and Virginia Tech in a three-week span -- but even Friedgen will tell you the Terps, who happen to be very young this season, are still in the building phase.

It seems that USC is playing in the old WAC, where defenses did not exist. How well do you think they could do if they were in a major conference and had to face truly complete teams? --Glenn, Kansas City

Now, by major conference do you mean the Big Ten? Because the Trojans have clobbered both Iowa and Michigan in bowl games the past two seasons. How about the SEC? Because they won 23-0 at Auburn last year. People try to make arguments like this all the time about various teams and I just don't buy it. For one, these things are cyclical -- the Pac-10 could be the strongest conference in the country one year, the weakest two years later. And even then, the talent difference between the five major conferences is not nearly as drastic as perhaps their styles of play. Is the Pac-10 loaded with defensive powerhouses? No, probably not. But ask Texas whether it thinks last year's Washington State team was any good on defense. Ask Michigan about Oregon. Shoot, for everything we heard about Nebraska's vaunted defense last season, Oregon State's was ranked four spots higher. Trust me, the Trojans would do just fine in any other conference.

Please talk about UCLA -- anything. I am starved for Pac-10 and UCLA-specific news. East Coast Bias is killing me. --John, New York

OK ... but I'm afraid it's not very good news. Sorry to break it to you, but your team is not good. I had the misfortune of watching the Silicon Valley Bowl while visiting a friend in L.A. the week of the Rose Bowl, and it was hands-down the most miserable performance of any team all postseason (Can I have those three hours of my life back now, Brian? How did the Bruins get to a bowl in the first place?). Also, your head coach and offensive coordinator parted ways this past offseason on not very good terms. Several notable players (Tyler Ebell, Matt Moore) transferred or left school. Receiver Idris Moss, considered a potential breakout star, was recently kicked off the team. And oh yeah, your arch-rival just won the national championship and has been absolutely dominating West Coast recruiting for the past several years.

Other than that, though, there is definitely talent on UCLA's roster, mainly receiver Craig Bragg, tailback Maurice Drew, tight end Marcedes Lewis and linebacker Spencer Havner. And Karl Dorrell made a bold statement over the offseason when he declined an automatic one-year extension of his contract because he wasn't satisfied with the job he did. Everyone's counting him out at this point, so with their backs against the walls, maybe the Bruins could sneak up on some people this season.

As a Clemson Student, I am a little bit biased when it comes to my football team. But after the way they finished last year, I feel like they have a legitimate chance of finishing in the top 10. If standout quarterback Charlie Whitehurst has the season he is expected to, I feel they might even finish in the top five. Where do you think the Clemson Tigers will finish? --Matthew, Greenville, S.C.

Actually, I think Clemson is this year's Pittsburgh ... or Auburn, or any other recent team that people put waaaay too much stock in because of the way they finished the previous season. Yes, the Tigers posted a couple of big wins at the end, but on the whole they were an average-to-good football team with some inherent weaknesses (like having almost no running game). With guys like Whitehurst, linebacker LeRoy Hill and cornerback Justin Miller returning, they do deserve the benefit of the doubt and a top-20 preseason ranking, but I don't expect them to top last season's nine wins, not with their conference becoming a whole lot tougher.

What is the status of Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham? Is he in trouble with the ND fans? --Tom Donahue, Lawton, Okla.

Sure looks that way. It's never a good sign when 400 alumni send a letter to the board of trustees, as they did last January, saying, that the football program needs to make significant progress next season or "a coaching change will become necessary." I've seen some short leashes in my time, but good lord, it was just two years ago when they were ready to knight the guy for starting 8-0 in his rookie season. There was even a book written about Willingham's first season called Return to Glory.

Just as that book title jumped the gun, however, fans who are already calling for Willingham's head are jumping the gun as well. I know they're frustrated by all the blowout losses, compounded by suffering through nearly a decade of mediocrity dating to Lou Holtz's last years, but Willingham is a good football coach. He proved that at Stanford. Much of the Irish's struggles last season can be attributed to a ridiculous schedule (12-1 USC, 10-3 Florida State, 10-3 Washington State, 10-3 Michigan, 9-4 Purdue, etc.) and having to rely on a true freshman quarterback running a complex West Coast offense. I guarantee they'll win at least seven or eight games this year. And if that's not considered progress, then those alumni are living in a fantasy world.

A few non-football thoughts to close out ...

• If, like me, you grew up worshipping Chevy Chase, be sure to check out the current Entertainment Weekly, which has an excellent article on his fall from grace (to which anyone who saw that awful Comedy Central roast can relate).

• Man, these presidential campaign stops in the heartland can cause a real spike in the local crime rate.

• Finally, click here if you'd like to read the Ali G-translated version of this Mailbag.

That's it for this week. Respek.

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