In recent years, USC, UCLA and the Pac-10 have been deluded by a disturbing number of homegrown football players choosing out-of-state programs.
It is no secret that USC's football program is a mere shell of its old self. UCLA had a terrific run in 1997-98, but their 1999 season was a downer. Cal has never been a real winner, but the brief power period (circa 1991) they did enjoy is long gone. Stanford went to the Rose Bowl, but that was a reflection of the weak Pacific-10 Conference.
Look around the West. San Diego State? They have not had great teams since joining the WAC. Fresno State? They seemed headed to Top 20 land, but fizzled. Nevada-Las Vegas? Forget about it.
Know your history
Everything is always about cause and effect. To put it in less scientific and more philosophical terms, I quote Santayana:
"Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to re-live it." William Shirer used this quote at the end of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich". The question of Nazi atrocities is much deeper than a shift in college football recruiting trends, but the general idea of knowing your history applies.
In this case, one must go back to the South. Not actually the Old South, but not exactly the New South, either. I am talking about the South of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the march on Birmingham, and George Wallace barricading the doors to the University of Alabama. Wallace was not just keeping a student named Meredith from attending his college. He was also preventing students like Bubba Smith, who grew up below the Mason-Dixon Line, from going there. Smith ended up at Michigan State. A lot of terrific black athletes from the South took scholarships to the friendlier confines of places like USC. USC, in turn, put together one of the greatest runs in collegiate history under John McKay in the 1960s. Black athletes were welcome at SC. Big time.
In the mean time, coaches like Bear Bryant were seeing their programs deteriorate in the late '60s. Bryant was no more sympathetic to civil rights than Bull Connor, but the man loved to win football games.
Reggie Jackson, the great baseball slugger who played football at Arizona State, saw the change coming in 1966, when he played for the Birmingham Barons, an Oakland farm club.
"Bear Bryant was friends with Charlie Finley, who lived in Birmingham," recalls Jackson. "One night Charlie brought Bear into the clubhouse after a game. He sized me up and said, `now that's the kind of n----r I need to get for my football team.' Real matter-of-fact, didn't think twice about calling me a n----r. I took it as a compliment, because I knew that's how he meant it, in his own way."
A Trojan from Santa Barbara pushes the civil rights movement in his own way
Four years after his Reggie Jackson encounter, Bryant found himself face-to-face with another great black athlete, only this time he was not a shirtless, smiling baseball player in a post-game clubhouse. Sam "Bam" Cunningham strode into Birmingham prepared for war, his USC football uniform outfitting him like a modern-day Spartacus. The sophomore from Santa Barbara ignored the catcalls of the home crowd and ran rampant over the Crimson Tide, leading Troy to a 42-20 victory that did as much for the civil rights movement as a Martin Luther King speech. In 1955, SC's CR Roberts ran for almost 300 yards in front of a hostile Texas audience in the first half, but by 1970 Cunningham's performance came at just the right time to effect some real change. One year later, Roosevelt Leaks, a black man, was at Texas. Once Bear started bringing in blacks at 'bama, to quote the guard to the Emerald City gates in "The Wizard of Oz": "Well, that's a horse of a different color."
The advantage that Western and Midwestern schools enjoyed began to slowly deteriorate when great black athletes from Tennessee, Florida and other Southern states began to stay put. By the early1980s, USC's luster was starting to fade, but for the most part Western athletes stayed out West. Notre Dame would snag a few because they are Notre Dame, but the battles were usually fraternal within the Pac-10. Washington snagged Hamilton's Warren Moon, and later they managed to lure Lompoc's Napoleon Kaufman to Seattle.
In the 1980s and '90s, Southern collegiate football has become a whole new ballgame. First it was Miami, and then the intense rivalry between Florida and Florida State turned that annual contest into a virtual National Championship game. They turned it up a notch in the SEC, elevating Tennessee. Alabama discovered they were no longer the kings in Dixie, and after learning to compete again, they won a National Championship in 1992. California has always taken it as a matter of faith that the Golden State produces the best football players, but Florida high schools are giving us a real run for our money.
The real difference, however, is not the talent of our young athletes, or the coaching they get. California is filled with first-class coaches from one end of the state to the other. What seems to have had an effect is the level of excitement generated at colleges outside the state. California sports fans are blasé. They are front runners who only occasionally fill up stadiums. A kid looks at a half-filled Coliseum, Rose Bowl or Stanford Stadium, then compares that to "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" (Florida-George), and the kind of insanity that prevails at Florida State, LSU, and Tennessee. Even loser programs like South Carolina fill up for every game.
Once upon a time California took it as a badge of honor that we could be laid-back fans, but our teams were still the best. Not any more. Kids want to be on TV, they want publicity and they want excitement. They are full-fledged celebs in these little towns. In LA they fight for attention in the LA Times.
Paul Gulbransen produces John Kentera's highly acclaimed prep show for XTRA 690.
"What I hear a lot," says Paul, "is the `fever pitch' of alumni, students and area residents who devote their lives to football" in these areas. "The coaching staffs have real football mentalities, and kids make more appearances on TV. A kid gets up the day after a Friday night game, Mom makes them breakfast, and ESPN is carrying an SEC or Big 10 game. The kid says, `Hey, if I go to those conferences, my parents, family and friends can see me all the time.' They are aware of a national visibility to the nationwide press, vs. West Coast games that are never in the Sunday papers in the South, Midwest and East Coast."
Brentt Eads writes for Student Sports magazine.
"They like to play before large crowds, get a lot of publicity, and appear on ESPN," says Brentt. "Even in a place like Fresno, where Clovis West is a power, they're the only game in town. Kids are willing to move into more rural areas. TV is an equalizer."
"Kids want to go where they have a chance to get a ring," is the assessment of CIF commissioner Tom Simmons. "The Pac has been suffering some down years in all phases of sports, while the SEC is number one in the power rankings over the past seven years. This applies not just to football, but baseball, as well. Look at Mississippi State, LSU, Alabama, all have been in the College World Series in recent years. If I notice it, Pac-10 coaches must be noticing it, too.
"It's absolutely right, fans out West are not as excited about sports. When the sun comes out, it was hard to get people to go to the Kingdome. Dodger and Angel fans are not as into it. Again, college baseball is an example. Texas A&M and Florida State routinely draw 8,000 to 9,000 people for games. The biggest crowd at Long Beach State, which is a top program, is 400 fans.
"California still has the best talent, but what seems to be happening is Florida schools are keeping their talent in state. California provides the Pac-10 parity. Guys are now saying, `The grass is greener someplace else,' and teams are looking at players on both coasts. Also, the SEC is easier to get into academically."
There really are not that many head-to-head battles between USC and UCLA. Most kids seem to have formed an allegiance early, and the result is even competition in which neither team is truly dominant.
UCLA landed J.P. Losman, a star quarterback out of Venice High, but he inextricably transferred to Tulane when he learned he would not be anointed with the starting job. What is odd is that, had Losman stayed, he probably would have been the Bruins' starter four games into their lackluster 1999 season.
"I just wanted to get away from home," J.P. explained. "I love LA, but being away from home helps me get ready for the real world. The same thing with my roommate, James Dunn."
Dunn is a wide receiver who prepped at St. Monica's.
"I want to be in a big-time program and follow in the footsteps of Sean King," explained Losman. "At UCLA I felt like it was an extension of high school. I like the fever pitch of the crowds. In LA it's just another game, but here it's serious. Like, high schools play in stadiums with turf, and the crowds are packed. There's a lot of pride and Southern hospitality down here. It's just a lot different--they live or die with football."
As for the probability that he would have been a starter by mid-season at UCLA, Losman said "I can't really think about that."
Casey Clausen, the Parade All-American signal-caller from Alemany, was not recruited by USC because the Trojans already have Carson Palmer. Of course, Palmer's injury last year shows that anything can happen. Still, UCLA really could use Clausen after losing Losman, but Clausen is headed to Knoxville and the University of Tennessee. The USC sports information office tries to put a positive spin on the exodus of players from this area, but one has to believe that if they were getting the best of the best all the time, like they used to, they would be contending for number one all the time, like they used to.
Other Californians headed out of state include Chris Rix, Santa Margarita's quarterback ,and Travis Johnson, Sherman Oaks' Notre Dame's star defensive lineman (both Florida State-bound). Sacramento Christian Brothers' running back Albert Hollis is going to Georgia. Concord De La Salle Parade All-American running back and Player of the Year D.J. Williams will be going to Miami. So is Stockton wide receiver Willie Dixon. Nebraska landed Bernard Thomas, an all-state linebacker, while Penn State nabbed Westlake quarterback Zac Wasserman. Most quarterbacks, for some disturbing reason, are headed out of state.
Brandon Hanc of Taft is going to Purdue. Mater Dei's Junior Palacios will be at Pittsburgh. Dominguez linebacker Kevin Burnett is headed to Tennessee. Tennessee is all over the West, nabbing players from Arizona and Nevada, including defensive back Lee Wheeler. Virginia goes to war next season with two players from Venice. Eddie Williams and Poway running back Jonathan Ward have also flown the coop.
"Reggie Butler was the CIF-Southern Section Division I Player of the Year at Long Beach Poly," says Jake Downey, a reporter for the LA Times Prep Show. "He wanted to go to Stanford, but they're not nibbling, so he's either headed to Penn or Duke. He's a bright kid who wants the education plus football. There are others like him."
Maybe, to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, "You can't stay home again."
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism