Category Archives: college football

Buffs hit rock bottom

BOULDER — It was late in another painful post-mortem for second-year Colorado football coach Jon Embree when I asked about his longtime friend, fellow former Buff and current offensive coordinator.

Is it possible, I asked, for Embree to evaluate objectively the job Eric Bieniemy is doing running CU’s offense?

“Yeah, and I will do that with everybody, myself included, at the end of the season, and make sure that we’re doing things that give us the best chance to win,” Embree said. “It’s important that this program has relevancy.”

That final comment was the first clue that Embree understands just how many people are now tuning out.

Colorado has been blown out in its last five Pac-12 conference games: 42-14 to UCLA, 51-17 to Arizona State, 50-6 to Southern Cal, 70-14 to Oregon and, perhaps worst of all, 48-0 to Stanford on Saturday, the first time the Buffs have been shut out at home in 26 years.

That’s a combined score of 261-51 over the past five games. Ripping the program is now casual sport on social media. Twitter followers beg you to stop offering game updates.

The Buffs rank dead last among 120 Division I teams in scoring defense. In fact, they rank 124th — below four programs transitioning to Division I status. Opponents are averaging more than 46 points a game against them.

On the other side of the ball, they also rank very near the bottom — 117th before being shut out Saturday. They are averaging barely 16 points a game on offense.

So I could certainly have asked the same question about defensive coordinator Greg Brown, but if you watch the Buffs you’re likely to end up feeling sorry for the defense. Against the high-powered offenses of the Pac-12, the CU offense gives its defense no chance. When you’re constantly giving the ball back to the likes of Southern Cal, Oregon and Stanford, your defense is going to pay the price sooner or later.

Saturday’s game was a case in point. The Buffs took the opening kickoff and went three-and-out. The defense came on and forced the Cardinal into a three-and-out.

The offense came back for its second series and made the game’s initial first down. Then quarterback Jordan Webb threw an interception in the middle of the field that Stanford safety Ed Reynolds returned 52 yards for a touchdown. The defense hadn’t given up a first down and the Buffaloes were already behind.

“It’s something you have to prepare for as a defense,” sophomore linebacker Brady Daigh said after the Buffs surrendered 436 yards of offense to the Cardinal and put up a meager 76 on 44 offensive plays themselves.

“You need to expect that something like that is going to happen. You still need to go out there and shut down their offense and get yourself off the field. It was tough, though. I was feeling a little tired out there and was missing a lot of tackles. That’s something I need to improve on.”

Stanford had the ball for more than 36 minutes Saturday; CU for less than 24.

From the standpoint of CU’s offense, it looked a little like a spring scrimmage. Embree tried all his quarterbacks — well, three of them, anyway — to no avail. Webb, the junior transfer who has started every game so far, started again, even though he’d been replaced last week in Eugene by sophomore Nick Hirschman. When he was ineffective against Stanford, he was again replaced by Hirschman. When Hirschman did no better, he was replaced by sophomore Connor Wood.

When I asked Embree what he might do next at quarterback, this was his reply:

“I’ll address that Tuesday and I’ll be very clear on that. I just don’t want to say anything right now because I don’t want it to seem like people are being blamed. But Tuesday I’ll announce some stuff. I just don’t want to do it now.”

Embree’s announcement that Webb would start this week came late Friday. When I asked why he elected to stay with the transfer from Kansas, this was his reply:

“He was the better guy, clearly, during practice. But I’ll talk more about that whole situation Tuesday.”

I’m speculating, of course, but I’m not sure a discussion and announcement Tuesday would be necessary if he were sticking with Webb, so perhaps a change is coming.

There wasn’t much to distinguish the candidates Saturday. Webb completed four of 10 passes for 19 yards. He was intercepted once, as I may have mentioned, and took three sacks. Hirschman completed four of six for 12 yards. He, too, was sacked three times. Wood was four of seven for 66 yards and took just one sack. Wood engineered the only drive that crossed midfield.

Embree has tried to install principles of the spread option on the fly over the past three weeks as he has realized that his offensive line isn’t good enough to match up and consistently block the defensive lines of the Pac-12. But not one of his quarterbacks is known as a runner, which means defenses don’t honor their run fakes. The three of them combined for four yards rushing Saturday.

With his team now 1-8, with nothing to lose, I asked if Embree has considered putting a running back at quarterback as Bill McCartney did in 1985 with tailback Mark Hatcher when he converted to the wishbone.

“No, I haven’t,” he said. “We have to get it out of one of those three guys.”

So I followed up by asking if he thinks it’s possible to run the spread option successfully with a quarterback who’s not a runner.

“If he can get you four (yards),” Embree said. “That’s really what you need out of him right now. When you look at some of those teams that do it, it’s not necessarily the quarterback being a great rusher. It’s the threat of him running it.

“You force defenses to do some things — play zero and man coverage. But then you’ve got to be able to take advantage of that. That’s where we struggle sometimes, too, getting some man match ups and being able to take advantage of it. So it’s a combination of things. Unfortunately, it’s not something you fix overnight. But we’ll keep chipping away at it and keep trying to give our kids the best chance to have success on that side.”

Everyone knew the Buffs would struggle in the early days of Embree’s tenure because former coach Dan Hawkins left the cupboard pretty bare. But falling to the bottom of Division I in both offense and defense is something else. Getting blown out week after week is something else. The Buffs are rapidly becoming a laughingstock, if they’re not already, and Embree knows he and his staff can’t survive for long playing the worst football in the nation.

Bieniemy’s offense is fooling no one. If you can’t measure up in talent, you have to be smart enough to fool opponents with trickery or misdirection or the various disguises provided by option football. The Air Force Academy has been doing this for years. The Buffs don’t do any of that. They try to run a classic pro set and it’s going nowhere. They did try a few spread option fakes in the run game Saturday, but they fooled no one. Week in and week out, they keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

At least Embree knows that relevance is now an issue. In a stadium that was barely half full for homecoming Saturday, season-ticket holders have little incentive to renew and the effort to sell luxury boxes has become an uphill battle.

Embree expressed faith that redshirt freshman quarterback Shane Dillon will become a factor in spring practice. He expressed faith that new recruits on the offensive line will address his team’s issues in pass protection. Perhaps conversion to the spread will improve the ground game.

Shut out at home for the first time since 1986, the Buffs have hit bottom. Now it’s up to Embree to prove he and his staff are capable of bouncing off the floor rather than just lying there. It’s only their second season, but the Buffs’ helplessness is shortening the normal timeline. Embree is now 4-18 as a head coach, 1-8 this year.

This can’t go on. Changes have to be made. Embree and his staff must signal to fans that the status quo is unacceptable. It begins with whatever Embree plans to announce Tuesday.


Bad to the ‘bone: Should Colorado pull a 1985?

Colorado suffered its fourth consecutive blowout loss to a Pac-12 opponent today in Eugene, falling to 1-7 on the season.

Three days ago, Chaparral High School tight end Mitch Parsons, one of the state’s top recruits, withdrew his verbal commitment to CU.

Parsons posted his announcement (sans punctuation) on Twitter: “Well Im no longer committed to Colorado still going to stay in contact with the coaches but I need to figure some things out #SoMuchOnMyMind”

Parsons was one of three in-state commitments for the recruiting class of 2013, along with running back Phillip Lindsay of Denver South and offensive lineman John Lisella of Columbine.

Two days before Saturday’s loss in Eugene, I asked second-year CU coach Jon Embree if he would consider a radical change in philosophy similar to the one Bill McCartney adopted in 1985 after the Buffs went 1-10 in 1984 with a conventional offense.

McCartney moved his freshman tailback, Mark Hatcher, to quarterback and installed the wishbone. In McCartney’s fourth season, the Buffs improved immediately, and dramatically, finishing 7-4 and earning an invitation to a bowl game, the Freedom Bowl, for the first time in eight years. McCartney never presided over a losing season again.

“We were 1-10,” McCartney explained at the time. “At that point, we were ready to sink our teeth into something new.”

As his talent improved, McCartney’s offense morphed into a variation of the wishbone he called the I-bone in 1988 and finally back to a pro set for the 1991 Blockbuster Bowl as he looked ahead to the 1992 season.

Embree, who is now 4-17 in a season and a half as CU’s coach, remembers the feeling. He was midway through his Buffs playing career at the time.

“Coach Mac went to the wishbone the spring going into my junior year,” he recalled. “When you run option-type football, whether it’s the spread (or another kind), it does help you because you don’t have to block people. You read people. It gets you in space and allows you, if they make a mistake, a chance to make a good play.

“Last week against USC I put in some spread principles and we were able to move the ball. We moved it better. And we’ll do some of that this week also.”

The Buffs managed 150 yards rushing against Oregon, small consolation next to the Ducks’ 439 yards on the ground and 618 overall.

For years, the Air Force Academy has used a run-heavy attack based on some form of option football to compensate for generally smaller linemen and a smaller pool of potential recruits given the service commitment required of Air Force cadets. Not only does it force opponents to prepare for a style of play they are likely to see only once all season, it also eats clock and deprives opponents of possessions.

The Falcons rushed for 461 yards Saturday in a win over Nevada that improved their record on the season to 5-3. They came into the weekend ranked second in the country in rushing.

In another case, Bill Snyder has Kansas State ranked among the top five teams in the country just four years after his return to the Wildcats. He’s done it behind a read-option attack built around quarterback Collin Klein of Loveland, Colorado, who is suddenly a serious candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

Without any star performers and a stable of uninspiring drop-back passers, the Buffaloes’ pro-style offense has floundered against faster, more talented Pac-12 opponents. In their last three conference games, the Buffs have given up 51 points to Arizona State, 50 to Southern Cal and 70 to Oregon, not to mention the 69 Fresno State piled up back in September.

Given these dispiriting results and their likely effect on recruiting, I asked Embree if he would consider going back to the future, as McCartney did nearly 30 years ago, and adopting some form of option offense for next year in an effort to restore the Buffs’ competitiveness. He didn’t rule it out.

“At the end of the season, we’ll sit there and evaluate everything that we’re doing on offense, defense and special teams and see what it is that we can do with the people we have and get an idea of really where we are and whether it’s wholesale changes or just implementing a little more or less, whatever it is, get those issues addressed,” Embree said.

Inevitably, seasons like this one sap strength from a program and support from a coaching staff. After going 7-25-1 in his first three seasons in Boulder, McCartney was ready to sink his teeth into something new. When this season is finally over, will Embree feel the same?


This just in: Turning around a college football program is hard

Our two pre-eminent state universities, Colorado and Colorado State, both sport football teams, although only the truly committed or slightly daffy pay much attention to them these days. From the outside, both appear to be stalled on the trip back from nowhere, spinning their wheels before hopeful fans who generally find an excuse to excuse themselves from the proceedings long before the game is actually over.

Each team saw its record fall to 1-5 with its most recent loss — Colorado’s to Arizona State by the woeful score of 51-17 on national television Thursday night, and Colorado State’s to Fresno State by the less embarrassing final count of 28-7 last Saturday.

Fresno thumped Colorado by a score more common to children’s basketball games — 69-14 — a month ago, so losing to the Bulldogs by just 21 was something of an in-state victory for the Rams, their second counting their only actual victory, over Colorado, in the first game of the season, when hope still shone through the clouds of their common plight.

A year ago, Jon Embree, then CU’s first-year coach, was an emotional wreck after each of his team’s 10 losses. He was devastatingly honest about his team’s failings, enumerating them in what seemed a combination of public contrition and confession. Hired in large part because of his connection to the program’s better days — he played under Bill McCartney and coached under McCartney, Rick Neuheisel and Gary Barnett — Embree seemed to take personally his inability to get his players to perform as well as those teams of yore.

This year, in Embree’s second season in charge, the results haven’t changed much but his demeanor has. He is much more equanimous after losses, owning up to his team’s failures matter-of-factly, often with a rueful smile, as if he has come to terms with the fact that good players make good coaches, and not the other way around.

When I pointed out this change of demeanor to him following Thursday night’s loss, he smiled.

“So you’re saying I’m boring now, huh?” he replied.

I asked if his greater calm in the face of adversity reflected merely the difference between a first-year coach unaccustomed to losing and a second-year coach facing reality, or more an understanding that his players — still college kids, after all, most if not all of them destined to make a living outside the sport — were trying as hard as they could, even if that effort didn’t mean much to the scoreboard.

“I think it’s a combination of those factors,” he said. “I do believe these kids are giving me everything they have, I really do. I see the hurt. The way they come out and prepare every week, what they do in the weight room, how they are pre-game. There’s no doubt that they’re giving us all we have. Like I told them, we’re not going to let up. We’re going to keep working hard. We’re going to keep preparing just like if we were undefeated.

“You can’t let your circumstances dictate how you prepare. It’s got to be an attitude, a mindset. It’s got to be who you are as a person. Because you’re going to have times that things don’t go your way, and if you don’t have that resolve about you, then you let those circumstances dictate what you’re going to be and how successful you can be. I know these kids want to have success and they know that they’ve worked harder and they’ve put in a lot more than they have in the past.

“But what we need to understand, and what I think they do understand, is that all that does is give you an opportunity. It doesn’t guarantee you anything.

“And now we have to find a way to play four quarters. I told the team right now we’re about a three-quarter team. We play well for three quarters, when it’s all said and done. And with the level of competition that we’re playing and the situations that we’re in, we’ve got to play four quarters to have a chance. So we’ll keep grinding. We’re going to keep working.”

Frankly, this is a kind assessment, and Embree knows it. Even if you take CU’s best three quarters of each game, it’s not good enough. That’s because, harsh as it sounds, the players aren’t good enough. In particular, the quarterback play isn’t good enough, and Embree knows that, too.

When I asked him what he thought of his offense, he stopped short of a John McKay condemnation, but he didn’t sugarcoat it, either.

“I’m not happy with it,” he said. “I’m not happy where we are offensively. There’s some things that you’d like to do and there’s some guys that (will) come in that we’ve recruited that’ll help some of it, but I’m not happy at all with what we’ve done offensively. So as an offensive staff we’ll take a look at some of that tomorrow.”

Whether that last line was his oblique way of saying he would look, again, at shuffling the depth chart, wasn’t clear. What is clear is that college football, like the professional version, is all about quarterback play. And Jordan Webb, the junior transfer from Kansas, is clearly a bridge at the position until Embree finds someone better.

Asked if he knew why Webb so often misses connections with open receivers, particularly on the deep routes that might produce big plays, Embree returned to his native honesty:

“I don’t. I know he’s had a thumb issue on his throwing hand. I don’t know if that’s it. That’s something maybe you’d have to ask him. But the way we are offensively right now, we don’t have a lot of room for error. So when you create those opportunities and matchups, you’ve got to hit on almost all of them, and right now we’re hitting maybe 25 percent of them. And it has to be the other way. It has to be at least 75, 80. But I don’t know why.”

Up the road in Fort Collins, first-year coach Jim McElwain is something of a cross between the first-year Embree and the second-year Embree. He shows the emotion and reverts to the philosophizing of the first-year Embree, but rather than lapse into despondency, he tries to laugh at it.

“How miserable am I?” he asked rhetorically after Saturday’s loss, the Rams’ fifth in a row. “I am miserable! You want to know how miserable? I’m miserable, OK? But I’m not ready to jump off the cliff because I saw in that room and I saw the fight in the comeback from what they should have been just embarrassed about the week before. So there was some resolve, I think is the correct word, even though I’m not sure I can give you the dictionary definition. But there was resolve. And there was a huge disappointment because I know what they put into it. But, as they know, we come back to work and we keep moving forward. And the guys that are on board, they’ll be out there.”

A blocked punt in the final two minutes of the first half allowed Fresno to tack on a second score to what was a manageable 7-0 CSU deficit to that point. For McElwain, that symbolized everything he’s trying to excise from the program he found when he arrived.

“It’s like, ‘Now what? Here we go again.’ Right? Which is what you’re trying to bleed out of them. You know what I’m getting at? I mean, that’s what we’re trying to bleed out of the program right now. It’s not the ‘Here we go again.’ It’s not your dad’s same old Chevy, right? This is the new Rams. And we’ve got to bleed the bad taste, we’ve got to bleed the cancer, we’ve got to get rid of it.

“It’s just not how you think. To be successful, you just can’t think that way. So, you know what? Sometimes you’re going to get knocked down. My problem is I’ve probably been knocked down more than I’ve been stood up. But you know what? You keep getting up and you keep firing. And that’s what we’ll do.”

McElwain faces a challenge greater than Embree’s with respect to fan support. Colorado’s attendance is not what it would like, but Folsom Field, which holds 53,613, still draws roughly 40,000 fans for most of CU’s home games, even if the crowd tends to thin out in the second half of blowouts.

At CSU, Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium holds only 34,400 and usually draws considerably fewer. Saturday, the announced attendance was 25,814, but the stadium’s famed red-light brigade — three lines of taillights headed east, toward the only street that provides access — was in full force at halftime of a 14-0 game. McElwain goes out of his way to praise the fans who come out, trying desperately to cultivate a following for a program that hasn’t won more than three games since 2008.

This is at least part of the reason why university president Tony Frank and athletic director Jack Graham have launched a fund-raising bid to build a new stadium on campus. For students, faculty and staff, gathering at an on-campus stadium on an autumn day has an appeal that transcends the quality of the team they will see. Driving off campus to the egress nightmare and isolation of Hughes does not.

But in the meantime, they must make do with what they have, so McElwain encourages the few, the proud, the Rams loyalists.

“Very disappointed for the fans,” he said after Saturday’s loss. “I mean, this was a fantastic turnout, guys. It was the first cold night we’ve had and they were into the game. I want to really say thanks to the people who came out to the stadium because they helped on third downs and it was exciting. It’s disappointing that we’re not giving them something tangible to hang their hats on and feel good about, and, as I’ve said, I see what we’re doing and I see the guys we’re doing it with and you know what?”

He paused for a moment and frankly, I don’t know him well enough yet to know whether it was theatrical timing or actually needing a beat or two to check his emotions to keep his voice steady.

“The Rams are going to be a force to reckon with here in the future,” he said finally. “I can tell you that. And I guarantee that.”

As with Embree’s Buffaloes, the truth of the matter is disarmingly simple. CSU’s players aren’t good enough to comprise a winning team. Like Embree, McElwain found a cupboard full of holes when he arrived. His sophomore quarterback, Garrett Grayson, broke his clavicle two weeks ago, so M.J. McPeek, a senior who had never started before, got the call against Fresno. Asked how much responsibility McPeek bore for CSU’a anemic offense, McElwain went out of his way to absolve him:

“That’s a valid question, and I say none. M.J. did some good things; he’s going to want some things back. I’ll take the responsibility on that. We’re not doing what we need on offense to get it taken care of. And it’s obvious. I mean, shoot, let’s call it the way it is. And that’s my responsibility as a head ball coach. We’ve got to get a running game going, plain and simple, to be a successful football team. I mean, the team we just played, as much as they threw it, you know what, they ran the ball effectively, right? That’s where it starts and we’ve just got to get it going. And that’s not M.J. We’ve got to give him some help, all right?”

Like Embree, McElwain basically acknowledges his team’s lack of talent while honoring the effort of the kids in his charge.

“What you do is you keep working and you keep moving forward,” he said. “There are no quick fixes. I checked the waiver wire and they didn’t allow us to take any. I’m going to see if (Broncos) coach (John) Fox up in Denver might be able to throw us a couple, but you know what, I don’t want anybody else. I want these guys. I want these guys to get to where they’re going. That’s where we’re at.”

When he was finished dissecting the particulars of the latest defeat, I asked McElwain, whose last job was offensive coordinator for a national championship team at Alabama, to name his biggest challenge as coach of a 1-5 team.

“I think the biggest challenge is to keep them working every day and not stepping back,” he said. “That to me is going to be the challenge. And we’re going to be able to see the true character of a lot of individuals when you get in this situation. Everything you do in life throws you a challenge. Now, how you decide to step up and accept the challenge says a heck of a lot about who you are and what you’re all about. And there’s a lot of great lessons in that. And you know what? We’ll find out in those lessons who’s strong enough to persevere and see the things we need to make sure we get better at. And like I say, I’m not in any way, shape or form putting it on them. I’m saying, we’re going to do this together.”

It takes four years for a college coach to populate his team with his own recruits. This is the minimum timeframe required to determine if he has the wherewithal to attract players good enough to build a winning program. Whether Embree and McElwain are destined to turn around their respective programs remains a mystery. But there are no shortcuts. Both of them are learning that the hard way.


Looking for a silver lining in another CU loss

BOULDER — Let’s start with a heartwarming individual story because, frankly, there’s not that much to say about the University of Colorado’s 42-14 loss to UCLA that you don’t already know.

A fifth-year CU senior, a walk-on until this year, caught the first touchdown pass of his college career Saturday. Dustin Ebner of Arvada was so excited he forgot to hold onto the ball when the play was over.

“At halftime some of the guys were giving me crap, saying I should have kept the ball,” he admitted afterward with a smile. In fact, he wasn’t quite sure what he did with it.

“I don’t know, I think I was so excited in the celebration, I think I just dropped the ball. It was more important for me to celebrate with the team than remember to hold onto that ball. Maybe I’ll talk to J.T. (Galloway, director of equipment) and see if I can get ahold of one.”

In the media, college football is often reduced to its marquee players, the ones likely to go on to careers in the NFL. But the vast majority of college athletes are more like Ebner than the well-known players in the green room at the pro draft each year. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Ebner looks like your basic college kid.

After a nice football career at Pomona High, he walked on at CU and red-shirted in 2008. He caught three balls for 15 yards his second year in Boulder, broke a fibula his third year and played mostly special teams his fourth.

Saturday, he caught the first two passes of his final season, the fourth and fifth of his college career. The first of these was a 17-yard, second-quarter touchdown from quarterback Jordan Webb that cut UCLA’s lead to 14-7 at the time.

“It was awesome,” Ebner said. “I felt like all my hard work kind of finally paid off. When I lined up, the corner was in press (coverage). As Jordan made his calls, the corner kind of backed off and had outside leverage. Then I saw the safety kind of in the middle of the field. So my eyes got really big because I knew that I was going to be his choice.”

“He’s a kid that’s been here and worked hard,” coach Jon Embree said. “I put him on scholarship this year. I was happy for him. He made a few plays out there. We don’t have a lot of depth at receiver so you’ll obviously see more of him. But he runs good routes and does a good job of catching the ball with his hands, so it was good for him to make that play in traffic. It wasn’t exactly a gimme.”

Ebner graduated last December with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, but he stuck around for his final year of eligibility and was rewarded with a scholarship. With the Buffs making do without Paul Richardson, their best receiver, Ebner has been rotating in whenever sophomore starter Tyler McCulloch needs a blow.

His teammates knew what the first touchdown of his career meant to him.

“They were really excited; they all gave me some love,” Ebner said. “It was a great experience for me. I had my mom, my dad and then a couple other friends in the stands. After the game, I went to the sideline and gave them big hugs. They were really proud of me.”

When Ebner is in the game on offense, he’s usually asked to block downfield in the run game, which he’s happy to do. But he admitted that finally seeing the end zone for the first time since high school made him eager to do it again.

“The thing with run-blocking is that it’s all effort,” he said. “That’s what I really strive for — just go out there and put all my effort into each play. So being rewarded with pass plays is awesome, to get that recognition, because not everybody recognizes when you’re blocking. Now I’m hungry for those touchdowns.”

Outside of Ebner being rewarded for five years of dedication to CU football, there wasn’t much good news Saturday. UCLA, which was ranked No. 19 in the country before being upset by Oregon State last week, is a lot better than CU in pretty much every respect. The Buffs’ defense kept them in the game until back-to-back turnovers by the offense near the end of the third quarter allowed the Bruins to put them away.

“We’ve got to get better in all facets of the game,” said Webb, the junior transfer from Kansas.

Alums from CU’s football glory days, Kordell Stewart and Michael Westbrook, joined the team on the sideline. This turned into a bittersweet experience for Embree’s young crew, which couldn’t turn their words of inspiration into inspired play.

“I always remember watching Kordell for the Steelers; such an exciting player,” Webb said. “But you know, it sucks to lose. With those guys on the sideline, it really sucks to lose. Those guys, they started the tradition here, and it’s not a good feeling whenever you feel like you let someone like that down.”

Rebuilding a college football program takes time, and the temptation is strong among fans, alumni and media to get discouraged and rip everybody involved. But the truth is CU is going to take its lumps in the Pac-12 this season. That’s pretty obvious, despite last week’s memorable come-from-behind upset at Washington State.

“I actually was disappointed,” Embree said. “I thought our kids competed hard and played well in spurts. We didn’t do a good job tackling. We had two critical turnovers that they converted to 14 points and then never really were able to recover from that.”

Embree’s charges get next weekend off to work on their numerous issues before playing a nationally-televised night game at Folsom Field against Arizona on Oct. 11.

Who knows? If Dustin Ebner catches a touchdown in that one, maybe he’ll remember to keep the ball.


For CU football, it’s always Groundhog Day

BOULDER — The University of Colorado post-football game press conference needs only an appearance from Bill Murray to earn the title Groundhog Day II. Whether the coach is Dan Hawkins or his successor, Jon Embree, it has been a painful, repetitive routine for too long now.

Saturday, after CU fell to 0-2 on the young season by losing 30-28 at home on a last-second field goal by a team called Sacramento State, Embree was asked what he would say to long-suffering fans of the CU football program.

“I’m sorry,” he replied. “I’m going to do everything I can to make it right and fix it, just like I tried to last week. You guys that know me, are around me, I’m competitive. I’m going to fight ’til there’s nothing left. It’ll start here in 14 minutes when we go upstairs and figure it out, or start to.”

This is more or less what he said last week, after losing in Denver to Colorado State — another game his team was favored to win. It’s also pretty much what he said after many of CU’s games last season — Embree’s first as head coach — when the Buffaloes went 3-10. The problem for many CU fans and alumni is they don’t see any signs of progress.

The Buffs were favored by three touchdowns over a former Division II cupcake put on the schedule specifically to give them a running start into the meat of their Pac-12 schedule. They surrendered 466 yards of offense to a school many students in the stands had probably never heard of.

For all that, they still had a chance to eke out a 28-27 win until they gave up a killer 72-yard drive to the winning field goal in the game’s final 2 minutes and 26 seconds.

“For them to go out there and do what they did to us today, it’s embarrassing,” said Buffs defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe. “They came out here with the mindset they had nothing to lose. This was not a game they were supposed to win, so they came out here and just gave it their all.”

The question left hanging in the air was this: Why didn’t the Buffs?

“I did not come in this game thinking we were going to dominate,” Embree said. “I came in thinking this was going to be a football game we were going to have to fight and win. And that’s how they were coached all week and how they were talked to. No one thought we were just going to come in and win.”

Any way you look at this, it’s bad for Embree and his program. Either his players took Sacramento State lightly and got burned or they took them seriously and got burned.

To his credit, Embree does not blame Hawkins for the sparsely-populated cupboard of talent he found when he arrived, but his choice of personnel Saturday made his opinion of many of the holdovers pretty clear. He started four freshmen on defense, including three in the secondary, and used freshmen liberally on offense as well.

After his running game ground to a halt against CSU, he installed 235-pound freshman Christian Powell at tailback. Powell finished with 154 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries. Those numbers look a little gaudier than they felt because Powell scored the Buffs’ first touchdown on a 64-yard ramble just over a minute into the game. After that, the yards came harder.

Still, he’s more likely to provide the power running game Embree has advertised than the back he replaced, sophomore Tony Jones, who is quicker than Powell but weighs just 190 pounds.

The last time a CU runner scored three touchdowns in his first start, his name was Bobby Anderson and the year was 1969. “I thought he did a lot of good things,” Embree said of Powell.

He was less complimentary discussing his quarterback, Jordan Webb, a junior transfer from Kansas, who completed 12 of 24 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked three times.

“We missed some throws,” Embree said. “We missed some critical throws. I’ll have to see the tape overall, but there’s two that really jumped out that were some big-time plays for us and we weren’t able to make the throw.”

Asked if that means he will re-evaluate his decision to start Webb over sophomore Connor Wood, Embree said:

“Everything will be re-evaluated. Everything will. All positions. Yes.”

Webb suggested that protection breakdowns were at least partially responsible for his misses.

“I missed a couple, but every quarterback does,” he said. “A couple of them, I was just trying to get the ball out of my hands to avoid a sack. A few times the receivers were not even breaking into their route and I had to get rid of it. It is hard to be accurate and I guess I missed a couple.”

Wood danced nimbly around the possibility he’ll be named the starter this week, although he said he’s competing for that job every day. He entered the game for a single play — on third-and-18 — when Webb’s helmet came off and he was required to leave the field for a play. Wood completed a short pass to freshman Gerald Thomas that Thomas turned into a 28-yard gain and a first-and-goal.

“A lot of guys had their hand in the loss; it wasn’t just the quarterback position,” Wood said. “I think it was everyone. Right now, I’m not really thinking about the job. I’m still mad just as a teammate after a loss like that.”

Of course, when you lose to a team you’re favored to beat by 21 points, more than one thing is going wrong. When I asked Embree if all those freshmen in his lineup reflected a decision after last week’s loss to go with his own recruits, he demurred.

“It’s not necessarily my guys or someone else’s guys,” he said. “We’re just trying to play our best players and get guys going that we feel give us our best chance. In some cases, it’s true freshmen. So it wasn’t like, my guys or their guys. We’re all University of Colorado football players and it’s about trying to play those guys that give us the best chance and I thought those young kids played well.”

Maybe, but two of the true freshmen in his secondary — safety Marques Mosley and cornerback Kenneth Crawley — were called for pass interference on Sacramento State’s final drive.

The Hornets used a read-option running attack that might have reminded Broncos fans of the offense designed around Tim Tebow’s skill set last season in Denver. Like many of the Broncos’ opponents, the Buffs failed to maintain gap discipline too often, biting on fakes and giving up an average of 7 yards per carry to running back A.J. Ellis.

Sacramento State also burned the Buffs in the passing game on a series of quick slants that CU seemed unable to defend.

Most CU fans know that legendary coach Bill McCartney started his career in Boulder with three losing seasons, culminating in a dreadful 1-10 mark in the third. But there was no Twitter or Facebook in the 1980s. It’s not at all clear Embree could survive such a start to his head coaching career.

He was widely expected to be 2-0 at this point in the current season. Instead, he’s 0-2 and 3-12 overall. With only one non-Pac-12 game remaining — at Fresno State next week — CU has botched arguably the two most winnable games on its schedule. CU fans have not been shy about expressing their displeasure.

Whether it’s scheme or talent, coaching or coordination, the Buffs don’t look any better than they did a year ago.

“For whatever reason, the team that’s practicing isn’t necessarily coming consistently to Saturday,” Embree said. “That’s one of the things I need to look at and figure out why.”

And soon.


A new day for Colorado State football

The president of Colorado State University grew up a Cubs fan on a farm in rural Illinois, so he knows to a certainty that no matter how promising things look, they can always go horribly wrong.

As Tony Frank and his wife, Patti, stood on the CSU sideline in the final minutes of Saturday’s Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver, they were the last to celebrate. When green-shirted Rams personnel leaped in the air at an apparent interception by strong safety Trent Matthews with just over a minute to play and the Rams up five, Frank watched warily as the interception was nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty that gave Colorado a first down at the Rams’ 47. Could it all still slip away?

“As a Cubs fan, we’re always skeptical, right?” Frank told me afterward, aware of our shared affliction. “As long as Steve Bartman’s out there, you’re never sure it’s over.”

“Did you see him anywhere?” I asked.

“Well,” Frank said, smiling, “maybe a hallucination here or there.”

CSU’s recent haplessness on the gridiron has been the blink of an eye compared to the Cubs’ historic run of pity and sorrow, but Frank, who was named the school’s 14th president in June 2009, was hoping for a sign that he, his new athletic director and new head coach were headed in the right direction. He got it with the Rams’ 22-17 upset of the Buffaloes to open the college football season for both schools.

The celebration by CSU hands old and new was reminiscent of the Sonny Lubick years, when every victory over Colorado was a triumph by the little brother over the big brother. As CU’s disconsolate student section streamed out of the Broncos’ stadium, the Rams went to the northeast corner to celebrate with their small but raucous student section, as if to announce that CSU football is back.

“I know that maybe they’ve been a little down about not being able to really give those students something to cheer about, so I was kind of excited when they ran over there,” said first-year coach Jim McElwain, now 1-0. “I mean, that was kind of cool, wasn’t it? It wasn’t planned.”

For most of the first half, it looked as if the Rams would be thoroughly overmatched. When McElwain inexplicably declined to punt on fourth-and-1 at his own 47-yard line trailing 7-3 in the second quarter, he set up a short CU touchdown drive that made it 14-3.

“Stupidest decision ever, isn’t it?” McElwain said.

But what was your thinking behind it, I asked him.

“I don’t know, but my dad was looking down and saying, ‘Boy, Jimmy, you messed that one up,'” he said.

“I guess the biggest thing is showing faith in your guys. I have faith in them. And I told the defense, ‘Look, if we don’t get it, I’ve got faith in you to stop them.’ So it’s about showing trust in your guys. And you’re going to see on video, we came off a double team too soon getting to the second level, which, always block the line of scrimmage first. I’ll beat myself up over it, but I know this: Our guys knew that we trusted them.”

On CSU’s ensuing possession, CU went for an early knockout, putting on a punt block. They didn’t get there and, to make matters worse, return man D.D. Goodson muffed the catch.

“We were supposed to fair-catch it and obviously we didn’t do that,” said CU coach Jon Embree.

CSU had new life at the CU 20 with 33 seconds remaining in the half. They needed only seven of those seconds for quarterback Garrett Grayson to hit a wide-open Dominique Vinson for the touchdown.

“Half the guys heard one call, the other half didn’t,” Embree said of the blown defensive coverage.

Even after the extra point was blocked, CSU went into the locker room at halftime back in the game, trailing 14-9.

When they came out after intermission, neither team looked quite the same. The Rams drove 89 yards on their first possession, culminating in a brilliant misdirection screen pass for 32 yards and the touchdown that gave them a 16-14 lead.

McElwain, in his second riverboat gamble of the afternoon, called for a “bunt onside kick” in which his kicker bunts the ball — kicks it softly on the ground directly in front of him — runs alongside it for 10 yards and falls on it. It worked, too, except the officials said they never blew the whistle to signal the ball was ready to be kicked. That’s a delay-of-game penalty. So McElwain was 0-for-2 on riverboat gambles, but he signaled that life as a Rams football fan just got a lot more interesting.

On the Rams’ next possession, running back Tommey Morris fumbled at his own 15-yard line. The stage was set for another reversal of fortune, this one to benefit Embree and the Buffs.

On third-and-goal from the Rams’ 3, Buffs tailback Malcolm Creer tried to reach the ball over the goal line as he went down. The ball hit the ground and bounced into the air. CSU defensive back Austin Gray grabbed it in stride and raced 100 yards the other way for an apparent touchdown. Upon further review, officials ruled Creer’s knee was down before he lost control. Instead of a possible 23-14 CSU lead, the Buffs were back in business.

In fact, both coaches thought the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line before Creer lost control, meaning the play might have been ruled a Buffs touchdown instead of a Rams touchdown. But officials said Creer’s knee hit the ground before the ball crossed the plane or came out, so the Buffs were awarded a fourth-and-goal at the Rams’ 1, still trailing by just two.

Embree eschewed the field goal that would have put CU back in front, if only by a point. When I asked him why, he replied:

“Because I didn’t think it was going to be enough, to tell you the truth. I thought we were going to need touchdowns if we were going to win.”

What he called was a play fake into the line and roll out by his quarterback, junior transfer Jordan Webb. CSU read it and pressured Webb, who had to retreat behind the 10 and finally heave the ball out of the end zone.

“We felt it just gave us more options,” Embree said of the play call. “We had three options on that — a run and then two guys to throw it to. They did a good job of defending it. But we felt that was better for us. Our backs, Tony (Jones) was out with a shoulder and then Malcolm got dinged a little bit on (the previous play), so we just felt like our best option at that point was doing that.”

Still, the Rams took over at their 1-yard line. Although they made a first down, their ensuing punt gave the Buffs excellent field position at the CSU 35. Four plays later, CU’s Will Oliver kicked a 30-yard field goal and the Buffs had a 17-16 lead.

This is when McElwain, Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama the past four seasons, brought out his Alabama playbook. Not counting his quarterback taking a knee on the last two snaps of the game, the Rams ran 16 plays in the fourth quarter. Thirteen of them were running plays.

Despite the Crimson Tide’s reputation for conservative offense under Saban, McElwain likes to point out that ‘Bama tended to throw more than run through the first three quarters of games. But in the fourth, having beaten down the opposing defense, they would “run to win.”

That’s what the Rams did to the Buffs. After possessing the ball for more than 6 minutes on their first series of the fourth quarter, McElwain’s bunch faced a third-and-13 on the CU 34. That’s the very edge of field goal territory, particularly for a college kicker. Nine out of 10 coaches would attempt to throw for the first down in that situation. McElwain called his seventh consecutive running play. I asked him why.

“We were in that (field goal) range,” he said. “I mean, let’s face it, we weren’t throwing the ball well. It’s not like Joe Namath was out there slinging it around. But Garrett did a great job, he did a great job of managing the game. What we ask our guys to do is let the people around you help you be successful because of how they’re playing, because of how hard they’re working. We just felt right there, look, our defense was playing pretty darn good. And that look in their eyes, I felt really comfortable with our defense.”

The running play gained three yards. On fourth-and-10 from the 31, McElwain sent out sophomore kicker Jared Roberts, who drilled the 48-yard field goal with 10 yards to spare. The Rams were back on top, 19-17.

McElwain’s defense, the one with that look in its eyes, forced the Buffs into a three-and-out. That’s when the “run to win” philosophy paid off. The first running play produced a 37-yard scamper from Donnell Alexander. It led to another field goal and the final 22-17 margin. After that, all CSU had to worry about was Steve Bartman.

“We did not play a good football game by any stretch of the imagination,” McElwain said. “Plain and simple, we have a long way to go. And this, at the end of the day, as good as it is for Colorado State, for our students, our faculty, our fans, it’s great. But at the end of the day, it was one game. And as excited as I was for them, they have to realize that we have a long, long ways to go before I consider us a decent ball squad.”

The story is pretty much the same for the Buffs except they didn’t get to celebrate going 1-0.

“Obviously, we didn’t play good enough,” Embree said. “We had too many turnovers. We talked about that, protecting the ball was going to be a key for us in a game like this. We didn’t do it and they were able to take advantage of it. And we weren’t effective running the ball. So we’ve got to get that fixed, because it’s been too long now, too many games of us not being good running the ball. So we’ll get that figured out.”

On the field afterward, CSU’s new leadership soaked in the unfamiliar feeling of winning a showdown with a big brother.

“It’s a great start for the coach and the staff and the players,” said Frank, the school president, his smile as wide as anybody’s. “It’s fantastic. It’s good for the fans. It’s nice to have a good competitive game back in Colorado college football.”


Paterno was neither hero nor victim

Smack dab in the midst of researching his new biography of Joe Paterno (Paterno, Simon & Schuster), Joe Posnanski ran into a problem familiar to all newspaper columnists: Breaking news dropped a bomb on his original plan.

When Posnanski was a sports columnist for the Cincinnati Post and Kansas City Star, this happened with some regularity. I know because I was a fellow newspaperman at the time, which is how we became friends.

You’re writing off an event that will conclude with very little time before your deadline — a night game, usually — so you need a column plan going in. You talk to people before the game about a theme you hope will hold up and you write your column as the game proceeds. Then something dramatic happens that clearly takes precedence and you have to scrap your original plan and write a new column in whatever time remains.

This is basically what happened to Posnanski while in residence at Penn State University last year researching his authorized biography of Paterno, who had won more games than any coach in college football history. It was to be Paterno’s final season, although he had not yet announced that publicly. The biography would follow as a towering tribute, just in time for Father’s Day, 2013.

Posnanski was pretty close to completing his research when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke late last year. The vile details of Paterno’s former defensive coordinator’s crimes of pedophilia, many of them committed in Penn State facilities or on Penn State football trips, sent shock waves through the culture of college athletics and into the greater culture at large.

Had Posnanski been writing a newspaper column, his course would have been obvious: Scrap the bio, saving the research for a calmer time, and launch a new narrative on the scandal told from his unique position on the inside of an insular, geographically isolated Penn State culture.

But Posnanski wasn’t writing a newspaper column. He was writing a book, which introduced some complicating factors. He had received permission and access for the biography from the Paterno family; would he be breaking a trust to change direction, even if he came back with the bio later? He had a contract for the bio with his publisher; would it have approved the switch? (One imagines that Simon & Schuster would have been OK with two books for the price of one, particularly if the first hit an unexpectedly hot-button topic, but one doesn’t know for sure.)

In any case, this is not what Posnanski did. He tried instead to stick to his original plan and weave the breaking news into the otherwise laudatory biography. The result is a disjointed, unsatisfying book in which the aspects of traditional biography seem oddly trivial and discussion of the scandal seems superficial and defensive.

As many reviewers have pointed out, this is not the book Posnanski wanted to write. It’s clear he’s very fond of Paterno. The old coach even has a pet name for him: “Giuseppe.” Frankly, this level of apparently mutual affection is not that good for the traditional biography either, which comes off as fawning for much of the book.

But the big problem is it prevents Posnanski from getting at the most important questions raised by the Sandusky scandal. Instead, he allows the Paternos to frame the issue by building a straw man and then demolishing it. Early on, Posnanski describes this scene last fall after the 85-year-old Paterno finishes reading the grand jury presentment that details Sandusky’s sexual crimes against children:

At the dining-room table, Paterno finished reading the report. He asked a few uncomfortable questions that nobody particularly wanted to answer. Then he asked, “So what are they saying about me out there?” He pointed outside, past the living room, through the window, toward the mass of reporters and their notepads and cameras. His children told him that they — not just the media, but many people all across America — were saying that Joe Paterno had covered up for a child predator. They were saying that Paterno knew exactly what Jerry Sandusky had done and what he was about, that Paterno had protected Sandusky instead of those children. They were saying that after more than a half-century of coaching football at Penn State University, Joe Paterno was willing to let children be harmed in unimaginable ways to protect his legacy.

“How could they think that? he asked, and no one had the heart to answer. “They really think that if I knew someone was hurting kids, I wouldn’t stop it?”

They looked at him.

“Don’t they know me? Don’t they know what my life has been about?”

This was undoubtedly a heart-rending moment for a Paterno fan like Posnanski, but to allow the family’s characterization of what “they” were saying to stand is to tilt the playing field so far in Paterno’s direction that he cannot help but look like a victim himself.

I know of no one who has read the relevant evidence — the grand jury presentment, the Louie Freeh investigative report commissioned by Penn State trustees after the fact — who believes Paterno knew and purposefully ignored the details of Sandusky’s multi-decade rampage of child rape. But that is not the question, is it?

The question begins at a place where none of the people in authority at Penn State are willing to begin: This happened. It happened right under their noses, in their facilities, on their trips. In broad strokes, there are only a few ways to explain this:

— Sandusky was a brilliant criminal and con man who fooled everyone; therefore no one except Sandusky is to blame. Unfortunately, the corollary to this explanation is that it could happen again anytime. There’s really nothing to be done.

— Paterno and other Penn State administrators knew all about it and covered it up to protect themselves, a heinous and extreme charge that the Paterno family and former Penn State president Graham Spanier have both found useful as a straw man.

— Paterno and the Penn State administration avoided confronting and swept under the rug incidents that should have raised red flags out of ignorance, myopia, self-interest or some combination of the three.

This last, of course, is the actual sum of the allegations in the damning investigative report issued by the former FBI director. One cannot read the Freeh Report without recalling the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church and trying to learn something about the behavior of large, wealthy institutions in such situations. Ultimately, of course, the conduct of the church did rise to the level of overt and purposeful coverups in many cases. There is no evidence of that at Penn State. But there are important contradictions between evidence presented to the grand jury and the Freeh investigation on the one hand and Posnanski’s adoption of the Paterno family narrative on the other.

For example, Paterno tells Posnanski he has no recollection of a 1998 police investigation into a parent’s complaint that Sandusky had showered with her 11-year-old son. In a tape-recorded conversation between Sandusky and the mother, he admits he was wrong and says, “I wish I was dead.” Emails relating to this probe uncovered by the Freeh investigation include one from athletic director Tim Curley under the subject line, “Joe Paterno.”

“I have touched base with the coach,” Curley wrote. “Keep us posted. Thanks.”

So, unless Curley was lying in that email, Paterno was informed of the 1998 investigation he later said he knew nothing about. But let us accept the interpretation most favorable to Paterno — that he forgot about it; in fact, that he forgot so quickly that three years later, when graduate assistant Mike McQueary came to him to report seeing Sandusky and another pre-pubescent boy in a Penn State shower late one night, that Paterno, otherwise considered a brilliant man, made no connection to the earlier incident.

OK, so what about the 2001 McQueary report? McQueary has now testified before the grand jury and at Sandusky’s trial that he heard slapping sounds, skin on skin, that indicated sex. He described seeing the boy with his hands up against a wall and Sandusky behind him. It is not clear he was that specific with Paterno when he reported it; in fact, he says that “out of respect” for the aging coach he tried not to be too graphic. But it is clear that Paterno got the general idea. He told the grand jury that McQueary was visibly upset and told him something of a sexual nature was going on.

Paterno reported it to Curley, the athletic director who claimed to have touched base with him on the 1998 incident as well. Paterno tells Posnanski he didn’t know exactly what to do with McQueary’s report so he consulted Penn State’s guidelines and they told him to report it to his superior. Let’s leave aside the widely-debated question of whether anyone was actually Paterno’s superior at Penn State in those days.

Somehow, the report gets so watered down on its way up the administrative ladder that by the time it reaches Spanier, the university president, it has become “horseplay,” conjuring in his mind Sandusky and a youth snapping towels, as he told the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin.

There are at least two key questions that arise here. Posnanski was in a unique position to pursue them, and he did not.

1. How did this dilution of an awful, first-hand report take place?

2. How did Paterno manage to shrug off and never pursue again an allegation that he understood to involve some sort of sexual activity in a Penn State facility between a former coach with professor emeritus status and a pre-pubescent youth?

Posnanski’s answer, basically, is that Paterno was an old-school prude who knew nothing of such things and didn’t want to know, a man who has to ask his children what sodomy is.

Anything is possible, of course, but Posnanski has just spent nearly 300 pages telling us what a brilliant fellow Paterno is, and not just as a football coach. He is worldly. He is well-read. He is a graduate of an Ivy League school, Brown University. He is an inspiring commencement speaker. He has considered at various times going into politics. And now, for these purposes, he is a doddering old man who has never heard of homosexual rape, as if that were a technological innovation of the 21st century.

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that it’s true. Seen in the light most favorable to Paterno, he is an increasingly demented old man whose ignorance and/or personal qualms helped keep the lid on a pedophilia rampage right under his nose. Is this really a lot better than the suggestion he couldn’t be bothered to follow up?

At the very end, just before he is fired, Paterno protests that he has no time to read the grand jury presentment because he has to get ready for the Nebraska game. Posnanski attributes this to the laser-like focus that has made him such a successful coach. Seen without Posnanski’s friendly filter, it is the single clearest, most scathing indictment of Paterno: He is, in the end, just as myopic as any other football coach. Even with the horrors of the scandal fully apparent, he would rather focus on football.

The problem with combining the biography and the scandal in a single book is that Paterno’s various successes on the football field — and there were many — simply don’t seem very important next to the depravity of what was going on in the Penn State showers and Penn State hotel rooms on the road. Sports biographies require a certain perceptual firewall; sports accomplishments can seem quite meaningful when the only context is lesser sports accomplishments. But in a book that concludes with the Sandusky scandal, how Paterno tinkered with traditional defensive alignments just doesn’t seem very important.

The overarching impression one comes away with, from both Posnanski’s book and Spanier’s lengthy interview with Toobin, is how deeply self-absorbed these folks were. Doesn’t everybody understand what good people they are? Doesn’t everybody know about all their good works? Spanier’s level of self-delusion is so intense he rewrites a conflict with Paterno over his job status in the early aughts that’s a matter of historical record.

They all emphasize that Sandusky was no longer a Penn State employee by 2001. None of them mentions or explains that he had emeritus status, an office and full access to school facilities. None acknowledges that his continuing proximity and access to Penn State football — access granted and maintained by Penn State officials — was the currency he used to lure his victims.

And not once does either of them look up and say:

Something awful happened here. It was on my watch. It is my responsibility as a leader to figure out how this could possibly have happened, what I did wrong, and to make sure it could never happen again.

This is what Freeh means by a shocking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims. It is not that Penn State officials knew he was molesting children and looked the other way. That would be a simple tale of good and evil, black and white. It is that amid a series of red flags, Penn State officials were too busy or too distracted or too self-interested to look any deeper. Even now, after the fact, they seem much more concerned with their own reputations than with the fate of the kids Sandusky molested using Penn State as his bait.

Posnanski does acknowledge this, although the acknowledgement is located in a section late in his book where he argues that the evidence Freeh uncovered is too ambiguous to tell us much.

It is beyond the scope of this book to look at the roles of anyone but Paterno in this harrowing affair, but it is certain that no one, Paterno included, was aware enough, courageous enough, or decent enough to stop a man who would be found guilty of forty-five counts of child molestation. Jerry Sandusky committed heinous crimes against children, and — as Paterno himself said — many people in and around State College would have deep regrets. Nobody — not the president of the school, not the athletic director, not the legendary coach — reported the [2001] incident to the police, and this would haunt a community, shatter the reputation of a great American university, and darken the legacy of the coach who made it his life’s goal to strive for success with honor.

Paterno’s tale, it turns out, is not so unusual after all. A young man full of idealism and integrity grows into an old man protective of his kingdom and dismissive of all criticism. He comes to see his critics, Posnanski tells us with apparent approval, as cowards.

Bill Lyon, the retired Philadelphia Inquirer columnist who covered Paterno for many years, is far more clear-eyed. When I asked Lyon for the lesson of Paterno’s disgrace, he replied with Lord Acton’s famous warning:

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he said.

Lord Acton’s full quotation is even more relevant: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Paterno is neither the hero nor the victim Posnanski would paint. My old friend has let his fondness, and his revulsion at the world’s rush to judgment, cloud his own usually clear eyes.

Paterno, who died in January of lung cancer, is a classic case of corruption over time, of ego, self-importance and self-interest slowly growing like a cancer that crowds out so many of the values that provided his original motivation. He is not, in the end, an exception to much of anything. He is the arc of human nature itself.


NCAA chief: Eight-team college football playoff possible

Frustrated by the glacial pace of progress toward a true college football championship, fans appear willing to settle for the four-team playoff now under discussion as the best they can do. So it came as something of a surprise when Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, suggested the possibility of an eight-team playoff Wednesday during an appearance on the Dave Logan Show.

In fact, Emmert, who has been promoting a variety of reforms since taking over the NCAA 22 months ago, said “there’s a good probability” some form of playoff will be approved by the end of this summer.

“In 1A football, football at the highest level, there’s never been a championship, there’s never been a systematic way to determine who’s No. 1,” Emmert said.

“All the other college sports do have such a championship. The BCS was in my opinion a very good step in the right direction where we finally, after 80 years, had No. 1 playing No. 2. If the conferences and the university presidents that I work with would like to move toward a championship, and I think there’s movement in that direction, then we’re more than happy to run it for them. We know how to run championships. We’re really good at that.

“I think we’re likely to see some significant change to the BCS or movement toward a four- or maybe even an eight-team playoff system, but we’ll have to wait and see. It will probably be decided this spring and into the summer. There’s a good probability that we’ll get some kind of model like that, I think.”

As Emmert, the former president of the University of Washington, tries to drag the tradition-bound NCAA into the 21st century, he also faces a more complicated problem — whether to provide some form of revenue sharing to the collegiate athletes in football and men’s basketball who collectively generate billions of dollars in television revenue for the NCAA and its member institutions.

Emmert said he would never support paying salaries to players or making them employees because that would make them professionals. But faced with a particularly ugly season of scandals in 2011 — from a booster providing players with prostitutes at the University of Miami to athletes exchanging memorabilia for tattoos at Ohio State — Emmert has been pushing a proposal to enhance athletic scholarships with an extra $2,000 stipend.

That plan was tabled last month at the NCAA convention after many schools objected, expressing concerns about the cost. Another reform to allow multi-year scholarship commitments to athletes was approved, although that too had its critics among schools fearful it would tie the hands of new coaches.

“I’ve been really clear, as have all of our university presidents, that we should never, ever pay students to be athletes, that that’s not the business that we’re in,” Emmert said. “We’re in the education business. And our student-athletes should be just that, serious students who happen to also play sports.

“But on the other hand, we also want to make sure that they’re getting a fair shake. So we just, for example, last week approved a new policy that allows universities for the first time in 40 years to actually make multiple-year commitments to student-athletes, so they know that they’re going to have scholarship support for more than one year, assuming they do everything right in the classroom, assuming their behavior is right. They take care of their stuff, the universities will take care of them,” Emmert said.

“The other thing that we’re working on right now that’s still in the construction phase but will probably be rolling out here in a few months is the idea of covering the full cost, the real cost, of being a college student. A college athlete right now, if they’re on a full scholarship, they get tuition, fees, room, board, books and supplies, which any of us would love, but above and beyond that, we also know that there’s travel costs, there’s miscellaneous expense costs, there’s clothing allowances. And that shortfall between what an athletic scholarship is today and what (the real costs are) on average across the country is about $3500. So we’re looking at what we can do to close some of that gap, so that students who are spending so many hours a week and a year on their sport, who rarely have a chance to work part-time jobs, in fact have everything that they need to be successful in their university studies.”

It’s a complicated proposition. At the many schools where the athletic department does not operate in the black, adding $2,000 a year to the cost of every athletic scholarship would require cuts elsewhere. Critics point out that many of the same schools complaining about the cost pay enormous salaries to their football and basketball coaches.

Emmert seems aware that the NCAA has to deal with two growing problems. The first is a widely-held perception that all its high-minded rhetoric about amateur athletics and student-athletes conveniently allows it to collect and distribute billions of dollars in TV revenue to member institutions without sharing any of it with the athletes who generate it.

The other, more immediate, problem is that many of the athletes generating that revenue in football and men’s basketball come out of poverty, leaving them susceptible to boosters, agents and others willing to circumvent NCAA rules by providing cash and other benefits under the table. That, in turn, leads to a never-ending parade of embarrassing scandals like those at Miami and Ohio State last year.

The NCAA has always been reluctant to admit that the university system represents a de facto farm system for the NFL and NBA. As a result, some college athletes do not quite meet the “student-athlete” ideal. High school basketball prodigies, for example, could once jump directly to the NBA, as stars such as Kevin Garnett and LeBron James did. Today, such players are required to spend a year in college (or overseas) because of a minimum age instituted by the NBA.

Many college coaches, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, have complained this rule leads to a “one-and-done” mentality among the nation’s top basketball players that takes away from college basketball and makes a joke of the “student-athlete” ideal.

“Coach K and I are in complete agreement,” Emmert said. “I want young men and young women who play our games to be in college because they want to be in college, not because they have no choice or because they see it as simply an intermediate step.

“I love when somebody has the skill and ability to go make a living playing sport. I think that’s fabulous. But to have them just come to us for one year — or, let’s be honest, one semester — simply because they have no choice and they don’t want to be there and they’re not serious students, I think that detracts from intercollegiate  athletics and doesn’t help and I’m hoping that the NBA and the NBA Players’ Association can see clear to change that rule.”

Alas, that’s not likely considering the debate during the most recent NBA labor dispute was between maintaining the 19-year-old minimum age and extending it to 20.

The NCAA has long faced a dilemma it would prefer not to acknowledge. Among most of the 26 sports, 89 championships and 400,000 athletes under the NCAA umbrella, the student-athlete ideal is alive and well. But the constant stream of scandals in football and men’s basketball taints them all and makes the organization’s pious claims sound hollow.

There are certain contradictions that neither Emmert nor anyone else can do much about. College football and basketball are, in fact, the main feeder system for the NFL and NBA. That’s not changing. The NCAA and its member universities represent a free farm system for those professional leagues. Football and men’s basketball generate billions of dollars in commercial revenue that support many other sports and university expenses. So neither the pro leagues nor the NCAA are about to abandon the current system.

But the NCAA does have an interest in cleaning it up because the scandals, predictable as the seasons, are embarrassing and undercut the credibility of everything else the organization does. Since taking over the NCAA in April 2010, Emmert has aggressively pursued an agenda of reform and greater transparency. He deserves credit for doing so. How successful he is remains to be seen.

“I’ve been focusing on the integrity questions,” he said, “making sure that our rules actually make sense and that we apply them in ways that promote the kind of behavior that we’d all like to see around college sports.”

As part of his ongoing outreach efforts, Emmert will be in Denver on March 8 to speak to a City Club of Denver luncheon at the Marriott City Center downtown.