Mailbag: Missing Steve Spurrier at SEC Media Days

SEC Media Days: Does he look like he's having fun?

Brynn Anderson/AP

HOOVER, Ala. —€” I had to leave SEC Media Days early due to a family obligation, but I would sum up the first three days as being particularly newsworthy — for college football-related stories occurring elsewhere.

The College Football Playoff is starting to talk seriously about giving up on New Year’s Eve semifinals. Baylor hired away Missouri AD Mack Rhoades.

And then there’s the sad saga in Pennsylvania that seemingly will never end. Got a question for the mailbag? Hit me up at stewart.mandel@gmail.com.

Stewart: What is a Penn State fan to do?

JoePa built a library, raised millions to better his university, graduated players, stayed loyal for five decades and of course won football games. As alums, many of us felt a personal connection to Joe and loved him like a family member. Because of the foregoing, I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt as to what he actually knew about Jerry Sandusky, but I cannot anymore.

How do we reconcile his legacy? Can we?  

—€” Foster, Wilmington, N.C.

Bruce Feldman and I devoted a good chunk of our latest podcast to discussing this story. I’d encourage you to listen if interested, because there’s much more to say than I can sum up in a Mailbag answer.

I appreciate Foster’s very thoughtful and reasonable perspective. Unfortunately, over the past five years, I’ve often found myself mistaking the small, lunatic fringe of JoePa truthers on the Internet as representing the Penn State fan base as a whole. My guess is most alums are similarly conflicted about their fallen hero.

By the same token, I recoil at the various tough-guy commenters who want to castigate the late Paterno as the devil incarnate despite what remains an incomplete and in-dispute timeline of what he knew when. Like most things in life, this story —€“ and in turn Paterno’s legacy — is far too layered to reduce to simple good-vs.-evil narratives. But that hasn’t stopped much of the public from doing just that.

Take the latest allegations from this week’s unsealed insurance-case depositions. Like any objective person, I was disgusted by an accuser’s account of Paterno blowing him off as a teenager upon informing the coach that Sandusky abused him. If that happened, Paterno deserves all the scorn one can muster. But I’m also not inclined to automatically accept an anonymous account in a civil suit of an event from 40 years ago as gospel. Those on the "evil" side might call me an apologist. I’d like to think it just means I’m rational.

I do think we can reasonably conclude at this point that a whole lot of people both inside the program and around State College ignored warning signs that if acted upon could have ended Sandusky’s devastation sooner. And that includes Paterno himself, who ultimately bears more responsibility than a GA or a position coach.

All those great off-the-field achievements under his watch still happened, but so did a horrible failure in leadership that helped enable a pedophile. It’s not an either-or legacy, as much as we’re conditioned in sports to pick one side over the other.

So my answer to Foster’s question about reconciling these dichotomous versions of Paterno is simply this: You don’t have to demonize him, but you do have to start humanizing him. Paterno was never the unassailable saint Penn Staters held him up to be. He was a football coach consumed by winning just like the rest of them.

Now that the College Football Playoff is looking to move away from New Year’s Eve semifinal games, when do you think the games SHOULD be played? Imagine that you were director of the playoff, how would you schedule the dates/times/locations of the semifinals? 

— Chase, Athens Georgia

So glad you asked. I put a lot of thought into this shortly after last year’s games and already have a plan in place. It even allows the Rose and Sugar to retain their stranglehold on New Year’s Day, though this would be considerably easier if one or both would take one for the team.

What this does require, though, is to split up the Rose and Sugar and rotation partners. That way you can play both semifinals on New Year’s two out of every three years, either as a doubleheader before the prime-time Sugar or wrapped around the mid-day Rose. It also requires deviating from a strict once-every-three-years rotation. Occasionally a bowl might go four years between semis, occasionally only two.

Knowing that, here’s my revised semifinal rotation for the nine remaining years on the contract after this season.

● 2017-18: Cotton and Sugar on Monday, Jan. 1

●— 2018-19: Orange and Rose on Tuesday, Jan. 1

●— 2019-20: Fiesta and Sugar on Wednesday, Jan. 1

● 2020-21: Cotton and Peach on Saturday, Jan. 2

● 2021-22: Orange and Rose on Saturday, Jan. 1

● 2022-23: Fiesta and Peach on Saturday, Dec. 31

●— 2023-24: Cotton and Sugar on Monday, Jan 1

●— 2024-25: Orange and Rose on Wednesday, Jan. 1

●— 2025-26: Fiesta and Peach on Saturday, Jan. 3.

So there you have it. Six of nine will be on New Year’s Day. The other three are on a Saturday. And the championship game is still never less than a week later.

You’re welcome, Bill Hancock.

Stewart, just how much are you and your colleagues missing Steve Spurrier during media days this week? Also, will Leonard Fournette actually compete in games that matter this year, or will he slip into mediocrity like he did during the Alabama game and then the next few games thereafter?

— Brad Conner, Matagorda Beach, Texas

In the past I’ve not been nearly as much of a Spurrier fawner as most of my colleagues, but this year, no question, I’m missing him. The first eight coaches’ news conferences I sat through this week at SEC Media Days were the most boring I’ve ever covered here. In the future if we’re trying to get a confession from a criminal, we should just subject him to an endless loop of Butch Jones cliches. Believe me, he’ll crack. But then "sexy" Bret Bielema came in and saved us.

As for Fournette, that’s an unfair characterization of his performance last season. The guy didn’t suddenly become "mediocre." I was at the Alabama game; there was nowhere for him to run. The Tide were a dominant rushing defense all season and particularly so that night. The guy still went on to run for nearly 2,000 yards despite his team playing just 11 regular-season games before the bowl. Not too shabby.

Whether he plays in some "games that matter" down the stretch likely will depend less on Fournette, a proven commodity, than QB Brandon Harris finally developing into a consistent passing threat. You can only get so far with a one-dimensional offense. It might work against middle-of-the-pack SEC opponents but not upper-echelon teams like Alabama. I do think LSU’s defense will be much better this year and I fully expect the Tigers to be in playoff contention late in the season. If that’s the case, Fournette surely will be high on every Heisman list.

Which transfer QB is set to have a bigger year: Trevor Knight at Texas A&M or Luke Del Rio at Florida?

— Jeff Hostetler, Pensacola, Fla.

I’ll go with Knight, whom I wrote about earlier this week, because he’s more experienced and should have a much better supporting cast. Del Rio is promising, and he plays for an excellent quarterback whisperer in Jim McElwain. He certainly could surprise people. But his offensive line allowed the most sacks in the country last year (45) and his receiving corps is almost entirely unproven (especially with top returnee Antonio Callaway’s status in limbo). Knight, on the other hand, gets to throw to Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and the like.

I will say, though, that expectations for Knight are starting to exceed what should be reasonably warranted based on his career to date. That dazzling Sugar Bowl against Alabama three years ago kept coming up in Hoover, understandably so, but the erratic Knight had far more clunkers than masterpieces during his time in Norman. He threw some costly pick-sixes. There’s a reason Baker Mayfield took his job. But Kevin Sumlin did not hesitate to talk up Knight during his appearance.

Ultimately, the two are walking into very different offenses. McElwain runs a pro-style and likely will take a conservative approach with Del Rio. Sumlin and new coordinator Noel Mazzone will spread it out and crank the tempo, which lends itself both to big plays and bad busts. Knight won’t be Johnny Manziel or Brett Hundley out there, but he doesn’t have to be if A&M can run the ball. I like his chances of finishing with a strong senior season.

Has Boise State become the USC of mid-majors? Every year it’s super-high expectations, "College Football Playoff sleeper," etc., yet they inexplicably lay an egg or two against teams like New Mexico or Utah State. Why does the media keep projecting the Broncos to go undefeated year after year?

— Mike Cutler, Twin Falls, Idaho

Nick Saban had a quote in USA Today this week that I find to be applicable here. "People think success is a continuum," he told George Schroeder. "Success is momentary."

In my time covering this sport, whenever a program reaches and maintains a high level for several years (think Pete Carroll-era USC or Mack Brown-era Texas), it feels in the moment like that run will never end. Then when it does, we don’t immediately realize it’s happening. We figure, oh, that was one bad year. Or two. Or three. Shoot, people were still picking Bobby Bowden’s later-year Florida State teams to win ACC titles even once they’d sunk to getting shut out by Wake Forest.

Boise State enjoyed a tremendous run under Chris Petersen, but the fact is that winning 12-14 games a year at Boise State is not a birthright. That period from 2006-11 might never be replicated there. But it’s still recent enough —€“ especially given Boise’s most recent Fiesta Bowl season just two years ago — for many of us to keep giving Bryan Harsin’s teams the benefit of the doubt.

Also, keep in mind Boise is in a different position than most Power 5 schools, in that it enjoys a markedly higher profile than the other teams in its conference. If Wyoming were to rise up and go 12-1 this year, it still probably would take four more years of that to achieve Boise’s current reputation.

But hey, for once, the Broncos are flying under the radar heading into this season. Houston is far and away everyone’s Group of 5 darling/playoff hopeful for 2016. I love Greg Ward Jr. as much as the next guy, but if the Cougars slip up a couple of times, maybe Brett Rypien and Boise beat them to a New Year’s Six bowl.

Or, maybe 9-4 is the Broncos’ new normal. 

Prior to last year, I never heard of IMG Academy. Now it seems like players there make up half the recruiting sites’ list of four- and five-star prospects. Is this place a legitimate school, and if so, why does it seem none of the players are signing with Florida despite being nearby?

Evan, Charlotte

It’s a legitimate, albeit unusual school that’s exploded in popularity recently and draws top players from around the country. It’s no secret why. It’s like going to boarding school, but one that’s funded by a major sports brand, where the football coaches are former pros like Steve Walsh and (formerly) Chris Weinke. You spend the season playing elite schools from around the country on road trips to Texas and New Jersey. And most of all — you’re going to get scholarship offers. Every major college recruiter comes through there, or, in Jim Harbaugh’s case, takes his entire team there.

IMG Academy’s rise obviously does not sit well with traditional high school coaches, and in turn, many major college coaches who either came up with or consider themselves advocates for them. But because of IMG’s affiliation, it’s presumed to be a more up-and-up operation than the sham basketball prep schools that pop up seemingly every year. Furthermore, while this model is unconventional in America, it’s not that different than the sports academies so prevalent in Europe, where promising athletes as young as their early teens go to start prepping for a pro soccer or basketball career.

As for the Florida/recruiting part, again, most of these players aren’t from the state so they have no built-in allegiance to the in-state schools. That being said, Florida State plucked likely starting quarterback Deondre Francois from there. But over the past few years, IMG has been just as likely to send players to Ole Miss (most notably QB Shea Patterson), Georgia (five-star TE Isaac Nauta) or Ohio State (three signees the past two years).

Great article on Gus Malzahn this week. Mark Richt tried to be more of a CEO at Georgia and it cost him in the end. Now at Miami, he is going back to coaching quarterbacks and calling plays. Malzahn said this week that he felt he got away from coaching last year and is now more into the details of running his offense. Do you see a trend in head coaches becoming more hands-on and less "CEO"-like with their programs?

— Andrew, Lawrenceville, GA

Frankly, I don’t know how they can get away from being CEO-types. College head coaching duties are becoming more intense, not less. The staffs they hire and oversee keep getting bigger, their recruiting tactics more involved, their media obligations more overwhelming. It was interesting at SEC Media Days noting how many of the outlets covering it — most notably the SEC Network but also ventures like SEC Country, Gridiron Now and Campus Insiders — did not exist just a few years ago.

But as I’ve said many times before, the skills that a guy employs to rise through the ranks of position coach and coordinator are almost completely different from those necessary to be a successful head coach. Which is why I’ve proposed in the past that college programs should employ the equivalent of a professional GM to handle those CEO duties, and that person then hires an on-field head coach.

I visited Richt in the spring and specifically asked him how he manages his time now that he’s back to being a de facto offensive coordinator. He said he turns down more speaking engagements, responds to fewer fan letters and just plain sleeps less. If a guy can figure out how to balance all that, all power to him, because most of them love nothing more than to be out on a practice field teaching technique themselves. Short of that, though, the best thing they can do is hire good assistants who share their philosophy and/or background and step into specific areas as needed.

Which college football team has the best looking third or alternate jersey? I’m not talking about the one-off uniform to salute some special cause or state colors and theme. I’m talking about a uniform combo that the school wears on a recurring or periodical basis but not in the official school colors. 

— Irwin Chen, LA

I’ll be honest, I care as much about alternate jerseys as I do about "Pokemon GO". I suppose I could start paying more attention to both, but it’s easier to just admit I’m old and hopeless.

Got a question for the mailbag? Hit Stewart up at stewart.mandel@gmail.com.

Joe Paterno

Missing the ol’ ball coach.

Texas A&M QB Trevor Knight speaks to the media during SEC Media Days.

Brett Rypien and the Broncos could be up to something again.

Gus Malzahn is getting back to focusing on his offense.