Sunday, October 08, 2006

"Snakebit" and "cursed" & What I would do.

In my e-mail and SMU-related conversations, there seems to be a common them the past few days. “Jinxed.” “Snakebit.” “Cursed.”

That last one led me back to every other sports-related curse. Like most sports fans of my generation trapped in the internet age, I read Bill Simmons a k a the Sports Guy on Pretty sure I have read every sentence of his the past five years. I saw all the stupid cartoons they ran on the ESPN website. (Actually, I have to concede that I hadn’t read this weeks NFL column, so I quickly read it and didn’t see one 90210 reference. I was disappointed.)

In October 2004, the lifetime Red Sox fan wrote:

“How will your life change if the Red Sox win the World Series?”

My wife asked me that question last night, minutes before Faulke clinched Boston’s third straight win over the Cardinals. Let’s just say that it’s a best of seven series and Game Four happens tonight. Seemed like a relevant question.

“That’s easy, “I told her. “Everything would get wiped away. No more baggage. No more Babe Ruth pictures, Buckner highlights, fans walking around with Curse signs, 1918 chants, announcers hinting at doom around every corner. Everyone would just leave us alone. We’d be just another baseball team.”

Local sports host Bob Sturm once said he agreed with 90% of Simmons sports opinions and 75% of his cultural opinions. It has always been about 90%-90% for me.

There is, however, one area in which I have a giant, enormous, mammoth difference of opinion with Bill Simmons.


The sad fact is the Red Sox rarely spent money until this decade. Between 2003 and 2004, the year they won the World Series, the Red Sox payroll jumped $20,000,000.00. The Cubs suck, not because of a goat, but because the Tribune Company refuses to spend money and know they don’t have to in order to sell out every game. The Rangers suck because they are run by idiots. I will say this, however, believing in a curse is just as bad as there actually being a curse. See Steve Bartman, the poor bastard who had the best seats of his life at Wrigley Field for the worst day of his life.

Which brings us to my beloved SMU Mustangs.

The death penalty was 20 years ago. Yes, it is true that this University made numerous terrible errors in its reaction to the death penalty and some of those changes are still in place to day. And the result of those reactions has been year after year of bad football and bad basketball. And a graduation rate for athletes that dramatically exceeds the regular student population as a whole (and I will be happy to name my next child after the first person that can explain to me why that makes any sense at all).

SMU football has stunk for 20 years because it hasn’t spent as much money as its competitors. It has been poorly managed and made bad decisions. The money that was spent was spent poorly. The athletes recruited more often than not did not measure up to the competition. Fundraising lagged. The losses mounted. The number of fans dwindled and nobody seemed to care and those that remained noticed that nobody in charge seemed to care.

But when people at SMU point out that a certain kid got arrested; left SMU for another school or a job or a band or suffered a freak injury or flunked out of school, they fail to realize that it happens at every school. Every school. Every year. The difference is SMU policies prevent SMU from having the quality depth that can absorb those losses. When a player fumbled on the goal line, it had far more to do with the player than anything that took place 20 years ago.

Get over the “SMU is snakebit” mentality.

Even Jim Copeland, in one the rare reasonably intelligent things I ever read from him, made a similar point in one of his last “AD Notepads:”

This may be a bit melodramatic - but we all have to exorcize ourselves of the "here we go again" resignation when we fumble or give up a big play at a critical point in the game. We have all been guilty of this at one time or another.

Everyone, from the people on the boulevard, to the athletes, the coaches and the administration, needs to exorcise their demons.

Which brings me to this year’s team. Most of the kids playing for SMU today were not alive when it was handed down and none of them were alive when SMU was any good.

We are six games into this season and I have reached one conclusion about this team. It is pretty darn good. Good enough to win Conference USA, or if you are a cynic, Conference USA is bad enough that SMU can win it.

In order to win, SMU needs to start today. And it starts with resolving the current mess. Unfortunately, that also means SMU needs to start running the athletic department like an offshoot of the “Model United Nations”.

First, everyone needs to realize the facts are not going to change. They are not going to get better; they are not going to get worse. Not for SMU; not for Turner; not for Orsini; not for Bennett; not for Willis. If you take all the noise away and strip it down to what it really is, Justin Willis got in a fight with another guy. The other guy filed a police report. He didn’t go to the hospital. He is OK (“not severely hurt”-his words). This is a serious incident, but it isn’t the end of the world. Strip away all of the politically sensitive BS; it is irrelevant and from what I have heard from people close to the situation, not a

Turner, Orsini and Bennett need to make a decision. The “indefinite” suspension has to be cleared up. Nothing is going to change what has already happened. Everyone has the facts. Pick a punishment and move on. They cannot leave Willis twisting in the wind.

Do you think Willis is a good kid or a bad seed? I think the answer is Willis is a good kid who screwed up. And I think everyone involved agrees with that assessment. So stand behind it.

Are they worried SMU is going to get sued? If that is their concern and they are considering letting him play at any time over the next six games, then just play him now. It isn’t going to make a difference is Willis is suspended one or two weeks or three weeks. Again, this is a fight and nobody was badly hurt. This kid is not going to get millions from the University.

Whatever the University is afraid of, it is going to have to face it sooner or later. The idea that it can hide behind the poor coverage of SMU athletics and lack of interest is a fallacy. This is not going to go away. If SMU is even thinking of letting Willis play again, ever, they are going to have to face this. Everyone, including Wills, is going to have to answer the questions. If you ask me, it is better to do it now.

He hasn’t been arrested. Charges are not likely to follow. Even if they did, it isn’t the sort of thing that would result in jail time. Go through your Code of Conduct, review past incidents of students fighting one another, and realize that people have done far worse and not been kicked out of school. You have your precedent. Act on it.

Forget what I said about Turner and Orsini. This is Bennett’s call and Turner and Orsini need to let Bennett make it. If Bennett doesn’t produce this year, there is going to be a demand for his head. It isn’t fair to judge his record if others are going to make his personnel decisions, particularly whether or not Bennett can play the best SMU quarterback in a decade (statistically). And yet, there is a good chance Turner and Orsini are going to have to do that.

If SMU wants my advice, I say reinstate Willis today. You issue a simple statement: “There was a fight between students and one of them happened to be a football player. No charges have been filed nor are they expected. SMU is taking this matter very seriously.” Then you put Willis in front of somebody from the Dallas Morning News and let him answer questions (for God’s sake, coach him first!). If you don’t trust Kate Hairopoulos yet, then insist Keith Whitmire do it or Calvin Watkins. They know Willis better anyway.

Finally, I want everyone to know how long I thought about this. I agonized over this. I don’t put anything on this blog without giving it a lot of thought (Well, nearly anything). If Willis is a bad seed, I don’t want him around the football program. I don’t want a football team of choir boys, but I can do without people seeking out fellow students to belittle, antagonize and assault. In speaking with several people, I have satisfied myself that that is not what happened here. Willis is responsible for his own actions, but just because this is SMU and just because Willis is a football player, doesn’t mean he deserves a death sentence. This isn't about me being selfish and wanting three or four more wins so I can follow SMU to some bowl game that will be shown on ESPN 8.


Anonymous said...

This whole event would not even be discussed or considered worth mentioning at a school with a good football program. Can you see a player as valuable as Willis being suspended for more than a practice at UT, Texas Tech (one of their players was playing while serving weekends in jail for God's sake) OU or any other regional program? At Miami he would have gotten a medal and have a song written about him.

Anonymous said...

The football graduation rate is higher because in many if not most cases the athlete and family could not afford the tuition without the scholarship. In the regular community you have a fair share of spoiled, a large share of wealth and a medium share of "daddy's business" to take over. Whether they admit it or not, most athletes know they will not go on to professional ball so graduation is very important. They can not fall back on family money and can not transfer to a lower $ school without difficulties and consequences. A regular family could determine they would rather spend less and send they kid down to UT to finish, or spend more and send them to NYU. The athlete has far fewer considerations. Hopefully you understand my gist and will name your son (or daughter)Mark.