Thursday, November 14, 2013


                I started this last Thursday night after watching one of the best College football games I’d seen in years.  It’s just that being a Bear, it’s hard to say anything nice about the Stanford State Indians.
                But they figured it out.  According to Coach David Shaw it was Jim Harbaugh that came up with the magic sauce after Stanford one only one game in 2008:  If you haven't already, click to see you tube video--which puts us in our place.
                It doesn’t matter who did it.  Cal decided to do it in 1970 when Ray Willsey was still coaching, but we didn’t follow through.  The plan was simple:  Find the greatest, smartest athletes in the country and get them to come to Cal, the hippest, coolest University in the World.
                For reasons we won’t get into here, that plan got sidetracked.
                The Stanford Indians are carrying out the plan which was hatched at Cal—er Berkeley almost 50 years ago.
                Interesting that the Indian’s victory coincided with the death of Ray Willsey who taught us how to hit--how to play football the old-fashioned way—the way it was designed.   How to put a lot of hats on an opposing player.  “Football is played inside the 20’s.  The rest of the field is for the Statisticians,” Ray used to say over and over again.  He liked physical football—and his teams were nothing if not hitters—much like the Indians of today.
                Football is now, and always has been about blocking and tackling.  That doesn’t mean it’s about “boring.”  It is the ultimate physical game.  (Marathons may be more physically taxing, but only football—as a team sport—forces kids to address their fears and physically mix it up with opponents who may be physically bigger and stronger—opponents who can hurt them—as opposed to a body which gives into ketosis during a Marathon).
                That is its ultimate appeal to the average fan—think Nero and the Coliseum. 
                Now, I’m not against the Ducks’ hurry up offense.  I never want to be one of those guys who says “Hank Lucsetti is ruined basketball by introducing the one handed jump shot.  We need to stick with the two handed set shot.  That is real basketball.”       
                Games change.  The sainted Red Blaik complained that the pass happy T formation was “Basketball in cleats.”  Wrong.  I get it.  Skill levels improve.  Athletes are bigger stronger and faster than we were.  I get it. They can do more extraordinary things on the field than we could.
                That being said, what sets football apart from all other sports is the amount of physicality involved.
                We grew up on Jim Taylor searching out defensive backs, just so he could lower a shoulder and
“hit” them, in the hopes that by the 4th quarter they would give up and veer away from him when it counted.
                Chuck Bednarik was the last 60 minute man (a center and linebacker for the Eagles).  What did we admire about him?  Not only his toughness, but his ability to endure.  Like Hemmingway’s old man who was beating off sharks with his oars until his oars broke and then tried to beat them off with his fists, Bednarik endured.  It may be man’s most noble trait—enduring in the face of certain defeat (death). 

 Bednarik  lasted far beyond what any man should have been able to stand up to.   
                We’ve now got “football players” playing 16 plays per game.  What does that have to do with the “poetry “of endurance?  But I digress.
                The game has changed.  Facemasks cause more injuries (especially concussions) than they prevent.  (But that’s another column).
                Do to TV’s attempt to attract more and more of an audience (especially worldwide), they want to do away with the subtlety of field position.  Like rugby, which gave birth to organized football, field position used to be what one played for.  It was gained by grounding out yardage, punting, playing stalwart defense—and gaining better “field position,” in a never ending chess match which slowly and surely resulted in a score.
                Now (like slam dunks in basketball which thrill the uninitiated) the Networks want long pass plays and quick scores.  People who don’t “know” football can tune in to that and go orgasmic.  The least knowledgeable fan in the world can understand Kaepernickk hitting Davis down the seam for a 70 yard score.  I like it to.
                But we also know that football—at its essence—is more complicated and more beautiful than that.
                Stanford State’s Gaffney carried 45 times for 157 yards.  How dull is that?  Each time he touched the ball he barely picked up four yards!  What does that to do ratings—especially when people want to see the 85 yard touchdown pass?  But what a “Terrible beauty was born.”
                While we spent the past few years enrolling children who not only didn’t graduate, but graduated in absolutely last place of 123 FBS schools—we, the Greatest University in the World—had a horrendous won loss record to match it.
                With the possible exception of the Health Care roll out—what Cal did is pretty hard to accomplish.  Not graduating is a disgrace.  Losing more than you win—very hard to swallow—especially with our cupcake scheduling of teams like Presbyterian College and Eastern Washington.  However, playing patsies, losing and not graduating is a tri-fecta which no one in our lifetime has ever accomplished.
                So why should have it been us last Thursday? 
                Because getting the best and brightest is what we used to call in my Mad Men days a Unique Selling Proposition (The USP).  Every product (or brand) has (or should have) a USP which differentiates it from the competition.  It could be “Shrinking hemorrhoids without surgery” or “Less filling—Tastes Great.”  It doesn’t matter.
                The brand has to differentiate itself from the competition.  We  (as the Greatest University in the World) could (and should) certainly do that.
                The Indians are doing it and reaping great rewards.
                Back to football.  In the 60’s Red Hickey thought he was really cute and he “invented the shot-gun.”  The Niners had been beaten by Green Bay and the season didn’t look promising.  Out of nowhere, he began rotating John Brodie, Y.A. Title, and Bobby Waters at the Quarterback spot, while taking the snap 5 yards back from center.  It was considered revolutionary.   It was called the “Shot gun” and ignorant writers talked about him revolutionizing football (kind of like the “read option).  Suddenly the Niners  slaughtered Detroit 49 to love—the Rams 35 love—and The Vikings 38-24.  The hottest team in the league they marched into Chicago to play George Halas’ Bears.
                They were unbeatable—until they were not.   Halas slaughtered them, 31 zip.
                Halas said, “That’s a formation which was popular in the 30’s.  We went to a five man front (instead of the staid 4/3 which was in vogue at the time) and he kicked our backsides.  (Ecclesiastes had it right.  There is nothing new under the sun).  
                There is nothing new in football.  It is blocking and tackling.
                And the Indians out blocked and out tackled the favored Ducks.  It’s that simple.
                This is anecdotal, but one of the great things about building your program around really smart kids (like Stanford State is doing) is that most of us can attest to the fact that the smartest guys on our teams were the big “dumb” lineman.  It has to do with form following function, and the fact that large endomorphic men who are willing to bang their heads with other large endomorphic men tend to me (unlike point guards or quarterbacks) “narrow (not narrow minded), inner thinking, focused animals as opposed to the broad “big picture” open field gazers like qb’s and point guards (see Nideffer’s book, The Inner Athlete )
                And guess what?  If you have a program which is tailored to lineman and their personalities, what do you think is going to happen on the field?  Great linemen are the building blocks on both side of the ball.
                Now I have never criticized Sonny Dykes and I NEVER criticize children (unless it’s a character issue as with Desean Jackson).
                But if we tailor our program for the best and the brightest—not just kids who we think we can shepherd through—we will receive tangible benefits.
                Of course, one of the problems is that we reward buffoonery as opposed to what Cal is supposed to be about.  Do you know that the athletic director gets a bonus based on Cal’s standings in the director Cup, but (as far as I know) no bonus’s for grade point average or graduation rates?
                Of course, if the AD’s job were based on academics I think we know what the outcome would be--a bonus for Sears Cup, but not academic standards?  Who thinks up these things?
                So I hate the Stanford State Indians.  I can’t stand their success.  It kills me to root for them.  But what a wonderful job there are doing—and sorry to say it—we should take a page out of their playbook.
                It starts at the top.  That could have been us beating #2 ranked Oregon last Thursday—if only we had different leadership from the Chancellor and a different focus.