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‘What in the Wide, Wide World of Sports Is A-Goin’ on Here?’

What a week it was in college and professional sports. Three iconic coaches all complete their lengthy stays with their current teams. One left on his own while the other two were nudged to move on. Nick Saban of Alabama shocked everyone by retiring from coaching; Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks was booted upstairs to an advisory role, and Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots parted ways with owner Robert Kraft. There’s a lot of championships among that group.

To steal a phrase from the Mel Brook’s iconic comedy “Blazing Saddles,” “What in the wide, wide world of sports is a-goin’ on here?”  Well, the landscape it is a-changing folks. The Baby Boomer era of controlling the sports world is slowly but surely coming to an end. 

For the sake of this column, I want to focus on the college coach. When talking about Nick Saban, ESPN radio commentator Freddie Coleman said, “I’m happy for him that he gets to enjoy his family especially his wife Terry (affectionately known as “Miss Terry” to the Alabama faithful).”  Freddie went on to say, “The sacrifices that the families of these coaches make are typically understated. People don’t give today’s coaches any slack though because of the huge salaries and benefits they receive.” 

Coach Saban spent 17 years at Alabama, winning six national championships and nine SEC championships. He also won a national title and two SEC crowns at LSU. He knows how to get the most from his players and is a master tactician preparing for his opponents and perhaps more importantly adjusting in-game than any other coach in college football history. Saban challenged players to be the best they could be and helped develop a stable full of NFL players. 

The man simply knows how to win. Period. He won me over for good when he had the courage to replace his standout starting QB (and future NFL QB) Jalen Hurts with a true freshman, Tua Tagovailoa, in the 2017 National Championship game. Tua helped revive the Crimson Tide offense in the second half, and he hit DeVonta Smith on a 41-yard TD in overtime for a 26-23 comeback win. It will be remembered as one of the greatest plays in CFP history.

I think that Coach Saban probably has had enough of today’s seemingly wild, wild west environment in college football, given name, image and likeness (NIL) and the transfer portal. Yes, the money is insane. In fact, I am very concerned that with that much money and power it is eventually going to lead to bad decisions for the greater good. 

Kevin Skiver, of the USA Today Network wrote this about Nick Saban’s departure:

“The college world is completely different, and it has undergone a giant facelift in recent years. The transfer portal, NIL, even the way recruiting is covered has made it exponentially more difficult to be a college coach. And according to Saban, it’s just hard to keep up with at his age.”

College sports aren’t necessarily going from “good to great” but “good to big,” as one of my mentors, Dr. Ray Lombra, is fond of saying, especially when talking about the money aspect. My biggest concern is the trickle-down impact to youth sports. People who may have been destined to become a doctor or engineer if their focus had been in a different place may put all their energies into winning the professional sports career lottery. 

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I believe I am justified in my concern. The college degree was always the carrot for the vast majority of athletes and a fallback for the very few who actually make it to the pros, where the average career lasts less than 3.4 years. 

Despite the Baby Boomers like me who fear that college sports are being ruined by NIL and the transfer portal, the top tier of college football has never been more popular than today as stadiums are packed and ratings are off the charts. Hard to argue with the metrics. True, but could it be more because of fantasy leagues and sports betting that the popularity is at an all-time high at the 20 or so elite college athletic programs? How do you compare football and basketball to the other sports? More and more resources keep going to fewer and fewer schools and athletes. 

Old School

Former Penn State and NFL linebacker Paul Posluszny getting elected to the College Football Hall of Fame last week was great news. I got to know Paul when I was the Nittany Lion Club director and have always described him as the consummate student-athlete. He was a true gentleman and an incredible role model for all his teammates in college and in the pros. 

When he retired from the NFL, his teammates gave him the most heartfelt praise for being such a great teammate. Yes, it was in part because of his performance on the field, but it was more about his character, impact as a leader and mentor and his positive impact on their lives. 

His Jaguar’s teammate Telvin Smith introduced Posluszny and almost immediately broke into tears when speaking about his teammate of four years. “I promise you as soon as I met him, I knew I had a guy I could trust, who I could depend on,” Smith said. “I never thought I would meet somebody who didn’t grow up in the struggle that I did and love the game as much as I did. I never met a better man than you. I’ve never had a better teammate than you.”

Since retiring, Paul has earned an MBA from Carnegie Mellon and is currently a strategy analyst at Raytheon. Even a 10-year NFL player has to transition eventually.

Will there even be college football student-athletes down the road? Or will they simply be minor league NFL players? Will there only be two super-conferences made up of 20-30 elite schools?

From left, Penn State hockey alum and DePew, N.Y. native Bill Fuhrey (Covington, Ga.), PSU football sophomore safety Audavion Collins (Covington, Ga.), former PSU and Bills player and Frewsburg, N.Y. native Shane Conlan (Pittsburgh) with Penn Hills native Joe Battista at the Penn State-Michigan Stae hockey game at Pegula Ice Arena.  

It’s changing. No doubt. I just wonder if the leaders in higher education have ever really stopped to discuss whether it should. I was fortunate enough to get to know, and take classes from, some of the legends of the sports management academic world, including John Lucas, who was an amazing man and considered the “unofficial” Olympic historian;  Ralph J. Sabock (coincidentally a native of Penn Hills, Pa. like me), author of “The Coach,” which was the gold standard of coaching text books for years; and my former sports ethics professor, Scott Kretchmar, long-time NCAA faculty representative for Penn State and a major influence on a young Coach Battista. I just wonder what these gentlemen would think about today’s college landscape.

There is some good news. Based on a recent event I attended, there is hope that Penn State will continue to do things the right way. At our Penn State hockey alumni reunion in the Club at Pegula Ice Arena, athletic director Pat Kraft and men’s hockey head coach Guy Gadowsky delivered honest and sincere remarks about the current landscape of college athletics. They emphasized the need to do NIL the “Penn State Way” and not to just “buy” players with big money. Pat and Guy are both former Division I athletes and they have a firm grasp on the importance of culture in a locker room and for a program to be successful. 

I was encouraged by what I heard. The message was all about the importance of an education. They both know how few of these athletes will ever “make it big,” certainly not many ever make enough to be set for life. The hockey team set an all-time record with its team GPA and regularly ranks among the best in all sports in the Big Ten. 

Penn State Athletic Director Pat Kraft addressing the hockey alumni at the Club in Pegula Ice Arena. 

Based on the job titles I see on LinkedIn of the graduates of the varsity Nittany Lions hockey program, these young men (and members of our women’s team, too) are proving that achieving Success with Honor and being a true student-athlete are still possible even in today’s ever-changing landscape in the wide, wide world of sports.