The bowl-season mythology says that the tradition, custom and prestige of participation is a grand and glorious experience for student-athletes that is more than worth the effort. Then there’s a lot of the Washington Huskies, who, except for the $500 swag bags of gear and trinkets, probably would just as soon hang out at home.
Nothing against the Fight Hunger Bowl or San Francisco, site of the game Friday night against Brigham Young. Not a bad week’s gig at all. But after what the Huskies are going through in December, much still unknown, the feeling grows that, rather than being feted for their specialness, they are merely lumps of coal shoveled into the college-football furnace.
The abrupt departure of coach Steve Sarkisian for USC, followed by an investigation into the claim that assistant coach Tosh Lupoi tried to pay for a recruit’s tutoring the past spring by leaving cash in coffee cups and restaurant-seat cushions, has taken a big edge off a largely successful 8-4 season — even if the Huskies did lose to Oregon for the 10th time in a row.
It’s easy for outsiders to tell players to suck it up and play. After all, being jerked around in college prepares one for life in the real world. The difference is that the college football industry, in lieu of money, engages its workers with noble terms such as family, commitment, sacrifice and one-for-all — until the coach espousing the platitudes and bromides bolts for a sweeter gig elsewhere that betrays everything he was asking of them.
Yes, a scholarship is provided, too. But the relative handful of players who are putting the academic opportunity to good use, such as DT Danny Shelton and DE Hau’oli Kikaha, named to the Pac-12 Conference All-Academic first team in November, probably would just as soon put time in December to preparing for final exams. They’ll never say that, of course, because it’s sacrilege to the bowl-game mythology.
Instead, because there have been no playoffs in FBS and all its predecessor labels, the Huskies are asked to play an extra game that has no seasonal meaning,
When it comes deriving meaning for the exercise, benefits go largely to three groups:
- Coaches, who not only get bonuses for bowl appearances but an 15 extra practices to improve the team for next year, so the coach can springboard to a better job, as Sarkisian did;
- Boosters, who get their loyalty card punched for throwing money at the program by being hosted at various parties and events that provide food, drink and backslaps;
- The host city/bowl sponsor, which get to market themselves for four hours on ESPN, which actually owns 31 of the 35 bowl games.
The players occupy the bottom rung of the benefits ladder. Those returning next year get extra practices where they can improve their standing on the depth chart. But players looking to be drafted by the NFL take some risk to their future with an unnecessary game, and some others simply would prefer to do something else with their holiday time.
And yes, some will enjoy raising hell in the hotel or the streets.
In the case of these particular Huskies, they have been abandoned by the coach who recruited them, plus several assistants that followed Sarkisian to USC. They are being coached by holdovers, including Lupoi, who proclaims innocence. Could be true, and it can also be true that episode chronicled in the Los Angeles Times was not isolated. More uncertainty about potential punishments.
The most uncertainty is the holdover coaches, who are subject both to poaching and to firing. Apprently none of them has assured UW employment beyond Friday, including interim head coach Marques Tuiasosopo. And the new coach, Chris Petersen, will not attend the game, because he rightly feels his presence might be disruptive because so much remains unsettled.
So it’s clear that the college football machine that allows this to happen doesn’t much care about the bowl outcome, either. Why should the players?
Naturally, Tuiasosopo holds to the belief that all is relatively well, and the coaching change is merely another thing to manage. He speaks with some authority, having been a Huskies quarterback after the coach who recruited him, Jim Lambright, was fired following the 1998 season and bowl game, and Rick Neuheisel had yet to bring his guitar and his betting pool to Montlake.
“When you’ve gone through something (like a coaching change), you have a little credibility to talk them through it,” Tuiasosopo told reporters Monday in San Francisco. “I just say, ‘Hey, I know what it feels like to have what you thought was going to be four years.’ It’s gone now.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s all going downhill. We had some uncertainty, our new coach (Neuheisel) came in and we went to the Holiday Bowl and the Rose Bowl. So there can be a huge positive here. My message to them early on was, ‘Come together as a team. Take control. New coach comes in here and you guys are policing yourselves, let them deal with football, come together and create something special here.’I think they bought into that.
“The seniors have a lot to play for this last game. They’ve done a nice job. I know it’s been talked about a lot, but I really believe they want it.”
Maybe so. Players may turn the feeling of betrayal into some self-promotion, to which they are certainly entitled. And they may play well. Certainly that’s what happened at USC, where the Trojans are on their fourth head coach of the season (Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, Clay Helton and now Sarkisian) yet managed to play for themselves when they clobbered Fresno State 45-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Then again, a bowl game may have a deadening effect. Washington State’s first bowl game in 10 years ended up a debacle after the Cougars allowed Colorado State to score the game’s last 18 points in the final three minutes of what became a 48-45 defeat.
Besides the embarrassing, QB Connor Halliday was subjected to a homophobic slur by an opposing assistant coach captured on national TV. Then Halliday’s coach, Mike Leach, failed to accept any responsibility for butchering the game management that allowed as easy victory to escape. Leach blew off his flagship station’s post-game radio show, backhanded reporters’ questions and generally responded like a neurotic lout to the legitimate question of what the hell did he just do.
The New Mexico Bowl did not produce an afternoon of glory for the coaching profession.
The bowl season is already filling up with dramatic plays and performances and outlandish outcomes that make it such a successful part of the entertainment industry. If you want to maintain the emotional high, don’t look backstage at the performers.