TAMPA - That supposed bastion of amateur athletic purity, the Olympics, finally stopped swimming against the tide and consented to the use of professional athletes following the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. That decision opened the door for the greatest assemblage of hoops talent ever, the United States' "Dream Team," to run roughshod over the competition in men's basketball at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
There are those who would throw in with the International Olympic Committee and end the hypocrisy - some of it, anyway - and acknowledge certain realities in the increasingly sordid realm of big-time college football.
With television-rights money now in the billions, why not just concede that players at BCS schools are pros-in-training and pay them accordingly? Just give those with NFL potential a specified number of years of eligibility and don't bother making them do mundane tasks, like attending class and maintaining a minimum grade-point average.
If and when that day comes, it will drive Penn State's very traditional coach, Joe Paterno, out of the profession faster than it takes Devon Smith to run a fly pattern. The game's shifting priorities are such that even a highly successful and relatively young coach, Florida's Urban Meyer, felt it necessary to step away rather than strive to maintain a receding standard that is as much on the endangered-species list as whooping cranes and giant pandas.
As an official of the Outback Bowl, which on Jan. 1 pairs Meyer's Gators and Paterno's Nittany Lions in an otherwise meaningless meeting of 7-5 teams, sat by nervously, yesterday's joint news conference with the two head coaches largely dealt with issues that are driving out ethical coaches, and are nudging others into tacit or outright acceptance of the sort of rules-bending the NCAA's small enforcement staff will penalize if those transgressions come to light.
Just this year, 2005 winner Reggie Bush returned his Heisman Trophy amid mounting evidence he received improper benefits during his time at Southern California. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, this year's Heisman recipient, is shrouded in controversy after it was revealed his father attempted to sell his services to Mississippi State for $180,000. Georgia's standout wide receiver, A.J. Green, sat out four games for selling an autographed, game-worn jersey to an agent, and five Ohio State players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, will be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for trading memorabilia for free tattoos.
Meyer, just 46 and a winner of two BCS national championships in his six seasons in Gainesville, tendered his resignation on Dec. 8, ostensibly to spend more time with his family. But Meyer, about to coach his final game with a team he has lifted to the highest level of the sport, admits that the encroachment of cash-waving agents and boosters, who increasingly infiltrate campuses despite even a vigilant coach's efforts to thwart them, has served to diminish the higher purpose that first drew him into the business.
"College football - and I don't know if this is the appropriate time to discuss this - but I'm very concerned about it," Meyer said. "I got into coaching 25 years ago for guys like Joe Paterno, Bo Schembechler and Earle Bruce. I think Fielding Yost had one of the greatest quotes of all time when he talked about the game of football in 1903. It was, 'Football's not a fad.' It's turning into a fad now. And the last line of the quote is, 'You have to love the struggle.' "
Football is not a fad - the hula hoop and pet rock were fads - but it's harder for coaches with a conscience to continue loving the struggle. Some elite players expect and receive promises from recruiters that can't be kept, and they show up with a sense of entitlement that legendary Michigan coach Yost never encountered more than a century ago.
"I couldn't agree more with what Urban just said," Paterno responded. "I'm worried about the game. Football has had a dimension to it that's very meaningful to young people, particularly at that age, where they have to understand what it is to be part of something that's bigger than they are . . . to be a member of a team and for a bunch of guys to go out there and make the kind of sacrifices that are necessary to be successful as a group."
The shared values of Meyer and Paterno, 84, make for the sort of mutual-admiration society that should make the Outback Bowl's 25th anniversary contest competitive on the field, but with a noticeable lack of rancor between the coaches.
"I've known coach Paterno longer than he's known me," Meyer said. "I was one of those guys who always wanted to be a football coach. I had pictures of [Nebraska's Tom] Osborne and those great coaches of that era. I just had great admiration for the way they ran programs.
"I knew at an early age that this was what I wanted to do. Whenever you know that, you pick your idols and guys you want to pattern yourself after. And, obviously, coach Paterno is at the top of that list."
Paterno reciprocated by tossing a bouquet of praise right back at Meyer.
"My son, Jay [Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno], worships the guy," JoePa said. "I keep telling him, 'Your old man's a head coach, too, you know.'
"But, really, Urban's great for this game. He really is. I'm not very happy to see him go. But he's got to do what he's got to do."
Meyer likely will do what a lot of retired coaches do, which is to serve as a TV analyst. ESPN recently had him come up to its Bristol, Conn., headquarters to discuss his possible involvement with the sports-cable giant.
"I'll have to do something if coach Paterno doesn't hire me as a GA [graduate assistant]," Meyer joked.
Paterno joked right back, saying, "Urban's going to be great [at ESPN]. I think all of us know that. I just hope he never becomes 'Dr. Urban,' " a reference to Lou Holtz' humorous ESPN segments as "Dr. Lou." *