College football will survive

Originally Published: February 10, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

If anyone says to you that they know what the effect of the Maurice Clarett decision will be on college football, don't fall for the play-action. No one knows, and no one will know for years. It took nearly a decade of drafting high school players for the NBA to find one who could step onto the floor without stumbling, and LeBron James still has half a season to go.

No one will question that college basketball has been altered by the opening of the NBA doors to anyone regardless of age. The talent level has dropped. Senior starters are as rare as Kerry Republicans.

It's been five days since U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the NFL couldn't bar Ohio State sophomore running back Maurice Clarett or anyone else from making himself available in the league draft. In the wake of the ensuing hysteria, you would think that college football has just sailed out over the cliff and remains poised in midair, holding up a "Help!" sign, Wile E. Coyote-style, before spiraling to its doom.

"It is going to be an absolute (colorful adjective) mess for the top college football teams," Utah coach Urban Meyer said. "And it's going to hurt the product on the field. Guys that should have been there for three years are all of a sudden going to be gone after a year."

I'm totally against this. It's unfortunate. But maybe it helps a school like Iowa because we don't get many of the superstar guys. It might hurt our competition.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz

Tain't so. The world may be getting younger every day -- a teenager, after all, will walk the red carpet at the Academy Awards as a Best Actress nominee -- but there is no room for the immature, physically and emotionally, in the NFL. And the latter is just as big a reason as the former.

Keisha Castle-Hughes, the lead actress in "Whale Rider," is a 13-year-old who played a young girl. She didn't try to play the part of a post-menopausal divorcee who falls in love. Diane Keaton, who's 58, earned a nomination for that role in "Something's Gotta Give." The same theory applies in football. There are no roles for teenagers.

Take the physical differences. Dr. James D. Cash is the founding president of the Orthopedic Hospital of Oklahoma and has been the team physician for the Jenks High Trojans, who have won seven 6A state championships in the last nine seasons and sent as many six players a year to Division I schools with scholarships.

Cash said there is no "hard science" to show that an 18-year-old tailback would be endangered by a 25-year-old defensive end. But there's an encyclopedia of common sense.

"I see kids who leave high school as good players and they're 6-foot-3, 230 pounds," Cash said, "and four years later they are 6-3, 270 pounds of solid muscle and their necks are an inch or two thicker. It would make me nervous if my son were getting hit by a 270-pound lineman who runs a 4.6 40. Basketball is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport."

Take the differences in knowledge. There are no advanced placement classes in football. Donovan McNabb, the best quarterback in the NFC, spent one year as a redshirt before starting for four seasons at Syracuse. When McNabb arrived on campus, "He wasn't even capable as a Division I player," says Virginia Tech quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers, who coached McNabb throughout his collegiate career. "He had eons to go in terms of the very basics of throwing the ball, never mind the nomenclature of the playbook. He was not remotely close to being a guy who could have been in an NFL camp."

Rogers said the only possibility of a player being able to make the leap would be "a highly skilled guy who is a cover corner. Quarterback? Michael Vick spent three years here, and he's a freak athletically."

Take the emotional differences. Central Florida coach George O'Leary just returned to college football after two years on the Minnesota Vikings staff.

"The physical and mental toll is so high (in the NFL) that you can almost tell when the eighth game kicks in," O'Leary said. "They have played five exhibition games, so it's really the 13th game. You see it in their eyes. 'Geez, we're only halfway done.'"

Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley won a national championship in 1980 by giving the ball to freshman tailback Herschel Walker.

"There are a handful, or maybe slightly more than a handful," who could leap over college football, Dooley said. "The amount of mental toughness needed at an early age is the thing. Again, Herschel might be the exception. I always felt that is what separated him. Bo Jackson was as strong as Herschel, and in some ways more athletic. Herschel had incredible mental toughness and self-discipline."

One of the ways that the NFL could accommodate the young players is to start a developmental league. In a league where the average career lasts fewer than four years, that may not be feasible. Would a player spend the prime of his athletic career in the developmental league?

Some people, especially the owners who would have to pay for a developmental league, believe that the NFL already has one. It is called college football.

NFL Europe could fill that role, but if emotional maturity is needed to succeed in the NFL, it would surely be just as necessary for an 18-year-old sent overseas to play for the Frankfurt Galaxy.

That brings up another problem that the NFL would have. College football coaches devote an incredible amount of time and money to determine whether a high school senior is good enough to play at the next level, and the lower reaches of the depth chart are filled with their wrong hunches.

So there's plenty of evidence that college football will suffer no more than a bruise from this latest ruling. It may even help some schools.

"I'm totally against this. It's unfortunate," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, a former NFL assistant. "But maybe it helps a school like Iowa because we don't get many of the superstar guys. It might hurt our competition."

And yet.

The NFL may be too athletically and emotionally challenging for high school players. But what if the NFL meets the high schoolers halfway? Just as the skill level of college basketball has regressed because of stars who leave early, hoop classicists rue the quality of play in the NBA. It's conceivable that NFL teams, in the rush to hoard talent, may start using younger players who are more athletic and less skilled.

"I'm a novice when it comes to coaching basketball," Ferentz said, "but looking at that game now, it almost looks to me like as a basketball coach, you're better off having a level B guy than a superstar, because a superstar is just going to be a one-year rental."

Players will find it easier to make the leap than to study hard enough to raise their GPA and avoid ineligibility.

They will leave for money, even though they'll get less than they might if they completed their college eligibility. Agents will be whispering sweet seven-figure nothings into the ears of star freshmen.

They will leave to chase a dream, no matter how unrealistic it may be. There isn't a scout team player in any Division I-A locker room who hasn't dreamed of running through the tunnel at the Super Bowl.

The real world awaits, ready to smack down anyone who's ill prepared. The freedom that Judge Scheindlin gave to young football players carries no guarantees.

ESPN.com's Wayne Drehs and Tom Farrey contributed to this story. Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE