I expect hyperbole from the Bleacher Report. I expect articles titled “Ten Reasons why Nick Saban is a Commi-Nazi.” I don’t expect transparent attempts to drive hits from Sports Illustrated. That publications seems more respectable. So when I was scanning SI.com’s front page on Monday and saw an article by Stewart Mandel entitled "Masoli move latest proof Nutt is certifiably dirty coach", I assumed that this had to be an instance of a lowly headline writer at the web site taking liberties with the article. Nope. Mandel is really calling Nutt dirty. In doing so, Mandel’s reasoning is horrendous on any one of a number of levels. It’s the sort of petty moralizing that one expects on sports radio.
First, Mandel’s definition of “dirty” is both misplaced and too broad. Read these words and ask yourself if there is a coach to whom these words would not apply:
The definition of "dirty" seems to vary based on one's affiliation, but surely we can all agree on at least one designation: A dirty coach is willing to eschew his integrity if doing so might pay off in a couple more W's. He's not so much a winner as a survivalist. He's not even necessarily a rule-breaker because he creates his own loopholes.
Any coach who makes compromises to win games is dirty. Really, Stewart? If that is your definition, then every major college football coach is dirty. Nick Saban consistently oversigns and then puts pressure on his existing players so he can fit his plus-sized recruiting classes under the 85-scholarship limit. Urban Meyer famously told Jevan Snead that he was recruiting Tim Tebow as a linebacker. Is Mandel writing columns about how Saban and Meyer are dirty? No, because they are respected coaches at major programs. Mandel doesn’t want to piss off titans, but he feels free to invade Granada by picking on Houston Nutt.
And then think about Mandel’s definition of “dirty.” Wouldn’t a better definition of dirty be “a coach who breaks the rules that govern his profession?” What’s dirtier: violating NCAA rules or accepting a transfer of a player who has been booted off of his team? That’s what’s ludicrous about Mandel’s piece. Within the first three paragraphs, Mandel has taken the position that Nutt is dirtier than Pete Carroll, who presided over a program that just got tagged with the harshest sanctions dealt out by the NCAA to a major football program in almost a decade, and Lane Kiffin, who made secondary violations his modus operandi in one season at Tennessee. Call me crazy, but in the hierarchy of ethics, violating the rules that govern one’s profession is worse than welcoming a player whom Mandel’s own publication just published a mostly positive piece.
Second, Mandel’s retelling of the Mitch Mustain/Gus Malzahn saga is just wrong. Mandel points to this as the point at which Nutt lost his ethical bearings, but I fail to see what Nutt did wrong. He hired Malzahn, possibly in part to secure Mustain’s letter of intent, but it’s not as if hiring Malzahn was unqualified (as subsequent events have demonstrated). Then, during Mustain’s freshman season, Nutt figured out that the strength of his team was its two star running backs – Darren McFadden and Felix Jones – and tasked David Lee with figuring out the best way to get them the ball. Thus, the Wildcat offense was born. Arkansas won the SEC West and was Reggie Fish’s boner away from winning the conference. Nutt did marginalize Malzahn, but the result speak for themselves. Is getting McFadden and Jones on the field at the same time evidence of Nutt turning into Dr. Evil? I’m going with no.
Third, Mandel cites the Jamar Hornsby episode to establish a pattern, as if a sample size of two is sufficient to conclude that Nutt will take any player. Moreover, the Hornsby episode illustrates two additional points that bear mentioning. First, Hornsby’s crime at Florida – using the credit card of a teammate’s dead girlfriend – was incredibly foul, but it was non-violent. Masoli has been accused of several crimes and pled guilty to participating in the theft of a laptop, but his crimes are also non-violent. There’s a distinction between Nutt bringing any old “questionable character” to Oxford and Nutt bringing someone who threatens the safety of the populace. Nutt has done the former, but not the latter. At least the players he brought to campus aren’t dragging their girlfriends by the hair down the stairs of apartment complexes like some legends. (I’m eagerly looking forward to Mandel addressing the last four years of Tom Osborne’s coaching career under the standard that he has laid down for Nutt. And I say this as someone who likes Osborne.)
Fourth, Mandel plays the “what about the children!?!” trope by asking how Nathan Stanley, Ole Miss’s current starter, feels about Nutt bringing in Masoli. Leaving aside the fact that Nutt is bringing in a player with one year of eligibility (by Mandel’s standard, any coach who recruits a star freshman quarterback when he has an existing starter is dirty; I guess Lloyd Carr is a dirty jerk for recruiting Chad Henne when he already had Matt Gutierrez), isn’t football supposed to be about competition? If Stanley is a competitor, then he’ll respond to Masoli coming to Oxford by saying to himself “I know this offense better than Masoli and I’m going to make him my back-up.” If he’s a realist, he’ll say “gee, we only had two quarterbacks; what would happen if I got hurt?” In Stewart’s world, Stanley should say “my coach wants to win games? Burn him!”
One final question to end this rant: should Masoli have been banished from football for his offenses at Oregon?