There was some college football on last night—we're not sure you caught South Carolina vs. NC State, what with Obama's speech and all—but tomorrow, those noon-to-midnight Saturdays are back. Over the next three months or so, countless players will shine. Of course, there are 25 or so already projected to do just that: preseason All-Americans! How does that whole process work, anyway? To find out, we turned to Playboy sports editor Gary Cole, who's been selecting one of the more influential preseason All-American teams for 22 years. He also ran down his biggest hits and misses and the what these athletes gain from visiting The Mansion (get your mind out of the gutter).
The Magazine: Take us through the process of selecting the team.
Cole: It's a year-round activity in a way. I love the fact that as a season's about to start, I have a marvelous excuse to watch every football game known to man; if my wife comes in the room to complain, I just respond, "Hey, I'm working!" It's a brilliant scam.
Early in the year, I send out a form to every SID, and I ask them what players on their team they think are candidates. They can nominate guys on other teams too. I look at the previous season's All-Conference lists around then, as well. I'm also fortunate to have a number of friends who are NFL scouts, so by talking to them I get handfuls of information here and there.
I put all the info on 3x5 index cards. I've tried computerizing the system, but I like the cards. I organize the cards around many times before the final team is set. Sometimes as this is going on, I'll get tapes from teams or players. Sometimes I'll have a coach call me to lobby for one of his players; Rich Rodriguez did that when he was at West Virginia. One time, I got lobbied by a player's mother.
You did an interesting thing with your preview issue this year, similar to a Back and Forth we ran on this site: you had student journalists actually weigh in on the teams for Playboy's inaugural College Sportswriters Preseason Poll. How did that come about and what were some of the things you learned?
Mostly, just how knowledgeable guys are about other teams and conferences. Overall, though, it was just a way to bring in another slant and point of view; we've been doing this for 52 years, and having a cross-section of students and what they think adds another element to the package.
One thing we've found interviewing college football players, is that oftentimes if you ask them questions about players at other schools, the reason they know those guys is because of going out to the Playboy Mansion as All-Americans. Do you think the team you select starts some friendships?
That's the neatest part of the whole thing. Players will show up, and they've heard about each other, but they've never met each other. It's a relaxed social setting, and almost immediately, the guys are talking and sharing stories. "This guy or that guy—he's a beast!" Guys become friends; sometimes they trade jerseys. This past year, a few guys traded helmets. I get calls from some of their coaches asking, "Where is this guy's helmet? He says he had it at the Mansion!" They can share the joy of being a college football player without the pressures of being a college football player.
You've been selecting this team 22 years. Gotta ask: biggest miss ever?
Every year, there are going to be some tough calls. Quarterback this year, for example, is incredibly tough. All-time, though? I remember someone asked us once "How did you never have Jim McMahon on there?" because of all the collegiate records he had. My response is, "One year we had Marino in that slot, and another year we had Elway." I think it might be Brian Urlacher, though. I had a card on him that year. I was ready to pick him. Some scouts told me, "Measure the competition he plays against," so I dropped him off the list. We were wrong on that one.
Flip side: what's one you're proud of?
When Thurman Thomas left Oklahoma State, I put Barry Sanders on the team the next year. He hadn't played a lot at RB while Thomas was there, but I had seen him play in pockets—return some kicks and such—and I was knocked out by him. I don't think I've ever made a better pick than that.
You guys have Oklahoma winning it all. Want to back it up?
They're very complete. One thing: who can stop the left side of that line? Loadholt and Robinson? No one can move them. Georgia's schedule is really tough.
Who would you say the best college football player of the last ten years—the BCS Era—is?
You gotta have Peyton Manning up there, even though he was finishing college about a decade ago. In fact, Peyton was a Playboy guy twice. So was Eli. Archie was a Playboy guy once too. We've run out of Mannings.
That's tough. Urban Meyer is amazing. Talk about recruiting; he's fantastic at that. Pete Carroll, what he's done at USC. Jim Tressel: he hasn't won the big one recently, but he'll get another.
If we're talking all-time, I'd say that Barry Sanders might be the best college football player ever. Coach? Definitely Bear Bryant is up there.