There is nothing I can write that will make you believe what I am about to state: College football is still a game. Yeah, I know it is hypocritical, overemphasized, overexposed, overhyped, overscheduled, overfacilitied, overfunded, overhandicapped and overregulated. But anything involving a hundred males ages 18- to 21-years-old and a ball, who are matriculating at real universities, who have real mamas, real professors, real homework and real neuroses is by definition a game.
I recently visited Northwestern University's training camp and was taken by the enthusiasm, vibrancy and fun on the practice field. Despite the tragic loss of coach Randy Walker, new head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his men are doing an incredible job of moving on. I could have been at any one of the 119 Division I-A programs and would have seen something reasonably similar. These are bright youngsters who love to play. Most will never see an NFL field. Most will graduate from a great university. Most will never become embroiled in academic, ethical or legal embarrassments. In later years, most will refer to their coaches as having been among the dominant positive forces in their lives.
I have been in and around thousands of NFL practices and have never seen one with college-level exuberance. At the conclusion of Northwestern's practice, Fitzgerald called the team up, arranged the players in choir formation and personally led them in a rousing rendition of the school fight song. It was stunning!
Simply put, the National Football League is a deadly serious business. It is about winning with a destroy-or-be-destroyed mentality, and it is about market dominance. Regardless of its clever publicity campaigns, the NFL has nothing to do with education, community service, career counseling or sitting up all night with kids whose moms are sick. Although the league is doing a better job of working with current players on preparing for life after the NFL, those programs are for the few who actually make the final rosters. The majority of players who report to training camp are cut and left to their own devices.
After five years as a junior high and high school football player, five years as a college player, 10 years in the NFL, one year as an NFL scout, one year as a college assistant, three years as an NFL assistant, 17 years as a college head coach and nine years as an ESPN college football analyst, I have a unique perspective. I certainly did not plan it this way, but the entire process has been a great adventure in the sport I love, and I have seen it from virtually every angle.
Being a player or coach today is a little like living in a zoo. While we football freaks are human beings most of the time, we really do live our lives on display. Our faces become somewhat recognizable, and people call us by name at the filling station. Folks ask for autographs and act thrilled when we sign. Other folks call and anonymously threaten our lives. Girls who wouldn't speak to us when we were pencil-necked geeks suddenly begin to smile at us. That is heady stuff for a pimply 17-year-old. Throw in classes, labs, study hall, weight lifting and social adjustment at every turn, and the college coach is entrusted with the most remarkable balancing act. This is where fun becomes a necessity.
The college coach who cannot keep the elements of play and fun in his operation will lose his squad. Not only will the kids perform poorly, but they will become morose, exhausted and confused. After my second year at Georgia Tech, when our record was 2-19-1, my legendary former coach Bobby Dodd made his first observation since my arrival. He said, "Bill, you are driving these kids too hard. They are tired before you ever take the field! With the schedule you have, you have to keep their morale up, keep them fresh!"
I said, "Coach, I played for you and respect you enormously, but I believe in the Don Shula practice system. We won with it in Baltimore, and he is doing great in Miami. If we practice long and hard, eventually it will pay off."
Dodd grimaced, eyeballed me and asked, "When you played for Shula, how many chemistry labs did you attend? How many nights were you up until 2 a.m. preparing for quizzes? How many times were you in mortal fear of losing your scholarship because you got beat by a bunch of National Merit Scholars in physics class? How many, Bill?"
I knew I had been had.
We cut practice time, started thinking of ways our teenagers could have a little fun and began to win football games. It has to be a game for those kids, or they cannot handle the grind.
NFL training camp strikes newcomers in a variety of ways. One tends to be overwhelmed simply because there is no precedent for such culture shock. If football players live in a kind of zoo, college is a petting zoo. The lambs, puppies, rabbits and Shetland ponies are gentle. The goats, king snakes and monkeys might look aggressive, but are virtually harmless as well. Even the big animals would have been trained to be docile, so that buffalo petting is encouraged. The campus zoo might have one or two tigers, a rhino and a crocodile, but they are kept in separate cages, unavailable for petting and not allowed to destroy the gentler varieties. They are routinely unleashed only on Saturday afternoons, expected to ravage the opposing animals before being returned to their enclosures.
In the NFL, there are no rabbits or Shetland ponies only tigers, rhinos and crocodiles, all huge, voracious and lightning fast. Let's say a kid had been a Golden Retriever all his life. A quick choice is in order if he desires to play in the NFL. Can a Golden Retriever develop stripes, claws and a nasty temperament? Most cannot. The consequence of that inability dictates a quick trip back to the safer environment.
For those who undergo the metamorphosis, the payoff is a constant fight for survival in the jungle, and I have to admit it gets to be fun after the first few gut-wrenching years. I had more fun in my last six seasons in the NFL than in my high school or college career. I never enjoyed coaching in the NFL, quite simply because I hated cutting players. I wanted to keep them, work with them and see if we could improve together.
Bottom line: It is more fun to play without the physics labs. It is more fun to coach in college, where the labs are more important than the games, where youngsters often grow up to become leaders, and where a coach can make a real difference in young lives.
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage.