College football: We've never needed you more


Retiring from daily print journalism, after 35 years, was surprisingly not difficult. The rub is you never know until you try it. My former colleague, Pulitzer Prize winner, Jim Murray, said writing a column was like riding a tiger--you hold on tight but don’t know how to jump off.

Maybe the cut isn’t as cold now because of social media. One doesn’t have to sign off with a gold watch and one-way ticket to Shady Acres. You can resume immediately your banal observations on Twitter, Facebook, or a blog. Transitioning from a “traditional” career is as simple as changing your bio from “works” at L.A. Times to “worked.”

Ok, that was easy, where’s lunch?

The first few weeks did produce nervous ticks, like a fireman jumping every time he hears an alarm bell. You hear news on your beat and run to the keyboard, only to realize this was now somebody else’s wrecked Christmas party.

The phone still rings, but less often, and it’s never from the boss.

The recovering print journalist is prone to deadline nightmares. Thanks to Gutenberg’s invention, sports copy at my shop had to be filed each night by 10:30 p.m., even if the game was in the seventh inning. You could update “re-plate” later, hoping to reach a few paid subscribers with a final score.

One recurring nightmare is being stuck in the catacombs of Dodger Stadium—no doubt a leftover haunt from a two-year stint as the team’s backup writer in the 1990s. The hands on my watch say 10:20 but every route back to the press box is a dazed-and-confused run through the Winchester House. Deadline is about to be blown and the only way to keep from getting fired is knowing you’re in a dream and then startling yourself back to the cold sweat of your bed sheets.

Eventually, the stomach knots recede into a more comfortable daily rhythm. It took five months of wine tasting to slip the bonds of work ethic and properly delineate what it was, exactly, about sports that might compel me to keep caring. The answer has been: not much. Maybe it’s like a guy who was a banker for 35 years not wanting to visit a bank.

The passion pangs remained, joyfully, for one sport: college football. Gastric butterflies instinctively returned a few weeks ago, amidst the backdrop of this awful 2016, in advance of Pac 12 Football Media days.

What a relief. Twenty years spent as national college football columnist for the LA Times wasn’t just a job. It was love. It took standing outside myself to appreciate what fans always told me: college football is a uniquely different, shared sporting experience. It gets down to the literal fraternity of it. Where you went to school can define the rest of your life. It permeates your skin, establishes your base line, and eternally connects you to something.

The school stamped on your diploma can get you hired some places, or not hired. Your university’s athletic shame can also unfairly brand you, as if you had anything to do with paying players at SMU.

Tell me this has never happened: someone tells you he’s from LSU and you think, “Wow, great football program.” And then someone says he’s from the University of Idaho and you think, “oh, man, sorry.”

It’s clear to me now how important this is. The current embarrassment of our national politics, combined with the horrors of San Bernardino, Paris, Orlando, Dallas, Nice, sent me recently on a pilgrimage for hiding places. Sometimes peace was found at the bottom of unheated Jacuzzi, or in a new guitar chord discovered by accident, or in the sediment of a third glass of wine.

It became difficult, then impossible, to read the daily newspapers, or watch cable news, without getting depressed. So, papers piled up on the driveway.

It hit me a while back, as a retired guy living on the Devil’s time, what people meant when they used to tell me “I need my college football fix.”

The need for diversion is real—now more than ever.

It doesn’t mean you become oblivious to real-life suffering: it just means man and woman need their own Peter Pan space just to keep from going Jiminy Crickets.

So bring me Tennessee, please, on the end of a stick. Give me harmless, inconsequential, pretend craziness--goal posts being torn down and dragged through a town square. Or, your righteous indignation, over a blown official’s call that cost you a trip to the Tomato Bowl.

You can have Hillary and Trump at their conventions. Give me Nick Saban and Bret Beliema at theirs.

Saban, who has won five national titles for a reason, begins every Southeastern Conference media day acknowledging the important role the press plays, “it’s exciting to see you,” then the rest of the year staring us down with shark eyes.

Yet, it is impossible not to admire Saban’s intensity, tenacity and cunning genius.

Bielema, the University of Arkansas’ coach, can’t go five feet without belching something quotable. There is no better poster-coach for a program whose fans wear pig masks.

As he says, “we need a lot of time in the bathroom to get ready and come out and look great.”

Bring me Washington State's Mike Leach, who always looks a bit like a guy who can’t find his car, responding to the state of today’s youths.

“Nobody talks to people anymore,” Leach said at Pac 12 Media Day, not far from the star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame devoted to Greta Garbo, who famously said, “I want to be alone.”

Leach just doesn’t get today’s kids: “They’ll go across the room and text each other. I think it’s actually kind of disturbing. I think the days before cell phones, when it was dirt clod wars at constructions sites, was a lot more wholesome and productive.”

If only wars could be decided with dirt clods.

What escapism harm is there in sublimating the fear of real terror for the crazed, maniacal look on Jim Harbaugh’s face? Let’s talk guns but only in context of offenses that employ “pistol” and “shotgun” formations.

Bring me irrational behavior, but only the kind practiced in the SEC, which won’t accept transfers with questionable backgrounds—but you can bring them in as incoming freshmen?

Shower me with our insane and illogical thinking, but only in the form of the NCAA rules manual, or someone leaving Christian McCaffrey off his Heisman Trophy ballot.

Please, Lord, deliver us from evil but also lead us spiritually into an opening, diversionary weekend of Alabama v. USC, Notre Dame v. Texas and LSU v. Wisconsin.

The SEC’s motto this year is “It just means more…”

In the dog days of a sad summer, though, the addendum should be added: “…to all of us.”

It took months of retirement contemplation to pound it home: College football has never meant more…to me.

So let’s flip off cable-news fighting for five months and start singing fight songs. Give ‘em the axe, Stanford, knowing that no one is really going to get hurt.

Let us heed the cheerleaders’ call: push ‘em back, way back. So, for at least a little while, we can push everything else aside.