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For now, TCU and Baylor can still rule I-35

It’s a simple stretch of highway about 370 miles long that can be traversed in less than six hours, traffic permitting.

But that one north-south stretch of Interstate 35 that extends from central Oklahoma to central Texas might be the most important one in all of college football, as it is there that perhaps the four schools crucial to not only determining a conference championship but the national championship in 2015 lie.

What is even more amazing about the I-35 connection in the Big 12 is that at the moment, it’s not the two schools at the very ends in Norman and Austin where the power really lies but the two in between. Two small, denominational schools that are only part of the conference to keep it together have, for now, displaced the two huge state schools as the powerhouses of football in the Big 12 Conference.

Not only was it TCU and Baylor fighting for a spot in college football’s first top-level playoff and, to many, getting unjustly denied, but many have said the poor seasons that Texas and Oklahoma endured on their own ends contributed to the Horned Frogs and Bears getting left out, Yes, UT and OU are currently bringing the Big 12 down.

Can TCU and Baylor continue shifting the balance of power in the Big 12, and can their Big State competition find a way to get back on top? Let’s look at what each of the I-35 schools have looking forward:

TCU – The biggest thing about Gary Patterson and his program is they did not complain about getting snubbed for the college football playoff; they let the reporters and bloggers do that. Instead, the Horned Frogs proved themselves on the field with a thorough thrashing of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, with the only piece of excessive bragging being the makeshift championship belt that Trevone Boykin wore in the postgame celebration. And given that TCU only had 10 seniors on its two-deep roster, 2014 should not be a fluke. The Horned Frogs have depth, talent and a chip on their shoulders whether they want to admit it or not, and that should be trouble for all who want the title taken out of Fort Worth. The two biggest games in college football next year could be at Amon Carter Stadium when Baylor and Texas face the Frogs.

Baylor – At the moment, it looks like the only ones who can really stop the Bears are themselves. Baylor did the most complaining about getting left out of the playoff and had a chance to make the same statement as TCU, only to see a 20-point lead wither away against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. Art Briles wanted to talk the talk, but next year, the Bears are going to need to walk the walk if they don’t want to come off as a paper tiger.

That alone, though, should show just how much things have changed in Waco. A program that just a few years back was thrilled to win two conference games a year now can’t be satisfied with two straight conference championships. With a new stadium and moony coming in from boosters like Texas Rangers owner Bob Simpson, Baylor can’t really tout the “little man” argument anymore. They’ve shown it can be done; the question now is if/how long they can sustain it.

Texas – The many haters of the Burnt Orange should enjoy kicking them while they’re down now, because it’s not likely that Texas will be down for very long. The Longhorns’ season may have ended in an embarrassment in the Texas Bowl, but Charlie Strong has only started building the type of program he wants. And with a surprisingly good recruiting class that includes top rated linebacker Malik Jefferson as well as his Mesquite teammate DeAndre McNeal, the questions as to whether his tough disciplinary attitude is a detriment have been assuaged for now.

As long as Strong and new athletic director Steve Patterson can keep the meddling boosters out of their business, Strong can build a program in Austin much like the one Patterson has in Fort Worth, and those boosters could see what happens when a tough coach brings in tough players as opposed to a glad-hander bringing in entitled blue-chippers. Texas may soon no longer be known as the team that only wins the big battles in February.

Oklahoma – Who would have thought that the weak spot in this chain would be u pin Norman, Oklahoma? An 8-4 season might not seem as embarrassing as what their Texas rivals endured, but a similar humiliation in the Russell Athletic Bowl (embarrassing enough that the Sooners had to take a game with only a corporate name) has left more than a few Sooner faithful wondering if Bob Stoops has overstayed his welcome. Had OU not beaten Texas – barely – this season, the grumbling might be worse. The one good sign is the surprising news that five-star quarterback recruit Kylar Murray might rescind his commitment to Texas A&M and come to Norman. It would be a big coup for Stoops to silence those who want to see the bleeding end quickly. OU hasn’t won an outright Big 12 championship since 2010, and for the pampered OU fans, that’s too long.

The worst part is that it’s not just on the field where Oklahoma is having problems. The “Pride of Oklahoma” marching band did not have a ton of pride to begin the season, as a student revolt almost broke out over the lack of faith in new band director Justin Stolarik and the new styles and themes he was incorporating into the program. It got so bad that numerous band members put out an ad in multiple newspapers calling for the director’s resignation – which they had to do anonymously due to a band bylaw that threatened expulsion of any member that spoke ill of the organization. Fortunately, Stolarik did step down in October and was replaced by former director Brian Britt, and the school has taken steps to remove that bylaw.

OU appears to have the pride of its band back; the next step is restoring the pride of its team. But that will not be an easy task in the Big 12 – especially with just the teams they have to deal with along that one stretch of I-35.


College athlete union could spell the doom for college sports

The Final Four came to an end and crowned a champion in North Texas. I could make this column about how I loved the fact that Arlington got the shaft in that, but that’s for another time – maybe.

The point is this: We may want to appreciate another enthralling NCAA Tournament, whether it concluded in our backyard or not. Because there is that chance this type of excitement could be gone for good, if a very, very small handful of athletes get their way.

Recently, the college sports world was stunned by a decision from the National Labor Relations Board that a number of football players from Northwestern University did have the right to organize a union of college athletes. This is, of course, the latest attempt by athletes in claiming that a full scholarship to the college of there choice while thousands of other students go into eternal debt for a degree is not enough, and that they should be paid for the right to play intercollegiate athletics.

This was escalated further by UConn basketball guard and NBA prospect Shabazz Napier, who, in an interview before the title game against Kentucky, claimed that he sometimes goes to bed “starving” despite meal plans being included in athletic scholarships. After UConn won the national championship, Napier tried to steal the spotlight by claiming the NCAA had no right to ban the Huskies from tournament play for poor academic performance. Because, you know, who cares about academics in college?

Now, anyone who follows me on social media, especially Facebook, knows that my political and social opinions do lean to the left. So it may surprise many to hear my position on this. Why would I be against such a progressive movement?

Because this is an example of the demands of the few imperiling the needs of the many.

To hear all the sanctimonious people in the media, one would think that the athletics department at every single Division I university is a money printing machine, churning out millions of dollars to help fund the gluttonous salaries of the coaches and other administrators.

This is as far from the truth as can be. Despite the huge numbers ESPN and other networks put up on how much money the NCAA makes (most of it paid out by organizations like ESPN), the number of colleges making millions of dollars remains in the great minority. For every Texas or Ohio State or Kentucky, there are a dozen UTAs out there that struggle to just make their athletic budgets. They don’t pack the house every night. They don’t have some huge TV deal. And might actually – horror of horrors – have athletes that actually GO TO CLASS.

Many of these colleges benefit greatly from the NCAA’s revenue, and the student athletes benefit most of all. The NCAA states that 96 percent of its annual revenue goes back to its member schools – 60 percent of it to Division I participants.

And if athletes like these Northwestern members succeed in forcing universities to pay their athletes, all these other universities will be forced to completely shut down all their athletic programs. The line in the sand will be drawn” If you can’t afford to fully pay all your athletes like employees, you don’t deserve to have athletics at all.

For now, the Northwestern athletes are claiming they are not out to demand that athletes be paid full salaries/stipends, just improved benefits. Of course they are going to say this – they’re avoiding the one most polarizing aspect and trying to look like the little guy fighting the good fight until they successfully get their feet dug in, and THEN they make the big demands. Note that included in their demands is the option to be able to demand pay at some time later.

There seems little doubt that demanding some form of full salary or stipend for all athletes will be coming down the line. Note that while the Northwestern athletes are currently saying they still view themselves as students and not employees, the NLRB though the opposite in making its approval of a union.

And if they ultimately want all athletes to be fully compensated, there is really only one way they can ultimately do that: All “unionized” teams will refuse to play against schools that don’t have union athletes – the “scabs,” though they may try to find a more PC term for them – forcing the hand of the coaches as to who they get to schedule. Therein will lie the key to driving the programs that can’t pay their athletes out of operation.

This of course, is a worst-case doomsday scenario I am presenting. But the best-case scenario would still be the breakup of Division I into schools that can afford to pay athletes and those that can’t. If that happens, you can still kiss things like the NCAA Tournament in its current form goodbye. No more seeing the likes of Butler or Virginia Commonwealth or George Mason making an improbable run to the Final Four, since they will all be booted down to a lesser subdivision, unable to compete in the same tournament as Florida or Duke or UCLA. The schools that actually want STUDENT-athletes will be kicked to the curb in D1.

And that should also eventually lead to the downfall of those programs, because the chance of playing in the big tournament is often the one motivation the alumni base and other boosters have to support their programs. Take that away, and you’ll be lucky to get support better than a Division II program.

Nothing is set in stone here. The NCAA is appealing this decision, and appeals will likely take years. Even still, one of the keys to the NLRB’s decision was that Northwestern is a private college, meaning state universities are a whole other situation.

But those who love college sports can only hope that in the years this fight will take, cooler heads will ultimately prevail.

Most college student athletes in the more than 320 Division I schools are good people. They go to class. They have aspirations that go beyond playing professionally, as more than 99 percent of them will not be doing so.

And now their opportunities to use their athletic talents to get an education and develop as people is under serious threat.

All because a bunch of spoiled, greedy athletes are putting their own short-term self interests ahead of so many others.

Larry Brown Has Moody Madness Returning to SMU

Published on Yahoo Voices

And mine was published BEFORE Sports Illustrated released its article on SMU!

Larry Brown Can Make Things Change at SMU

Larry Brown is definitely in new territory running the show at Moody Coliseum. After the guy isn’t used to fans being satisfied with simply playing a ranked opponent tough.

“You walk around here and people congratulate you after you get beat, that’s pretty strange” he said of the days after the Mustangs lost to Louisville. “You’re in Lawrence, Kansas or Westwood or Chapel Hill, they have a heart attack after every loss.”

That comes with the experience of playing and coaching at the highest levels. The experience of being the only basketball coach in history with an NCAA and NBA championship. You don’t know the meaning of moral victories.

And that is exactly the type of attitude needed if things are going to turn around on the Hilltop. And after less than two years, it looks like things already are.

With Tuesday’s win over Rutgers, SMU’s team already matched its win total from last year. With 15 wins already and at least 13 games left against the likes of Memphis, UConn and Louisville again, the path is set for SMU to build a good enough record to get into that magical field in March one way or another.

It’s not just the fact that other coaches within the American Athletic Conference are saying SMU looks like a Tournament team this year. Could DFW actually have a program that could be able to aim for the NCAA Tournament every single year?

Well, that’s what Larry Brown’s mission was when he took over this program. Some people who have been jaded by decades of college basketball mediocrity might be hard to convince. But you just know someone like Brown would love to prove them wrong.

Ask him, and he’ll tell you he can look into players’ eyes and see when they know they can win. He saw it in the players at Louisville and Cincinnati when the Mustangs traveled there. And little by little, with each victory, that look is starting to appear in his own players.

This is naturally a different animal that he’s dealing with in Dallas. Whether it was playing at SMU or coaching at UCLA or Kansas, Brown was with a program that was a big dog in the area. Now, it takes something special to get people away from Valley Ranch or the American Airlines Center and show up to the media center at Moody Coliseum.

But when you’ve accomplished almost everything else at so many stops, maybe that’s the one challenge that remains. And it’s the challenge that those college basketball fans that do exist in the Metroplex have hoped someone like Brown would take on – and succeed at.

For years those of us who have followed college basketball in this area have had to hope that one of the multiple programs in North Texas could simply get luck in the conference tournament for an automatic bid, or otherwise be thankful for an NIT, or even a CIT, bid.

Even those of us who have ties to one particular university in the area would be ecstatic to see any one of them send a Metroplex representative in The Dance each year.

TCU could have had something like that in the late 90s under Billy Tubbs. But an NCAA season in 97-98 was overshadowed by a 1-10 football season, so the school put all its efforts to what went on at Amon Cater Stadium, and Tubbs was gone a few years later, clearly seeing the writing on the wall.

Things are different in University Park now. With their major upgrades to Moody and the completion of the Crum Basketball Center, it’s clear SMU is committed to taking its basketball program to another level.

Larry Brown wouldn’t have come here if he didn’t think that was possible. And even though it already looks like things are being fast-tracked compared to what we’ve been used to in this town, he knows there is still a lot more work and improvement to do.

And maybe very soon, he’ll start being congratulated for the Mustangs winning against the likes of Louisville.

Baylor’s Basketball Success Proves TCU Can Have It, Too

At 0-3 and staring at a game in Stillwater against No. 8 Oklahoma State, things do not look promising for Trent Johnson’s program, to say the least.

It’s not just that they’re winless in conference, they’ve barely been competitive, losing their last two games by an average of 22 points, Yes, they were against ranked opponents, but such is life in this conference.

But in that most recent loss, to the now No. 12 Baylor Bears, may lie the spark of hope that this dormant program can in fact be revived.

The Frogs are already looking at another year of finishing at the bottom of the highest ranked conference in the country unless something spectacular happens soon. Given that and the absolute apathy toward college basketball in DFW, one could call it a helpless cause to ever make TCU basketball relevant. But that can be countered with one simple response:

“If Baylor did it, why can’t we?”

It’s beyond amazing that Waco, Texas has suddenly become the epicenter of Big 12 athletics, likely to the chagrin of the two schools equidistant from Baylor (TCU for still stinging that Baylor got the original Big 12 bid over them, and Texas because… they’re Texas, they think they own everything). But what has happened at the Ferrell Center has to be considered leaps and bounds more miraculous than what has been happening at the soon-to-be-gone Floyd Casey Stadium.

For it was only 11 years ago that Baylor’s men’s basketball program was mired in what had to be the worst scandal in NCAA history, at least until what happened at Penn State in 2011. Yes, far, far worse than what happened at SMU in 1987.

A dead player murdered at the hands of a teammate? The coach trying to destroy the reputation of the slain player to hide the actual offenses he himself was committing? These were things not even the most shameless film director would put into a TV movie of the week.

Baylor received perhaps the worst NCAA sanctions ever outside of getting the actual death penalty, including being banned from non-conference games for a year. With that and one of the worst stigmas to stain any program, recovery for Baylor had to be considered non-existent in a conference where that have to deal with the likes of Texas, Kansas and other powerhouses.

Yet here Scott Drew’s program now stands, with an Elite Eight appearance and an NIT crown in the past two seasons.

So how can anyone following TCU in any capacity say no chance to Trent Johnson’s program doing it?

Several more steps need to be taken, but many of them are. Daniel-Meyer Coliseum, which my biased mind has called the worst of the three college buildings in the immediate Metroplex for years, is about to undergo a $45 million renovation that will include more seating and new locker rooms. Meanwhile, Johnson may want to have a lunches with Gary Patterson to learn some tips on how he launched his program into the spotlight.

TCU basketball still has a lot of work to do to get out of the cellar they’re in. But they don’t have the history of a murdered body among their player alumni. And if one program can rebuild around that, anything is possible.