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No 'lock' wins for college football teams once on top

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002

Success spoils us. What fun, so exhilarating and ego-flushing, when our favorites win big, year after year.

At colleges or in the pros, it can come to seem all but automatic for the muscle teams. At the outset of each season, thoughts leap immediately to championship possibilities.

Assuming weekly conquests.

In September, fans muse ... after my darlings dominate their league and romp through a schedule abundant with lock wins, what will be the chances of going all the way, again ruling the world?

But, a drop-off is coming. Bet on it. History doesn't lie. It's only a question of when. Alabama football experienced it. Likewise at Notre Dame, Texas, Georgia and USC.

Mike Martz has been part of two Super Bowls with the St. Louis Rams, winning one, so constantly amassing offensive yardage and points that a nickname was triggered: Greatest Show on Turf.

"It's clear that even our players and coaches began taking some things for granted," Martz said. "Our recent results were convincing; that big yardage and steady winning would keep flowing." Then came a flood of humility, starting this season 0-5, with heroic quarterback Kurt Warner benched with a busted thumb.

Win-win-win can make even ultra conservatives think, "All we've got to do is show up." Red-clad Heartlanders in Nebraska, after generations of 10-1 and 11-0 football autumns, couldn't help thinking that challenges would be infrequent, at least until January's teases of another national championship.

Now, even the silos quiver. The Cornhuskers are struggling long before Halloween. Parking-lot tribunals in Lincoln keep deciding that Frank Solich has no prayer of meeting standards set by bygone coaching icons Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney.

Penn State, a nonstop football winner since FDR, fell off in recent seasons, bottoming in '01 with a 5-6 record. Joe Paterno, after all he has meant to the Nittany Lions, became a target of critics. Nobody is immune.

Remember the strength of Southern Cal, finishing No. 1 four times under John McKay, status not achieved by the Trojans since he left in 1975 to coach the Bucs?

Oklahoma dazzled in the '50s with Bud Wilkinson as coach, and again through the '80s with Barry Switzer. Then, a horrendous fall. Sooners wallowed in mediocrity, a splintered empire only recently resuscitated by Bob Stoops.

Sooner or later. . .

Today, the Florida Gators are crawling, having lost Steve Spurrier nine months ago, following '90s mega glories. They wobble, wail and wonder with Ron Zook, a replacement quickly battered.

Ten years ago, FSU coach Bobby Bowden said, "Our fans are spoiled, which happens when you win a lot. We're now expected to beat three-quarters of our opponents every time as well as Florida and Miami a majority of the time. Well, it ain't that easy."

FSU followers count on ACC trophies as surely as Capistrano banks on swallows annually coming to roost. Maryland intruded in 2001, despite losing to the Seminoles. Now it's undefeated N.C. State, coached by longtime Bowden assistant Chuck Amato, amassing a stout challenge for Bobby's troupe.

Worse yet, from a Tallahassee perspective, FSU recently tumbled against Louisville, a "basketball school." Even with a spirited if excruciating loss to national champ Miami, the 'Noles are not up to power levels that became the '90s norm.

UM falloff? Sure, but not soon.

Always, you hear pleas for patience. It's hard, after relishing such riches, to accept even temporarily being middle class. Some already portray Zook as blundering and hopeless.

Jeremy Foley, a superb UF director of athletics, is questioned for "settling" for Ron, after pursuing Stoops and Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. But isn't this the Gainesville boss who was so right with his gut feeling in hiring basketball coach Billy Donovan?

Patience? Nah.

Notre Dame, where pride can be sacred, was phenomenal in the coaching periods of Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian. A national championship was won by Dan Devine. South Bend then went dry.

I'm not thinking Zook -- yet -- but there have been coaching hires with zero chance. Like the "Hunch Bet of Notre Dame," bringing in Cincinnati high school coaching wizard Gerry Faust, who would be a Golden Dome embarrassment.

But the great, green ego was forced into periods of hibernation, until now with the fresh coaching promise of Ty Willingham. But nobody was patient.

While the demand is huge, the supply of can't-miss coaches is terribly shallow. That's why the Gators took a shot with Zook and Notre Dame fumbled into Faust. That's why a Stoops, four seasons away from being a UF assistant, can demand CEO-like money, perks and security.

What might a Bowden or Paterno command if ages were more 50ish than 70ish? "We've done okay," Bobby said, "but, any time Joe or I lose a couple of games, some people shout that we're getting too old or that we've lost it."

Human nature, once you've been in the clouds.

-- To contact Hubert Mizell, e-mail or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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