Tramel: College football players who quit on their team learned the behavior well
Texas lost to Iowa State on Thanksgiving Friday, and within a couple of days, two Longhorn captains resigned their commission.
Offensive tackle Samuel Cosmi and safety Caden Sterns announced they were quitting the team, though that wasn’t the vernacular used.
“Opt out” has become the preferred phrase, which is much more sophisticated than, say, “deserter,” even if the latter is quite a bit more accurate.
Cosmi and Sterns apparently wanted no part of a Kansas road swing; at K-State last Saturday, at Kansas this Saturday. Not so long ago, bailing on their teammates would have been unthinkable for a non-scholarship third-string deep snapper, much less captains.
But before we declare that Cosmi and Sterns should be men without a country, banished from ever wearing shoulder pads again, let’s cut them a little slack.
They learned such behavior well.
College football is a sport in which administrators often bail on a team and a season, firing coaches in mid-stream. Not that coaches are pure in heart. Coaches for decades have bolted their teams before bowl games to take other jobs. And three years ago, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher negotiated a contract with Texas A&M, then left the Seminoles before their regular-season finale.
Southern Mississippi this year displayed a lack of commitment to team on both ends. Southern fired head coach Jay Hopson after one game, a season-opening loss to South Alabama. Then interim head coach Scotty Walden resigned in late October to take the job at Austin Peay, which played three games early in autumn and will play a spring schedule.
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What are players supposed to think? What other message is delivered, other than it’s every man for himself?
“I hope not,” said Kansas coach Les Miles, who was fired as head coach at Louisiana State four games into the 2016 season. “That’s not what you want to teach your team.”
Truth is, the Musketeer attitude is on life support in college football. Players with a smidge of NFL potential — and some without so much as a smidge — do what their coaches and schools have been doing for years. Sacrificing team for individual benefit.
Turns out, college athletes are not as enamored with the entire college landscape as the rest of us are.
“It’s a part of college football, it’s not going away,” Mike Gundy said. “Everybody just better learn to deal with it. Fans better get used to it. Coaches better get used to it. Teammates better get used to it. It’s a personal preference of that individual.”
Player exits from the college gridiron have been accelerating for years.
First came the early entrants; players who declared for the NFL Draft before their eligibility expired. I know it’s common these days, but time was, it was scandalous for a player not to commit to a senior season on campus.
Bernie Kosar in 1985, Brian Bosworth in 1987 and Barry Sanders in 1989 were some of the pioneers of early-entry.
In recent seasons, players took early-entry another step by skipping bowl games. Tailbacks Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Leonard Fournette of LSU skipped their bowl games in 2016 to avoid injury as they maneuvered for the NFL Draft. Now players on virtually every bowl team outside the College Football Playoff are doing the same.
And it’s crept into the regular season. Some of it is injury-related — OSU offensive tackle Teven Jenkins left the squad a few weeks ago after continued back problems; OU defensive tackle Charles Walker did the same a few years ago after a concussion — but some of it is not. Like the Texas captains.
“This is all money driven, based on information that’s coming from somebody,” Gundy said. “Could be an agent, could be a financial resource, could be parents, could be grandparents.
“Somebody, in my opinion, is getting to players and saying, ‘look, why do you need to play the last four games?. This is what your value is. You just need to stop.’”
Well, yes. That’s true. But that’s no more dishonorable than coaches rationalizing leaving their team before a bowl game. Or an athletic director firing a coach with several games left to play.
Team matters less and less these days. And again, you can’t blame the players.
“It’s certainly their decision on their career, and that’s the difficult piece,” Miles said. “We’re defining more their rights than the rights of team.”
Texas coach Tom Herman declined to wade into the waters.
“I wish I had a better answer,” Herman said. “I know that our guys opted out to prepare for the NFL. We fully support them.”
There’s that phrase again. Opt-out. Born of the COVID, when the NCAA decreed that athletes could skip this season without loss of scholarship or a year of eligibility.
And now players are, uh, opting out for reasons that have zero percent to do with COVID but everything to do with the lack of commitment throughout every level of a football program.
Give the players some credit. They were last to the party.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.