Russell Wilson offers instant aide
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema makes it a point to embrace the attention that his Badgers receive. He doesn't try to wall it off. After quarterback Russell Wilson led No. 7 Wisconsin to a 48-17 rout of No. 8 Nebraska on Saturday night, Bielema cut the ribbon on Wilson's Heisman Trophy campaign.
"To me, if there's a better player in college football right now, I'd like to see [him]," Bielema said. "The big stage, he thrives on it."
Wilson completed 14 of 20 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 32 yards and a touchdown in the Huskers' first Big Ten game. If they have debutantes anymore, Nebraska looked like a debutante from the wrong side of town. The Huskers don't figure to lose too many like this, because there aren't many teams like the Badgers.
"This is a great opportunity for me," Wilson said.
He ran, he passed, he escaped, he juked. His passes zipped or floated or did whatever they had to do to get to the receiver. All the while Wilson looked as if he were playing catch in the backyard. There's a calm about him that no quarterbacks coach can teach. Only experience teaches that kind of presence.
"He's mature. He's a man. He's a professional athlete," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said.
Alvarez is referring to Wilson's career in the Colorado Rockies' farm system, which set in motion his transfer this summer from North Carolina State to Wisconsin. Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien wanted Wilson, his starting quarterback for the past two seasons, to give up professional baseball. He refused to do it, so O'Brien released him from his scholarship with one year of eligibility remaining. Since he had graduated, NCAA rules allowed him to transfer.
There is a major leaguer that Wilson resembles. Wilson has transformed the Badgers into a national power the way Joe Hardy made the Washington Senators a pennant contender in "Damn Yankees." All right, there is one critical difference: Wilson didn't put his soul in hock to the Devil. And Wisconsin didn't, either.
Yet here we are for the second straight season with a team transformed into a national contender by a player who won't be on campus long enough to find the library. The circumstances may be different, but the feeling of displacement is the same. Are we getting to the point where college football teams will resemble Major League Baseball's ability to use Rent-A-Players?
Cam Newton transferred from Blinn (Texas) Junior College to Auburn in January 2010 and held up the crystal football in January 2011. About the time that Newton made himself into a Heisman contender, it became an open secret that he wouldn't return to Auburn for the 2011 season.
And the latest Rent-A-Player is Wilson, who didn't arrive in Madison until July. By all accounts, he is the model student-athlete. Alvarez called him "one of the most impressive recruits I've ever talked to." He liked Wilson even more after Wisconsin began preparing for the season.
"You watch him in practice," said Alvarez, elected to the College Football Hall of Fame last year for his coaching at Wisconsin (1990-2005). "You watch him intermingle with the players. You watch him between series, talking to linemen, talking to Paul [Chryst, the offensive coordinator], how he handles the huddle. It's the whole package. It's not just, 'He's a good player.' There's way more to it than that. In the short time he'll be here, he'll make a heck of a contribution to this program. A lot of guys will learn things from him."
Linebacker Chris Borland dismissed the idea that there should be an asterisk alongside Wilson's name or the 2011 Badgers.
"It's a unique situation," Borland said. "It's also a unique situation because of the kind of guy Russell is and the kind of guys we have here. I don't think it would have worked out as well at some other schools. Some people would harbor a little resentment. We have character and Russell has character. It's really that simple."
Maybe so. But two straight seasons of national title contenders being led by Rent-A-Players makes college football feel like -- and it pains me to say it -- That March Madness Sport.
College basketball contracted the one-and-done virus when the NBA and its players' union agreed that teams would stop drafting players straight out of high school. The virus spread from Syracuse (Carmelo Anthony) to Memphis (Derrick Rose) to Kentucky (John Wall). One-and-done mocks the idea that intercollegiate athletics are tied to the pursuit of higher education.
"I wouldn't be crazy about one-and-done if they come out of high school," Alvarez said. "One-and-done in basketball, I don't like."
Wilson is being rented at the end of his career, not the beginning. And to Bielema, that makes all the difference. When asked what he thinks when he hears "Rent-A-Player," Bielema replied, "Hallelujah!"
After the laughter died down, Bielema continued.
"You know what? Here's a case in point. I lost a running back, Zach Brown, who I love. He was buried in the depth chart. He was going to be playing behind Montee [Ball] and James [White]. He wanted the chance to go someplace and he earned his degree in three years."
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Brown went to Pitt, where he's backing up Ray Graham. Brown carried the ball 16 times for 55 yards and a touchdown in the Panthers' 44-17 rout of No. 16 South Florida on Thursday night.
"I think it's a great avenue," Bielema said. " Kids that are in tough spots, I think it's one of the great things about the NCAA. I think it's a great thing."
Wilson has been a great fit at Wisconsin because he is, by all accounts, an exemplary young man. But that's not a prerequisite for becoming a Rent-A-Player. Coaches will take players whom they think can help them win. If it means the guy is the collegiate equivalent of a free agent, so be it.
"Hey, this is a competitive business," Alvarez said. "You're in here to win. I'm OK with it."
Alvarez, standing in the Wisconsin bench area before the game, pointing at a line painted on the surface about 3 feet in front of him. "As a coach, [if] that's the free throw line, you don't shoot free throws from here. You go to the line. You toe the line. You play right up to the rule. Don't break the rule. If the rule allows you to do it, allows you to be better, that's what coaches do."
Wilson is a lot of fun to watch. There are few places in the sport more enjoyable than Camp Randall Stadium on the Saturday night of a one-sided Badgers victory. But here's hoping the two-year streak of Rent-A-Players who influence the national championship race doesn't reach three.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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