Sometimes an incompletion is a good thing

The birds are singing outside my office window, and the pollen is coming inside it. It ain't much of a trade, and I apologize in advance if, while you read the mailbag, I sneeze on you.

Spring practice across Division I-A wraps up this weekend. The players will turn their attention to doing a semester's worth of work in the two weeks before finals. Coaches will hit the road on May 1, when an "evaluation period" of next year's high school seniors begins.

The evaluation period is something of a misnomer, because in today's game, many staffs already have a very good idea of what prospects they are interested in. Nebraska coach Bill Callahan told me last week that the biggest change in college football since he left for the NFL after the 1994 season is the way that the recruiting calendar has accelerated.

Shortly after signing day, Callahan said, coaches on his staff began saying, "'Hey, we've got to get these offers letters out.'

"I said, 'What are you talking about?' If you're not on these juniors now, you don't have a chance, you know? Normally, you go out in May and identify. Now the identification process is taking place in their junior year. By really, the end of the junior year, you're making offers."

Depending on the Supreme Court and the draft, USC may get to recruit Mike Williams all over again. In the meantime, the envelopes, please:

For every passing game hotshot that actually does turn college football on his ear, there are a dozen Brad Scotts, Hal Mummes, Rick Neuheisels, Ray Goffs, Terry Bowdens, Ron Turners, etc. and a lot of others who are even worse. A lot of these programs that switched from the option or power football to the passing game haven't increased their success and some have actually had LESS success.

The media is doing a disservice to college football by urging presidents and ADs to go for the quick fix offered by these passing game guys when you really ought to be urging them to go after the best qualified candidate, solid football guys, no matter what their approach to football is. If Bill Callahan succeeds at Nebraska it will be because he is a good coach, not because he installed the same passing game. Ask Colorado fans if they are happy that they gave up the option for Rick Neuheisel, who split and left them with such a mess (including several rapes, Katie Hnida, and 50 secondary violations) that they panicked and hired Gary Barnett despite the fact that Barnett had obviously peaked and been exposed for a sham at Northwestern and furthermore had off the field problems there of his own

Ulysses McHargue

Man, there are some smart fans out there. The pile of passing coaches who failed hadn't occurred to me. I'm not ready to put Ron Turner in that crowd, though. The Illini who went to the Sugar Bowl after the 2001 season are more representative of Turner as a coach than the team last season.

I noticed this statement in your article on Nebraska's spring
game: "On the first play, the Husker offense shifted from a two
tight-end set into an I. Quarterback Joe Dailey faked a handoff into the
line and threw deep. It may be the first time in recorded history that a
home crowd ever cheered its offense for an incompletion."

Having some background in Alabama, you may be interested to know that
there was another such incident. Quoting from the book SHUG, by Rich
Donnell (1993 Owl Press): "On Auburn's first offensive play in the
opening game of the 1969 season against Wake Forest in Auburn, Sullivan
tried to hit Beasley with a long pass, but overthrew him as Beasley was
breaking free at the 20-yard line. The crowd nevertheless stood and
applauded the play." (p. 225)

Just thought it was an interesting parallel. Take care.

Jim Naftel

Philip Rivers' first pass in college was a long bomb that fell incomplete. The crowd reacted with a standing ovation. You see, that was Chuck Amato's first game as head coach after Mike O'Cain was fired for being too boring and predictable.

Justin Pearson

Ladies and Gentlemen: two readers in need of a hobby. But I love them for it.

Recently the discussion of college football history has come up, and I saw that a Michigan fan claims that his team has 11 national championships. This would exceed schools such as Notre Dame and Oklahoma, but it was my understanding that these were the teams with the most number of national championships. I've also heard claims from Alabama fans that their school has some ridiculous number of championships (I think I remember the claim being like 19). Can you straighten the record on the issue because it seems quite confusing, and perhaps comment on why school such as Michigan claim more national championships than they are recognized nationally as having.

Mark Howard
Oklahoma City

(Similar question from Drew Smith of Minneapolis)

No more confusing than the BCS formula, guys, which is as damning with faint praise as I can come up with.

The NCAA media guide lists national championships awarded as far back as 1926. It also lists rankings going all the way back to 1869, but these were done retroactively by historians using polls or formulas.

The most recognized national championships have been awarded by the AP since 1936; the coaches poll that has been administered by several different media organizations since 1950; the Football Writers Association of America since 1954; the National Football Foundation since 1959; and the BCS since 1998.
Claims of any other titles are as hard and fast as Jell-O.

Take Michigan, which won retroactive titles in 1901-04, 1910, 1918, 1923. The Wolverines also won, according to various groups, in 1932-33, 1947-48, 1964, 1973, 1985, and, of course, 1997. That adds up to 15. However, of the four most recognized titles mentioned above, the Wolverines have won in two seasons; in 1948 and 1997.

As for your question about Alabama: the Crimson Tide has won six AP championships (1961, 64-65, 1978-79, 1992); a UPI (1973); and retroactive or other titles in 1925-26, 1930, 1934, 1941, 1945, 1962, 1966, 1975 and 1977. That's 17, and the funny thing about that is Crimson Tide fans claim "only" 12.

Re your historical top 10: Army? Michigan? Only three national titles combined since AP/UPI founded back around 1936. Try this for size: 1. N.D., 2. Oklahoma, 3. Alabama, 4. Ohio State, 5.Nebraska, 6. Miami, 7. USC, 8. Florida State, 9. Michigan, 10. ABG (Any Body's Guess). You can't really count any national titles before 1936 when there were only a handful of Division I teams (especially around the turn of the 20th century) competing, and when they were really kicking the pigskin.

Gerard A. Zam, Ph.D.
University of Toledo

Just wanted everyone to know that between me and Dr. Zam, we have one doctorate.

There's something that's been puzzling me for some
time and since the subject came up in the most recent
mailbag, I figure it was time to ask.

Why is it that the Ivy League takes the "moral high
ground" by supposedly refusing to participate in big
money athletics (no I-AA playoff appearances, no
conference basketball tourney) while allowing their
teams to compete in the NCAA basketball tournament?
Had Penn gone all the way to the Final Four, that
would have been a much bigger deal than Penn winning
the I-AA football championship.

I can understand the principal behind this, but not
the application. The University of Chicago, once a
national football power, did away with athletics
altogether to focus on academics. I see it as the
worst of both worlds to keep intercollegiate athletics
while only selectively deciding which sports will be
allowed to win championships. Too bad those great
Penn football teams of a few years back never got the
chance to show their stuff against the likes of
Montana and Georgia Southern in the playoffs. Those
kids must have lost a lot of sleep wondering what
could have been.

Christopher Fowler
Tempe, AZ

It's in the Mailbag bylaws: Anyone named Chris Fowler gets his letter published.

However, he makes a good point. Whenever I hear from college presidents about the sanctity of the academic calendar, I undertake this mental exercise. Imagine that the postseasons of football and basketball are reversed, and an entrepreneur comes to a meeting of the NCAA Board of Directors.

Camera focuses on Entrepreneur: "Great idea! Let's take 65 basketball teams, and send them all over the country. The four semifinal teams will be on the road for three weeks (a month when you throw in conference tournaments) and we'll get CBS to pony up $1 billion. What do you think?"

Camera pans to boardroom: It has emptied. Crickets are chirping.

Frank Solich is a coach with a tremendous amount of personal integrity. He had such affection for Tom Osborne and the Nebraska way of doing things
that he reacted more slowly than he should have in replacing some members of
his staff, and it took a 7-7 season to jolt him into present-day reality. He
made the necessary changes to re-establish credibility within the Nebraska
program, engineering a 10-3 season the next year. Granted, it will be said
that he lost "big" to the teams that mattered the most, but it was the first
year under wholesale assistant coaching changes, and two of those teams were
on the crest of their talent pool. I expect that both KSU and Missouri will
drop off considerably this year.

Nebraska fans have demonstrated (most of them) that they agree with the
(athletic director Steve) "Pederson Way" of doing things. They feel that it is so important that Nebraska be a perennial power that they too, like Pederson, are willing to forfeit the ideal of personal character and integrity to the "Big Red"
image. I personally, always appreciated the fact that Nebraska took a team
of slow-footed, broad-bodied over-achievers, sprinkled in a few marginally
talented (sometimes gifted) recruits from other parts of the country and
basically went out and did much more with less, than many of the
Universities who sold the farm to get the blue-chip players from around the
country at any cost. Extremely gifted players and high-salary coaching staffs will beat teams built on character and over-achieving in 9 out of 10 contests. But, Oh, that one in ten times is glorious to be a part of.

Don Newburn
Newberg, OR (Nebraska Class of '57)

Steve Pederson has failed to adequately answer this one question of those us Nebraska fans who don't feel that firing Frank Solich was such a grand idea: How can you justify terminating a coach who went 9-3 (58-19 overall in six seasons) and then turn around and hire a guy who went 4-12 in the pros and completely lost control of his team? Had a Bob Stoops, Nick Saban, or Jim Tressel -- proven winners -- been waiting in the wings to assume the mantle, that would have been one thing. But Pederson's courting of no-name NFL assistants and mediocre head coaches made Nebraska the laughingstock of college football. He settled for Callahan out of pure desperation, after a ridiculously protracted search.

Facts are facts. Four seasons ago, Solich led Nebraska to a 12-1 season, a Big 12 title, and a No. 2 ranking. Just over two years ago, he had his team playing in the Rose Bowl for the national title (argue all you want that they didn't belong, but hey, they were there). His QB had just won the Heisman Trophy running the now "obsolete" option attack. True, the Huskers slipped dramatically in 2002, but Solich corrected the problem by revamping his staff and coming back with a very good year last year. He ran a clean program. Graduated his players. Where was the problem? You are simply not going to win 11, 12 games every year -- not even at Nebraska. Devaney didn't, Osborne didn't. Solich should not have been held to a higher standard.

Pederson said he had a "gut feeling" in deciding to fire Solich. And my gut says this: bringing the West Coast offense to the University of Nebraska will be one of the worst disasters in Cornhusker football history.

Tony Bunting

It sounds as if some Nebraska fans are willing to give Pederson the benefit of the doubt right up until the second loss. I disagreed with Pederson's decision to fire Solich, but I admire the fact that he was willing to expend a lot of personal capital to change. That's what innovators do. Innovators often try a lot of different things that fail before they find success. Pederson won't get that many chances.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel's Mailbag.