SportsProf

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Monday, August 08, 2005

They Coulda Been A Contender

Steve Young made the Pro Football Hall of Fame yesterday. That's not huge news, in that his election to the Hall of Fame was announced months ago. You all remember him, the prolific QB out of BYU who was a back-up in Tampa Bay before getting traded to the 49ers, where he replaced Joe Montana (as if that were really possible) and helped the 49ers maintain their standard of excellence.

Well, here's a story. . .

When I was at Princeton, the Ivies didn't have the annual limit on football recruits that they do now (about 35 per year). So, you had perhaps 80-100 incoming players for the freshman team -- every year. One friend joked that they brought in 100 kids, and 70 of them were defensive backs. Many of the Texas kids quit, because they played AAAAA football there, made the state playoffs, played before huge crowds, and, well, playing on a Friday night in hand-me-down uniforms before about 42 people was a big letdown. On top of that, you had kids in your class who weren't recruited who played HS football also.

Some U.S. towns complain about the overpopulation of deer in their area; the Ivies thought that they were overpopulated with football players. That led to an initiative from Brown's president to reduce the number of incoming recruits (thankfully, hunters were not retained to shoot the excess population). There were many reasons for it. One was that it wasn't a good idea to have a situation where a bunch of kids would be walking around campus unhappy because they weren't playing. Another was that it wasn't good to create a situation where a bunch of former players would be negative about the team (for a variety of reasons, including that, perhaps, the coach played favorites or, worse -- and sometimes this was the case -- the coach didn't know what he was doing). Finally, there was the issue of how interesting and diverse you wanted your student body to be, and why should football players make up about 10% of your incoming class (in some places it swelled to say 20%, where incoming students who weren't recruits still had HS football on their resumes). In retrospect, the decision was sound, and reflective of good leadership.

Anyway, during my sophomore year Princeton was bringing in a bunch of recruits to show them the school. A friend of mine, who was a starter at a skill position (and who believes that he got admitted to Princeton, in part, over his HS valedictorian because of his ability to catch footballs going over the middle), got a call from the coaches, asking him to host a recruit. They paired the recruit and player up because both were interested in politics, government and law, and both had religious backgrounds.

The recruit was a somewhat scrawny 170-pound lefthanded quarterback who, from all accounts, really could motor. He was setting records in Connecticut, which, while not the HS football hotbed that New Jersey was and is (and this is where his host hailed from), still meant something. The coaches thought that this kid would be a great get, because while there were talented QBs on the roster, this kid had one thing that other QBs didn't have and that you couldn't teach -- speed.

So, the host showed the kid around, and they got to talking about the kid's choices. The kid was an excellent student, said he liked Princeton and that if he were going to go to an Ivy League school he go to Princeton if admitted. Before the host could get giddy, the recruit also pointed out that he was considering a group of West Coast schools that liked to throw the ball, such as UCLA, Cal and Stanford, among others. That's right, at certain times way back when even the Ivies dallied with some big-time recruits (they do in certain instances today, but every time they're up against, for example, Duke and Stanford in basketball, they lose the recruit). Connecticut HS football or not, this kid had worked his way onto the national radar screen.

My friend contemplated the information and then said, "Hey, listen, you're fast and you're a lefthanded quarterback [suggesting, for the uninitiated, that schools can get superstitious about lefty QBs and, at least back then, many didn't like them]. Don't go to one of those schools -- they'll make you a wide receiver or a defensive back. Come here and they'll let you play quarterback, you'll start, and you'll win some games."

The kid elected not to matriculate at Princeton University.

A few years later I'm living in Northern California and get a phone call from back East and some godawful hour of the morning (a roommate of that recruit's host forgot about the three hours' difference, so I got a call at about 5:15; but for the fact that I was a native Easterner living in California, I would have thought that a close relative had passed away). My friend was quick to point out that the then QB sensation in college, BYU's Steve Young, signed a $40 million contract with the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League. All this for a kid who could have started for three years under a relatively anonymous offensive coordinator of little distinction (except, perhaps, for his like of chocolate eclairs) in central New Jersey instead of Norm Chow, passing game coordinator extraordinaire, about whom much has been written, all of it good. That's right, the Princeton recruit way back when was the guy who was enshrined in Canton, Ohio yesterday -- Steve Young.

Many Ivy alums eventually make their way to Wall Street and make millions. This Ivy recruit never played for a home team within a thousand miles of the Big Apple, and yet he signed for his millions right out of college. Somehow, I think that the kid made the right decision. Better be traded from Tampa Bay, where you backed up Steve DeBerg, to San Francisco than being a bond trader. At least for this guy.

My friend, the host, by the way, has gone onto a glorious career in the law, has a wonderful wife and three terrific kids. My guess is that if he took the aptitude test for player personnel directors for professional teams, he might have failed.

I remember when a Top 25 HS basketball player, Adonal Foyle, chose Colgate over a number of suitors. He hails from St. Vincent of the Grenadines, and his guardians were professors at the school. Foyle had a nice career at Colgate, and he's been in the NBA for a while. Perhaps he's as good now as he would have been had he gone to UConn or Syracuse, and many would take the long NBA career that he has had. My guess is that he would have been better had he played against better competition in college. Hard to say how Steve Young would have developed, but my guess is that he wouldn't have become the Hall of Fame player he was had he played regularly against Columbia and Dartmouth (Jay Fiedler, the one-time Dartmouth QB played well in Miami, and he's clearly not the talent Young is).

But it's fun to think about.

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