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Where Failure Matters

College football has accountability, but politics does not.

by James Leroy Wilson
December 2, 2004

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For virtually all of my life, I looked up to Tom Osborne, who coached the University of Nebraska’s football team from 1973 through 1997. I wanted him to do well, and was alternately frustrated by his team’s defenses and offenses as they would, for twenty years, lose the “big one.” But through it all, his teams had high graduation rates, his program avoided NCAA infractions, and his personal integrity was never questioned.

Then, his program began to dominate. In his final five years, his teams won sixty games, lost only three, won three national championships, and were arguably three plays away from winning five straight national championships. But these years also were ones in which he endured his greatest setbacks, as the program, like many successful programs before it (Colorado, Oklahoma, Miami) was accused of coddling criminals.

Each instance of how he handled player misconduct, given its full context, vindicates Osborne at least a little bit, while at the same time should chasten his apologists to concede that there is probably “more to the story” whenever another coach or program gets similarly bad press. Through it all, Osborne’s reputation went largely unscathed to his closest constituency, Nebraska residents.

He ran for a seat in the House of Representatives in 2000, which he won easily. And he easily won re-election in 2002 and 2004 - virtually unopposed both times. He will probably keep the job as long as he wants. He is a Nebraskan and he understands Nebraskans.

The difference between being a Congressman and being a football coach is that he kept his coaching gig for so long because he was so successful. Yet as a Congressman, he’s a disaster, and it doesn’t matter one bit. What mattered when he was a coach was wins and losses: he rarely finished out of the Top Ten, usually recruited very well, and kept hopes up. Every year, I considered the team to have a good shot at the conference title and to be at least a dark horse contender for the national championship. It all came together in his final five years, but he was close, sometimes very close, before that. That’s why he was retained, year after year, as head coach.

But as a Congressman? He is wrong on the War on Iraq. He is wrong on the War on Terror. He is wrong on the War on Drugs. He is wrong on Defense spending. He is wrong on agriculture subsidies. He is wrong on Internet censorship. His legislative votes are the typical votes of a big-government, socially intolerant Republican.

Does he vote the way he does because of “special interests?” Of course not; the people he represents respect him too much and he can vote however he wants. In other words, Dr. Osborne has the freedom to vote his conscience, and so he probably does. His actual positions and job performance doesn’t matter, the important thing is his character, his integrity, his likeability.

I think this is true of all political figures. The accountability that exists in the world of sports, and in profit-seeking enterprises, simply diminishes in the non-profit world, and especially in government. Politicians are impressive figures. The main ingredients are likeability, passionate commitment, and the appearance of integrity. That is to say, politics is a form of hero-worship. Policies and ideology don’t matter. Tom Osborne was already a hero, and so he can serve in Congress no matter how destructive his votes are for America‘s security, liberty, and prosperity.

According to friends of liberty and the Constitution, Osborne’s record in Congress dictates that he should have been fired (along with most everyone else). But they hardly ever are; the problem with Congress is not my Representative, but all the others.

Now think of the record of Frank Solich, Osborne’s successor as Nebraska’s coach. Inheriting the top program in the country, in six years he compiled a 58-19 record - very good at first glance. But as Osborne’s recruits were replaced by his own, the inability to not only beat top-flight opponents, but to not even stay competitive with them, became more and more evident. The offense became overly-reliant on the running skills of the quarterback, first Eric Crouch and then Jammal Lord, who was a step slower. As Crouch was a mediocre passer at best and Lord worse, the offense deteriorated. A predictable play-book is okay if the talent could overwhelm the opponent’s defense, but that was no longer the case.

The writing was on the wall for Solich after a 7-7 campaign in 2002, but he scapegoated some assistants and gave up play-calling duties in order to keep his job another year. With an improved defense, the Huskers rebounded, but still were outclassed badly by three opponents.

Solich was fired a year ago.

Did he deserve to be fired? I don’t know. I suspected a future of continued offensive ineffectiveness and a series of marginal winning seasons and invites to Meaningless.com Bowls. Solich did not recruit Top Ten talent like Osborne had done in his early years. That did him in.

Solich’s successor, the outsider Bill Callahan, has blown up the program and is starting over. By going 5-6 this year, all the streaks are dead. The non-losing seasons (42 seasons), the bowl streak (36). If the program is back in the Top Ten, or close to it, by his third year, Callahan will stay on. If not, he’s gone.

Public universities are government programs, and probably unnecessary. And athletics is probably not a worthy part of a university’s mission. But there’s something quite unusual the public university’s athletic department. The cult of personality can inspire tremendous devotion in the world of politics, where the actual “record” doesn’t matter. The public university’s athletic department is about the only government program in which the charisma or character of the person in charge can not overcome more objective measures such as budgets, revenue streams, and on-field victories. In other words, there is accountability in big-time athletics..

If character alone mattered, Tyrone Willingham would be the football coach at Notre Dame today. He isn’t. If character and previous success mattered, the people of Penn State would gladly have Joe Paterno coach until he’s 120 and completely senile. Instead, they’re trying to figure out to manufacture a face-saving, ego protecting exit for Joe Pa. Along with Willingham, who had a winning record, the coach of Mississippi was fired despite have winning records in five of his six seasons, and the coach of Florida was dismissed for not winning enough.

Other coaches have been dismissed because they piled up losses. When tens of thousands of seats are empty at the stadium, that means hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue for the athletic department. Sports is a tough business.

Tougher than politics. Think of the losses George Bush piled up over the past four years. The budget surplus. America’s stature in the world. Liberties long taken for granted as American birthrights. Trade disputes. Traditional allies. Moral credibility. And the lives of a hundred thousand Iraqis for no reason at all. George Bush has made us less free, less secure, and less prosperous.

And he was re-elected. No doubt many who applauded the firing of Ron Zook and Tyrone Willingham vehemently defend the President’s obvious failures.

That’s why college football, for all its faults, is morally superior to politics. In college football, failure means fired; in politics, failure doesn’t mean a damn thing.

Congressman Osborne, return to coaching. There, you may actually do some good.

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