Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
OK, gather ’round, children, as Ole Uncle Darren has a story for you.
It all starts with two football teams, one in Missouri and one in Georgia. The team in Georgia had for many, many years, belonged to a very special club called the SEC, while the team in Missouri had just joined that very special club.
One night, after the Missouri team played a team that wasn’t from that special club, a reporter asked one of the players, named Sheldon, if he had watched the other team play on TV that day. Sheldon told the reporters something very, very ugly and mean.
“Yes, I watched it, then I turned it off. They play old-man football.”
When the guys on the team in Georgia heard about this comment, they become very angry. So did their coaches. They decided that they must defend the honor of their club, so they planned extra practices and worked extra hard that week before playing the team from Missouri. When they got to Missouri, they were extremely motivated to show that they weren’t old men, and played harder than they ever had before.
The team from Missouri played their best but they couldn’t overcome the motivated players from Georgia. At the end of the game, some of the Georgia players went over to Sheldon and said, “Who’s an old man now?” Sheldon felt very bad, because he knew his words had probably cost his team the game.
Now, would you like another fairy tale?
Meanwhile, in the real world…
I’ve been bemused by the reaction to Sheldon Richardson’s comments. First of all, there is a measure of truth to them. While Mississippi was trailing Central Arkansas at halftime and South Carolina and Vanderbilt were putting up scores more appropriate to a baseball game, Oklahoma State was scoring 84 points. Yes, the Big 12 plays a more exciting, explosive brand of football than the SEC, and if you think Sheldon Richardson’s the first person to say so out loud, I have another fairy tale to tell you.
But this is about more than just whether you prefer grind it out “three yards and a cloud of dust” old man football to Run and Gun. More to the point is what Sheldon said later, which (surprisingly) has gotten less attention, which is, “if we execute, nobody in this league can touch us, period.” It was an expression of a certain amount of anger that I suspect is more widespread within locker rooms in Columbia and College Station than we realize, that these teams aren’t being given the respect due because SEC folks — who possess championship-level arrogance — think they’ve gotten the records they’ve achieved in recent years against a bunch of junior varsity nobodies. It puts guys at Mizzou and Texas A&M in a tough spot, because after leaving the Big 12 for the SEC who wants to sit around and defend the Big 12?
But we should. First of all, because it insults what Mizzou’s done in recent years to pretend that beating Oklahoma, beating Texas, beating Nebraska means nothing. It’s also just stupid from a football standpoint. Yes, the Southeastern Conference is college football’s best, but the pretense folks in Tennessee and Alabama and the rest of the Deep South hold that the margin is dramatic just ain’t true.
It was not good form for Richardson to say so out loud. The media, especially in SEC country, can take harmless comments like this and blow them all out of proportion. And while the color shirt I will wear in the press box Saturday is about as likely to affect the game’s outcome as Richardson’s comment is, Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel was probably right to scold Richardson. Tiger sports information director Chad Moller probably did his job correctly in not making Richardson available to the media at Monday’s press conference just to keep the story from flaming up even more.
It’s a pity, because they’ve done the media and the fans a disservice if they turn Richardson into another boring quote machine who tells us, “We gotta take ‘em one game at a time” and says nothing but how much respect they have for whatever opponent is next on the roster. Yeah, it’s a little self-serving because it makes our jobs easier when these guys say something with a little meat to it. But, at the same time, while it appears I may have been the only reporter with a microphone in Sheldon’s face when he fired up this scandal by having the gall to tell us the truth about what he watched on television, I certainly didn’t run out with the tape and splash it all over the Internet. I didn’t even realize until Monday afternoon that anyone had made a big deal about the comments. And I still think it’s dumb.
Sheldon Richardson’s in the doghouse for saying what someone should have said long ago, that the SEC may be the best conference in college football but Missouri and Texas A&M haven’t been playing against Aunt Flossie’s bridge club. Still, they’ll not make their point with words. They’ll make it on the field. Both teams start SEC play this week at home against very good teams. Mizzou hosts Georgia, the Aggies bring in Florida. Both teams will be underdogs. But I suspect at least one will pull off an upset.
And while nobody in the Big 12 will ever say so out loud, from Lubbock to Ames people will be cheering secretly for the Tigers and Aggies, and if one or both win, they’ll say, if just to themselves, “Told ya so.”
And if not, well…old man football or not, they do it real darn well in the SEC.
Max Copeland’s official Missouri head shot.
Because I don’t like writing the same story everyone else has, I’ve shied away from doing too much with one of this fall’s more satisfying developments, the Max Copeland story. It’s always cool to see a guy go from walk-on to starter, and as a barely recovering Deadhead who still wears his hair too long and has an earring and more tie-dye in his wardrobe than the average card-carrying member of the Football Writers Association of America, Max is something of a kindred spirit. The junior from Montana is known for his long hair and yelling “Rock and Roll!” almost as much as for his outstanding blocking skills. I wonder how anyone can not love this story, but I think I may be enjoying it even more than most.
Which is why the first real conversation I’ve had with Copeland, at the Monday presser, is one of the more surreal moments of the season. He was asked about the music he listens to in his pre-game routine, and while he wouldn’t give away his full playlist (“That’s my edge,” he said, though knowing whether it’s Rage Against the Machine or Pat Boone in Max’s iPod in pregame is probably as likely to affect the game’s outcome as what Sheldon Richardson thinks of old-man football) but he did acknowledge one favorite. “I always end up with ‘Ace of Spades'”. At which point one of the young reporters nearby asked him, “Which song by them?”
Resisting the temptation to just smack him in the back of the head, I explained to this poor uncultured soul that, no, “Ace of Spades” is a classic rock song by a band called Motorhead. That’s right — the 46-year-old guy from the NPR station is explaining hard rock to college students.
Yeah, it’s going to be a surreal season, I can tell already. Bye now…I’m going to go watch TV.