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The NFL's Farm System

Major NCAA colleges provide the training ground for future pro football stars
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

Let me come clean right from the start. I only get excited about college players once they make it to the pros. This is roughly equivalent to saying I care little about them in college. Oh, once a year people like me might sit down to watch for about 10 minutes when a national championship is on the line. But generally speaking, my type wouldn't miss raking wet leaves on a rainy day to stay home and catch the Boilermakers duel the Fighting Irish. The Sooners versus the Cornhuskers? I'm outta here smoking an Astral on a walk. Why? For the same reason that I don't get crazy about minor league baseball. To me it's a junior circuit, a conduit for the pros, a lesser station toward a greater destination. College football is just a means to an end. I prefer the end.

The pro game is the proving ground. You want to know the best college teams? You need to wait and see how many players they put on pro rosters. College players -- like college writers, biology majors or pre-law students -- are in a state of becoming, but not a state of being. I don't want to see Meredith Willson's The Music Man in rehearsals. Just bring on the opening night.

The pro enthusiast with little use for college ball is easy to spot. He makes remarks like, "I think Joe Montana is one of the three greatest QBs of all-time -- and he played for Notre Dame, right?" Or, "Man, what a linebacker that Ray Lewis is! And I hear he was great at Florida State, or was it Florida? No, Miami." When it comes to college players, I only learn about them after the fact. I remember when I read that Tony Dorsett had set the all-time rushing college record with 6,082 yards. I learned about it years after he left Pitt and played for Dallas. Collegiate achievements lack intrinsic value; it was as if I came at his college career through the back door. And I didn't know that Rickey Williams broke Dorsett's record with 6,279 yards in 1998 until 2000, when he was a latter-day Saint.

To me, neither Dorsett's nor Williams's records would stick unless they backed them up with great pro careers. Dorsett already has, making it to the Hall of Fame, but the jury is out on Williams. The pro test isn't some three- or four-year test. It's more enduring. And much more demanding.

"The pro game is so much faster. Every guy has speed and quickness. A defensive lineman that runs a five flat (40-yard dash) is considered fast in college. Here he's a slowpoke," says New York Giants coah Jim Fassell. "The bottom line is the game is just so much faster -- referees and coaches see it and players know it." And size? "I remember ten years ago when I broke into the league, there wasn't a single NFL team that averaged 300 pounds on the offensive line. Only a few teams had 300-pound linemen. Now everyone does. Denver is the only team that doesn't average 300 pounds. The pro game is just dramatically different; they're just bigger, faster, stronger." The difference between football in the NCAA and the National Football League is like the difference between a motor scooter and a Harley.

I know this attitude sounds vaguely elitist. Some of you are cussing, "What an idiot," while others think I'm callous. Still others think I'm all three. I understand. College football zealots are always trying to reason me out of my "pro position" and get me to see why the college game is so passionate, so pure. I intellectually recognize there are near-great players in college who just aren't able to ascend that last step of the talent pyramid. Others miss their big chance because of injury. I know that my lack of interest in college games means I miss the pageantry of the college sport -- the cheerleaders, the bands, and all those brassy marching songs I don't recognize. I miss out on being a spectator for those special clap-clap (pause) clap-clap-clap Kodak moments.

Guys like me take the most recent date and work backwards. So when I find out that the champion Baltimore Ravens have four players from the University of Miami, I suddenly think more highly of Miami. A great linebacker, Ray Lewis, was one of them. Now I'm hooked. I start wondering what college has put together the best active pro all-star team? Which college would put out the best all-time All-Star team? This is a fun exercise.

But before some of you puff out your chests with alumni spirit, know that it isn't Nebraska or Miami or Michigan or Oklahoma that sets the pace in putting players in the pros. The top pro-producing colleges are Florida State and Notre Dame, both of which have 41 active players in NFL uniforms. Florida State? I'm not too surprised. The Seminoles ranked in the top 20 this season. But Notre Dame? The Irish were so far down in the rankings that you'd need the Hubble telescope to spot them. But facts are facts, and Florida State and Notre Dame have bragging rights among active NFL players.

Here are some other facts. There are 1,729 active players in the NFL, representing 251 colleges and universities. There were 1,641 players on Opening Day rosters. But NFL rosters are very fluid due to the rate of injuries, and as of October 8, seven teams had open spots on their rosters and 93 players were on the injured reserve list, the physically unable to perform list, or otherwise inactive. If 1,729 players sounds like a large number, consider that approximately 56,500 "student athletes" played football in the 1998-99 season in Division I, II and III NCAA football (the number doesn't even include players in junior colleges and community colleges). Of those, approximately 12,600 will still be playing as seniors. Of those, approximately 250 -- or about 1.9 percent -- will be drafted by a pro team. So as the talent pyramid narrows dramatically, college players fall by the wayside and look for work like other grads.

The final exam for college teams asks the same question as it does for college players: how did you do in the pros?

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