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Main Attractionby: Gene Frenette
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It's not like Mack Brown didn't have enough to worry about in his first year at the helm of the University of Texas football program.
There was picking up the pieces from a dreadful 4-7 season and the enormous expectations of the "Hook 'em, 'Horns" faithful.
Not to mention the separate controversies that precipitated his arrival in the Lone Star State. One being the firing of his predecessor, John Mackovic, and the other the bitter feelings that lingered in North Carolina when Brown left the school that stuck by him after going 1-10 in each of his first two seasons.
Those stories soon became a blip on the radar screen once Brown was confronted with the biggest issue of the 1998 season - how to manage the mushrooming stardom of Ricky Williams.
"It was overwhelming at times," said Brown. "It felt like about 10 years in one, but I'd do it all over again because it was one of the most fun times I've had in coaching."
The greatest challenge facing Brown was restoring UT to football glory. But intertwined with that, he had to walk a coaching tightrope of keeping the Longhorns on a winning track while making sure that
Williams' pursuit of the Heisman Trophy didn't allow individual honors to interfere with team goals.
"It was a magical year, but a trying year," Brown said. "Everybody understood what they had to do and they played their role well. That made things easier."
But until Williams got past the halfway point of his record-breaking season, which saw him set an NCAA Division I-A career rushing mark of 6,279 yards that was previously held by Tony Dorsett, Brown and his staff were dealing with a balancing act that thousands of coaches face every football season.
How do you promote star players without upsetting team chemistry? And what can coaches do to prevent animosity from surfacing when the same player gets the majority of media attention?
"I don't think you should go overboard promoting your players for individual awards," said Florida coach Steve Spurrier. "All thatpreseason Heisman Trophy hype, it probably works against you with voters anyway."
Spurrier, who won the Heisman in 1966, believes individual awards in this information age are more a function of performance than publicity. And that the impact of star players on team chemistry depends on both their attitude and how the head coach deals with those players.
"We try to naturally praise players when they earn it, but keep itunder control if we have players that look like they enjoy it more than they should," Spurrier said. "In '96, our stars were all on offensewith (Heisman Trophy winner) Danny Wuerffel, Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard. They happened to be great team players and there wasabsolutely no jealousy between those guys at all."
Ricky Williams, however, presented Brown with one of the mostunique coaching situations in NCAA history. The running back had passed up NFL riches to return for his senior season, which only heightened his icon status. It also made him the preseason Heisman favorite and, unlike past players in that position, Williams maintained his front-runner billing throughout the season.
"To take the pressure off Ricky, we tried to make the Heisman ateam award," Brown noted. "We kept emphasizing to the players thatwe've got to have at least a 7-4 record for him to be in the running.
Ricky's teammates knew they had a better chance to be successful ifRicky was successful."
The Longhorns finished 8-3 and went to beat Mississippi State inthe Cotton Bowl. Brown's projections were correct. Williams not only won the Heisman, he won by the fourth-largest margin in the award's history.
Coaches Point the Way
Dwight Thomas wasn't trying to be self-serving or make it look like he was solely responsible for his team's success. There was a method to some of his madness when he took the Escambia High School coaching job in Pensacola, Fla. in 1983.
Among Thomas' rules that had to be strictly followed was that noplayer could be interviewed by the media during the football season.
Everybody was off-limits. No exceptions.
"We wanted to develop a disciplined program where we got everybody to be unselfish," said Thomas.
Thomas also knew something else. Escambia had won only three games in its previous three years. And Thomas, who was already at "the lowest ebb of my professional life" after getting fired at Choctawhatchee High, knew much of Pensacola was abuzz over the potential impact of an incoming freshman running back named Emmitt Smith.
The biggest problem with Escambia football, in his estimation, was its teams had been too concerned about individuals and not enough about the program's overall welfare. Thomas knew that Smith was sure to attract a good deal of attention, so he felt it necessary to impose the no-interviews policy with his players during the season.
"It's not that I wanted to talk or be the main focus, but I wantedeverything about our program to be a team thing," said Thomas, who now runs a series of player combines to assist high school players ingetting college scholarships. "I'm not saying it was good or bad. Ijust felt at the time that's what I had to do to keep the pressure offEmmitt and allow him to be a kid.
"When you're a ninth-grader and everyone on the team knows he's the guy people want to interview, that can be a problem. I either wanted to give everybody something or nobody got anything."
Right or wrong, Thomas' policy seemed to have a positive impact on Escambia's program. Smith, who gained 142 yards and scored two touchdowns in his first high school game, helped lead the Gators to a 7-3 record as a freshman after going 0-10 the previous year. In the next two years, Escambia won back-to-back Class 3A state championships.
Smith, who went on to stardom at the University of Florida and has had a Hall of Fame-worthy career with the NFL Dallas Cowboys, had no problem abiding by his coach's media rule. It had the full endorsement of Smith's parents, both of whom were heavily involved as volunteers in the football program, and the policy did nothing to impede scholarship opportunities for the players.
"Those drastic measures I deemed necessary to protect Emmitt and the rest of the players," Thomas said. "One practice, we had 17college coaches standing and watching. Emmitt got a lot of teammates signed (to scholarships) because (scouts) came to watch him."
Star treatment can be a touchy subject, particularly on the high school level when petty jealousies are more liable to surface and parents are more involved in kids' lives.
"Parents are more meddling now than they used to be and a lot oftimes, they may be judging without adequate information," said SamBudnyk, head coach at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, Fla. since 1960. "You can't control what the perceptions of parents are and you just hope that they don't mess with their kids' minds. We're working hard for everybody who's part of our program whether he's Division I material or just an average player..
"If you've got a blue-chip player and anybody senses that you'reshowing favoritism, then everything is counterproductive and you've got turmoil. I'm almost aloof from my quarterback (Division I recruit Abram Elam) at practice just so there's not a hint of perception that he's got special privileges."
Frank Lenti has coached six state championship teams and two runners-up in 15 seasons at Mount Carmel High in Chicago. While he had his share of star players, including NFL first-round draft picks in quarterback Donovan McNabb and linebacker Simeon Rice, he thinks it's important to keep the high-profile players grounded in team concepts.
"We're not in the star-making business," said Lenti. "We try to get our kids to understand that any success they have, it's because somebody else gives you the opportunity. If you're a great quarterback, you're only that way because of the offensive line. A receiver is only as good as someone who can get him the ball.
"I think a lot of problems come from parents with unrealistic expectations. Great players rise to the forefront themselves. Coaches don't put them there. There's a lot of things we can control, but the media's not one of them.
"Parents may see a story on some player and wonder why their kid's name isn't there. They don't understand that most stories get printed because the media notices certain trends at games that it thinks merits attention. Coaches don't make stars."
This is a sensitive subject for Lenti, who remains the target of a lawsuit by a former player, quarterback John Welsh. He claims that the coach was responsible for him not landing a scholarship from a major school in 1995 because Lenti, as is his policy with all players,withheld recruiting mail sent to the school until after the season. Welsh ended going to a prep school after Mt. Carmel and is now at Idaho.
UT's Brown, while not referring specifically to the bizarre lawsuit against Lenti, believes high school coaches face greater challenges when it comes to star players because parents have misconceptions about their influence.
"High school coaches feel a tremendous amount of pressure from parents to get their sons a scholarship," said Brown. "I hear parents blaming coaches all the time for not getting a scholarship. Well, coaches can't get that scholarship any more than we can get a kid drafted in the NFL.
"The only way a high school coach gets any clout with college coaches is by being honest with them. The worst thing a high schoolcoach can do is try to put a high school kid in a position where he can't play."
Letting Your Star Shine
Bob Pruett is entering his fourth season at Marshall, which has won more games in the 1990s than any college football program, and he welcomes all the trappings that come with having a star player.
"Most of the time, it's a win-win deal," said Pruett. "It means you got a really good player and your program is getting publicized. Perception is everything in athletics. Every program needs a good, positive perception.
"There's nothing wrong with having a star player. Now when youhave double standards, that's when you run into trouble. You want totreat everybody the same, but it's not the same because there are things you have to deal with on stars that you don't have to with others."
Two years ago, Pruett got a first-hand glimpse of those differences when a star with a troubled past - wide receiver Randy Moss - transferred to Marshall after Florida State had dismissed him for failing a drug test. Before that, Notre Dame rescinded its scholarship offer to Moss following his arrest and expulsion from high school on a felony charge for beating and kicking a fellow classmate.
Moss brought national attention to Marshall, but not just for his exquisite skills as a pass receiver. Though his star player's two seasons with the Thundering Herd passed without incident, Pruett soon learned there was a downside to having a great talent still lugging baggage wherever he went.
"Our national recognition was much better with Randy there, butthe biggest worry and concern with Moss was the way he was portrayed," Pruett said. "He's not doing anything different with the Minnesota Vikings that he did here in two years, but the media kept referring back to things that happened before he came to Marshall.
"When you have stars, you have to sell newspapers and magazines and the negative often came out. He was being perceived as something he's not. In our society, we love to build up heroes and then tear them down."
But whatever hits Pruett might have taken for bringing Moss aboard, he'd do it again because star players - even when they've got baggage - give programs the national exposure that's almost a prerequisite to succeed in major college football.
"Our program got enough respect to start with, but having a starplayer just legitimizes a little bit more," said Pruett. "I think Randy's success springboarded our quarterback, Chad Pennington, who is now a preseason All-American. When you have one or two stars, it makes it easier for the next star or group of stars."
Kentucky coach Hal Mumme certainly hopes that's the case for Dusty Bonner, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound quarterback from Valdosta, Ga. Bonner is the likely heir to Tim Couch, credited as the savior of Kentucky's football program after passing for 4,275 yards and 36 touchdowns last season.
Couch, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, was deemed a heroin his home state for choosing Kentucky over several big-time schools with much better football traditions. Bonner will get the star treatment not only because he's the quarterback, but the shoes he must fill.
Mumme believes his next quarterback is ready for stardom and all the trappings that come with it.
"Tim (Couch) was a very humble guy who didn't seek the limelight," said Mumme. "I can't think of a single time when he let the limelight get in the way of what he had to do. If the hype and attention bothers the player where he can't deal with it, then you've got problems. Tim loved off-season drills, watching tape. It was never a distraction around here.
"I think Dusty's (Bonner) going to be a real good player. I've known him since eighth grade when I coached at Valdosta State. He's got a good head on his shoulders."
Coaching a star player has its rewards and drawbacks. A lot depends on the player's attitude and whether he has the maturity to handle the role.
Ricky Williams, who often got as much attention for his dreadlocks as his on-field performance, was careful about never letting his Heisman campaign take priority over the team's best interest.
"I finally sat down with Ricky after we beat Nebraska because wehad an open date and we needed to talk about all the distractions," Brown said. "People were starting to ask him about who he was going to bring to the Heisman ceremony and how many tickets he would get. These were personal issues and we had to prepare him for that.
"Ricky never got sidetracked. Yeah, he got tired a bit after he won the Heisman, but he was obsessed about becoming a great player. He handled the whole thing the right way, just like Earl Campbell had done."
When the season was over, Brown made certain that the star's successful Heisman Trophy bid became a team thing. He got permission from the Downtown Athletic Club to have the ensignia of the Heisman statue imprinted on the Longhorns' Cotton Bowl championship rings.
As for Williams, he politely declined requests to autograph the Sports Illustrated cover of him. With one exception. He did sign thecover for his teammates.
Part of being a star is taking care of the people that got you there.
Talking About Tragedy
In quarterback Abram Elam, there's little doubt that CardinalNewman High School in West Palm Beach, Fla. has its best college football prospect since NFL players Chris T. Jones and Craig Erickson came through there in the mid to late-1980s.
But the usual hype that accompanies the recruiting process,especially for a quarterback, will be carefully monitored by Newman head coach Sam Budnyk because of the ordeal that Elam and his family are still enduring after his younger sister, 12-year-old Christina, was shot and killed January 25.
"I'm able to talk about it," said Elam. "It makes me feel better to express what I've been through."
Elam, 6-foot-1, 192 pounds, also plays free safety and may be recruited as a defensive back with his 4.5 speed in the 40. The main concern for Budnyk is Elam handling the added media interest because of the compelling, tragic circumstances of his sister's death.
"If I sense that the media attention and constantly dealing with this situation gets too heavy, I'll definitely intervene and try to help him out," said Budnyk.
Christina was shot while sitting in a car in her Monroe Heights neighborhood by 20-year-old John Hall, the older brother of a girl, Alicia, that Christina had a long-running feud with at Duncan Middle School. Witnesses told police that Christina and Alicia had argued hours before the shooting and police say that Hall, his sister and someone else went driving around the neighborhood to look for Christina in retaliation.
Police and witnesses say Hall pulled up behind the car in which the victim was sitting and fired six shots from a .357-caliber Magnum through the rear window and drove off. One bullet went through Christina's arm and into her stomach. She later died after being rushed to a hospital. Hall, who had no criminal record, was arrested the following morning and confessed.
The horror of the tragedy puts Abram Elam in the awkward position of trying to enjoy his upcoming senior year at Newman while dealing with the greatest adversity of his life. Abram arrived at the murder scene, which was two blocks from his home, just as his sister was being put into the ambulance.
"When anyone thinks about giving up, I know I can push them through it knowing what my family has been through," said Elam. "The hard part is trying to understand why a 20-year-old guy took the route he did to resolve the problem. Knowing he was older, he could have resolved it better.
Elam, who was also the leading rebounder (10.5 per game) on Newman's state championship basketball team from his guard position, has shown early interest in Alabama, Florida, Miami, Michigan and Notre Dame. But he admits he hasn't given serious thought to where he might wind up playing.
As his coach, Budnyk is confident that Elam has the maturity and work ethic to handle the unusual circumstances that will likely surround the recruiting media hype.
"Elam is always the first guy in the weight room and the last one to leave," said Budnyk. "He asks for no concessions. He's well-liked by the students because he's unpretentious and unassuming. He's almost too good to be true.
"The thing that has sustained him, I think, is his tremendousfaith in God. That's where he gets a lot of his strength."
Elam still has a T-shirt with his sister's picture on it that hewears in weight-room workouts. He says he will probably wear it under his uniform during games this season.
- Gene Frenette
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