In this week’s Sports Illustrated—on newsstands now—senior writer Austin Murphy writes about how (and why) the nucleus of the Pac-12 is changing, as No. 2 Oregon (8–0) and fifth-ranked Stanford (7–1) prepare to face off in the Pac 12’s game of the year in Palo Alto on Thursday, Nov. 7.
Historically speaking, the Oregon-Stanford college football rivalry never really registered on anyone’s radar west of the Golden Gate Bridge. It never warranted any cool nicknames like The Iron Bowl (Alabama-Auburn) or The Red River Rivalry (Texas-Oklahoma) or the simple and direct moniker The Game (Michigan-Ohio State). The Ducks and the Cardinal never had the national spotlight on their intense coaching matchups the way Bo Schembechler versus Woody Paige or Bobby Bowden versus Steve Spurrier did.
It was only over the last few years that the Ducks versus the Cardinal took on any type of significance outside the Pacific time zone. The two schools have been forging a rivalry that has shifted the Pac-12’s power nexus had an annual impact on the national title hunt. Writes Murphy, “Besides, acrimony excepted, this game will have everything. It’s Oregon’s second-ranked offense, led by quarterback Marcus Mariota, against Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov and the Cardinal’s 25th-ranked D. It’s a play-in to the Pac-12 title game, and the latest dramatization of the conference’s power shift from Los Angeles. It’s a clash of fashions—the Cardinal’s basic red-and-white versus whatever space-age design the Ducks are rocking—and of philosophies reflected by those unis: Stanford’s old-school, smashmouth power game versus Oregon’s no-huddle, hurry-up Blur attack.” (Page 48)
For more than 60 years, Pac-12 football was dominated by heavyweight contenders UCLA and USC, which have won a combined 18 conference titles and 55 national titles between them and which have produced Hall of Fame players such as the Bruins Jackie Robinson (yes, he played football too), Ken Norton Jr. and Troy Aikman, and the Trojans’ Frank Gifford, Marcus Allen and Lynn Swann. Now all eyes in the West are focused on the Ducks’ Mariota and wide receiver Josh Huff and the Cardinal’s Skov and linebacker AJ Tarpley. Nevertheless, the talent surge at both schools can also be attributed to a surge in resources.
Writes Murphy, “The Ducks have won 12 games in each of the past three seasons; the Cardinal, 12, 11 and 12. The Ducks have been to four straight BCS bowls; the Cardinal, three. Both teams’ ascent to the college football aristocracy has come (relatively) recently—spurred largely by a couple of sugar daddies. Call it the Nouveau Riche Bowl. John Arrillaga (net worth: $1.8 billion), who played basketball at Stanford in the 1950s and developed much of the real estate that is now Silicon Valley, has given at least $251 million to his alma mater, where six buildings bear his name. Nike shogun Phil Knight (net worth: $16.3 billion) has kept his name off the architecture in Eugene, but he’s been even more generous, bestowing at least $300 million.” (Page 48)
While Stanford, known more for its academic achievement than its touchdown prowess, has surprised some with its recent success, it’s the Hatfield Dowlin Foot Performance Center, Oregon’s new state-of-the-art, 145,000 square foot football facility that has gone viral across all recruiting and social media platforms. However, Murphy says Knight plays down the importance of his philanthropy and influence on the football program’s success. “The secret is not the money” Knight says. Even with his gifts, Knight believes, Oregon has less to work with “than any of the traditional powers. The secret is management.” (Page 49)
Now that his talent and maturity are in better balance, Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant is finally ready to take off as a pass-catching star, writes Austin Murphy in this week’s SI 2013 NFL Preview. As the Cowboys added structure to his life, it started to click for Bryant, who might have been the NFL’s best receiver in the second half of last season. “It’s not like I didn’t want to do things the right way,” Bryant says. “I just really never knew how to get there, if that makes sense.” (PAGE 60) You can read the entire article on SI.com here.
Bryant has long been pegged as “troubled,” but Murphy finds he wasn’t a bad seed. Rather, his maturity and talent were out of balance. Murphy asks Bryant about his arrest in July 2012 for allegedly assaulting his mother. The police report says he grabbed her by her T-shirt and hair, bruised her arms and hit her across the face with his ball cap. Asked to address those allegations, Bryant says, “I would be a crazy dude, man, to put my hands on my mom. I did not put my hands on my mom, did not even attempt to put my hands on my mom”—other than to defend himself, he clarified. What about the hat? “I remember taking my hat off and slamming it on the ground,” he says, but he denies hitting her. “I love my mom,” he replies. “We love each other.” (PAGE 62)
When he was suspended for most of his 2009 junior year at Oklahoma State for lying to the NCCA about having a relationship with Deion Sanders, Bryant says he panicked. “I lied,” he concedes. “I didn’t take any gifts. But I should’ve told them I went to his home.” (PAGE 62)
Murphy also dives into Bryant’s childhood. His mother, Angela, had Bryant when she was just 15. When Dez was eight, she was arrested for selling crack and spent 18 months in jail. Dez moved in with his father, from whom he is now estranged. Bryant fought through tough times as a child knowing that he was destined to be a great football player. “I always felt chosen,” Bryant says. “By that I mean, God gave me the ability to help myself and my family. I always had that in my head.” (PAGE 60) Bryant is not yet ready to talk at length about his upbringing. “When you hear the whole story, I promise you, you’re gonna be overwhelmed.” (PAGE 66)
Murphy writes that nobody ever questioned Bryant’s love of the game or his work ethic. “Dez is one of my favorite teammates I’ve ever had,” says eight-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten. “What’s happening now is that he’s raised the bar for himself. He’s attacking meetings the way he attacks practices and games. He’s becoming a true pro.”
In Bryant’s rookie year, Dallas coach Jason Garret recalls, “we could have fined him five hundred times. He’s late for this, late for that . . . . He had no structure in his life.” (PAGES 59-60). While Bryant may still squirm through meetings, Garrett says he has become, “a more consistent person,” doing what he’s supposed to do on a more regular basis. “He gets back to you when you text him. His routes are more precise. He knows what his hot adjustments are.” (PAGE 60)
After Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo forced a bullet pass to Bryant in a scrimmage during the Cowboys’ first day of full contact at this year’s training camp, a longtime team observer noted, “That’s why Dez is going to have a big year. Romo trusts him now.” (PAGE 60)
With all three California teams making the NHL playoffs this season, and two of them—the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks—in the midst of a Western Conference semifinal showdown, senior writer Austin Murphy takes a look at the Golden State’s thriving hockey landscape in this week’s
Murphy finds that much of hockey’s popularity in California is due in part to the Sharks, Kings and Ducks being committed to developing young talent right in their backyard. The Sharks, playing in their ninth straight postseason, including trips to two of the last three conference finals, oversee a score of traveling club teams for boys and girls, ages eight to 18.
“By growing the game at a grass roots level, the Sharks are also minting fans for life,” says Murphy. “Since the NHL planted the team in San Jose 22 years ago, this high-tech hub has morphed into a kind of Hockeytown 2.0.” (PAGE 46)
The Sharks play in front of sellout crowds at the “Shark Tank”, which Murphy says has turned out “to be one of the loudest, most inhospitable pits in the league.” (PAGE 48) Their older fans love to play hockey too, as Murphy finds that San Jose is home to the largest adult hockey league in the country with 5,000 skaters and 165 teams.
The Kings and Ducks also have invested in youth hockey. The 2010 draft had a total of four California kids selected—all of them products of what is now the Los Angeles Jr. Kings Hockey Club. Anaheim has poured $12 million into its youth program since 2007, the same year they won a Stanley Cup.
The state’s franchises each “has invested heavily in the sport,” says Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “When you watch national championship games—bantams, pewees, midgets—the teams from California, especially Southern California, are always at the top of the heap.” (PAGE 46)
Though the Sharks struggled on the ice its first few years in the NHL, they did well at the gate and with merchandise sales thanks to the business community. “With all the corporate support they had coming in, you knew hockey was going to be a home run in that city” says Jack Ferreira, the former Sharks and Ducks general manager who is now special assistant to Kings G.M. Dean Lombardi, who also was G.M. for the Sharks from 1996-2003. (PAGE 48)
“From the NHL down to the squirts, the hockey boom in California is massive and irreversible,” writes Murphy. “Players and coaches who come to the Golden State tend to stick around. They can check out any time they like, but they never leave.” (PAGE 49)
Man boobs or mobility? Thunder thighs or the fastest 40 at the combine? These are the questions for so many wide-body prospects in the rapidly evolving game of football, where every extra pound is a double-edged sword. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, staff writer Austin Murphy examines the difference between being fit and being fat and how that matters for today’s game—one that looks for different type of linemen who can work in complex offenses such as the read option and the spread.
LeCharles Bentley, former Pro Bowl lineman with the Saints fears obesity is becoming an epidemic in the NFL. He believes that there are plenty of players who have eaten their way well past that mile marker. “A lot of the bodies you see in the league are soft. You don’t have to look like a receiver to play offensive line. But it’s critical to have correct body composition. You’re not playing to your full athletic potential when you’re that fat,” says Bentley (PAGE 52).
NFL executives now worry about what will happen to big guys once they get paid. “Throw guaranteed money at a guy, and the next thing you know he’s drinking smoothies with pineapple and whole milk,” says Murphy (PAGE 53).
Yet, many offensive line coaches can see the beauty in a big belly jiggling over tree-trunk legs. “Your power comes from your hips and your ass, that’s where your biggest muscles are…That’s your power pack. Some guys got a gut sticking out over top of that, but they can still use the power pack. They can get the job done for 16 weeks,” says Joe Pendry, an O-line coach for 45 years in the NFL (PAGE 52).
Howard Mudd who played seven seasons in the NFL, then coached offensive linemen for another 38 looks for balance and recovery when scouting an offensive lineman.“I wanted to see what happens when he starts to block a guy, but the guy gets away from him, and he almost falls down, and yet he’s able to right himself and complete the play. It might not even look that good, but I’ll say, Wow. That guy recovered,” says Mudd (PAGE 54).
This year, Georgia DT John Jenkins, as well as other big linemen lost a few pounds for the combine and their pro day to score better in combine drills. Most plan to gain the weight back. However, Murphy finds that today’s players have much more knowledge and resources when it comes to diet and nutrition.
NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock agrees. He says, “Offensive linemen this year look much different than they did 10 or even five years ago…they look leaner, not as sloppy as in the past years…for a lot of these prospects, for the first time in their lives people are hammering on them about nutrition.” (PAGE 53)
Murphy is still left to wonder—just how big is too big?
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who rushed for more yards—181—than any other quarterback in any NFL game, threw for another 261 and finished with four TDs in a 45-31 victory over Green Bay in the NFC Divisional playoff last Saturday, is on the cover of the Jan. 21, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Wednesday. This is the first time Kaepernick has appeared on the cover, and the first time a 49er was featured on the cover since Jan. 23, 2012.
Sports Illustrated staff writer Austin Murphy (@si_austinmurphy) says that after one of the most electrifying playoff debuts in NFL History, Kaepernick has silenced critics (the college coaches who didn’t find him worthy of a scholarship; the NFL teams who picked five quarterbacks before him in the ’11 draft; and the fans who preferred Alex Smith).
“I had a lot to prove,” Kaepernick shouted on the field after the game. “A lot of people doubted me and my ability to lead this team (PAGE 41).”
Perhaps it was fate that the 49er quarterback led his team to a win over the Packers. Kaepernick’s mother Theresa told Murphy about a letter she found that Colin wrote to himself as a fourth grader. It said in part: I hope I go to a good college in football, then go to the pros and play on the niners or the packers even if they aren’t good in seven years (PAGE 39).