There are so many images of the 2009 college footbal season that are going to stick with me for a long time:
**–The season ended, of course, with a wild celebration on the field at the Rose Bowl with Alabama holding up the crystal ball symbolizing the BCS national championship, the school’s first since 1992. There were a lot of really happy people on that field.
**–But this season really began with a punch. It was delivered, sucker variety, by Oregon’s LeGarrette Blount to the chin of Boise State’s Byron Houts. What followed was an angry young man out of control, who wanted to take on a hostile crowd. Oregon had no choice but to suspend him indefinitely. But there was redemption. Late in the year he was reinstated to the team and first-year coach Chip Kelly took the Ducks to the Rose Bowl.
**–It was the year that the SEC appeared to be snakebit when it came to bad officiating. It started with the phantom excessive celebration call against Georgia’s A.J. Green against LSU, which the SEC admitted was missed. Then came another phantom call of personal foul against an Arkansas player against Florida which the official and the league had to admit was not there. Officials were suspended after that call and later in the year Florida coach Urban Meyer was fined $30,000 for violating the edict that coaches would not comment publicly on officiating. It was a tough year for commissioner Mike Slive but he guided the league through those choppy waters.
**–I was on the field in Tuscaloosa when Terrence Cody blocked a Tennessee field goal on the last play of the game to preserve a 12-10 win for Alabama. That was the game when Mark Ingram, the Heisman Trophy winner, lost his only fumble in more than 400 career carries.
**–There was the night of Sept. 26 when, for the first time in 20 years, I stayed home and watched football instead of going to a game. I watched Tim Tebow lay on the turf of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium motionless for a few seconds. I started getting text messages asking what I thought. When Tim got sick on the sidelines I wrote “it’s a concussion.” All sorts of negative things go through your mind. But two weeks later I was on the field at Tiger Stadium when Tebow led Florida to a 13-3 win over LSU.
**–There was the ugly sight of Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes sticking his hand inside the facemask of Georgia running back Washaun Ely during the annual game in Jacksonville. Florida gives Spikes a one-half game suspension against Vanderbilt. After a national media backlash Spikes requested that his suspension be extended to a full game. What should have been a one day story was turned into a five day story and Florida took a credibility hit on the national stage.
**–There was the death of Connecticut player Jasper Howard. The coaching manual does not tell a man how to explain to players that one of their teammates has been murder. But Randy Edsall got his team through that and the Huskies eventually beat Notre Dame and went to a bowl game, where they beat South Carolina. At every stop along the way Jasper Howard’s jersey was there.
**–There were LSU’s inexplicable problems with time management at the end of the game with Ole Miss and again in the bowl game with Penn State. Les Miles had better get that aspect of his program fixed.
**–There were Tim Tebow’s tears at the Georgia Dome when he realized his storybook career would not have a storybook ending. But he came back with the best game ever against Cincinnati.
**–There were Mark Ingram’s tears when he accepted Alabama’s first-ever Heisman Trophy. He thanked his coaches and his teammates and his family. His father, Mark, Sr., was watching from prison. You can bet there were tears there as well.
**–There was Idaho coach Rob Akey making a big decision. His team trailed 42-41 with four seconds left in the Humanitarian Bowl. He decided to roll the dice and go for two. The Vandals made it and beat Bowling Green 43-42. People tell me that these bowls don’t mean anything. Try telling that to the kids at Idaho.
**–There were coaches behaving badly. Now there have been three–Mark Mangino of Kansas, Mike Leach at Texas Tech, and Jim Leavitt of South Florida–dismissed for alleged mistreatment of players. This should be a cautionary tale for coaches everywhere. Don’t step over the line with players because now they have the power, particularly if the coach in vulnerable.
**–There was the disappointed face of Colt McCoy after the BCS championship game. He had won more games as a starting quarterback than any player in Division I-A history. He had been playing football all of his life to get to this position and now he was out after six plays with a bad shoulder. Very sad.
**–There was the smiling face of Kirby Smart when we met briefly after the national championship game. He wanted to get to his family. He knew the question I wanted to ask him and I knew he couldn’t answer it. So I let him go thinking that hi life, no matter what happened in the coming days, was going to change.
**–And finally, there were my tears when I saw Bobby Bowden, one of the greatest ambassadors in the history of college football, plant that flaming spear into the ground at the Gator Bowl, his last game as head coach. I never through Bobby Bowden would be forced off the stage. All he wanted was one more year. He didn’t get it and that was sad.
So it was a great year and I’m glad you were along for the ride. As I normally do after the season I have to step away for a while. I make a family commitment this time of year and make room for all of the recruiting news which I know you love. I will huddle with the AJC folks and we’ll decide when it makes sense for me to come back. I hope it won’t be too long.
Again, I want to thank you for your participation in this effort. My friends in other areas of the country are envious because you are so passionate about the game. In other markets they have to fight to get any kind of college football on the front page. That’s why I tell them that in the South college football is not a game, it’s a way of life.
And thanks to you, it’s a helluva life. I hope to see you again soon.