Friday Flashback: Peyton Manning, Chris Petersen, LeBron James & Championships As Definers


LeBron James can rest a little more comfortably this off-season, having silenced critics with a dominant performance en route to the Miami Heat’s NBA championship. James entered the league nine years ago with much fanfare, like a five star recruit arriving on campus.

Winning a college football championship obviously requires a much different path than in the NBA, hence players being judged less harshly. While star players’ performances are critical, they are not the end-all, be-all. Thus, the microscope on college footballers is less intense.

That isn’t to say college football players are exempt from such criticism altogether. Peyton Manning passed on the opportunity to go to the NFL after his junior season in pursuit of a Heisman Trophy, and more importantly a national championship. He won neither. Manning’s Heisman defeat was of particular noteworthiness because the celebrated quarterback and son of an SEC legend was runner-up to the first, and still only defensive winner of the award.

Critics piled on the next year when his replacement, Tee Martin, guided Tennessee to the inaugural Bowl Championship Series title.

More recently, Tyrann Mathieu has had his share of detractors. While the Honey Badger earned a trip to the Heisman presentation and helped LSU to a 13-0 regular season and BCS title game appearance, he was unable to contain the passing attack Jim McElwain conceived for the game’s biggest stage.

Mathieu will have an opportunity to address his critics, with LSU returning a loaded lineup and again eyeing the national championship. But if the Tigers fail to claim the top spot, and Mathieu has another great season individually, is his career diminished? Countless greats have come and gone from the stage of Saturday without winning the grand prize. Title ownership is designated for a very small percentage, but should it be the all defining mark in ones record book?

Coaches are more subject to the verbal arrows fired from fans and pundits. An interesting debate is if a coach can be considered elite without winning a title. We aren’t talking legendary, a title reserved for the likes of John McKay, Dan Devine, and Bo Schembechler. Rather, this is the next echelon of coaches — great coaches who may not be remembered in the same vein, but have lasting impacts on the game.

Growing up in Arizona, Frank Kush is the benchmark for college football coaches. The field at Sun Devil Stadium bears the longtime Arizona State coach’s name. Kush never won a national championship, though. Should his legacy be tied to what he didn’t accomplish?

Hindering Kush was that ASU spent much of his tenure in the WAC. Because there were such fewer bowls in the 1960s and 1970s, the sport’s elitism that persists today kept some very good Sun Devil teams from even experiencing the postseason.

Kush did crack the glass ceiling though, coaching ASU into the final top 10 poll several times in the ’70s. Furthermore, he made an impact that endures longer than a trophy. His 1970 ASU team ran the table and earned an invite to the Peach Bowl. The Sun Devils’ trip to Atlanta was a test to gauge how western programs outside of the Pac-8 sphere of influence would take to the postseason.

The result of that trip was the formation of the Fiesta Bowl, one of the most prominent games in the sport today. And without that Peach Bowl campaign, the Pac’s 1979 expansion might not have included the Arizona schools.

In the same way Kush impacted the game, Chris Petersen is today at Boise State. BSU could get the opportunity Kush’s Sun Devils were never afforded and play for a national championship because of Petersen’s efforts. The Broncos are regularly in the conversation with the top tier, the creme de la creme of college football. Petersen may never win a title, but his place in history should be nothing but celebrated.

Conversely, a championship can supersede other footnotes in a coach’s legacy. An interesting name with which to play the What If game is Jim Tressel. Tressel was forced out at Ohio State last spring with revelations of players exchanging memorabilia for tattoos. The may have been a pall over Tressel’s departure, but surely his tenure in Columbus will be remembered favorably.

He led OSU to the national championship in 2002, beating one of the most feared teams in college football history in the process. Certainly the Buckeyes’ title bought Tressel extra historical reverence. Without said title, it’s interesting to debate whether he would go down as a great coach who was tripped up by a rare blemish, or if he would be seen more like a Butch Davis. Davis was the architect of those mighty Miami teams in the early 2000s, having recruited the talent that delivered the 2001 national championship. But that’s more aside than headline in the story of his career.

Kush exited ASU under inauspicious circumstances, but time healed those wounds and his legacy’s fully embraced in Tempe. Down south, there’s another coach who made an impact but left on perhaps a sour note. Larry Smith built Arizona from almost nothing, before leaving for a position in conference. His foundation paved the way for the Desert Swarm teams that UA would be known for in the ’90s.

Smith was entering as Kush as exiting. UA’s glory years from the Border Conference were well behind it, as the Wildcats joined the new Pacific 10 Conference mostly as a tag-along to ASU. But in just six short years, Smith had UA clicking. His efforts gained the attention of USC, which hired him after the 1986 season.

Smith led USC to a Rose Bowl in 1988, and would have played for the national championship had his Trojans not lost a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown with Notre Dame — that season’s eventual national championship, and a program with one of those legendary coaches, Lou Holtz. Smith may have never won it all, but elite would categorize some of his contributions to the sport: reaching a Rose Bowl, coaching two of the best QBs in USC history (Rodney Peete and Todd Marinovich), putting UA on the map.

So how important is a championship to a football legacy? Surely there’s some significance. There are no shortage of coaches with titles who are questioned and criticized ad nauseum like Les Miles and Bob Stoops, and to some extent, Steve Spurrier. Imagine the vitriol Miles would receive were it not for ’07, or Stoops without 2000. Were it not for 1996, Spurrier might be associated with Florida’s title game belly flop vs. Nebraska the previous campaign.

Winning a championship is a special accomplish, something that should be celebrated more than expected. And while it’s the pinnacle every athlete and coach strives for, so much more defines their impact.