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Archive for Sunday, May 31, 1998

MAYER COLUMN

May 31, 1998

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My recent column on the high costs of non-revenue college sports brought to mind a classic yarn about promising something nonexistent, then having fate produce delivery from evil. Not surprisingly, the tale features Jack Mitchell, the flamboyant riverboat gambler who coached the Kansas football team from 1958 through 1966.

Nowadays, of course, college coaches have more scholarships to help recruit kids for non-football-basketball activities that operate in the red. I can remember when coaches like Floyd Temple in baseball and even Bill Easton in track had to parcel out what little aid their programs provided and lure other prospects with personality, promise and charm. Occasionally, they'd get help from kids like Bob Allison and Gale Sayers who had scholarships in other sports.

Bob and Gale were on football grants, but also boosted the baseball and track programs, respectively. Allison became a pro baseball standout as Sayers did on the gridiron. Charlie Hoag played football, basketball and was a discus flinger in track. KU really got its money's worth from guys like that. Lots of horse-trading in those leaner times.

But all that was nothing to what the charismatic Mitchell managed in landing Salina High football star Gary Duff.

Around 1960, Mitchell and the late Tom Triplett, then a KU grid assistant, made a trip to the Duff home in Salina. Gary not only was a talented football player but a state champion wrestler.

Jack was awfully good at selling mommies on the merits of KU. He was visiting with Gary's mom, and she told him her boy and the family were leaning toward Kansas State. KSU had a wrestling program while KU was bereft in that department; the Duffs wanted to watch the boy grapple at the college level.

Triplett admits he doggone near choked to death on his coffee when Mitchell blurted out that by the time Gary got to KU, there'd be a wrestling program and he wouldn't be surprised if Gary ended up as captain of the team.

``Where the hell that came from I'll never know,'' the colorful Triplett told me a number of times. And bear in mind that ``Tom Terrific'' was a pretty nifty recruiter in his own right. ``There was no wrestling at KU, I'd never heard anyone even mention a program and I thought Jack had really gone off the cliff this time!''

But as columnist Ann Landers reminds us when people think she makes up some of the letters she prints, you can't concoct things nuttier than people do. Especially Jack Mitchell.

Bottom line: Gary Duff lettered as an outstanding halfback at KU for the 1962-64 period, made all-league as a defensive back and co-captained the `64 grid team with Sayers; Gary also starred on a wrestling team that came out of nowhere in the interim and he did, indeed, get elected captain, just as Mitchell had projected.

Now the rest of the story. After completing his eligibility, Duff was hired as coach for the KU wrestling team. The Jayhawks later dropped the program same as it did gymnastics. But the Duff commitment was more than met.

You'd ask Jack how he worked such a trifecta and his eyes would twinkle, he'd twirl that trademark cigar, grin and utter something noncommital like, ``It just happened to work out that way.'' I always wondered what favor athletic director Dutch Lonborg owed that was big enough to allow Jack to call in that marker.

When Mitchell was hot after a prospect, almost nothing seemed impossible. And he's still the last winning coach in KU football history (44-42-5).

Old coot that I am, I immediately think of Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Johnny Bench and Gary Carter when the subject of blue-chip baseball catchers arises. I'm impressed with a lot of the numbers that current star Mike Piazza has put up. It appears he's going to be around quite a while running up even more impressive totals -- if he can ever settle with one team long enough. But how can Piazza be worth an eight-year, $100 million contract when he moves around more than Larry Brown?

The Dickeys, Cochranes, Berra and Campanellas played for peanuts compared to what guys not even as good as Joe Garagiola and Bob Uecker are getting now. How long can the market hold up under such bombardments?

Then consider hockey's Sergei Federov, whose contract recently kicked out a $12 million bonus (he'd signed for the season for $14 million) -- just because Federov's team made the finals.

In 1973, Wilt Chamberlain's last year as a basketball pro, his Los Angeles Lakers contract called for a $450,000 salary. That was No. 1 on the chart then, but look what's happened. You have Utah's Greg Ostertag, recently described by one announcer as ``a half-frozen caveman,'' set to begin a six-year, $40 million arrangement. Chamberlain -- whom some still consider the greatest basketeer of all time; Ostertag -- who has never produced consistently at crunch-time.

Something's out of whack here somewhere, folks.

-- Bill Mayer's phone number is 832-7185. His e-mail address is mayer@ljworld.com.

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