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Archive for Sunday, April 10, 2005

Mayer: Student-athletes should be lauded for staying in school

April 10, 2005

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With today's greedy inroads from professional teams, there needs to be a special place in college athletics for people like Daunte Culpepper, Peyton Manning and Wayne Simien; throw in other Kansas University basketball stars such as Danny Manning, Raef LaFrentz, Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison. Fortunately they now give CLASS awards to the likes of KU's Simien and Kansas State's Kendra Wecker, who made commitments, stayed the four-year course and deservedly were Wooden Award finalists.

Character and commitment can factor so admirably into sports career decisions. Culpepper, now a pro star, was raising eyebrows as a quarterback at Central Florida. He was nurtured and raised by a "grandma" who'd taken care of something like 11 other kids. Daunte wasn't steamrollered by major-college offers. He was given a chance by UCF and could have turned pro for good money after his junior season.

Culpepper had two early goals: to stay the full cycle with the school which had made it possible for him to succeed and make millions, and to build a new house as soon as possible for that gallant lady who helped him grow up. He did both, loyally staying for his senior season and creating that house.

Peyton Manning had a can't-miss label, justifiably, by the time he had completed his junior season at Tennessee. Yet he felt he owed it to the Volunteers to finish out. He should have won the Heisman Trophy but was beaten out by a Michigan guy who nabbed the spotlight with a couple of sensational plays on television, then left early for the pros.

What a marvelous home-grown story Simien has written for us. He, too, could have left for the pros after his junior season at Kansas. He felt he owed it to his home town of nearby Leavenworth, his family, KU and his teammates to try to get back to another NCAA Final Four. He had a good shot at the NBA after his junior season. Considering his numerous injury problems, we wouldn't have blamed him for taking the money and running while he was hale and hearty. Gave it some thought, but that's not the nature of this spiritual All-American.

His mother Margaret grew up in Lawrence and was an athlete at Lawrence High. She and dad Wayne Sr. have been the ideal parents for so high-profile a son, who long dreamed of playing at KU. The Simiens are the kind of family every coach -- be it Roy Williams, Bill Self or Phog Allen -- loves to have supporting him. Now Wayne Jr. has run the course, though not quite as successfully team-wise as he'd hoped. He could wind up with something like a three-year, $9 million contract as a pro. He's a Jayhawk jewel.

Danny Manning could have defected after the 1987 season but stayed to give KU even more of his best. He's a respected hall of famer and should be. Raef LaFrentz, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich -- other wealthy four-year men who traveled the whole college route and are glad they did. Paul Pierce and Drew Gooden left a year early. There were good reasons, like big money, and their jerseys hang on the Allen Fieldhouse wall. I cringe, however, that these early-out guys have their shirts up there while the dedicated Hinrich doesn't. Simien will make it.

But as John Kennedy reminded us, life's not fair and even the most sterling of people get short-changed ... like Hinrich and, now, Wayne Simien. He richly deserved to finish here in far flashier fashion than fate allowed, but he has been showered with earned honors and that's great.

So let's hear it again for those "evergreens" who commit and stay.

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Important point of order: Whether or not you're happy for Carolina coach Roy Williams finally getting his national title ring, you have to drench him with credit for the fact that five of the kids he brought here, the "seniors," will graduate this spring. Those would be Wayne Simien, Michael Lee, Aaron Miles and Keith Langford, with Jeff Hawkins as No. 5. Hawkins redshirted a year and has a season left even though he gets a diploma. By taking graduate work, he can compete a fourth season. That speaks volumes about the caliber of young men Ol' Roy paraded before us in his 15 years while also winning a lot of games and representing Kansas so favorably. Ideally, isn't college supposed to produce an education and a diploma? In 1997, six seniors, six sheepskins.

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Football coach Bud Wilkinson often said: "I want to know what young man doesn't really want to be with us because I want him out of the lineup when it's fourth and goal and you have to prevail or fail." That's a good way to look at the departure of basketball's Alex Galindo. Or David Padgett. Or any parent-driven prima donna who chooses to play the victim. KU had far too much moping, grousing and pouting the past two years. Bill Self should shed all the unhappy campers so he can launch a massive rebuilding effort, which will pay victory dividends faster than some might think.

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Roy Williams led North Carolina to the school's fourth NCAA title but none of them have come without massive struggles. In 1957, UNC had to go three overtimes in the semifinal game against Michigan State, then three more OT's in the title game with Kansas. Came '82 and Michael Jordan's last-ditch shot held up after a ball-handling bungle by Georgetown. Dean Smith got his second title in 1993 with the aid of a boneheaded timeout call by Michigan's Chris Webber when Michigan didn't have another TO. Then Monday, UNC under Williams blew a 15-point lead and managed to hold off Illinois, 75-70. But the Dean Dome rafters show four national title flags and none of the Tar Heel faithful care how hectic it was to get them there.

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We keep hearing how the 1979 Larry Bird-Magic Johnson NCAA match thrust college basketball into the permanent limelight. Baloney! Unbeaten North Carolina and Kansas with Wilt Chamberlain really set the stage 22 years earlier. The largest media mob to date gathered for that '57 title game in Kansas City. Coverage included an 11-station television network, 64 newspaper writers and live radio broadcasts on 73 stations in 11 states. There'd been nothing even close before. How could the college tournament NOT explode and prosper after that thriller?

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