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Archive for Saturday, November 23, 2013

Saturday Column: Teammate’s death spurs reflection on football changes

November 23, 2013

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Mike McCormack, one of Kansas University’s finest athletes, died last week in Palm Desert, Calif.

McCormack played football at KU in 1948, ‘49 and ‘50 and enjoyed a Hall of Fame career as a professional football player and as a coach, director of football operations and president of an NFL team.

The late Paul Brown, the legendary professional football coach, said, “I consider McCormack the finest offensive tackle who ever played pro football.”

The death of McCormack focuses attention on the state of football in 1950, McCormack’s last year playing for the Jayhawks, and how the game has changed over the years. Granted, it is difficult and perhaps unfair to compare a sport over a period of 60-plus years, when there have been so many changes.

Today’s game is played quicker by bigger and stronger players. Few true grass fields are used today, so bad weather such as rain or snow doesn’t affect the game as much. The recruiting of players is far more intense and costly, equipment is better, there are far more coaches for each team, coaches’ salaries have exploded, night games are common, and television executives, not chancellors, call the shots.

Likewise, the composition of the various major athletic conferences remained steady, developing and nurturing historical relationships, with geography playing the main role in putting together a group of schools for athletic competition. Now, membership in a conference is based on which combination of schools is likely to draw the biggest television audience and thereby provide the biggest pay day for the participating schools.

There’s sure to be debate about whether the game was better, or purer, 60 years ago than it is today, but the main difference is that, today, it is big business. In McCormack’s day, it was far more of an amateur or semi-amateur sport, and players were, indeed, more accurately described as student athletes.

Seven of the 11 offensive team starters on the 1950 team knew each other or had played against each other in high school. Seven of the 11 players were from Kansas. (McCormack was from Kansas City, Mo.) All players graduated. One player enjoyed a successful career as a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, two served as state legislators, one was a member of the Kansas Board of Regents and another a dentist. Two were highly successful professional players who also entered private business after their playing days, one was in the newspaper business, one served as a KU athletics director. There was a bank executive, a bank owner, two attorneys and one coach.

There was little, if any, tutoring and no athletic dormitories, other than Varsity House, which housed several players and provided a site for pre-game meals. There was no training throughout the year, no drug or supplement problems, no police problems and, as mentioned above, the players were indeed student athletes, enjoying the diverse opportunities of being a part of the overall campus crowd.

Again, times change, and it is dangerous to compare one time frame against another. But there’s no question that, in 1950, KU football was a sport, a game, where a group of players, the majority of whom came from Kansas or Missouri, had a great opportunity to develop strong and lasting friendships.

In those days, Mike McCormack was a gentle giant (although today, a 240-pound Division 1 player would be considered small to medium). He was quiet and unassuming, a true leader through his performance and manner on and off the field, never in trouble and a credit to the university, in every respect.

This writer had the good fortune of being a teammate of McCormack, first as a member of the freshman team, when freshmen were not allowed to compete as varsity players, and then as a right guard playing next to an exceptional right tackle.

It is hoped that those playing major college football today have as much enjoyment and fun playing the game as those who put on the pads 60 or more years ago. And that today’s players have individuals such as Mike McCormack as teammates, serving as teachers and role models in how to play the game — as students, athletes and constructive members of society following graduation.

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