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ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons is famous for a lot of things: His far-fetched and sometimes outrageous theories. His blatant Boston homerism. And of course a unique and brilliant writing style that has made him a cult hit with readers everywhere.
Of all the things Simmons has written, one of my personal favorite articles is called “The What If,” game, a series of hypothetical scenarios and “What if’s,” that could’ve changed the course of the NBA and its history as we knew it. First debuted on ESPN.com and later in his best-selling, “The Book of Basketball,” Simmons tackles interesting What-If subjects like “What if Portland hadn’t taken Sam Bowie with the No. 2 pick in the 1984 NBA Draft,” and “What if the Phoenix Suns hadn’t gotten rid of Joe Johnson at the beginning of the Steve Nash era.” Fun stuff like that.
Obviously the “What If Game,” extends to other sports too, with maybe none more interesting than college football. Just with how the nature of the game works (how one recruit can impact championships, how one loss can cost you an entire season), there are a million “What if’s” that keep college football fans up and night, and give people like me something to constantly write about. What if Tim Tebow selected Alabama over Florida in 2006 (A real possibility at the time)? What if Cam Newton had ended up at Mississippi State instead of Auburn, or never left Florida at all? What if the Bush Push was unsuccessful? What if. What if. What if.
However, the greatest “What if,” that no one ever talks about involves a handful of programs that are in a world of trouble right now. It’s hard to believe, but with both Ohio State and West Virginia imploding in front of our eyes over the last few weeks, and Michigan re-building after the disastrous Rich Rodriguez/Greg Robinson era practically burned Ann Arbor to the ground, all three schools faced the same turning point, just over four years ago.
Which leads to this: What if West Virginia beat Pitt on December 1, 2007?
As crazy as it sounds, that one, innocuous, seemingly meaningless game altered a BCS National Championship, countless conference championships, and the future of some of the nation’s top programs, coaches and recruits.
So what happened exactly? Let’s look back on that day, and see how it impacted the future of college football as we now know it.
Let’s go back to December 1, 2007.
To understand the significance of December 1, 2007, you must first go back a few weeks prior, when the first domino in this whole “What If” scenario fell. That came on November 20, when Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr announced his retirement effective after bowl season. It came in a year which the Wolverines began their regular season with a loss to Appalachian State, and ended with Carr’s fourth straight defeat to Jim Tressel and Ohio State. Not quite “Hail to the Victors,” huh?
Anyway, with Carr out, the search for the next Michigan head man immediately centered around America’s favorite hatted, smirking, grass-eating coach, LSU’s Les Miles.
Normally that wouldn’t have been a problem, except, well, Miles’ team was in the midst of a National Championship race, and it ultimately led to a courtship between school and coach that so awkward, even eHarmony would’ve been embarrassed. And even after LSU lost to Arkansas the day after Thanksgiving, Michigan still couldn’t put on the full-court press, since there was an outside shot that the Tigers could play for the National Championship. Granted, they’d have to win the SEC Championship Game, and have a million other things break their way. But it was a possibility none the less.
Of course before LSU could even take the field that afternoon, controversy hit when ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit reported on College Gameday that Miles to Michigan was a done deal. Whether it was or not, few know (with Miles himself having likely forgotten the whole event by now). But with controversy surrounding his team before their biggest game of the season, to his credit the Hatter called an audible, and at a hastily thrown together press conference announced he’d be signing an extension to stay in Baton Rouge. LSU would go on to win the game 21-14, and Michigan needed to look in another place for a new coach.
Even with their coach committing to stay though, the Tigers still needed a prayer and a miracle to play in the BCS Championship Game a few weeks later. Entering that last Saturday of the season, Missouri was ranked No. 1 in the BCS poll, West Virginia was ranked No. 2 and Ohio State No. 3, with both Missouri and West Virginia playing that evening. With their win over Tennessee, LSU jumped to fourth in the BCS standings (ahead of Georgia, Kansas and Virginia Tech) but they’d still need both the Tigers and Mountaineers to lose. If both won out, the pair would play for the title, and if only one was victorious, that team would play idle Ohio State in New Orleans instead. Only if each lost, would LSU get a shot at the title.
To their discredit, Missouri did their job that night, getting smoked in the Big XII title game, in a loss that wasn’t nearly as close as the 38-17 final score might indicate. After being tied at 14, Oklahoma scored 24 of the game’s last 27 points in a laugher.
Now onto Morgantown for the Backyard Brawl.
To put it simply, Pittsburgh and West Virginia didn’t even belong on the same field that night.
The Mountaineers entered the game at 10-1 with an offense that would finish the season averaging just under 40 points a game. Pittsburgh was 4-7 and coached by Dave Wannstedt. Enough said.
Not that it mattered once the game started. From the opening kick West Virginia played scared and tight, missed two field goals in their first three possessions, and a handful of other ideal offensive opportunities as well. And when star quarterback Pat White got injured early, it seemed clearer and clearer that it just wasn’t West Virginia’s night. That would prove to be correct, as Pitt held on for a 13-9 win, with White (my favorite college football player ever, for the record) looking on from the sidelines. Insert your own clichéd, “Throw out the records when these two teams play,” comment here.
So now to the fun part: What if West Virginia had won that game?
Ohhhhhhh boy. Grab a warm glass of milk and your favorite blanket. We’re gonna be here awhile.
For starters, a West Virginia win obviously would’ve completely swung that year’s National Championship and bowl season. If the Mountaineers had held on, it would’ve been they who played in that year’s title game, with LSU going to the Sugar Bowl and leiing the beat down on Hawaii (get it, “lei”-ing? Get it? Huh? Do ya?), and someone other than West Virginia playing the Big XII champs Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Maybe Georgia-who would’ve been squeezed out of the Sugar Bowl- would’ve gone to Glendale?
But back to the National Championship Game for a second, because if it is West Virginia-Ohio State, two interesting things happen.
One, let’s say Ohio State wins. It completely changes the on-the-field opinion that we have of Jim Tressel, right? No longer is he “big game choker,” who can’t beat the big boys, but instead a two-time National Champion, who we have to mention in the same breath as Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, as not only a great regular season coach, but one who can get it done in bowl season too. And it certainly would’ve taken the taint off of the beat down the Buckeyes took the year before against Florida. Of course on the reverse side, with USC vacating their 2004 title yesterday, it also opens up the possibility of that 2007 title being vacated as well. Anyyyyyyway…
On the opposite side, whether West Virginia won the title or not seems secondary to something else: With the Mountaineers playing for a title, it seems completely impossible that Rich Rodriguez would’ve left for Michigan. Remember, Rodriguez was named the Michigan head coach on December 17, a full two weeks before West Virginia would’ve played Ohio State for the title. Would Michigan have even contacted a coach that was no more than their third choice for the job to begin with, especially if he was getting ready to play for a title (Remember, not only did the Wolverines pursue Miles, but Rutgers Greg Schiano as well before finally offer the job to Rich Rod)? And even if they did, is there any way Rodriguez leaves a program he’s just led to a championship game? It seems absolutely inconceivable.
So if Rodriguez stays, think about how that impacts West Virginia. How many more Big East titles do they win? They’d have certainly been the favorite the following year when Brian Kelly and Cincinnati took home their first of two, and unless Rodriguez left at that point (which opens up a whole other can of worms) the Mountaineers would’ve at least been in the hunt for the last two as well.
More importantly if West Virginia beat Pitt on December 1, 2007, the Mountaineers aren’t playing in the Fiesta Bowl, which means that Bill Stewart is never named interim head coach (and later head coach) and they’re not in the situation they’re in now. Stewart is still the “happy to be there” yokel assistant, and Dana Holgorsen is still swilling Heineken’s in a hotel bar in Stillwater somewhere. Oh, and by the way, if West Virginia doesn’t play in that Fiesta Bowl (and in the process win it 48-28), maybe Oklahoma wins and Bob Stoops doesn’t have to wear “Can’t win the big game,” scarlet letter (ala Tressel) for three more years.
(See, isn’t this what if stuff fun!)
So with Rodriguez now staying at West Virginia, what happens at Michigan?
As we mentioned before, Rodriguez was the Wolverines third and final choice. So who was No. 4? Only a handful of people know. But just as importantly, does it open up the door for No. 1 to go back to Ann Arbor?
It isn’t totally inconceivable, and here’s why: Remember that press conference that Miles threw together before the SEC title game? Well despite announcing that he’d sign an extension, he didn’t actually put pen to paper until later that week. And if it was Rodriguez (and not he) who was getting ready to play for a title, is it crazy to think that Miles never signs that extension and goes up to Michigan? Obviously that never happened, because LSU had a title to play for. But if they didn’t? What if? Remember, this is college football we’re talking about, where a coaches word is about as valuable as membership in the Sun Belt. Would Miles have gone back on that word and gone to Ann Arbor?
Even if Miles stays at LSU, the situation remains interesting at Michigan.
Look, we will never know who would’ve ended up coaching there, because again, this is called the “What if,” game. It’s all hypothetical. But if West Virginia had beaten Pitt, and if Rodriguez hadn’t gone to Michigan, would Ryan Mallett have stayed in Ann Arbor?
Ohhhhh, you forgot about that one, didn’t you?
Except remember, Mallett played at times as a true freshman in the maize and blue, and completed 43 percent of his passes and threw for seven touchdowns. After Carr retired, he stuck around Ann Arbor long enough to see who would be named the next coach, and when it became Rodriguez (with his spread option offense), Mallett left tread marks screeching out of town.
Well if Rodriguez had stayed at West Virginia and Michigan had brought in a different coach who committed to the pro-style, or at the very least seemed intent on building the program around their star quarterback’s strengths, does Mallett stick around? And if so, how does that affect Arkansas going forward? Who would’ve played in this year’s Sugar Bowl? Most importantly, without Mallett, does Bobby Petrino leave Fayetteville to go coach in the UFL? (Just kidding on that last one Arkansas fans!).
And oh by the way, speaking of elite quarterbacks, how about that year’s No. 1 recruit, Terrelle Pryor?
As has been discussed at length with Ohio State’s program falling apart the last few weeks, Pryor almost picked Michigan over the Buckeyes in the recruiting process. Really though, that’s only part of the story. Because it wasn’t about picking Michigan the school, as much as it was picking Rodriguez and his offense. And there was a real possibility that Pryor- the man of a million loaner cars- almost took his talents to a Morgantown area tattoo parlor.
Understand that’s not my opinion, but a fact.
In an interview with Rivals.com on December 7 (10 days before Rodriguez left for Michigan), Pryor mentioned to Mike Farrell that he was planning a visit to West Virginia either January 11 or January 18. He followed that up with a cryptic comment about his future school, saying, “That concerns me about Ohio State, because they’ve never run an offense like the one we run at my high school, or that they run at West Virginia, Florida, Oregon, other places.” (I'm not linking to the Rivals articles, only because they are subscription based. You've either got to take my word on the citations, or sign up to see yourself.)
Like everything else in this column, it’s impossible to say that if Rodriguez had stayed at West Virginia, Pryor would’ve been a Mountaineer. To Tressel’s credit he was able to sway the No. 1 player in the country, by convincing him that he’d take on a Tim Tebow type role with Ohio State, and that Troy Smith had gone through the similar conversion of “Athlete to quarterback,” during his time in Columbus.
Doesn’t it say something though, that even after moving half-way across the country and to a situation as uncertain as Michigan’s, Pryor still had Rodriguez and his new program in his final cut? Doesn’t it also say something about Pryor’s affinity with the coach that he told Rivals.com this after Rich Rod moved on:
"Add Michigan to my list," said Pryor early Sunday afternoon. "Rich Rod is headed to Michigan. I just spoke to him earlier this morning and he told me he's gone. I don't know when it will be announced, but it could be as early as today."
Now, this is where I’m going to really stretch this “What if,” thing as far as I can take it. Here goes:
If West Virginia beats Pitt, and if Rich Rodriguez stays at West Virginia and IF Terrelle Pryor commits to West Virginia, does Jim Tressel still have his job?
Listen, it’s a little far-fetched. I know.
But, remember, Tressel wasn’t forced to resign because his players handed out jerseys, helmets and other paraphernalia like Halloween candy in exchange for tattoos and other goodies. No, he was forced to resign because he knew about it, and didn’t say anything. Tressel is no longer the football coach at Ohio State because of the cover up, not the crime.
And while the free tattoo stuff went on way before Pryor got to Columbus, we do need to remember one thing: When Tressel was first alerted to the free tattoo allegations over a year ago, who was one of the first people he called? Terrelle Pryor’s “mentor,” in Jeannette, PA, Ted Sarnick. As Tressel would later go on to claim, he did that to protect his player. But was he really protecting his player, or his superstar? I have yet to read a report where he called the “mentor,” of any other player involved (I’m not saying it didn’t happen, just that I haven’t seen the report).
Which brings up the final question: If it wasn’t Pryor (Ohio State’s star, their franchise, the player that Tressel had hitched his wagon to) that was most prominently involved in the tattoo fiasco, would he have been more forthcoming with the information? If it’s just the replaceable DeVier Posey and Boom Herron that’s getting the hook-up, and not the irreplaceable Pryor, does Tressel fess up?
Realistically, the answer is probably an emphatic “No!” If we’ve learned one thing about Tressel through this whole situation, it’s that no one takes the phrase “Ignorance is bliss,” more to heart than he does. The guy has been pleading “No comprendo,” to player’s misdeeds since all the way back in his Youngstown State days, so it’s hard to see him all of a sudden being forthcoming in this particular spot. Even if Pryor wasn’t on his roster, it seems all but certain that Tressel still would’ve played dumb, still would’ve hid information, and still been forced into resignation two weeks ago.
But, I’ve got to ask, “What if.”
What if West Virginia hadn’t lost to Pitt? What if Rich Rodriguez had stayed at West Virginia? What if Pryor followed him there? Would Tressel still be coaching in Columbus?
We’ll never know.
But it is amazing how one game, on one December day four years ago changed the fate of so much. It changed the future of the West Virginia and Michigan programs as we knew them, as well as potentially Ohio State’s, LSU’s and Arkansas’ as well. It changed the trajectory of both Terrelle Pryor and Ryan Mallett’s careers, and not only impacted countless conference championships since, but the BCS title that year as well. And it damn well might have cost Jim Tressel his job.
In other words, that game changed college football history as we knew it.
*** If you enjoyed this "What If," be sure to check Aaron's newest "What If," piece: What If Tim Tebow had selected Alabama over Florida. It almost happened.