Friday, January 8, 2010


It's possible that no team has ever won a more tainted championship than the one that Alabama won in college football last night.

For starters, Alabama and Texas had no more or less of a claim to the "national championship" game than did three other schools: Cincinnati, Texas Christian and Boise State. The idea that prior to the Boise State-TCU game, there was talk that the winner of that game would put itself in the Top 5 next preseason and therefore would have a greater chance at the next national title is absurd.

Forgetting all of the factors related to the legitimacy of playing for the national championship for a minute, there's also the issue of how the game played out. Texas lost its heart-and-soul, quarterback Colt McCoy, on the fifth play of the game, and the rest of the night was quarterbacked by freshman Garrett Gilbert, who had played not one significant snap of his career before that.

TigerBlog is filled with admiration for the Gilbert and the courage he showed to stand in there in such a tough situation. He actually put his team in position to win the game in the fourth quarter, which is amazing after the way his night started. And TB has great respect for McCoy, whose postgame comments were inspirational.

Still, TB also has no doubt that a healthy McCoy makes that a completely different game and quite possibly leads to a comfortable Texas win. Oh, and maybe if the game took place sooner than five weeks after each had last played, it plays out differently as well.

Add it up, and in TB's mind, it's hard to call Alabama "national champion," even if the Tide may very be the best team. Unlike any other sport, the college football format will never lead to a legitimate national champion. In basketball, if a team gets to the national championship game and the other team's star gets hurt, hey, they had to win five other games to get there. In football, it's like this: who starts out highly ranked, who gets the shot at the final regardless of whether or not there are other teams whose claim is as worthy, wait five or six weeks and then play what often results in a game that you would expect from two rusty teams. Throw in an injury to a player of McCoy's stature and it's even more ridiculous.

TigerBlog was trying to think of injuries that have hit Princeton athletes and how they affected teams and seasons. He couldn't think of one that happened in a national championship game like what happened to McCoy, but there are plenty of examples of players who got hurt through the years.

Injuries are part of the game, and you don't think about the teams that went injury-free in terms of what might have happened. Still, the legacy of so many teams would be different if that one key player had gotten hurt.

The first person TB thought of was, not surprisingly, a men's lacrosse player. In this case, he missed the NCAA final, but it was a bigger deal to replace him for the final 19 seconds of the semifinal.

Christian Cook, a first-team All-America defenseman, tore his ACl with 19 seconds remaining and Princeton ahead of Syracuse by one in the 1998 semifinal at Rutgers. The Orange had the ball, and out of the timeout, Jason Farrell replaced Cook. Syracuse chose not to put the ball in Casey Powell's stick on the restart, and Princeton shut him off the rest of the way to hold on. Minus Cook two days later, Princeton routed Maryland 15-5 to win its third straight NCAA title.

Another men's lacrosse player, B.J. Prager, tore his ACL midway through his sophomore season of 2000. The injury put Brendan Tierney into the starting lineup - and Tierney ended up scoring the game-winning goal in Princeton's 12-11 upset of Virginia in the semifinals that year.

Similarly, three-year starter Rochelle Willis missed almost the entire 2004 women's soccer season, but Princeton was able to overcome that loss and reach the NCAA Final Four.

Liz Costello hurt her leg during the 2007 NCAA cross country championships, which ended Princeton's shot at a Top 5 finish.

The 2008 women's lacrosse team was 10-0 and ranked second nationally behind Northwestern when Katie Lewis-Lamonica tore her ACL. The result was a 2-4 finish that included a quarterfinal loss at Northwestern; perhaps a healthy Lewis-Lamonica makes Princeton-Northwestern the final that year.

There are obviously numerous other examples, and there are probably examples of players who were hurt in big games years or decades ago that TB doesn't know about.

When TigerBlog thought about injuries, he thought about a few players whose careers are remembered for the brilliance they displayed when they were healthy and the fact that they almost never were. They are what TB calls "what-if players," as in "what if they had never gotten hurt ..."

One current player is Cam MacIntyre, a dominant hockey player who has basically been neutralized his last two seasons. Another recent example is Peter Striebel from men's lacrosse, who was hurt for basically his entire career until the second half of his senior year. Then, playing healthy for the only stretch in his career, he dominated, ultimately becoming drafted by Major League Lacrosse.

Mostly, though, there are two players from the last 20 years who leap out. First is David Splithoff, who electrified Princeton football for two games his freshman year before suffering first a broken jaw and then a shoulder injury. By the time he was fully healthy, Matt Verbit was the established quarterback and Splithoff was a defensive back.

And the No. 1 "what-if" player that TigerBlog has seen at Princeton is basketball player Mason Rocca. On those rare days when he was healthy, Rocca gave Princeton the most physically unstoppable force TigerBlog has ever seen play here. He could rebound. Score down low. Defend. Hustle all over.

Sadly, Rocca's career was one injury after another, maybe because of the way he played. He appears to have been able to stay healthy for his long professional and international career in Italy, and the result has been that he has blossomed into a great player in Europe, one just a hair below the NBA.

As for Princeton, well, we'll never know what might have been.


Anonymous said...

What about Jordan Culbreath? It could be argued that his loss early in the season not only had an affect on the team's outcome, but also Roger Hughes's career at Princeton. With a better record, chances are Roger Hughes would still be coaching at Princeton.

Princeton OAC said...

TigerBlog forgot to include Jordan, though his illness is more than a normal "it's part of the game" injury.