Game Time: 2009 Bear Bryant Award, Chalk One Up For The Good Guys

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I'm not sure if any of you have noticed, but the last few weeks have not been all that kind to the perception of the college football coaching profession. If it's not Jim Leavitt getting fired from South Florida for allegedly slapping around a special teams player at halftime of a game, then it's been Mike Leach getting fired for...well, being Mike Leach.

And if the damage done by those terminations (and the subsequent lawsuits filed by the deposed coaches) is a few short jabs to the figurative face of college coaching, then the Lane Kiffin Fiasco is Ivan Drago bringing the lumber upside Apollo Creed's temple, leaving a wake of in-limbo recruits screaming "throw the damn TOWEL!!!"

Last night here in Houston, the 24th Annual Bear Bryant Awards dinner gave us a chance to put down our "Coaching Carousel Scorecards" for a few hours and celebrate the truly great in a profession that for the last week or so has been short on greatness.

The finalists for the award were as follows: Mack Brown (Texas), Jim Harbaugh (Stanford), Paul Johnson (Georgia Tech), Chip Kelly (Oregon), Chris Petersen (Boise State), Nick Saban (Alabama), and Kevin Sumlin (Houston).

If you're handicapping that field, it's hard to come up with a scenario that doesn't end with Nick Saban taking home that hardware, what with his winning the SEC, winning a national championship, and managing to emerge concussion-free from the worst Gatorade shower in football history. And oh by the way, the award just happens to be named after the biggest icon from the school at which Saban coaches.

Put it this way -- if Saban didn't win the award, then it would be the biggest football upset of the last ten years that didn't involve a football pinned against the top of David Tyree's helmet.

John Harris and I are fortunate enough every year to do our show from the Bryant Awards, and because of that we've had a chance to sit down with some of the true legends and/or up-and-coming greats in the coaching business. It's our favorite show of the year to do. This year was no different.

We got to see why recruits love Stanford's Harbaugh so much -- just a very fiery, down-to-earth guy, right down to the big chew he put in his mouth seconds before going on the air. Harbaugh was followed by Oregon's Kelly, whose meteoric rise in the business is a great story, and whose funniest moment was actually one that probably didn't translate that well on radio -- a casual "should I answer this?" glance at his S.I.D. when I asked him about
the story of his actually reimbursing an irate Oregon fan's travel expenses after the loss to Boise State on opening night.

And then there's Boise State's Chris Petersen. Trips to Houston are getting to be routine for the fourth-year head coach, as he's been a finalist for the award three of his four years as Boise State's lead man, including winning the award in 2006. Petersen actually joined us on Wednesday over the phone on our show to help promoste the event, and then again on Thursday live at the event.

There are a handful of stereotypes for college football coaches, and Petersen seems to fit exactly none of them -- mostly because he's just a very normal, upbeat, thoughtful person that you could just as soon see casually discussing a corporate merger as you could a hook-and-lateral play on fourth down.

In four years as Boise State's head coach, he's amassed a 49-4 record including 2-0 in BCS bowl games. Every year his name comes up when big-time BCS conference head-coaching positions open up, and every year he winds up staying at Boise State. A recently signed five year extension isn't as much a forecast of his likelihood of staying at Boise State as is the fact that, quite frankly, he has positioned Boise State as a legitimate national title contender. In short, due in large part to Chris Petersen's leadership, the road to ultimate paydirt is more feasible coaching in Boise than it is in Knoxville (or Lubbock or "fill in name of city here").

Ask Petersen about what makes Boise State special and he'll talk about the "Boise State way." It's nothing specific, it's everything in general. It's finding great kids who love to play football, who buy in that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

"Leadership is a  shared commodity," Petersen told us. And a good thing, too, as Boise State navigated the 2009 season unscathed with a mere FOUR seniors on the roster.

In the end, we as members of the media aren't really supposed to have a "dog in the hunt," so to speak, when it comes to these awards. But as Petersen walked away from our interview table yesterday with his 11-year-old son Sam in tow, I couldn't help but root for the guy. In a college football week that was marked by broken promises, mistreatment of players, lawsuits and dirty recruiting tactics, here was a guy who has gotten to the top of the mountain with a bunch of guys who were likely told by the big schools that their forty time was a tad slow or their vertical leap a few inches too short.

Harris and I agreed that if Saban wasn't going to win the award, Petersen was probably next in line, but honestly that was a little like saying if Kobe Bryant's not going to take the last shot for the Lakers then it will probably be Derek Fisher. In other words, Kobe's taking the shot....and Saban's winning the award.

Or so we thought.

A quick aside on Saban. He won the award in 2003 when he led LSU to the national title.You would think that with the award being named after an Alabama icon, he would be amenable to every aspect of promoting it in years that he is a finalist. However, he seems just as joyless at this event as he did after the Gatorade shower last Thursday night.

This year in his speech he made mention of the burden of coaching in the Bear's shadow in Tuscaloosa. I would have asked him if $4 million makes the burden any easier, but he refuses to do our radio show each year and he's usually the first one out the door when the event ends.

That said, if I had a vote this year, it would have gone to Saban. It's not a popularity contest. The guy is a great coach who had a great season.

So when the envelope was opened to announce the winner, and the words "he is a former winner...." were uttered, we assumed that Saban had won. And then....


In a room full of Alabama fans, it was like they had just pumped in carbon monoxide...except at our table. We cheered and high-fived like the home team had just won on a two-point conversion....Statue of Liberty play, of course. We clapped and hugged. Not because Saban had lost. Not because we had the ultimate Boise fan, Chance McClain, sitting at our table. We cheered because in a week where we were barraged with everything unsavory about college football, we got to chalk one up for the good guys.

Petersen took the podium after the announcement, and was clearly surprised by the outcome. Why not? We all were. However, it's probably time we stop being surprised by Petersen and Boise State pulling the rabbit out of their collective hat. Bowl wins and subsequent Petersen excursions to Houston are becoming tradition now.

See you next year, Coach Pete.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 PM weekdays on the Sean & John Show, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.

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