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Ball State: The Story ESPN Doesn't Want You to Know

Jason WhitlockCorrespondent INovember 26, 2008

This was going to be your run-of-the-mill, I-told-you-so column gloating about my Ball State Cardinals running the regular-season table and climbing to No. 15 in the BCS poll.

I predicted all of this in August, and many of you justifiably thought I was simply mouthing off about my favorite football team in hopes of shining light on my long forgotten, never-remembered, mediocre playing days at Ball State and hamming it up in hopes of landing an invite to Dave Letterman's "Late Show."

Look, there are people with tape of Western Michigan's Joel Smeenge waltzing by me in 1987 and 1988. I have no interest in drawing attention to my playing career. And as much as I love and support my fellow BSU alum, Letterman, the "Late Show" doesn't quite stack up to sharing Oprah's stage. I've been to the mountain top.

My goal as a journalist/columnist is to be right about issues others don't see coming or don't have the courage/intellect to address.

Ball State football in 2008 provided a perfect storm. And the more I thought about this column and tracked my Cardinals throughout the season, the more perfect this storm became.

The column became bigger than an I-told-you-so moment. If I wrote a column every time I was right about something, I'd spend my entire career penning columns lampooning Charlie Weis' collapses. That would get old ... after four years or so.

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Ball State's football season perfectly illustrated my problem with ESPN and why I believe the World Wide Leader is the most evil and destructive force in the sports world. It has driven and hastened the destruction of authentic, independent, democratic, courageous sports journalism.

ESPN is the enemy of the truth, and all who believe a pursuit of the truth is the lifeblood of a genuinely free society must stand against the Wal-Mart-ization of sports journalism.

I reached this conclusion when trying to figure out why Ball State quarterback Nate Davis isn't one of the top-five Heisman Trophy candidates and Ball State coach Brady Hoke isn't the front-runner for national coach of the year.

Do not laugh. I'm not on a high from Tuesday night's 45-22 thumping of Western Michigan, which secured Ball State's undefeated regular season and placed my Cardinals in the MAC Championship game. I'm not an overzealous fan. I was cold and rational in August when I told you the Cardinals had the schedule, personnel and maturity to run the table.

And I'm cold and rational now when I tell you that Nate Davis is the best player in college football and Hoke has turned in 2008's best coaching performance. I love Ball State. I'm not willing to lie for Ball State.

If it was 1985 and Sports Illustrated and print journalism were still the institutions driving the conversation in the sports world, a Ball State football alum and a late-night talk-show host wouldn't be the media people telling you about Davis and Hoke.

Believe it or not, before ESPN purchased the majority of relevant sports programming and seduced most of the creative, independent-thinking, connected sports writers to join its evil empire, there was this magical time when substance and the little guy actually had a voice in the sports world.

There was a time when writers would champion guys such as Gordon Lockbaum (fifth in 1986 and third in 1988) and Joe Dudek (ninth in 1985) for the Heisman Trophy. It's difficult to believe now, but in 1982 the 10 top vote-getters were all actually really, really good college football players: Herschel Walker, John Elway, Eric Dickerson, Anthony Carter, David Rimington, Todd Blackledge, Tom Ramsey, Tony Eason, Dan Marino and Mike Rozier.

Yes, back before one television enterprise monopolized the sports world, you actually could put together a serious run at the Heisman even if you weren't the starting quarterback of the top-ranked team Kirk Herbstreit and Brent Musberger just anointed.

Since 2000, here are your Heisman Trophy winners: Chris Weinke, Eric Crouch, Carson Palmer, Jason White, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Troy Smith and Tim Tebow.

Do the 10 guys I named from 1982 form a better group than the eight winners from the new millennium, and if so why?

The conversation about the Heisman Trophy and all things in sports has been dumbed down by the World Wide Leader.

This year the network pretty much decided you had to play quarterback in the Big 12 to be in consideration for the Heisman Trophy. At different times throughout the season, Chase Daniel, Sam Bradford, Graham Harrell and Colt McCoy have been declared the leading candidates to win college sports' most prestigious individual award.

When Oklahoma embarrassed Texas Tech, Bradford shot past Harrell. Here's what's frustrating. I live in Big 12 country. I follow the league and have watched them all play regularly. Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree is the best football player in the Big 12.

Here's what's more frustrating. Not one of the Big 12's quarterbacks is in the same physical ballpark as Ball State's Nate Davis. It's not close. They can't match his arm, instincts, touch, accuracy, presence, ability to move in the pocket, out of the pocket or make plays when things break down.

They can't match his resume. Getting Ball State to 12-0 under the best circumstances is far more difficult than getting Oklahoma to 11-1. I know Ball State's schedule isn't as difficult as Oklahoma's. I also know Bradford is surrounded by far more talent than Davis.

Look, if the sports world didn't operate under the control of a sports-media dictatorship, I wouldn't have to provide you the context. A powerful, unbiased, independent journalist would've traveled to Ball State during the summer and talked with the man who recruited Tom Brady to Michigan (Brady Hoke) and the man who coached Tom Brady at Michigan (Ball State offensive coordinator Stan Parrish).

Hoke and Parrish can put Nate Davis in context more effectively than I can.

Nate Davis has the tools to be better than Tom Brady. Hoke and Parrish will tell you that, and they absolutely adore Tom Brady.

If you watch Nate Davis play, he looks like the second coming of Brett Favre.

Now, ESPN2 has broadcast Ball State's last four games. The first game I believe Lou Holtz and Mark May provided the color commentary. It was their first real look at Davis, and they were appropriately complimentary and a bit guarded. The second game was against Miami of Ohio and a non-descript B team called the game.

The last two games were against Central Michigan and Western Michigan, two top-40-caliber squads who provided the Cardinals legitimate tests. Ray Bentley, an all-time great at CMU, a former NFL linebacker and a passionate follower of MAC football, was the color commentator.

Unfortunately, ESPN did not require Bentley to leave his Central Michigan pom poms at home. Nor did the network force Bentley to disclose all pertinent information, such as the fact that his son is a walk-on member of the CMU football team and that the Ball State coaching staff declined to offer Bentley's kid a scholarship despite Bentley's request.

If the viewers knew all the relevant information coloring Ray's commentary, then they probably would've understood why Bentley spent the entire Ball State-CMU broadcast pretending that CMU's outstanding MAC quarterback, Dan Lefevour, was on the same level as Ball State's once-in-a-lifetime passer.

As a journalist, it's important that I disclose to you that I love Ball State. When I have a bias, I let you know it in hopes that you will read my commentary in context. I'm hoping most of you reading this realize or remember that I worked at ESPN for many years and parted company (was fired) with the network three years ago primarily after Mike Lupica and "Sports Reporters" producer Joe Valerio made it clear that I would not be allowed to talk about Barry Bonds and steroids in a way they found disagreeable. (There's more to the story and you can Google and find all of the additional background rather easily.)

ESPN is so financially tied to the organizations it covers and so devoid of basic journalistic ethics that it cannot properly analyze the sports world. ESPN just bought the BCS television package. It has a vested interest in promoting all things BCS.

If you're going to televise multiple Big 12 games in primetime on ABC and ESPN, you have every reason to promote the myth that the majority of Heisman Trophy candidates play in the Big 12.

Let me tell you what passes for courage and independent thinking at ESPN. Chris Fowler dropped Ball State out of his AP top-25 ballot last week after the Cardinals beat a then-9-2 Central Michigan team on the road.

I'm not someone who believes Ball State belongs in a BCS bowl game. Any team — not just a mid-major — needs a top-25 victory on its resume before you even begin the BCS argument. We don't have it. Right now, we've earned the right to be ranked — in my opinion — anywhere from No. 18 to 23. If we finish 14-0, I'll be satisfied with a ranking between No. 10 and 15.

What Fowler has done is ridiculous and reeks of the kind of simple-minded arrogance that permeates ESPN. Fowler has had his ass kissed for too many years. He travels around the country during football season and everywhere he goes, there's an Army of BCS sports information directors waiting to kiss his ass and tell him how great "GameDay" is.

He has never been a professional journalist a day in his life. He's a TV personality. He knows what someone else has told him. I'm not 100 percent sure, but I'd suspect he hasn't worn a jock since junior high school.

This is the combination that is killing the sports media. No journalism background, no real athletic experience and no backbone. No clue. Fowler wouldn't make a competent blogger.

"GameDay" and Fowler are unlikely to ever visit Muncie, Ind. ESPN2 televises midweek MAC games in November. Fowler must primarily worry about his reception at BCS institutions. You would not believe how many alleged "journalists" and "media personalities" spend much of their time fretting about whether an SID, a coach or a player likes them. It's an embarrassing obsession among the media.

Fowler knows little about football and nothing about Ball State. His celebrity status justifies his AP vote.

He can't fathom the difficulty of going undefeated in any conference, especially one that is traditionally as evenly matched as the Mid-American Conference.

Brady Hoke built the Ball State football team around two players, Nate Davis and receiver Dante Love. In the fourth week of the season, in the middle of the school's most important game of the season, an Indiana University football player nearly paralyzed Dante Love with a legal and fair hit.

Love lay stretched out on the field motionless for more than 20 minutes. I knew the season was over. Love's career was over. He was Robin to Davis' Batman. Seventy percent of Ball State's offensive playbook was predicated on getting the ball to Love or pretending to give the ball to Love. He returned kickoffs, was our No. 2 tailback and quarterback. He was going to catch 120 passes. NFL scouts loved him.

Hoke and his team adjusted on the fly. Hoke orchestrates the defense. For two years, Davis, Love, Stan Parrish and the offense carried the football.

Brady Hoke and the defense elevated their production and performance from the moment paramedics carted Love off the field. While the offense struggled to score points without Love, the defense kept the opposition out of the end zone and created turnovers.

Ball State is the most disciplined, well-coached team in college football. Check the stats. The Cardinals almost never get penalized. We're the least flagged team in the nation. We're in the top 20 in the country in turnover margin.

Someone like Chris Fowler can't grasp how that helps you win football games. No penalties, no turnovers and Nate Davis are how Ball State would beat the ACC or Big East champions, teams that will play in BCS bowl games.

When you have a great quarterback and a coach who has matured over six years into one of the best in the business, anything is possible, even a school like Ball State being in the BCS discussion.

This story needs to be told. It's an awesome tale with lots of gory details. Hoke is at a university where the administration works pretty much in direct opposition to the success of the football program.

Our school president, Jo Ann Gora, wants to be the face of the university until the moment she lands a job at an elite East Coast university. She stars in the TV commercials aired on ESPN2. Three years ago she delighted in paying the women's basketball coach more money than Brady Hoke, a Ball State alum with very deep roots at the school.

At one time, President Gora had the ideal, liberal sports resume: A female women's basketball coach (Tracy Roller) was the highest paid coach at the school, an angry, spoiled, militant, high-profile black man was the men's basketball coach (Ronny Thompson) and the football coach and his staff were the lowest paid in the conference and didn't have offices.

Roller had a self-admitted mental breakdown and quit shortly after inking her new contract. Thompson claimed Gora's athletic department was racist and quit.

Hoke built one of the nation's best teams, is the MAC's eighth-highest-paid coach and still doesn't have his own office.

Stories like Hoke's and Davis' used to define my profession and enrich our enjoyment of sports. Now we're fed a steady diet of Donovan McNabb didn't know games could end in a tie and fake Red Sox press conferences.

We're dying by suicide and ESPN is Dr. Jack Kevorkian. You're dying, too. ESPN just hasn't told you yet.

You can e-mail Jason Whitlock at ballstate0@aol.com.

This article originally published on FOXSports.com.

Read more of Jason's columns here.

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