Gene Murphy tells the story
Cal State Fullerton was playing football at Florida in 1987, and the late Ed Carroll, then the Titans’ athletic director, approached his head coach during pregame warmups.
“Ed says, ‘Gene, look at him. He doesn’t look very fast, and he’s kind of small,’ ” Murphy said. “Well, after 120 yards on nine carries, Emmitt Smith looked a little bit different.
“If you can’t look back on it and find some humor, it will eat you up. I’m not the smartest Irishman that God ever made, but I believe this with all my heart: When you’re dealing with 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids, there is a lot of pride. They want to play the best. So you stand before them and tell them how you’re going to win, all you have to do to make it happen.
“Unfortunately, it’s then time to kick the damn football off.”
Murphy had a name for such undertakings of self-sacrifice: body bag games.
He coached more than his share for the Titans, having traveled into Southeastern Conference territory so often that his program was considered an unofficial member.
More like an official whipping boy.
It was one thing Auburn and Florida and Louisiana State and Georgia and the like agreed on: Everyone needed to remember the Titans when sending Christmas cards.
There is no corpse to store and transport once the scoreboard is finished flashing for the home team, instead mostly bruised and battered and beaten souls in search of the nearest hot tub and ice packs.
They also are the types of games lesser programs must embrace for paychecks otherwise not available.
UNLV plays at West Virginia today, and for their long journey to Morgantown and the right to play the role of a near four-touchdown underdog, the Rebels will be paid $750,000.
Mike Hamrick orchestrated this deal, and while it might take another 100 years for me to discover many other decisions I agree with in the time he served as UNLV athletic director, this is one. UNLV needs money, and three-quarters of a million dollars for a football game can’t be ignored.
But here’s the thing: Back in the day when Cal State Fullerton was doing crazy stuff such as traveling to LSU and Florida in the same year, like losing by counts such as 65-0 and 56-12 with regularity, it was just about the paycheck. The Titans dropped football in 1992. They couldn’t compete.
It’s not that way now. Much like the salary cap and draft and balanced schedules finally have defined the NFL as a collection of somewhat even (mediocre) teams, a level of on-field parity in college football also has shown its face at times.
You know things are different when an Appalachian State can win at Michigan and a Jacksonville State can win at Mississippi. San Diego State a few weeks back was paid $800,000 to play at Missouri, and if not for a defensive lapse in the final minute, the Aztecs would have left Columbia with a ton of cash and an even bigger victory.
It can happen. It doesn’t all the time. It doesn’t most of the time. The little guy still gets stomped more often than not. But the Rebels aren’t so outmatched that they can’t at least find themselves in a game for parts of today. “Body bag” has become less and less an apt description of how these things play out.
“I don’t even know how much (money) we’re making,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said, which is probably true given there might not exist a profession more defined by tunnel vision sorts than coaching. “Sometimes, you don’t get a choice. You’ve got to keep the budget balanced. Obviously, in terms of finances, these are difficult times. There is some merit to going in and making a little bit of a paycheck.
“But when you’re trying to build things, it’s difficult to play the type of schedule we’ve played. When it’s uphill every week, it’s hard.”
Playing at West Virginia is fine for UNLV. Playing it in the same season you host Wisconsin makes things especially tough. But this is a schedule crafted in a time when Hamrick envisioned the Rebels a much better program than it has proven to be.
West Virginia has an annual athletic department budget of $58 million. UNLV’s is less than half that. Today’s game is what it is.
Not quite the body bag theme of those Cal State Fullerton days. But for the Rebels, a necessary evil just the same.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday and 2 to 3 p.m. Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM.