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Get With the Program: Stewart Mandel Has Finally Lost His Mind

I know I ought to know better. I know that Stewart Mandel only says outrageous things to get attention. I know that replying to one of his insipid mailbag columns is against the rules. I know that Senator Blutarsky and Braves and Birds have covered this ground already. After Wednesday evening's debacle, I promised to lay low for a couple of days.

Like Jon Cryer, I was hiding out, although, hopefully, with better hair.

However, I am constitutionally incapable of allowing this sort of specious nonsense to stand unrebutted:

By any quantitative standard, Georgia has been a far better program than Penn State for some time now. Heck, the Nittany Lions have had four losing seasons this decade, while the Dawgs haven't won less than eight games in a season. And yet, I would tell you without a moment's hesitation that Penn State is a national power while Georgia is not.

So I suppose this raises a question: What exactly constitutes a "national power?" To be honest, I don't have a specific answer. Obviously, a history of on-field success (national championships, major bowls) is the key component, but the program must also continue to maintain relevance -- after all, Minnesota has a bunch of national titles on its mantle, but no one views the Gophers as a national power.

No, it's something more than wins and losses. It's a certain cachet or aura. It's the way a program is perceived by the public. Let me put it to you this way:

Suppose we went to, say, Montana. And suppose we found 100 "average" college football fans (not necessarily message-board crazies, but not twice-a-year viewers, either) and put them in a room. If I held up a Michigan helmet, my guess is all 100 would know exactly what it was. If I held up a picture of the USC song girls, all 100 would know who they were. If I happened to bring Joe Paterno along with me, all 100 would say, "Hey, look, it's Joe Paterno!"

Deep down, in my heart of hearts, I know better than to argue with an idiot. I know that there is no point in attempting to talk sense to someone who admits that, "[b]y any quantitative standard, Georgia has been a far better program than Penn State for some time now," yet who still "would tell you without a moment's hesitation that Penn State is a national power while Georgia is not," and who "suppose[s] this raises a question" (namely, the very question to which he is asserting an answer with certainty), but who acknowledges, "I don't have a specific answer."

At best, Mandel is engaging in cognitive dissonance. At worst, he's just a moron. My money's on moron.

I was going to write a book about Stewart Mandel, but Dostoevsky already used my title.

Let me hasten to add, lest I start another comment thread, that my intention in this posting is not to demean Penn State, but to praise Georgia. Because Penn State is Mandel's example, I will find it necessary to compare the two programs, but, in so doing, I intend to demonstrate that both are top-tier programs. Everything good that Mandel has to say about the Nittany Lions is correct; my point is that those same good things are equally true of the Red and Black.

Let us start with Mandel's asinine "100 Montanans" test. The fact that Joe Paterno is more easily recognizable than Mark Richt is not a fair comparison. When JoePa coached his first game in Happy Valley, Mark Richt was six years old. Coach Paterno has, by far, the longest tenure of any current coach at his present school. I doubt that there is a college football coach in the country who is more instantly recognizable to the average American than Joe Paterno.

Mandel asks, "[I]f I held up a Georgia 'G' helmet, how many of [the 100 Montanans] do you think would be able to identify it off the top of their head?" Bear in mind that we are talking about "100 'average' college football fans." Aside from the odd color-blind Montanan (who could be forgiven for mistaking it for a Green Bay Packers helmet), I'd be surprised if more than two or three of them failed to recognize it.

(As an aside, I note with some irony that, during the summer of 2000, I visited Montana. While traveling up the Road to the Sun in Glacier National Park, I came across something I never thought I would see: snow in July. There was, in fact, a tunnel of snow frozen solid. We trekked through it and I, unwisely placing my faith in Jim Donnan's assessment of his team, wrote "UGA # 1 GO DAWGS!" in the snow above the entranceway with my finger. A Nittany Lion fan happened to come through behind me, and he carved "WE ARE PENN STATE" into the ice. Based upon my own personal experience, therefore, I have every reason to believe that Montanans are equally familiar with Georgia and Penn State.)

Senator Blutarsky beat me to the punch on this one, but the point bears repeating: Sports Illustrated---you know; Stewart Mandel's employer---proclaimed Uga the country's best college mascot. If Mandel's 100 hypothetical Montanans read the magazine that issues his paycheck, they'd know Georgia's iconic Uga as well as Penn State's iconic JoePa.

Also, when teased, Uga and JoePa are about equally as likely to bite you. (Insert your "That dog'll bite you!" joke here.)

When demeaning my alma mater, Mandel sniffs that Georgia's last national title "came 27 years ago." That is a fair criticism, although, as both Paul Westerdawg and Steve Spurrier have pointed out, national championships are such a rarity and are so dependent upon so many uncontrollable variables that it is hard to hold that attainment against a team (such as, say, Florida State prior to 1993, Michigan prior to 1997, Ohio State prior to 2002, or Texas prior to 2005) that either has never won one or has gone decades between No. 1 finishes.

I am curious to know what Mandel's cutoff point is, though. Georgia and Penn State have each won two consensus national titles. The Bulldogs' most recent such crown was in 1980. The Nittany Lions' latest such championship was in 1986. Is the difference between the year Dan Quayle was elected to the U.S. Senate and the year Dan Quayle was re-elected to the U.S. Senate really that big a distinction?

I will grant that teams that have won multiple titles in relatively short spans (such as Miami between 1983 and 1991, Nebraska between 1994 and 1997, and Southern California in 2003 and 2004) deserve extra credit for their stellar achievements. There is, however, something to be said for history and consistency. After all, anyone who follows major league baseball knows that the Atlanta Braves are a national power and the Florida Marlins aren't . . . yet the latter have won two World Series titles since the former won their only one.

Since winning their most recent national title in 1986, the Nittany Lions have finished third (1991), second (1994), seventh (1996), and third (2005) in the final A.P. poll. Since winning their most recent national title in 1980, the Bulldogs have finished sixth (1981), fourth (1982), fourth (1983), eighth (1992), 10th (1997), third (2002), seventh (2003), seventh (2004), and 10th (2005) in the final A.P. poll.

To be fair, both have had numerous rankings between 11th and the mid-teens in that span, as well as suffering through extended downcycles such as those endured by the 'Dawgs in the mid-1990s and by the Lions in the early 21st century. Once again, the point is not to demean Penn State, but to demonstrate how Mandel's own criteria work against him.

Although he "would tell you without a moment's hesitation that Penn State is a national power while Georgia is not," Mandel believes "the key component" is "a history of on-field success," but a team "must also continue to maintain relevance" and be "perceived by the public" as having "a certain cachet or aura."

"What the French call a certain . . . I-don't-know-what."

All right, fair enough. Georgia has a history that includes exactly as many consensus national titles as Penn State. Since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993, both Georgia and Penn State have won two conference titles, with the most recent league championship for each coming in 2005.

Historically, the Bulldogs have an all-time winning percentage of .642 (13th best in Division I-A) and have claimed 702 victories in 113 football seasons (11th best in Division I-A). The Nittany Lions have an all-time winning percentage of .688 (11th best in Division I-A) and have claimed 780 victories in 120 football seasons (tied for sixth best in Division I-A).

Georgia has been to 42 bowl games (sixth best in Division I-A) and the Bulldogs have won 23 of them. Penn State has been to 39 bowl games (eighth best in Division I-A) and the Nittany Lions have won 25 of them.

Since 1990, neither team has won a national title, but Georgia has finished in the Associated Press top 10 six times and Penn State has finished in the Associated Press top 10 four times.

What possible argument could there be that Georgia and Penn State are not reasonably equivalent football programs? Both have storied histories. Both have achieved renewed relevance in the 21st century, as attested to by the poll votes which would seem to reflect that "certain cachet" with which they are "perceived."

Granted, we've changed coaches more recently than the Johnson Administration. (Insert your "Andrew Johnson!" joke here.)

Penn State is as good a football program as Stewart Mandel supposes. Georgia, however, does not deserve to be relegated to second-tier status behind a comparable program like the one in State College.

I know that Mandel is using criteria which are subjective to the point of being silly. (Tennessee, which has not won an S.E.C. championship since 1998, made it into the first rank because Mandel "figured those 100 fans in Montana still know 'Rocky Top,' the checkered end zones and that Peyton Manning went there." Gosh, it's too bad Georgia hasn't produced a recent Super Bowl M.V.P. . . . unless you, like, count Hines Ward, or something. . . .)

Stewart Mandel and his theoretical band of refugees from the cattle drive in "Lonesome Dove" don't know their hindquarters from a hash mark. When elevating such schools as Florida, which has a comparable athletics program and which has had a comparable recent successful season, over Georgia, which has the S.E.C.'s best winning percentage over the last decade, he demonstrates a selective ignorance riddled with internal inconsistencies.

MaconDawg is right that beat reporters deserve more credit and respect than they receive (well, except for the occasional journalist who doesn't know the score). The chattering class of the sports punditocracy, however, is growing increasingly irrelevant as it becomes steadily more insipid in its asinine pronouncements.

Stewart Mandel is a blithering dufus and, until he actually bothers to do a little research, he should do us all a favor and stuff a sock in it. At the very least, he ought to stop ignorantly maligning my alma mater and Montana.

Go 'Dawgs!