Lake Wobegone at a Stadium Near You

It’s official: mediocrity rules. It’s been creeping up on us for quite some time. First it was the movies. The simple thumbs up/thumbs down of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave way to a movie report card in flash trash publications like USA Today and Entertainment Weekly (which, by the way, fired serious reviewers to make way for “hipper” ones—read, those who are studio PR flaks). You all know what it means when a film gets a B-. It means the script was written by a chimpanzee.

Then it came to public schools. Competency testing means teaching to a specific test—no thinking required. Not that any of that matters to helicopter parents who know that Little Susie is a genius—even if they have to take her to a psychologist to discover a hitherto unknown learning disability to explain why she only got a C in math or why she had to drop Spanish. The same parents love their local schools, though they also believe American education is in crisis and that other schools are horrendous. Memo: Even the parents of kids in terrible schools rate their schools highly. They would have graded their school within an A instead of a B, were it not for the 11 assaults and 9 drug busts last semester. 

Now Magical Thinking has come to colleges. Profs are often blamed for “grade inflation,” but I accuse Garrison Keillor and football. Recall Keillor’s ending tag line about his fictional town of Lake Woebegone, Minnesota: “where all the children are above average.” That’s a problem. Somehow or other we’ve come to think that average is the same as failure. But Groucho Marx might be a better guide to what’s happening in colleges these days. 

In the 1932 film Horse Feathers Groucho is Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, who has just become the president of Huxley College. He tells his stunned faculty, “Huxley doesn’t have enough money for both a college and football, so tomorrow we start tearing down the college and building a stadium.” When asked where the students will sleep he quips, “In the classrooms, where they always sleep.” Funny stuff, but also painfully prescient. In 40 of our 50 states, the highest paid public employee is either a football or basketball coach. That’s not quite true here in Massachusetts, but almost. The UMass basketball coach makes nearly a million and the football coach nearly half a million, the latter despite the fact that more students will come out for a Fruit Loops giveaway than would ever attend a football game.

College football sets society’s bar for successful mediocrity. Check out this year’s bowl game lineups. Silly me—I thought going to a bowl was a reward for a great season, but I was wrong. Bet you can’t wait for this year’s Independence Bowl, which pits  Virginia Tech against Tulsa. Both were 6-6 this year. My calculator tells me that 6-6 is 50%, which is an F. In all, eight of the teams competing in this year’s bowl games won just half of their games. Here’s your Hall of Shame list: VA Tech, Tulsa, Connecticut, Indiana, Auburn, Kansas State, Washington, and West Virginia.  Even if they win, 7-6 is 54%, which is still an F.  This brings me to the eight teams going to bowl games with 7-5 records (Duke, Central Michigan, California, Colorado State, Texas Tech, Louisville, Penn State). That’s 58%, which is also an F, though if they win they’ll edge up to 62%, a gentleman’s D.  It gets worse. Nebraska and Minnesota are bowl-bound despite 5-7 records. That gets rounded up to 42% and I can assure you that no student of mine gets a pass with a 42! 

Even the 8-4 teams are D+/C- territory. Sure, I know that the NCAA and helmet-headed fans will tell me that a .670 winning percentage has to measured against “strength of schedule.” That’s how they justify Minnesota and Nebraska going to bowls and it’s certainly the rationale behind 8-4 teams. Poppycock, I say. It’s Lake Woebegone logic. What? We give out bowl bids to teams that tried really hard? Should we give them gold stars and lollipops while we’re at it?

Shouldn’t you have to have at least a B to go to a bowl game? That means 10-2 as a minimum. If that means we’re denied watching Central Michigan (7-5) take on Minnesota (5-7) in Detroit’s Quick Loan Bowl (or is it the Quick Lame Bowl?), so be it. In my youth, the Liberty Bowl was a sop given to two really good teams that weren’t quite up to a Cotton, Rose, Sugar, or Rose Bowl bid. This year’s Liberty Bowl pits Kansas State (6-6) versus Arkansas (7-5). Whoopie! Any readers contemplating a trip to Yankee Stadium the day after Christmas to see mighty Indiana (6-6) take on Duke (7-5) in the Pinstripe Bowl?

When your kid comes home from college with a 2.0 GPA just remember, 50% is the new C. Blame football.

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