Gene Collier: Smart way to be successful in NFL



Uncovering some truly astonishing research on the Internet doesn’t take even five minutes in this, the age of the unremitting information avalanche, but even with that backdrop some still-emerging intelligence is particularly shocking.

It’s one thing to find out that Ferris Bueller’s parents got married in real life, for example, or that half the Americans between 18 and 24 can’t find the state of New York on a map (indeed, in the GPS app era, barely 2 percent of Americans that age can even find a map), but it’s a whole other level of incredulity I’m writing about today.

Thanks to a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal and an alert reader who felt I should see it in spite of my own galloping financial illiteracy, I’ve learned that a considerable portion of NFL players, when they were in college — are you ready — actually went to class.

Wait, is there a fraternity shortage?

No.

I’d have seen that on the Internet for sure.

Some of these players earned degrees, a clear indication of persistent classroom attendance (one might assume), and, perhaps most jarringly, the WSJ seemed to conclude that NFL teams with a high percentage of college graduates are outperforming teams with a low percentage of college graduates.

Seriously.

“Wouldn’t be surprised,” said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. “In general, the maturity level of underclassmen is not there. There’s a distinct difference when we talk to a player, interview him, you could close your eyes and be able to say, ‘that’s an underclassmen talking,’ or ‘that’s a kid who’s graduated.’”

Colbert said this Wednesday, less than three weeks after taking underclassmen with the first three picks of the Steelers draft.

“Sometimes, you have to take an underclassman because he’s such a good player, but you take him with the understanding that he may be more work than this 22-year-old with a degree.

“We’re always going to value football smarts as opposed to book smarts, but we’re not trying to devalue education at all. There are a lot of kids who might not be great students who can really play this game. If we’ve got two kids [to chose between] and they’re equal, I’d take the more mature guy. A degree indicates the dedication of the player. However he got his degree, through summer school or whatever, a degree is always a plus. It means he had to do something extra.”

Steelers coaches and executives have valued academic achievement, going back at least to Chuck Noll, who always wanted to see the college transcripts of rookies. He wasn’t interested in grades, particularly, but in their course selection and curriculum. Noll’s interest was in whether they challenged themselves in that way.

“When we interview kids, we always ask them where they stand in school,” Colbert said. “It’s important for us to know, but we’re never going to give it more value than football smarts.”

Football smarts, of course, do not necessarily preclude superior intellect, a fact now underscored by NFL executives who’ve begun to notice a correlation between intellect and NFL success.

Here’s the nut graph from the WSJ piece by Kevin Clark.

“The trends over the last five drafts are startling. Studies show that teams who select players who spent five years in college — and thus almost always have a degree — win big. Of the three teams with the most fifth-year seniors drafted, two of them met in February’s Super Bowl: the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who went 4-12, took the fewest.”

In 2012 and 2013, Colbert said, about 53 percent of the Steelers roster had graduated from college, while the league average was 45 percent. The difference was not an obvious advantage either in 2012 or 2013, as the Steelers went 8-8 in both seasons.

The draft class this year includes a two-time member of the Southeastern Conference Academic Honor Roll, Vanderbilt offensive lineman Wesley Johnson; UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, whose academic schedule has kept him absent from OTAs this week; Notre Dame anthropology major Stephon Tuitt; and underclassmen like first-round pick Ryan Shazier and fourth-rounder Martavis Bryant, who were on pace to graduate.

“The bad part is they drop out to train for the combine,” Colbert said. “To me, that’s crazy. They don’t have to do that. They can stay and train at their school and still finish school, but we don’t have ’em [to advise] at that point.

“When we get ’em, we’ll never diminish the importance of education. We talk to kids about it all the time. It’s our job to help them get through this because the statistics say you’re only going to last 3½ years in this league, and statistics say 70 percent of you are going to walk away with no money.”

Funny, that’s the very thing that scares so many underclassmen into coming out early, the fear of having played all this football for no money. Spurred by agents preaching about starting the free-agent clock early, too many underclassmen with legitimate degree prospects abandon them early, only to go undrafted.

That’s not what Colbert means by football smarts.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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