Thursday, January 2, 2003

Clarett flap overdone

Gannett News Service

Ohio State freshman tailback Maurice Clarett.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
PASADENA, Calif. - All quiet on the Maurice Clarett front Wednesday in Tempe, Ariz. Sigh.

He has already worked up a sufficient level of animosity, hostility and enmity this Fiesta Bowl week. And that's toward his own university.

I suppose there has been some time to think about Miami, too.

This hullabaloo has been entertaining, but overcooked.

The young man deserves sympathy for his pain, admiration for his candor, compassion as a victim of regulatory red tape. He has learned that college football's culture does not accept rapid and spontaneous moves. Unless, of course, you're a coach blowing town for more money.

"I don't know too much about the system," Claret said the other day. "I haven't been around the system very long."

But enough. This became overheated and unnecessarily hoggish of the spotlight of a national championship. A lot of it was not Clarett's fault, but some of it was.

The Fiesta Bowl is more than Clarett. More than his annoyance, at whomever. Way more than a war of words between a freshman and his athletic department.

It was a sight the other morning, as the media crowded around Clarett six deep, asking what paperwork he had signed and what paperwork he hadn't in his wish to return home for a close friend's funeral.

The cameras gulped in every expression, the tape recorders drank down every word. Especially the part where he said his school was trying to make him a liar and look stupid. And then another wave would come.

It was a positively Super Bowlian moment. The week became all Clarett, all the time.

Controversies do that, be they real or imagined, when kickoff is days away and there is time to kill.

Clarett is a lavishly talented running back who helped get Ohio State to the Fiesta Bowl. He also often has a delightfully uninhibited speaking manner, which is like having an uninhibited 3-iron. Sometimes you hit into the bunker.

The Buckeyes were 3-0 without him this season. He has carried the football only 38 times in the last five games. Ohio State thrived with a brilliant defense composed of good stories. Michael Doss turning down the NFL for this chance. Chris Gamble going both ways and spending more time on the field than anyone but the zebras.

But Clarett ended up delivering a soliloquy. Had I been an Ohio State senior the past days, I would have taken Clarett aside after the first salvo and gently advised that he had made his point, and let it go at that. All other questions on the subject would be artfully dodged.

Soon, the nosy strangers would give up and start asking about safer subjects, such as Miami's run defense.

The Buckeyes claim no distraction, or bad taste from the matter, though it is clear Clarett wouldn't mind using a few Ohio State officials for a blocking sled.

"The only people I need to have relationships with is that man right there," he said, nodding toward coach Jim Tressel, "and the coaches and players on this team."

There is an edgy depth to Clarett that is fascinating. But he is still a little tender to know the moment for restraint. Never feed the fish at a big event, or you end up with a frenzy.

"With blessings, you take some curses," Tressel said. "It's fun to have all eyes on you. But you'd prefer it not to be that way sometimes."

Clarett refused to back down or give in the past week in a very public way. Good for his honor, but I am not sure good for his team. We'll find out on Friday, when the opposition will be Miami's linebackers, not his athletic director.

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