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November 3, 2008

Coaches, players vary on playing politics

When he was coach of Arizona in 1990, Dick Tomey faced 100 or so dejected players in the locker room in early November.

Tomey won 95 games in 14 seasons at Arizona, but that was a day his team simply failed to show up. That day, voters in Arizona defeated two propositions that would have recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a state holiday.

"Our players were livid about it," said Tomey, now the coach at San Jose State. "I asked them how many voted and two raised their hands. I told them they don't have a complaint to make because they did not participate."

Since then, Tomey has actively encouraged his players to register to vote and show up on Election Day.

Tomey is one of the anomalies in the college sports world. His political views aren't exactly secret: He and some of his players in September appeared at an on-campus voter registration rally organized by Vote For Our Future, "a group of concerned parents and their friends" who back Democratic nominee Barack Obama. Records show Tomey donated a total of $2,300 to the Obama campaign.

Politics can be a dicey subject in college locker rooms. Some coaches have actively encouraged their players to register to vote, as Tomey has. Others have avoided the topic entirely.

Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, a head coach for 43 years, said he has not encouraged his players to vote or to register to vote. "I have not," he said. "It's probably something good to say because it's important, but I've never made an issue out of it."

Texas Tech basketball coach Pat Knight, whose father Bob Knight often was outspoken on politics, shies away from political issues. Pat Knight joked he "gets all his information" from eccentric Red Raiders football coach Mike Leach.

"I don't even know because I don't even follow it myself," Pat Knight said. "I just never got into politics. I don't try to talk about it with my players. We had a couple of candidates come through Lubbock and wanted to talk to our basketball team. And I didn't want to do it because you've got to be careful as a public figure (to be) associated with one party or the other.

"To me, if they can't help me recruit a 6-10 kid who can play, I don't have much interest."

Pat Knight also admits that "my dad always gets on me to be more involved."

Another son of a legendary coach has taken the opposite approach. Penn State coach Joe Paterno is a well-known Republican, but his son, Nittany Lions quarterback coach Jay Paterno, has campaigned for Obama. The younger Paterno blogged on Obama's Web site until June. He and cornerback Lydell Sargeant spoke at the "Change Rocks" concert on Oct. 13 in State College. Jay Paterno said several other players followed his lead in campaigning for Obama and encouraging students to vote.

"One of the things that Joe has said all along is, 'I want you guys to get involved,' " Jay Paterno said. "Joe encourages those things no matter who you're for."

For most players, this will be the first presidential election in which they can vote. For instance, Texas basketball guard A.J. Abrams said he and several teammates registered to vote during an on-campus voting drive, albeit on the last day of registration.

"We talk about it all the time," Abrams said. "We don't just talk about basketball; we talk about stuff that affects us."

Athletes at the service academies aren't permitted to discuss politics publicly, but former Navy football coach Paul Johnson, now at Georgia Tech, and former Air Force basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik said policy and elections were major topics in their locker rooms.

"They were going to be affected by decisions our commander in chief was going to make," said Bzdelik, now at Colorado. "They would talk a lot about politics and decision-making and world affairs because they were directly affected."

The following is a sample of coaches who made reportable contributions to presidential campaigns for 2008:
Coach, school/sport Candidate Amount
Jim Calhoun, Connecticut basketball Christopher Dodd $1,300
Bill Carmody, Northwestern basketball Barack Obama $2,550
Dave Leitao, Virginia basketball Barack Obama $2,000
Rocky Long, New Mexico football Bill Richardson $1,000
Chris Lowery, Southern Illinois basketball Barack Obama $1,000
Hal Mumme, New Mexico State football Bill Richardson $700
Mike Stoops, Arizona football John McCain $1,000
John Thompson III, Georgetown basketball Barack Obama $4,600
Dick Tomey, San Jose State football Barack Obama $2,300
Tommy West, Memphis football John McCain $1,000

As with many pro athletes, some college athletes and coaches are reluctant to address politics in a public forum. Several coaches declined to be interviewed for this story, even if their political views or views of their players wouldn't be discussed.

The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun has reported that Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the reigning Heisman winner and one of the most recognizable college athletes in the country, has been approached by numerous candidates seeking his endorsement. Tebow declined those requests and continues to keep a low profile politically.

"I really haven't tried to take a stance publicly about anything," Tebow told Sporting News earlier this month. "Right now, in my life and what I'm doing, I don't need the attention of saying, 'I'm going to go after this guy. This is who you need to vote for.' I'm just trying to share my faith and share how much I love the Gators and not so much politics."

While Tebow probably could be elected to the Gainesville City Council no matter his political affiliation, several former college athletes have gone onto a career in politics. Gerald Ford played football at Michigan. Former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne spent six year in the U.S. House of Representatives, and other players-turned-Congressmen include J.C. Watts (Oklahoma), Steve Largent (Tulsa) and Heath Shuler (Tennessee).

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe said Shuler was interested in politics when Shuler was a player at Tennessee. Today, Cutcliffe said he encourages players to vote and get involved in the community.

"I'm kind of a frustrated politician anyway and I talk to them about that stuff," Cutcliffe said. "I want them to be aware of the world out there. We don't want them to leave the program not knowing what's going on in the world."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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