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A Conversation with ESPN's Desmond Howard

ESPN college football analyst Desmond Howard was out promoting the Mayhem Football Challenge this week (yes, we’ve already signed up) were given about 20 minutes to speak to the former Heisman Trophy winner (and Super Bowl MVP). We talked about what his recruitment was like, the Herbstreit-Les Miles-Michigan fiasco, and of course, a college football playoff.

Q: As a Heisman Trophy winner, any thoughts on Reggie Bush giving back the Heisman? The idea of him giving it back seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?

Howard: That deal is between the Heisman Trophy trust and Reggie Bush. I think that if he was found guilty of using some sort of performance enhancing drug, then I would say it’s a no-brainer. Because that’s something that affected his play on the field, which is why he won the award. So outside of something like that … my opinion is if it wasn’t performance-enhancing drugs, but a rule that was violated … that has nothing really to do with football, it’s just a rule to keep control … then I can’t say he needs to give it back. At the end of the day, we all know what Reggie Bush did that year. Those highlights, those replays …

Q: You’re from Cleveland, Ohio. Why didn’t you end up at Ohio State? Can you talk a little about what your recruitment was like? Do you recall any recruiters who made a lasting impression on you?

Howard: My last year of playing high school football was the Fall of 1987. I graduated in 1988. In 1987 Ohio State fired Earl Bruce and they were bringing in John Cooper. At that point, I told my dad, “Ohio State is off the table.” He asked why, and I said I didn’t want to be in part of a rebuilding program. Cooper was coming in from out West, and none of us really knew much about him. I just didn’t want to be part of a rebuilding program, I wanted to go somewhere established, where the coaches had been in place for awhile. I never even took a trip to Columbus. The first time I set foot on that campus in the Horseshoe was in a maize and blue uniform.

I was heavily recruited as a tailback – we were always ranked in the USA Today Top 25 – and the one guy I remember who stood out as a recruiter was Nick Saban. He’s cool with me today. He was coaching at Michigan State – I believe he was the [defensive backs] coach – and he was a heckuva recruiter. People said, “if you liked Nick so much, why didn’t you go to Michigan State?” Well, he wasn’t the head coach. But he was so good he got me up there for an official visit. I had a fantastic time. I really enjoyed East Lansing. But once you sit in front of a man like Bo Schembechler, all bets are off.

Q: As highly-recruited as you were, there had to be coaches or schools making some … how do I say this politely … “promises” to you or your family.

Howard: I feel cheated right now when I see all these guys getting all these benefits and I wasn’t offered anything! And some of these guys don’t have the talent that I had. I really feel cheated. I’m like, “are you kidding me? That guy?” But this was back in 1986, 1987 … there wasn’t that kind of thing going on in the east and midwest, if I recall. I think some shady dealings happened in the South at SMU or something, I’m not 100 percent sure … but I think the teams in the midwest and east played it by the book.

And with the agents, I was fortunate – I played for a coach who was a zero tolerance, no-nonsense guy. When you have a guy like that, you will be amazed at how shady people stay away from you. They know you won’t put up with their BS. Bo Schembechler had that kind of respect.

Q: We asked readers to submit questions on twitter for you and a couple folks (presumably FSU fans) wanted to know about your beef with Terrell Buckley of FSU. I guess he had a big game against you one year? Any of this ring a bell?

Howard: Great cornerback. I saw him the other day, was just talking to him. Great guy. We never had any beef, I don’t know where that comes from, but it was obviously a big matchup when we played against each other. In the game you’re talking about, I think he picked the first pass and took it for a touchdown. I ended up catching over 100 yards and had two touchdowns – in both of them, he was on me. All you have to do is go back and check the clips. He was on me. Go check ‘em out. He was checking me both times. But they won the game.

Q: How often do fans ask you about the Kirk Herbstreit-Les Miles-Michigan story?

Howard: It really doesn’t come up much anymore. That was what, three years ago? The truth came out. I think that’s why people stopped asking about it. Once the truth comes out …

Q: But conspiracy theories have been floating around, and then there was your interview with a Detroit paper, and there are people who still believe maybe something weird went down behind-the-scenes

Howard: But you don’t say that when the truth comes out. You say that if there’s speculation, but when the truth comes out … it didn’t just come out from the two of us, but it came out from the people who made the decision. I had nothing to do with that whole thing. I found out the that they hired Rich Rod when I got off a plane. I was going to Lubbock, Texas to interview Michael Crabtree. When I landed, my phone was blowing up. You guys in the media knew he was going to be Michigan’s coach before I even knew.

Q: Well if Michigan struggles this year, you know Les Miles is going to come up as a potential candidate. Do you give him an edge because of his Michigan background?

Howard: I believe any former Michigan player who has experienced a certain level of success in the coaching ranks is definitely a viable candidate.

Q: Would you ever endorse someone to be coach at Michigan? Or because you work at ESPN, would you avoid it?

Howard: I’m not in the endorsing business.

Q: But people lean on notable alumni all the time for their thoughts …

Howard: I’m not in the endorsing business.

Q: There’s this sense that college football is at a crossroads. Between BYU going independent (who knows if others will blaze that lucrative trail) the Big 12 nearly breaking up this summer – it still could happen – the Pac 10 adding teams, talk of Superconferences, constant chatter about scrapping the archaic bowl system for a much-needed playoff … do you sense something big happening in the near future?

Howard: Excellent question. I don’t know how much more time we have to tackle something like that, but … I guess we just missed something seismic with the Superconference or Megaconference, however they want to title it. If they threaten enough times … then maybe something is actually going to happen … I think we’re all sitting back to see what is actually going to transpire.

Q: Are you a playoff guy?

Howard: I haven’t seen the playoff formula that answers all the criticisms of the BCS. Once you show me that … but at the end of the day … look at Final Four. They’re still adding teams. They’re never going to make everybody happy.

Q: No, but you can determine a real champion with a 16-team playoff, retain the sanctity of the regular season and have meaningful December football with a playoff. We all know a large portion of those bowl games are irrelevant …

Howard: Sixteen teams? When are you going to play all these games? It sounds great, in theory … but where are you going to play all these games? How are these fans going to travel? You want these kids to play a 12-game season, or 13, and at the end of that, play 3-4 more games? Is that what you’re proposing? That’s too many extra games. You want these kids to play what could turn out to be 17 games? I have an issue with that.What about studies? What about the academics? What about finals? There’s a lot involved in playing a few more games. There are a lot of logistics involved.

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