The good stuff about college sports

The football coach in the sweater vest in Columbus, Ohio, is on the hot seat. The Fiesta Bowl just got itself fined $1 million for a fantastic scandal.

Here in Los Angeles, at the University of Southern California, they know a thing or two as well about football-related, um, irregularities.

But a graduation ceremony Thursday at USC's Galen Center also highlighted a lot of what is right the state of about college athletics in the United States in 2011 even as it underscored, again, a simple fact about college sports and the Olympics.

In many sports, it is still the case that the American university system is the farm team for the U.S. Olympic team.

Among those graduating Thursday: water polo player J.W. Krumpholz. He's a two-time national player of the year, a member of two NCAA championship teams and a 2008 Beijing Games silver medalist.

J.W. stayed at USC this year, earning his degree in communications, even though his athletic eligibility had expired and he had offers to play professionally overseas, one in Montenegro and another in Croatia.

J.W.'s reasoning for staying in school was elemental. Water polo is for now and, assuming good health, for 2012 and 2016, maybe 2020. The degree is forever. "I wanted to set myself up in life and every year I stayed away," playing in Europe, "it would be harder and harder to get it done," he said.

J.W.'s dad, Kurt, a swimmer who once held the world record in the 400-meter freestyle, went to UCLA. Kurt showed up Thursday in a blue-and-gold Hawaiian shirt. J.W.'s mom, Debra, went to UCLA. J.W.'s older sister, Kathryn, went to UCLA. J.W.'s younger sister, Caroline, is a sophomore at UCLA, and has the highest grade-point average on the Bruin water-polo team.

J.W., speaking to the crowd, noted that his childhood and adolescence had been unavoidably filled with "anti-Trojan propaganda." Indeed, he said with a smile that his immediate family, along with other relatives, had "all Bruined their lives … but I love them."

For his part, Kurt had said before the ceremony with a big laugh, "Four Bruins, one Trojan. We are extremely proud of the black sheep that he went back and finished.

"Some of his water polo cronies -- they unfortunately never really graduated. As I told him, if you go to Europe, we will work it out. He said, I want to finish. I want to graduate. I want to have closure."

Family, fun, dreams, hope and inspiration -- this was the stuff of Thursday's graduation.

"Sure, it sounds hokey and trite," USC athletic director Pat Haden said before it all got underway. "But it's not."

Lizette Salas, the daughter of Latino immigrants, the nation's No. 2-ranked golfer on the top-ranked women's golf team in the country, soon to become a four-time All American, is the first member of her family to earn a college degree (in sociology). She learned the game from her dad, a machinist at a golf course in Azusa, east of Los Angeles.

Pro golf is next. She told the crowd, "It doesn't matter where you come from. Dreams can come true if you work hare and have faith in yourself."

Even if, as it did in Tim McDonald's case, it takes 25 years.

McDonald, one of the greatest defensive backs players in USC history, a two-time All-American in 1985 and 1986 who went on to star in a 13-year career in the NFL, first at Arizona, then San Francisco, winning a Super Bowl with the 49ers. He is now a high school coach in Fresno; his son, T.J., is currently USC's starting safety.

Tim left USC early to play pro ball. He came back over this past year to complete his bachelor's degree in communications, driving down from Fresno three times a week.

"I've been in the business of kids," he said before the ceremony started. "I've coached kids, mentored kids. A lot of kids I've worked with over the past 10 years didn't understand the value of college. To be honest, I felt a little hypocritical.

"And to be honest, my mom was a little disappointed.

"And I've got three kids. They didn't breathe without me talking about education. I'd be darned if I'd have them go, 'I've got mine -- where's yours?' "

Finally, they gave a special award Thursday to the legendary Louis Zamperini, now 94, who at age 19 ran in the 5000 meters in the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, finishing eighth.

In World War II, he survived a plane crash at sea, then a hellish 47-day ordeal on the water, then a brutal 2 1/2-year captivity in a Japanese prison camp. The story is chronicled in the current best-seller, "Unbroken."

For all that, this is a USC guy through and through. He wore a sportcoat and a USC baseball cap to the lectern.

"Young people," he said, "often ask me this question: 'Did you ever think about dying on the life raft?'

"No, I never thought about dying. I was too focused on living. I think you can apply that to athletics. My brother taught me to never think about losing -- always think about winning." And then he said, because this is what they say at USC, "Fight on!"

They gave him a standing ovation.


Disclaimer: USC announced recently I'm going to start teaching a sportswriting class next year at its Annenberg school. This column has nothing to do with that.