It happened so suddenly it caught us all off guard.
There was Tommy Bowden, coach of the Clemson Tigers football team, babbling away at yet another preseason press conference last week. You know the type, there's really nothing to say until the season starts, but we keep asking questions and coaches keep answering them.
And to be honest, it was an innocent enough question: Did he think interest among Clemson fans was higher this year than in the past?
Naturally, we were looking for him to say something about how fans he talked to over the summer were all jacked up about their depth at running back, their highly ranked defense, or the prospects of fifth-year senior Will Proctor stepping in at quarterback.
But just as we were starting to nod off and daydream about cool autumn days and tailgaters covering the parking lots on Saturday mornings, Bowden said something about graduation rates.
Mind you, graduation rates are usually not a hot topic in preseason football press conferences.
In fact, until recently, the only time graduation rates were mentioned was when they were atrociously low. And even then, nobody seemed to mind. Much.
But here was Tommy Bowden, talking about graduation rates and Clemson football in the same breath.
Moon, sun, stars
"Here, they are always interested, because of the history and the background and the tradition they've got of fan fanaticism," Bowden said of Clemson's football faithful. "So the fan enthusiasm is always high.
"It does seem like there is a little more enthusiasm, and I can understand why. Through the IPTAY meetings this summer, there was more excitement.
"It's probably different from the other years I've been here. If you look at this program for the last 25 or 30 years, a number of things are happening all at the same time.
"There's the new WestZone, which has never happened. Recruiting, at least over the last 10 or 15 years, is at a peak. Graduation rate is at 94 percent. We won the last six out of seven with a bowl win. I think that combination of things has made it probably where the moon and the sun and stars are all lined up."
See, right there, he mentioned graduation rates.
Naturally, we pounced.
So, you're saying graduation rates fire up the fans?
"Oh, academia is a pretty big deal nowadays," Bowden said. "It's being pushed real hard by the NCAA."
Indeed, the NCAA is finally cracking down on football factories that use up players and toss them aside without ever sniffing a college degree.
By putting in tougher standards, the governing body has made it harder for kids to simply maintain eligibility. Now, they must be on track towards a degree.
If they don't, the new rules hit the schools where it hurts. They take away scholarships.
Didn't you wonder why so many college football players were graduating early these days? This is why.
The smart schools have implemented expansive and expensive academic support organizations that move athletes through the educational system more effectively and efficiently.
Does it mean they are smarter?
Hard to tell.
All we know for sure is that football fans now have another statistic to keep up with.
"They (NCAA) are making such a huge push, that I think the fan that traditionally would not be interested in it, is because of taking away scholarships which hurts football," Bowden said.
"I think it creates a level of interest where in the past it wasn't a big deal."
The beneficial byproduct, of course, is putting college back in college football.
What a concept.
Reach Ken Burger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5598.