Any Adults Left in the College Football Room?
Anyone that has been paying attention for more than five minutes can clearly see that college football is not in such great shape. Some of that may just be the normal course of the athletic environment, but most of the turmoil could have been avoided with even just a minimum of foresight by the NCAA and other leaders.
Texas and Oklahoma are threatening to move from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference, totally disrupting what little geographic balance remained in the sport. Leaders of the Big Ten, ACC, and Pac-12 have united in trying to fend off the fallout from the potential move of the two most influential programs in the Big 12, forming an “alliance” with little or no compassion for the other conference.
Meanwhile, the conference with 13 of the last 18 football national championships is about to add two teams that would give it 15 of the last 21. The remaining eight teams in the Big 12 are about to be left in proverbial no man’s land, especially after the Pac-12 decided to maintain the status quo and not pursue expansion.
So while the SEC is the bully, the Big 12 has the “Kick Me!” sign on its back, and the other three Power Five conferences are threatening to exclude the others from their birthday parties, it suddenly looks like a bunch of sixth graders sitting at separate tables in the cafeteria. Are there any adults left in the college football room?
We have yet to even address the issue of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL), which individuals had to go to court to protect for themselves when most people would clearly agree it made sense from the beginning. Why would a talented young man have to give up the rights to their own NIL just because an institution of higher learning is providing an education in exchange for them putting their physical well-being at risk, while that institution is part of a larger industry that can afford to pay coaches $5 – 10 million a year?
So the question that lingers in the air is, “How did we get here?” There are a lot of answers, and we’ll take a look at each of them.
No One is in Charge
The NCAA, at some point, totally abdicated responsibility for the management of college football to the Power Five conferences. An organization that makes up and enforces ridiculous eligibility rules somehow throws up its hands and then claims they have no jurisdiction over the sport is blatantly corrupt and hypocritical.
FBS football is the only collegiate sport for which the NCAA doesn’t manage and operate the national championship process. First with the BCS and now with the soon to be botched College Football Playoff, somehow television networks, conferences that have programs supported by $100 million foundations, and coaches paid far more than they’re worth have assumed control.
If someone was in charge, they certainly wouldn’t implement a playoff that excludes an entire conference every season but potentially includes a one team league called Notre Dame. If someone was in charge, they wouldn’t allow the SEC and ACC to let their teams play only eight conference games while the other three Power Five conferences play nine league contests.
And by the way, the conferences that play the lesser games against each other have won 14 of the last 15 national championships under two different formats. How is it that the people running the system can’t see the inequity of these scheduling differences?
Somehow, programs can raise tens of millions of dollars, coaches can make well into seven figures, and networks can pay in the billions for broadcast rights, but the players are held to some archaic amateur standard. A student in school on a music scholarship can sell records on Amazon or monetize their work on YouTube, but a football player can’t even have a part-time job for fear that some car dealer will disrupt the competitive balance in the sport.
Really? Exactly what competitive balance is that? Do you mean the one where a single conference dominates the national championship for the last 15 years? Or the one where the Pac-12 has had exactly one participant in the College Football Playoff and none since the first year of the format? Or where one school gets to dictate their own fate, even to the point of opting into a conference title scenario in the lone season when it suits them, conveniently making it into the Playoff?
On the positive side, ESPN almost single-handedly funded the rise in the popularity of college football, with their groundbreaking “College Gameday” program playing a huge role in promoting the sport. Now, they are somehow being painted as the villain because they had the foresight to strike agreements with the SEC and the ACC to take advantage of the popularity with the fan bases of those conferences.
Fox wants a seat at the College Football Playoff (CFP) table, but it’s easy to make that assessment now that it appears there is a lot of money to be made. Where were they when ESPN committed to the format when it was still a bit of an unknown quantity?
The NCAA and the entire college football establishment could have gotten out in front of the name, image, and likeness issue a long time ago. They allowed everyone but the players to benefit from the riches produced by college football, and to a lesser extent, CBS’ NCAA basketball tournament broadcast right fees, driven by nothing but pure greed.
For $5 million per school, which for most programs is a drop in the bucket, 500 student-athletes could have been provided $10,000 each in cash benefits. There are all manner of restrictions around college athletics, so why not a cap on coaching salaries?
If Nick Saban was limited to $2 million in salary, what would he do? Exactly where could a guy who knows how to do exactly nothing but coach football go and make anything close to $2 million?
So instead of setting up a program for student-athletes to benefit from their own, and I repeat, their own name, image, and likeness, the NCAA and its member institutions resisted, even to the point of going to court to plead their totally baseless case, and now have relinquished any control over the entire process.
Is it going well? Of course, it isn’t. The same sharks who take advantage of young people whenever any decent amount of money is involved are now corrupting the entire process. It’s a free-for-all that will soon be totally out of control, with the athletes following money that schools like Alabama and Ohio State can promise, with little regard for their athletic, financial, or personal futures.
Conferences have total control of the rules around how their member schools set their league and non-conference schedules. Some conferences have nine-game conference schedules, while others require just eight.
Some allow their teams to schedule FCS teams or even Division II programs, while others mandate that all non-conference games be against other FBS schools. These disparities make it difficult for the College Football Playoff Committee to compare teams at the end of the season, and it will be even harder if the playoff field is expanded from four to 12 as has been recommended.
To make matters worse, conferences with division structures play round-robin slates within the division and add two or three teams from the other division to round out the league schedule. This can create clear advantages for some teams, especially in the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten, where avoiding Clemson, Alabama, or Ohio State can create a built-in advantage before the season begins.
In smaller conferences, such as the beleaguered Big 12 or the Pac-12, where teams play all or most of the other schools, it makes it more difficult for a team to compile enough victories to attract the attention of the CFP Committee. Balanced scheduling should not be a disadvantage, but it really has been in the history of the CFP.
College Football Playoff System
There’s no question the CFP is better than the controversial two-team BCS championship game that it replaced, but a four-team playoff was never going to satisfy college football fans or meet the needs of the sport the way it is currently structured. I published a book called “Illegal Procedure – A PK Frazier Novel” just before the CFP was announced in 2013, and it involved a scandal around a fictional eight-team format that started in place of the BCS that allowed for the inclusion of the champions of the five Power Five conferences and three at large teams.
The current format excludes a representative from at least one Power Five conference, and it’s obvious that a Group of Five team will never get a shot. The recommended change would increase the field of teams to 12. However, there don’t seem to be any criteria for the increase, so what keeps the Power Five from again dominating the entire field, with the exception of perhaps one token slot?
If it actually goes to 12 teams, the qualifying process should be similar to the NCAA basketball tournament, with the ten FBS conference champions included and still have room for a pair of at-large teams. The “alliance” seems to be trying to block or at least delay the implementation changes to the CFP, but they don’t appear to have a lot to offer in the way of alternatives.
The motives and rationale for conference expansion are purely economic and driven by football. Having West Virginia in the Big 12, which puts it almost 1500 miles from Texas Tech, puts tremendous pressure on non-revenue sports to compete in the conference.
In the ACC, the same distance separates Miami and Boston College, with Notre Dame creating a triangle separating them by almost 1400 miles from its farthest league institution. The same academic leaders that lobby for academic integrity by saying a playoff expansion would take players out of the classroom seem to have no problem sending volleyball, soccer, and track teams halfway across the country, most likely without professors accompanying them in vans or planes.
Meanwhile, schools on the rise like the University of Central Florida, Georgia State, Appalachian State, and Boise State are shunned by the Power Five conferences for a variety of public reasons, but most likely because they disrupt the status quo. Small-minded and provincial presidents and athletic directors have no vision beyond the opinions and checkbooks of their deep-pocketed donors.
Former prominent programs like Houston, Memphis, and SMU face enormous challenges in cracking the elitist pecking order of the college athletics power structure, even though they actually bring a lot to the table. How exactly is Boston College, a school with no recent successful track record in any revenue sport, better for the ACC than West Virginia or East Carolina, both of which reside in the conference’s traditional geographic footprint?
If academic excellence is the goal, then how can the ACC justify adding longtime cesspools of scandals like Louisville over other programs? The way the leadership and members of conferences make their decisions makes one question why we should send our college-age children to their campuses, to begin with.
What Should Be Done?
Separate Football From Other Sports
It’s clear that there needs to be more unified leadership for college football, bringing more consistency and structure to the sport. If Texas and Oklahoma end up moving to the SEC, which isn’t necessarily a done deal, geographic and competitive balance will continue to be eroded.
Football is indeed unique in the convoluted world of college athletics. It’s the source of revenue that, for most college programs, fuels all other sports, including basketball and baseball, everywhere but a few places. The Big East, which operated a part of the conference that was only for football, successfully existed for over a decade.
It produced national champions and programs like Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh, former independents, were able to coexist and thrive alongside traditional conference teams from the ACC, the SEC, and the Big Ten. Creating football leagues that take into consideration geography and national competitive balance makes a lot of sense and could eliminate many of the barriers created by trying to fit the sport into other existing conference constraints.
Schools like Houston, UCF, Boise State, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, and others that are now the equivalent of football nomads because they don’t bring the entire package conferences are looking for could find a home under a football-only scenario. Notre Dame would almost assuredly have to finally commit to a conference or find itself increasingly on the outside looking in.
Decrease the size of what is now called the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)
Because of the allure of the treasure trove that is believed to be big time college football, too many schools have thrown their hat in the FBS ring. Over 130 programs now compete in the FBS, mostly because ESPN has funded almost 40 bowl games, creating postseason dreams for almost two-thirds of those in the classification.
By admitting that they made a huge mistake and dropping back down to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), these schools would leave behind a more manageable total of roughly 80 football schools that could then be organized into eight conferences with 10 schools each. They could play round robin schedules, with the winner of the league advancing to the CFP.
No divisions, no conference championship games, and non-conference games established by, and wait for it here, the college football oversight committee. Yes, I said the college football oversight committee.
Remove the NCAA from College Football Oversight
It’s been clear for some time now that the NCAA is incapable of managing college football. They totally mismanaged the entire NIL issue and were well behind on recognizing the need to allow players to transfer without penalty.
The NCAA needs to be replaced with an organization that manages the way college football is operated, establishing rules on everything from eligibility to transfers to head coaches’ salaries. Consistency in scheduling, player safety, academic and competitive balance, as well as the very structure of the sport itself, would be under its purview.
Don’t get me wrong here, as I am a firm believer that the NCAA does an outstanding job in many areas of college athletics, not the least of which is running championship events. I’ve been to a number of postseason tournaments operated by the NCAA, and they do a tremendous job.
But they don’t run bowl games, and they don’t manage the CFP, so removing them from any FBS related activity isn’t much of a stretch. The lack of competence by the NCAA is a big reason we’re in this mess, to begin with, so taking them out of the picture can’t make it any worse.
Limit the Money or Just Let it Flow
Someone has to grow a set and realize that the infusion of so much money into what is generally considered an amateur endeavor, at least at the participant level, isn’t good in the long term. Now, with legalized gambling working its way across the country, an entirely new dynamic has been introduced.
Trying to walk the fine line between amateurism and professionalism is virtually impossible, and those toeing the amateur line seem to be losing the fight, especially with players able to benefit from their NIL. It’s hard to believe that at some point, legalized gambling won’t have some impact on the outcome of games.
For a sport that resisted any relationship with gambling to now fully embrace the practice should give most reasonable thinking people pause. What was really bad three years ago is now really good, but did reality change that quickly?
Did the reasons for mistrusting sports betting all of a sudden go away because of a Supreme Court ruling? Maybe so, but maybe not. The long-term effects won’t be clear for years, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking there won’t be any effect at all, because judging by the amount of money being wagered on sports, eventually it has to trickle down to the college level.
So what happens when a student-athlete gets paid by a sportsbook to be the face of their website? Or do we somehow draw the line, even though the courts would probably disagree, and disallow that possibility?
Is the NCAA capable of making that distinction, especially when they botched the entire issue from the beginning? Probably not, which makes my point for an organization specifically charged with managing college football.
As a college football journalist, but more importantly, as a longtime fan of the sport, I urge the college presidents to come together and get this insanity under control. There are very experienced and capable people who they could charge with reining in the sport, and it’s time to act.
The College Football Playoff Committee members, both past and present, would be a good place to start. Charge them with fixing it and give them a wide range of responsibilities because they love the game and have a wealth of experience driving their decisions.
If something isn’t done, confidence in the integrity of the sport is at stake, and when that goes, the entire enterprise could collapse like a house of cards.