The greatest sport in the world is under assault from many different sides. Conference realignment talk has replaced conversation about who’s number one. Cheating coaches are ruining their schools’ reputations and jeopardizing future success. And players are succumbing to temptation out of anger because they feel exploited.
What a mess.
It’s time for some changes. Big changes. College football must be fixed. And we’re just the people to do it. Here are five changes that would save the sport and secure its future.
Are you listening, NCAA?
1. THINKING CAP
The SEC is growing. The Big 12 is shrinking. The Big Ten is staying put. The Big East is struggling.
Ever since Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott started talking about the concept of a handful of 16-team “super conferences,” many have assumed that we are on a collision course with consolidation. Having four confederations of 16 may be convenient from an arithmetic standpoint, but it doesn’t help college football that much.
The biggest problem with such giant conferences is scheduling. Big problems come with seven or eight-team divisions, because teams in the same half of the leagues won’t be playing the same opposition, but they will be competing for the same title. If Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are vying for first place in an ACC section, but the Hokies play Florida State, Clemson and Pittsburgh from the other side, the Yellow Jackets would have an advantage by meeting Wake Forest, Syracuse and Boston College.
Capping conference membership at 12 makes perfect sense, because it allows for more scheduling equity while still permitting leagues to stage lucrative championship games. Even 10-team leagues would be allowed to split into divisions and play title tilts. That way, nobody could complain about a first-round postseason opponent’s not having had to compete in a conference championship game (yes, this assumes that there’s a playoff — we’ll get to that in a second).
Perhaps the biggest reason to keep smaller conferences is the opportunity to maintain some of the tradition that makes college football so unique. Yes, many of the old-time rivalries have been torn asunder by past realignment, but any opportunity to preserve long-time affiliations should be grabbed, the better to prevent the sport from turning away completely from its history.
2. A REAL CHAMPION
Books have been written and vocal cords have been strained by those inveighing against the BCS, perhaps the single greediest, most misguided method of choosing the “best” team in all of sports. The conflicts of interest surrounding the system are borderline criminal. The arguments made on its behalf reveal transparent agendas. It’s time to end the charade that the BCS is anything but horrible for college football and remove its supporters from the college football equation.
In its place, we will install a playoff system, the preferred method of determining a champion in just about all sports, save figure skating and boxing, further evidence why the BCS is such a train wreck. We’ll go with 16 teams, the better to make sure all worthy conference runners-up get a chance to state their cases, in the event they suffered an untimely early upset loss. Every conference winner gets a spot, and a committee chooses the remaining participants — just as the NCAA does with its incredibly successful Division I hoops tourney. Strength of schedule, quality of victories and performance at season’s end will carry extra weight. And the selectors will be people who know the game: former coaches, ADs and players who pledge to follow college football closely throughout the year and are checked to see if they are carrying out their responsibilities faithfully. This way, current (USA Today Coaches Poll) and somnolent former (Harris Poll) coaches have no say in the matter. The computer will be consulted but not revered, assuring that the pointy-heads have limited influence.
First-round games will be played on campus, in order to reward top seeds. The games will take place the second weekend of December and will be followed by quarterfinal contests a week later — at neutral sites. Try to imagine the bidding by cities to host those games. After a two-week break for exams and Christmas, the national semifinals will be held New Year’s Day at two of the current BCS bowl sites. The Rose and Sugar will host one year, with the Orange and Fiesta taking over the next. Finally, a week later, we choose a real champion at another neutral site.
Worried about the longer season? It doesn’t seem to bother the FCS schools, which choose their champ with a 16-team tourney. And don’t shed a tear for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl or the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. They don’t die, because the teams that play in them have no shot at the national title right now and certainly wouldn’t be part of a 16-team tourney field down the road, either. The “minor” bowls stick around to reward teams who finish 6–6 or better and to give players and coaches goals. And just imagine the money involved in a playoff. It would dwarf the BCS sham and funnel more dough to the schools themselves, instead of corrupt bowl executives.
3. PAY UP
NCAA grants-in-aid provide money for tuition, room and board, books and sundry college fees. At some places, like Stanford and Duke, that comes out to about 50 grand, a pretty sweet deal. But anybody who has gone to college knows there are some other expenses that college students incur, like laundry, snacks and, ahem, beverages. If schools want to cover the entire cost of a college education, they need to add some money to the pot. About $3,000 per athlete should do it.
Let’s face it: Playing a sport in college is a year-round pursuit, and college football is the most demanding of them all. The actual season runs from the beginning of August, when practice starts, until early December. And if a team makes a bowl game, workouts can continue until early January. No sooner do players return from their Christmas break than they are expected to begin rigorous, daily strength and conditioning workouts that continue until spring drills. Coaches expect players to watch film during that time, too. After spring practice, players may get a month to themselves, but come summer, everybody is expected to be on campus, taking classes and participating in “voluntary” workouts.
When a coach says, “We had our entire team stay here this summer, and that shows their commitment,” he’s really saying, “If any of them went home this summer and got a job, they would be fourth-string when they returned.” Players have no chance to make money, so their ability to take care of the daily expenses that come from university life is non-existent. We’re not talking about booze cruises and hot tub parties, either. Some kids from poor families don’t even have enough money to buy a Slurpee.
The solution is simple: Pay the players. Not a full salary but a monthly stipend of, say, $250. That’s $3,000 per kid, or $255,000 for an entire contingent of 85 scholarship athletes. When you’re talking about teams with budgets of $10 million or more, that’s not too onerous and could be taken care of with a couple of sponsorships or donations from heavy-hitting alumni. And with TV contracts spewing eight figures of income annually to big conference schools, crying poor just doesn’t cut it. While it won’t stop top-end corruption like Nevin Shapiro’s Good Time Express, it will certainly curtail some of the low-level stuff, like Ohio State’s Cash-for-Memorabilia Program.
And, since college athletics should be about all of the players, not just those who show up on TV every Saturday, the payments should be extended to any scholarship athlete. If you’re receiving half of a grant (most “Olympic” sports carve up their scholarship allotment among roster members), you get half the stipend. Is it expensive? Yes. But if schools want to be big time, they have to make their players whole. This is one way to do it.
4. THE COMMISH
Having one man in charge of the sport makes perfect sense, if only to mandate that the University of Maryland never, ever wears those crazy uniforms again.
The main advantages to installing a commissioner are that he will prevent schools from committing acts that hurt the game’s great tradition and character and will assure that bad behavior will be punished swiftly. How great would it have been to have someone capable of stopping the Big 12 from ending the annual Oklahoma-Nebraska game when the teams broke into different divisions? And when it seemed like one in three Florida Gators was getting arrested over the past few years, a law-and-order type could have meted out some proper justice.
The ideal candidate is someone who has interest in and knowledge of collegiate athletics but no direct connection to any team, conference or TV network. We don’t need somebody with a degree from Michigan handing out punishments to tatted-up Ohio State players. We have already seen what happens when representatives from a group of schools try to discipline other institutions. It’s called the NCAA, and it doesn’t work.
Installing a commissioner would allow for swift action when trouble and malfeasance occur. If State’s quarterback is found outside a local cantina at 4 a.m. auditioning for a spot on the next UFC card, a commissioner could suspend him for a couple games, especially if his coach is unwilling to hand out any penalty stiffer than running the stadium steps. The schools may not like it, but the commissioner’s decrees will go a long way toward preserving the game’s integrity and providing a clear message to schools that bad behavior won’t be tolerated.
And when something really big arises, like last year’s Cash-for-Cam scandal, the commissioner won’t have to wait until a tortoise-like NCAA investigative arm decides to look into matters. He can act decisively. And since he has no ties to any specific entity and exists only to make sure the sport is strong and credible, it won’t matter if the commissioner has to suspend someone for a big game, since the real winner will be college football.
5. AND JUSTICE FOR ALL
Once the commissioner is installed, he will have the power to wield a big stick, and he will use it often and decisively on college football’s rules breakers and ne’er-do-wells. Better than that, he will create a well-staffed police department with investigative powers that go beyond the NCAA’s Inspector Clouseau-style gumshoe work.
Instead of taking months or even years to decide whether a school has committed a violation, the commissioner’s office will need days and weeks, thanks to a beefed-up staff and — more important — a commitment to getting the facts quickly. Once the evidence is collected, the commissioner will act swiftly, putting into effect a simplified and standard collection of rules that outline clearly what actions are not permitted.
Further, the punishments will have big, sharp teeth. No more accepting schools’ watered-down “self-imposed penalties.” Conference representatives won’t be able to lobby for leniency. Screw up and pay a big fine. Think a school will support a coach who’s cheating if his transgressions cost the institution $3 million? Not a chance. And how popular would a cheating sideline jockey be if his school lost an opportunity to play in a postseason game because of his crimes against football? Not very.
The goal is to punish coaches, players and schools in the present tense, not five years later. That way, the consequences impact those involved, not future generations. By empowering the commissioner to investigate, rule and discipline, college football will become cleaner and fairer.
Not to mention much better.