The Red Zone Offseason Comments

By Craig Burroughs

1A Self-Immolation: As a passionate life-long college football fan, I have been overwhelmed by the seemingly endless string of revelations of unethical behavior in major college programs since two schools that have been part of those headlines met in the BCS National Championship Bowl in January. Auburn, under a cloud from the pay-for-play allegations against 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton’s father, and Oregon, on the hotseat for suspicious payments to a recruiting service in Texas that may have influenced the signing of a couple of star players, seem now to be minor problems compared to the big bombshells that went off at Ohio State, North Carolina and the U. of Miami. Add to that the wasteful spending and possibly illegal political contributions from the now-terminated John Junker adminstration at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, one of the premier BCS bowls and host to that Auburn-Oregon title game, and you have a landscape littered with the wreckage of the much-treasured myth of major college football amateurism.

Jim Tressel, who purveyed a squeaky-clean ethical image and even wrote a book about the importance of truth and honor, ends up losing his dream job at Ohio State because he lied to his bosses and to the NCAA while trying to sweep extensive illegal benefits to star players under the table. The damage to one of America’s finest universities has been incalculable, and the saddest part is that such benefits were apparently being received by many OSU stars for years under Tressel’s watch. I covered many of Coach Tressel’s games, both at OSU and at Youngstown State, and he is clearly an excellent coach. I saw both his finest hour (ironically at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl) in winning the 2002 National Championship in double-overtime over Miami, and his biggest humiliation, the 41-14 beatdown by Florida in the first BCS Championship Bowl, and he always seemed to be humble and unflappable whether riding high or crushed by defeat. It’s sad to see a great coach tripped up by the pressure for wins and money that now pervades top-tier college football programs.

The recent disclosures of improper benefits to dozens of U. of Miami Hurricanes over more than eight years by a now-imprisoned Ponzi schemer were not nearly as surprising as the forced departure of Head Coach Butch Davis at UNC. The Tar Heels have never shared the sordid reputation that Miami has created over the past 25 years or so, but improper player contacts with agents led to an NCAA investigation that found academic fraud involving more than a dozen players on the 2010 roster. Chalk up two more BCS Automatic Qualifier programs that will have their 2010 seasons wiped out like Ohio State’s, and who will receive severe sanctions when the NCAA gavel ultimately comes down.

Players attending a party thrown by an agent’s rep also hurt the images of Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, and it appears that the combination of the monetary lures of early NFL departure and draft status evaluation are making it very attractive to many who look at college football as the NFL’s minor leagues rather than as a valuable means of getting an advanced education that will serve them well for a lifetime.

Then there’s the disgraceful scandal of John Junker’s use of his Fiesta Bowl Committee executive position as a personal piggybank for outlandish expenses which allegedly included illegal political contributions, extravagant junkets, strip clubs and personal parties. Junker was fired after an internal audit and investigation exposed his excesses, and the Fiesta Bowl was fined, censured and put on probation by the BCS, which was roundly criticized the the recent book “Death to the BCS” for wasteful spending practices by virtually all bowl games, most of which are organized as not-for-profits.

The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from this ethical carnage is that major college football has become more of a commercial business than an academic endeavor. And this is not about to change, as long as conference commissioners vie for multi-billion dollar TV packages, start their own cable networks and expand their size to unwieldy levels so they can access better TV markets and more attractive recruiting areas. Nor will it change as long as supposedly not-for-profit and tax supported universities continue to pay their head coaches six times as much as their university presidents and their state governors. Based on what’s happening today, its hard to imagine that sanity and reason will soon emerge from the chaos that engulfs the biggest programs in college football.

Despite this aura of doom-and-gloom that pervades the sport today, there are ways to improve the situation. Rather than sit around and wring our hands lamentlng the enormity of the problems, why not call on the brainpower of the people most intimately involved, the administrations of our most prestigious bastions of higher education, the very institutions who created this messy landscape? For starters, they might consider really making major college football players student-athletes. This could be done in several ways, such as changing the rules and practices surrounding the recruiting process. At many highly-ranked 1-A programs today, the emphasis seems to be skewed toward recruiting players who might be considered early-round NFL draft prospects, rather than players who want to be future well-educated economists, scientists, engineers, businessmen or doctors. This has led to significant numbers of “students” ditching their college educations to chase the hope of a career in professional football, where the average employment tenure is shorter than their four years of college athletic eligibility. If this type of athlete really doesn’t want to be a student, why do colleges want them? I can think of three incentives that would make both coaches and recruits think more seriously about the student-athlete ideal: 1) Have recruits sign an agreement that commits them to stay in school for at least four years and use up their eligibility, unless they earn a degree in less time; 2) require schools to commit to four years of grants-in-aid, not the year-to-year awards common today; and 3) require students who break their commitment and leave school to enter the NFL draft before the end of four academic years to repay the school for all grant-in-aid benefits the player has received.

Another way for universities to take back control of the football landscape would be to restrict coaching salaries. Most NFL coaches don’t make as much money as the highest paid NCAA 1-A coaches command today. Virtually all 1-A head coaches now have an agent, and this sounds like rank professionalism to me, not dedication to education. How many professors and college presidents at these same institutions are represented by agents? It’s no wonder that the players see all this money being tossed around to coaches and wonder why they have to scrounge for pizza money or a ticket home for Christmas.

And now the spectre of so-called “Super Conferences” rears its ugly head again. Didn’t we have this little experiment in the ’90’s, when the Western Athletic Conference expanded to 16 teams. Does anyone else remember what happened there? It proved to be too unwieldy, too expensive and too hard to keep historic rivalries together. College football has always been a game of tradition, emotion and sportsmanship, not a game of money grubbing, personal power bases and ego trips. Does ESPN have so much money to throw around that it can corrupt the very people who are charged with training our leaders of the future? I fear for the future of the game if 64 schools band together into four 16-team conferences and try to monopolize the money stream and basically cut the remaining 1-A football members out of the pie and out of the chance for their student-athletes to compete for a national championship. This course of action clearly risks college football, and the universities that sponsor it, losing their not-for-profit status as well as possibly losing an anti-trust suit by those who get excluded. Someone has to be the patsies for those 64 teams to beat up on to gain higher rankings, and those patsies aren’t going to be happy if the table is tilted even farther against them. You can’t decry the spectre of government regulation on one hand and then turn around and do things that cry out for fairness and balance on the other.

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