As we sit here today, the landscape of college athletics is quaking and shaking, rocking and rolling thanks almost entirely due to two things: a) a bad global economy which has made b) television revenue for football more important than it’s ever been. So important in fact that ACC officials have said 80% of their new ESPN contract is driven by football, not basketball or any other sport.
And that’s causing a mess.
Fans are staying home and tuning out for the first time in ages. They’re choked with regular-season contests that have nothing to do with tradition followed by a glut of postseason games filled with meaningless matchups.
Coaches and athletic directors and presidents and conference commissioners can’t see eye to eye on darn near any aspect of what’s supposed to eventually become a playoff system.
The Southeastern Conference — which has steadfastly said it wouldn’t be going back to division play in hoops — is now on the verge of, yep, going back to division play in hoops because no one within a conference that prides itself on getting along has any idea of how to make the most of its recent changes.
Schools are for the first time toying with the idea of leaving academic juggernaut conferences (those would be the ACC, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, by the way) for leagues with lesser reputations.
Conferences are so desperate to grab name schools and increase territory that they’re paying little mind to how marriages with schools that share no borders with the rest of their schools will hold up over time.
Frankly, it’s chaos. Conference expansion and realignment — as we’ve written more than once — is evolution, not evil. But until now, we’ve never seen so much evolve so quickly. Charles Darwin’s head is spinning. We’re crawling in the ooze one minute, flying space shuttles the next.
So how can things be slowed down for the good of all sports? For the good of all schools? Of all leagues? Of all athletes? Of all fans?
Well, it can’t. But below is a 10-step start focusing on football. The steps are in no particular order.
Like ‘em, don’t like ‘em, I’m sure you’ll let me know. But if given the ultimate power in the universe, these are things that I would do. (And no, I wouldn’t feed the hungry or clothe the poor… I’d fix footbawl, by God. I am a Southerner after all.)
1. Set Up New NCAA Divisions Based Upon Budgets And Winning
Currently, the NCAA divvies up its football hierarchy as follows: Division III (non-revenue making, non-scholarship, extracurricular sports), Division II (scholarships are permitted, but fewer are awarded than at the Division I level), Football Championship Subdivision (the old Division I-AA group, more scholarships than D-II, fewer than the next level up, and schools can award partial scholarships), and the Football Bowl Subdivision (full scholarships, with a goal of major, major revenue).
All that? Yeah, you can scrap it.
It’s time for five divisions (minus the haughty Roman numerals):
Division 1 — These are the superpowers of the football-playing world. Break ‘em off. The 80 biggest athletic budgets in the country would go here. Use five-year averages in terms of expenses and revenues with an English football — sorry — soccer style relegation system set up. If a school couldn’t afford to keep up with the Joneses, they would go down a division and open up a slot for some other up-and-coming program. These schools could go the full nine yards and hand out 85 scholarships as well as full cost of tuition scholarships for their football players. And if some whipper-snapper program wanted to compete at the Division 1 level without a mega-budget, it could… so long as the program won at a certain level. So if Wake Forest could pull off a winning football program despite being a small school with a small budget, amen to the Deacons. If they couldn’t? They’d be excommunicated.
Division 2 — Those relegated souls from the current FBS ranks (about 40-50 schools based on who’s planning to jump to the FBS in the next few years) plus the top 40 schools from the current FCS level. These schools could provide partial scholarships if they chose to, but only up to about 70 in football.
Division 3 — The remaining 80 or so current FCS schools. (Notice that we’re keeping the numbers around 80 to 90 schools in the top three divisions?) These schools could offer up to 55 partial scholarships. It’s all about priorities. Want to climb the ladder? Fine. Spend more and make more on stadiums and facilities.
Division 4 — This would be the current D-II model. There would be about 150 of these programs in a given year. They would have 36 scholarships that could be awarded at most and the vast majority of their players would be on partial scholarship.
Division 5 — There are more than 230 football programs in the current D-III stratum. There are no scholarships whatsoever. Just pure, ol’ fashioned college fun and competition. My Division 5 would basically be the new D-III.
No longer would schools at one level have to live by one-size-fits-all rules. The big boys could go their own way (and still have plenty of room for a few Little Sisters of the Poor tag-alongs). And the little guys could continue to schedule above their weight class or invest more in their programs in the hopes of climbing should they so choose.
2. There Would Be A Three-Year Waiting Period For Any School Switching Conferences
Want to halt the ongoing realignment quakes? Require football programs to give a three-year notice on a planned conference shift. Break that window and the school would sacrifice 25 scholarships. That might sound draconian, but it would certainly get schools’ attention.
The only exception would occur every five years as some programs would be promoted and some others would be relegated based upon revenue, income, and — in the case of the little guys trying to slug it out with richer schools — winning and losing. When those schools rise or fall, conferences would be allowed to shuffle and reconfigure to fill their ranks. Other than that, there would be no yearly shake-up of the football world.
3. Create A Six-Month Open Signing Period
Forget the early signing period that everyone thinks would fix the current football system. Just open up a six-month window from July 1st to February 1st each year. If a prospect wanted to sign with your school in July, they could let him. If someone else offered him a chance to sign early and your school did not, your alma mater would risk losing him.
When dealing with 17- and 18-year-old kids, the landscape should always be slanted in their favor, rather than in the direction of the multimillion dollar coaches and athletic departments. So if a Division 2 or 3 school offered up one of their few full rides to a player in August, it would be up to the Division 1 schools to decide if they wanted to match or take a chance on missing out on a solid prospect.
4. Allow Both Two- And Four-Year Scholarships
Here’s another way to aid players and give the smaller division schools a chance to compete and move up the gridiron ladder. If Alabama offered a two-year ride while Appalachian State offered four years of full scholarship support, a kid would have a choice to make. Obviously, those dreaming of an NFL career would take their chances with a two-year offer from Bama (or Ohio State, Texas, Southern Cal, etc). But the vast, vast majority of college players never sniff the NFL. Those who know that fact and understand that fact might take the four-year offer instead.
The choice would be up to the school in terms of what it would offer. And, of course, there would be language in the scholarship papers requiring athletes to maintain a proper GPA, to avoid off-field incidents, and to attend practice, meetings, and training sessions lest they forfeit their two- or four-year scholly.
5. Promissory Notes For Juco And Prep School Athletes
If Coach X wanted Tailback Jones to attend The College of the Dogwoods in Gatlinburg, Tennessee for a year, then Coach X would have to sign a note promising Tailback Jones a scholarship at his school once his year in juco hell is complete. If the coach were to misjudge a player’s ability, that’d be on the coach. They are paid millions of dollars for a reason and it shouldn’t be too much to ask that they be held responsible for their talent evaluation skills and the promises they make to teenagers.
Many coaches would no doubt call this rule cynical. Fine. Maybe it is. But if no coach would ever renege on an offer, then no coach should bark too loudly about having to put his John Hancock on the dotted line of a promisory note.
6. Fewer Penalties And Stipulations For Transferring Athletes
So long as a player keeps his GPA up, goes to class, and makes sure to leave a school in good academic standing — thus protecting the program’s academic progress reports — then that player would be free and clear to transfer immediately and play immediately at a new school. The only stipulations would be a) he must transfer outside his current conference or b) he must not transfer to a school appearing on his current school’s schedule over the next two seasons. If a coach chose not to put any limits on the player’s transfer at all, so be it. The player would be good to go wherever, whenever.
That said, the NCAA would need to step up the penalties for tampering with players at other schools. If a coach were caught calling a player or his parents or going through intermediaries to make contact, then said coach would have to sacrifice three scholarships in exchange for the player he was wooing. And if that coach were to be caught lying to the NCAA when asked about tampering with another coach’s roster, then a nice, fat show-cause penalty would be the reward.
Players should be free to move — once, free to move once without limitation — but coaches should not be given the right to poach players. Open things up on the front end. Tighten ‘em up on the back end.
7. Do Away With Conference Tie-Ins To Bowls
Everyone from tourism boards to conference commissioners to network executives would scream and shout over this one, but it’s time the bowls be made interesting again. There once was a day, young football fan, when a school from any league could do a little backdoor dealing and land itself anywhere from El Paso to Orlando to San Diego come bowl season. There was a day when this conference’s third choice wasn’t always lined up against that conference’s fourth choice in the same bowl every season. Fans enjoyed the hot stove league aspect of wondering where their team would play over the holidays. Viewers at home didn’t wake up every New Year’s morning and ask themselves, “Didn’t Georgia play Wisconsin in this same game last year… and the year before?”
Let money do the talking. The bigger a bowl’s per-team payout, the higher up it would be allowed to “draft” its combatants. The bowl committees could still pick a nearby school or a well-traveling school if they wanted. Or they could grab a top television draw. Or they could pick a school with a flashy record. The bottom line is the bowls wouldn’t be limited to a fill-in-the-blank choice from a fill-in-the-blank conference anymore.
And if some bowls wouldn’t pony up the cash to lure in top o’ the line teams, then they probably wouldn’t make enough back from television and attendance to last very long. With fewer teams playing at the top level of college football — our Division 1 — the death of a few low- and mid-level bowls wouldn’t be a bad thing.
8. Create A Four-Team Playoff (And Actually Take The Best Four Teams In The Nation)
A playoff should include the best four teams in the country. Whether that would mean two teams from one conference (as would have happened with the SEC last year or the Big Ten in 2006) or even three from one league (as would have been the case in 1971 when the Big 8′s Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado finished 1-2-3), the best squads deserve to play for the title.
Now, some folks out there will scream, cry, whine and bellow that the dirty, flawed polls shouldn’t be used to pick the top four teams. The best conference champions should be picked instead.
Unfortunately, those people fail to realize that it’s those same dirty, flawed polls that would be used to rank the conference champions, too. What’s the diff? So to heck with all that nonsense. Take the best teams in the country. The SEC is on the upswing now. That doesn’t mean the Big 12 or Pac-12 or Big Ten or ACC (if there is an ACC in the future) won’t be on the upswing five years from now.
Seed the teams #1 versus #4 and #2 versus #3. Let the bowls with the biggest per-team payouts grab the semifinals (which conference commissioners are reportedly against) and bid out the title game to whichever city is willing to make it rain cash down upon everyone’s heads (providing dinero for those full cost of tuition scholarships mentioned earlier). The biggest bowls — Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta and Cotton should be allowed to have their fun in the semis. If the Rose would prefer to just take teams from the Big Ten and Pac-12 instead of taking part in the playoffs, so be it. If one of those other bowl committees would want to buy up the title game in a year when it fell outside the regular semifinal rotation, also fine. Just find a way to make the big bowls special again.
Play those semifinals at 4pm ET and 8pm ET on New Year’s Day and then hold the national title game a week later. Done and done. Simple, easy, with no need for lengthy ifs, ands, buts, or explanations.
9. Create A Three-Pronged Poll For Playoff Selection
For those who dislike the polls, here’s my fix. Create a new way for selecting the four best teams in the country and put every bit of it out in the open for all to see. Here’s how it should be done.
Human Poll — Find 50 voters from across the country and let ‘em start voting for a Top 20 in October. These ex-jocks, ex-coaches, media members and other know-it-alls would have their votes made public every single week.
Blue Ribbon Panel — Everyone loves the idea of a panel right up until they see the NCAA basketball or baseball tournament draws in a given year. Then the blue ribbon panels stop looking so swell. So we would create a panel of seven or nine respected voters, but that panel would only make up one-third of our selection process. The panel members would ultimately announce the four teams selected by the overall process and then all seven would sit on national television and explain why they voted the way they did.
Computer Poll — Create one computer formula. One. Let everyone see its methodology. Let everyone see the numbers going in each week as well as the numbers coming out.
Finally, take all three fully transparent contributors and tally them up with each being worth one-third of the total vote. The final say in the case of a draw after 99% tabulation would go to the computer. It would have no bias. It wouldn’t be a case of an ex-AD on a panel taking up for his school, for example.
10. Be Willing To Tweak The Rulebook (But Not For The Reasons You Think)
Everyone wants the NCAA rulebook to be thinned down. Sounds good. The only problem is that it’s been fattened over the years to fill in loopholes. ”What happens if someone’s father asks for money on behalf of his son?” That’s a new one and it’s now in the books as a no-no. If you thought that should be on the books then you, my friend, were in favor of a thicker rulebook (at least in that one case).
The idea of a kid not being able to get a free hot dog seems absurd, but where’s the cut off if its not at a hot dog? A chicken sandwich? A steak? The best steak in town? The best steak in town five nights a week?
Two words explain the thickness of the NCAA rulebook. They are “slippery” and “slope.” That’s why the thing’s so dadgummed big.
Still, I’m for tweaking it. Open up Twitter and Facebook and texting. Athletes can turn their phones off (or tell coaches to stop contacting them). You know, what ex-girlfriends have done with me.
But most importantly leave the rulebook open for safety changes, too. No one wants to mess around with the hard-hittin’ game of football and I get that. Safety should absolutely come first though.
College football has evolved over the past century. Leather helmets and tear-away jerseys went out while the forward pass and facemask came in. The game has still always been the game.
So if a future study shows that free-kick style punts are safer plays than traditional kickoffs, be ready to make the switch from kickoffs to free-kick punts. The players on the field and their health are more important than those of us who like to see 22 guys run into each other at top speed. It’s not our necks on the line.
There you have it. That’s the 10-step program I’d implement to try and fix college football and stabilize the entire landscape of college athletics. And there’s not a single point on that list that wouldn’t draw debate from all corners. Some coaches would like one point while others would hate the very same point with all their heart, mind, body and soul. Ditto the fans, the television execs, the ADs, the conference commissioners and so on down the line.
People are bickering over the current playoff plan, conference realignment, in-conference scheduling, and even over whether or not non-division games should count in a conference’s standings. For that reason, I don’t expect much of anything other than negativity, outrage and name-calling in response to these proposals. We just love to bicker. Period. It’s what we do.
Also, I think each of these items could be discussed, broken down, built back up and tweaked… which is the actual point of this little exercise. These 10 ideas aren’t silver bullets, they’re a starting point.
In my view, they’re a starting point to what could be a better, fairer, more stable college football world, albeit one a bit tougher on the millionaire coaches. That said, if those coaches are willing to debate whether SEC games should actually be counted as SEC games or not, then they should have plenty of time to debate the merits of some of the bigger picture issues facing college football as a whole.