On Monday night, Alabama and Clemson will meet in Tampa to play for college football’s national championship. The title game will be the culmination of what has been a wildly memorable season, one that was full of upsets and miracle finishes — the kind the sport seems to come up with every year. In September, there were the dueling Hail Mary passes at the end of the tilt between Tennessee and Georgia. And who can forget the one-handed interception made by Michigan defensive back Jourdan Lewis a few weeks later in the final minutes of the Wolverines’ victory over Wisconsin?
The Kick Six. The Statue of Liberty. The Play. You know what I’m talking about. College football is special because it’s quirky, because it’s played by kids and because that oblong ball takes some funny bounces….
That’s why the game is so beloved by fans. It’s easy to say that there’s nothing like college football … because it’s true. There isn’t. But the words there’s nothing like college football mean different things to different people.
Let me explain.
To 99% of fans, college football is all about passion and regional traditions. Nowhere is this more true than in Alabama and South Carolina, where there are no NFL teams and college football is the only game in town.
But for this former college and pro athlete (and current broadcaster), the game is also about something else. I agree that there’s nothing like college football … but for a whole other set of reasons.
- Colleges love to pay coaches.
If the coach of your state’s powerhouse D-I football team isn’t the state’s highest paid employee, it’s probably only because that status is reserved for the school’s basketball coach. How much money are we talking about? Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers might sneak past Alabama on Monday night, but he loses by a lot in a head-to-head comparison with Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. Last I checked, Swinney’s salary at Clemson is more than $1.15 million a year less than Saban’s $6.90 million. As a matter of fact, 25 NFL coaches earned less than Saban in 2016. Swinney is in good company.
- But they still can’t figure out a way to pay the players.
Where does all the cash to pay coaches come from? According to The Wall Street Journal, the NCAA is getting an average of about $470 million annually from ESPN. And that’s not for the entire season’s worth of games (networks pay conferences directly for those; ESPN is on the hook for $190 million a year for half of the Big Ten’s media rights package, for instance), but rather for the rights to the six (not the Drake song) College Football Playoff–associated bowl games through 2025. Most of that money is distributed to the 10 FBS conferences and schools. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In 2014, the first year of the playoff, bowl payouts to conferences and schools surpassed $500 million. There’s a lot of money to go around. It makes sense that the coaches are well-paid. But what about the players?
- We love loyalty.
Yes, we love it — but only from those who put on the pads and risk getting their bells rung for six months each year. Try transferring to another school if you are a scholarship backup quarterback. You better be ready to sit out a year. And you also better be ready to beg for your release. Being a student-athlete requires a 100% commitment to your school on so many levels. The guys wearing the visors on the sidelines? Different story.
- But coaches are playing by another set of rules.
It’s no problem at all that a coach told an offensive lineman’s mom that he’d be there to see her son graduate. He still may be … just from the opposite sideline. How can a coach bail out if he’s got a long-term contract? That’s simple: Somehow the school will find the millions of dollars necessary to buy out his commitment. Must be nice to be able to go wherever you want.
- Most fans don’t even care if a coach is fired or if he takes a new job between the last regular season game and his team’s bowl game.
Need proof? Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin took the head coaching job at FAU before the Crimson Tide’s semifinal victory over Washington on New Year’s Eve. You can’t make something like that up! There was virtually no uproar. But what if Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson had begged out of his bowl-game commitment during that same week to do what was best for his future? Chances are we would have seen a total eclipse of the sports world.
- But everybody wants NFL prospects to play in the bowl games.
Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys says he’d never sit out a bowl game — but let’s not forget that he opted out of every game of his senior year to go to the NFL. Mad at Leonard Fournette for sitting out of this season’s Citrus Bowl? Have you read about the knee injury suffered by Michigan’s Jake Butt in this year’s Orange Bowl and how it could cost him $2 million in guaranteed NFL bonus money? Fournette’s decision makes a lot of sense in that context. Christian McCaffrey exhibited the intelligence typical of a Stanford man by being loyal to his future. Instead of risking injury in the Sun Bowl, he sat out the game and helped coach-up his backup.
- Coaches love shoes.
When direct payments to coaches from Nike and other footwear giants rattled the public a few years ago, the schools stepped in to make the problem go away … sort of. Now schools take the money from the sneaker companies directly and then simply give coaches a “shoe bonus.” That’s ethics for you — or at least creative financing. You hear about it a lot in college basketball — I’m speaking from experience here, obviously — but the same thing happens in football, too. Just search out the Associated Press report from four years ago that shows Urban Meyer receiving “$1.4 million annually as part of the school’s contract with Nike.” But what if you were a Buckeye DB who preferred Adidas footwear? By now, you should have already guessed the answer to that question: Tough luck, kid.
- The NCAA takes its rules very seriously.
Former Ohio State quarterback and current NFL receiver Terrelle Pryor couldn’t sell or trade awards he had been given, or rings he had earned, while he was in college. In other words, he couldn’t profit from the sale of his personal property. The NCAA announced in December 2010 that he would have to sit out the first five games of the 2011 season — but he was still eligible to play against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl on January 4, 2011. That game was worth a lot of money, after all.
This past season, 32 football players from mighty Charleston Southern had the audacity to spend leftover NCAA book money on pencils, binders, electronics and, rumor has it, Powerade … all from the school bookstore. How dare they do such a thing? The result: Each player received a one-game suspension. Rules are rules. They just don’t often have to make sense. Or be just.
Lane Kiffin’s first recruit at FAU? A former Florida State quarterback who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery in 2015 after a surveillance video showed him hitting a woman at a Tallahassee bar. What about him? He spent last season at a junior college in Mississippi, but as of now he’s completely eligible in the eyes of the NCAA sheriffs.
- Every bowl season is special.
Especially the 41-game slate that began on December 17 and ends on January 9. Right? I mean, who could ever forget the riveting St. Petersburg Bowl that matched a 6–6 Miami (Ohio) team against 5–7 juggernaut Mississippi State? Actually … I already have, because that game had absolutely nothing to do with football and everything to do with making money. A ton of money — all to celebrate mediocrity.
The most aptly named 2016 bowl game? The Dollar General Bowl.
I could go on and on….
Look, I know I played college basketball instead of college football. But I knew plenty of Duke football players during my days in Durham. When it comes to the issue of compensating athletes for the work they do, there isn’t much difference between the two sports. Money matters.
So I agree: There really is nothing like college football. But my reasons for feeling that way might be a little different from yours. The game is pure only in the sense that it pits student-athlete against student-athlete … while everyone else cleans up.