The “Counter-Reformation” of “Big-Time” College Sports

John M. Lane

                              Under its current structure, collegiate sports will not survive in the United States, especially if it insists on returning to the systems it had before the pandemic. Even before COVID, college sports were in serious trouble, financially, structurally, and most importantly, how it fit into the roles of what universities exist for: research and education.

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                             The major television networks, corporations, and other college sports sponsors will soon be in the position (if they are not already) of not being able to sustain their financial commitment. The cost of broadcasting literally every game and sponsoring athletic departments, conferences, “playoffs,” and tournaments will become prohibitive. The “arms races” of conference growth and realignment, caused by the search for more football revenue, has been a disaster: for the schools, the conferences, coaches, players, and fans. The extinction of traditional regional rivalries alone has crippled college football, and to a lesser extent, college basketball. Both big-time college football and basketball have never been national sports. The reason that they have such a strong hold on alumni and fans is the fact that they are regional.  One must ask, especially the schools, conferences, and networks, has been worth it to transport teams (not just football and basketball) across time zones to play “conference” games? How many schools can afford to continue to do this? Eventually, the television and corporate money will become less and less or dry up altogether. If you are a West Virginia fan or alumni, what was (or is) more important: playing TCU or playing Pittsburgh?  

                             The first significant reform needs to be allowing athletes to be actual students and physically heal from the games they play. The number of regular-season football games should be reduced to 10, the number of regular-season basketball games to 26. Believe it or not, there was a time when this existed. If you are against these non-threatening reforms, it is clear what you value most: students’ real education and physical safety are not among them. A return to college sports’ actual regional nature would be another move in the right direction of allowing “players” to be students. Returning to regional sanity would reduce or eliminate the current chaotic travel schedule, especially for basketball teams. Again, not too long ago, in basketball, The Big Ten Conference played conference games on Thursdays and Saturdays, the Pacific-12 Conference, Fridays and Saturdays, and the Southeastern Conference, Saturdays, and Mondays. No one played on Sundays. Please explain the logic of having students playing a basketball game in January that begins at 9:30 PM on Tuesday, arriving back on campus at 2:00 AM, Wednesday. Then, playing a “home” game on Thursday. Who is this benefitting? Indeed, not the student.

What the “regions” should look like:

“Eastern Conference”– Penn State, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Temple, Rutgers, Syracuse, Boston College, UCONN, Army, Navy, Louisville, Cincinnati.

“Big Ten Conference”- Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State.

“Big 12 Conference”– Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Tech. 

“Atlantic Coast Conference”- Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina State, North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami, Florida State.

“Pacific-12 Conference”– Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, California, Stanford, Southern California, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah.

“Southeastern Conference”- Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana State, Mississippi, Mississippi, State, Arkansas, South Carolina.  

“Western Conference”- BYU, Air Force, Boise State, Utah State, Colorado State, New Mexico, Fresno State, San Diego State, Nevada, Hawaii, UNLV. 

“American Athletic Conference”- Central Florida, South Florida, SMU, Houston, Memphis, Tulsa, Tulane, New Mexico State, UTEP, East Carolina, Appalachian State.

“Mid-American Conference”- Toledo, Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Akron, Ohio, Bowling Green, Kent State, Miami (Ohio), Buffalo, Northern Illinois. 

(Western Conference, American Athletic, Mid-American schools will be eligible for the playoffs if they play two non-conference games are against “Power Six” opponents. The highest-ranked school from these three conferences will receive an automatic bid to a “New Year’s Six” bowl game, and if they finish in the top 8 in the final poll, the National Playoff.)

“Big East” No Football– St. Johns, Georgetown, Xavier, DePaul, Marquette, Providence, Creighton, Butler, Villanova, Seton Hall.

“Independent”- Notre Dame Football (Big Ten connected, again playing Northwestern, Purdue, Michigan State, and Michigan on a regular basis) All other Notre Dame athletic teams would be regular members of the Big Ten. 

                                 How would this work in football? Each school would play seven conference games and three non-conference games in every conference. Two of those non-conference games must be against an intersectional “Power Six” opponent). The season would begin the first Saturday in September and end Thanksgiving weekend. There would be no conference “championship” games and no “regular” season games in December. This system would allow for a real playoff, like what Divisions II and III have right now.  In Division I, the top 8 schools, using the current polling/ranking system, would play the 1st Round of the playoff the first Saturday of December (before semester exams). Under this system, using the current final AP and Coaches rankings for the 2020 season as of December 6th, first rounds games, with the higher-ranked school at home, would take place: 

8 Indiana at 1Alabama

7 Oklahoma at 2 Clemson

6 Cincinnati at 3 Ohio State

5Texas A&M at 4 Notre Dame  

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Two Saturdays later would be the semi-finals which would rotate annually between the Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl, and Peach Bowl. The three bowls that are not hosting a semi-final can have their regular bowl game on December 31st. The 1st round playoff losers could play in a bowl game if they chose to. The so-called “New Year’s Six” bowl games would retain their preeminence in the sport.

It is time to stop rewarding mediocrity. Having 86 “bowl teams” has reached the level of being ridiculous. No school with a “6-4” record or worse will be allowed to play in a bowl game. No bowl games will occur after December 31st.   

The National Championship will take place at the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day; at that point, the season is over.

The Rose Bowl is the logical site for this game. It is the oldest bowl game; it has the best location and the best weather. An annual match like this would be a positive promotion of the sport.

                                 For basketball scheduling, schools would play “home and home” games with each school in their conference, totaling 22 games. Each school could play four non-conference games. National tournament games could count to 6 games. The national champion and runner-up will have played 32 games. College basketball should not be played on Sundays, and basketball conference tournaments should be eliminated.  Conference tournaments have cost schools a chance to win a national championship because of injuries in meaningless games, played only to make more money for the conferences and television networks. The same goes for football conference championship games. Basketball season would start the first weekend of December; there would be no games after fall semester exams, encompassing the Christmas holiday period. The national tournament would end on either the last weekend of March or the first weekend of April.

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                               The “howls” of protest over these proposals will be loud and angry. They will come from the entrenched special interests because it will hit most of them where it hurts, their ability to make as much money as possible. It is time for a governing body, whether it is the NCAA or not, to take back control of “big-time” college sports. The university presidents, faculties, boards of regents/ trustees must battle with the political interests in their states, irrational fan bases, television networks, corporate sponsors, “boosters”, and their athletic departments/associations, which have become semi-autonomous fiefdoms on their campuses, accountable to no one, until the next scandal occurs. The universities must control coaches’ salaries, funding sources, and scheduling. The sooner, the better. Students/Players should also receive a meal and travel stipend, in addition to their scholarship. For scholarships, injured students/players should receive complete no-cost medical care for their injuries and remain on scholarship if they can no longer play their sport. No coach at a public university should be the highest-paid public official in a state. Coaches should not be subject to the whims of passionate fan bases and social media. Yes, winning is important; however, the coaching staff’s primary mission should be to facilitate the university’s tasks mission: education and research. If students receive an education and develop as productive human beings, that should count as much as the team’s won-lost record. Do not fire coaches for how many wins and losses they have. What about how many engineers, doctors, teachers, attorneys, scholars, and entrepreneurs graduate from their teams? If players have the overall ability to play their sports at the professional level, that should be encouraged. It should not be, however, be the primary reason a coach uses to recruit students to their university. If it is, that coach should not be anywhere near an institution of higher learning. They should be in the professional league coaching ranks.                          

                             The television and corporate money going to the schools and conferences has financed the explosion in coaches’ salaries, the construction of new facilities, and the scheduling of more and more games. The networks now control when and where games occur, and some cases are even the scheduler of games.  For an entire day of programming, in football, games begin at Noon (11 AM central time), another starts at 3:30 PM, and the “nightcap” at 7:30 PM. Mountain and Pacific time zones games start at 10:30 PM for that audience. Sounds excellent for the people at home on their couch. There are some problems for the players, coaches, and fans (the live studio audience). As you are probably aware, stadiums in the South and the Southwest have had lights since the 1960s. There is a reason for that. There is nothing more uncomfortable for players and fans than attending a game at, say, the University of Florida at 3:30 PM on a Saturday in September. It is dangerous for the players and fans. However, if a network wants the game on national television, the time is changed, safety is not a concern. It is now standard practice that the networks pick the kickoff times for most games. The worse experience I have ever had attending a football game was at the University of Texas in the 1990s. The game against Syracuse was in the third week of September. It originally was scheduled as a night game. The kickoff was at 2:30 PM in 85-90-degree Texas heat. As a fan, the entire experience was terrible.      Move North, and the situation reverses itself. It is the second week of November, and Michigan State University is playing a key Big Ten conference game, which moved to a night kickoff for television. It turns out the forecast was correct: snow beginning at game time (7:30 PM) with temperatures in the mid-30s. The original time for kickoff could have been 3:30, or preferably Noon.

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                           There are too many college football (and basketball) games on television.  The the networks have purchased too much power over when and in some cases, where games occur. Why not televise the best games, not all of them? Broadcasting the best matchups is a positive promotion of the sport. Broadcast football at 1:00 PM (Noon Central) time. If you want a doubleheader, broadcast Western games at 4:00 PM Eastern (1:00 Pacific). If you want a Saturday night game, televise games originally scheduled as night games. These measures will mean the networks will lose control of programming and pay a lot less for broadcast rights. That is the point, the schools and conferences regain control of their games. The networks would have to find another source of programming. However, maybe they need for 24-hour sports is an artificial one. It is.

                            What has been lost in the push for more money and growth? What has realignment wrought? Let us go down the list: In football, Pittsburgh-West Virginia, Penn State-Pittsburgh, Kansas-Missouri, Texas-Texas A&M, Oklahoma-Nebraska. In basketball, Maryland playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The question that needs to be asked is this: Has realignment been worth it? This author is old enough to have heard (on the radio in Vietnam) and later to have seen, on tape, the best college football game ever played: the 1971 Oklahoma-Nebraska Thanksgiving game. Once an institution, corporation, university, or country forgets or “whitewashes” its history, it has lost its soul. 

                            The entrenched powers will use all the means at their disposal to stop the proposals in this essay. A 16-team football playoff is considered a reform by the corporate powers that run and manage college sports.  If the status quo in “big-time” college sports is left unchanged, there will be no alternative than to begin paying the students/players as the full-time university employees they have become. The implications for universities of this outcome are almost beyond the ability to imagine. Right now, the travel, training, the number of games, and time commitment speaks to the fact that they are already professionals, in all but name.

                          We can begin the process of returning to sanity. The proposals in this essay are the beginning of that process. If you believe in educating young people for full and productive lives, the time to begin is now. The current system will collapse; it is not a question of “if”; it is when. The recent Supreme Court decision allowing student-athletics to profit from the use of their “Name-Image-Likeness” and the move of the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma to the Southeastern Conference, making it a “super conference” and a semi-professional league have accelerated the eventual collapse.  

Intellectual Property of John Lane. Copyright@ J.M. Lane – cannot be reproduced or copied without permission.

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