The “Nationalization” and “Professionalization” of College Football

The “Nationalization” and “Professionalization” of “College” Football

John M. Lane

                     As the 2022 season ends, the sport of “College Football ” is now a multibillion-dollar-plus business that bears little relevance to the academic and research missions of most of the universities that sponsor it. How did we get to this point? How did a game known and loved for its regional differences, varieties, and “quirks” become such an enormous corporate-sponsored and financed multi-billion-dollar national business?

                   The apparent differences between the college game and the professional National Football League have disappeared. Today, you can watch the players who “will play on Sunday” play the same game your “pro” team will play on Sunday. In 1968, for example, even a casual fan would immediately see the differences in how college and pro games were played, managed, and coached. They were two different sports, from the game’s speed, the use of the forward pass, “option plays,” the size of the playbook, and defensive schemes.

                  In 2022, those differences are mostly gone. The style of play, on both offense and defense, is almost identical. Many coaches at both levels are paid million-dollar salaries and now move seamlessly between the two games with little difficulty. College players are as big and strong as professional players. This process begins in high school, where top linemen are as big as 280 to 300 pounds as 16 and 17-year-olds. This is the result of year-round weight training. (The verdict is still out as to what this kind of weight and muscle mass does to the body over the long term.) In the 1960s, it was common to see 225–235-pound linemen on both sides of the line of scrimmage. 250–260-pound linemen were considered outliers. Those outliers would become linemen in the National Football League. The 225–235-pound linemen would have to settle for a career outside of football.


                       Football began as a “rugby” style sport in the United States in 1869. The first game was an elite, “gentlemanly” contest between Princeton and Rutgers. Before reaching the West Coast, the game spread from elite eastern schools to the Midwest and the South. At the beginning of the 20th century, the schools with the best teams were usually Yale, Army, Navy, Michigan, Minnesota, Harvard, Princeton, Penn, and Notre Dame. The first “bowl” game, the Rose Bowl, was played in 1902 between Michigan and Stanford. The first league of schools organized by region, the first “conference,” was the “Big Ten” (1896) in the Midwest. From that point forward, schools began to organize regionally: Rocky Mountain 1900, Missouri Valley 1907, Southwest 1915, Pacific Coast 1916, Southern 1922, Big Six (Eight) 1928. By 1928, except for the Atlantic Coast Conference, the regionally based conferences that would dominate College Football had been established.

                       By the 1920s and 30s, the only schools that had national followings were West Point (Army), Annapolis (Navy), and Notre Dame. They were the only schools with players on their teams not from their region. Notre Dame gave pride to hundreds of thousands of Catholic immigrants across the country, who saw that people like them could escape the sweatshops and coal mines, compete on the football field, and become white-collar professionals like the Yale and Harvard graduates. The service academies trained the future combat leaders of the American military, and the student bodies came from every state. It should come as no surprise that games like Army-Notre Dame attracted national attention from before World War I (1914) to the late 1940s. Army and Navy were “relevant” nationally until the early 1960s. By then, the Vietnam War was being fought, and the National Football League was beginning its march toward total domination of American sports.

               By the late 1920s, Notre Dame played a “national” schedule. It did not belong to a conference; it had an entire country. In the late 20s, Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne and Southern California coach Howard Jones agreed to play each other yearly in Los Angeles or South Bend (or sometimes in Chicago). The first great intersectional/ national rivalry began.              Intersectional games, however, were rare. Schools from different regions usually only played each other in bowl games. 

                Because College Football is, at its core, a regional sport, success was measured by whether you won your conference championships, not “national championships.” Graduates of Texas A&M, Texas, TCU, and Baylor, could work in the same office in Dallas or Houston. Winning the Southwest Conference was vitally important. Law offices in Chicago, engineering labs in Detroit, and research firms in Indianapolis had alums from Ohio State, Purdue, Indiana, and Illinois working side-by-side with other. A trip to the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champion guaranteed bragging rights until the new season began. Ending up “national champion” was a bonus.

                Nebraska-Oklahoma, Thanksgiving Day, 1971

 The Associated Press (AP) began national polling and ranking college teams in 1936. Football writers and journalists conducted the poll. United Press International (UPI) began national rankings in 1951 by surveying and polling coaches. A few days after New Year’s Day, they issued their final polls every year, and a “mythical national champion” was crowned. Depending on the year, the result was either a unanimous “yes,” bitter acrimony, a split decision, or arguments somewhere in between. “National Champions” chosen by polling have existed since the game began. The selection was often not unanimous. In the game’s history, from 1869 to 1997, multiple “champions” were selected after 28 seasons. In 1997, the last year “champions” were chosen by polling, Michigan and Nebraska were “national champions. Over the length and breadth of the sport, since 1869, the schools with the most “national championships should not be surprising: Yale (18), Alabama (16), Princeton (15), Notre Dame (13), Michigan (9), Southern California (9), Harvard (8), Ohio State (8), Oklahoma (7), and Minnesota (6).


                Professional Football began in 1920 with the founding of the National Football League. Teams were in the industrial and meat-packing towns of the Midwest. Many players were former college stars, like Red Grange of Illinois; however, most worked and lived in the cities they played for. Their games occurred on high school fields, make-shift stadiums, and unused baseball diamonds. The pay was enough to survive during the season. Professional Football began as a sport by and for the working class. The long-term ambitions of most college players in the 1920s and 1930s did not include playing Professional Football. In 1935, the first Heisman Trophy recipient, Jay Berwanger, turned down the opportunity to sign a professional contract.

           The National Football League survived the Great Depression and the Second World War. It also survived challenges from rival leagues in the 1940s and the 1960s. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Baseball remained the “national pastime” and the most popular spectator sport in the United States. That dominance, however, was about to be challenged. Football’s challenge to the supremacy of Baseball was fueled by television. Football was the perfect sport for television. A single NFL game changed Football’s relationship with Baseball and the American public: the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants went into overtime and was watched by millions of fans. Sports and television would never be the same.  

              In 1960, the American Football League (AFL) was launched as a new challenge to the NFL. The AFL survived because of television. The league’s games were broadcast on ABC and then NBC. The AFL and NFL held separate drafts of college players and competed for their services. The football world was stunned in 1965 when Alabama quarterback Joe Namath chose the AFL New York Jets over the NFL. Namath’s signing ensured that the AFL would survive. The leadership of the NFL responded with one of the most brilliant decisions in the history of sports. The NFL and the AFL decided to merge in 1966. The combination of both leagues would be final by the 1970 season, with both leagues becoming “conferences.” Amazingly, three stalwarts of the old NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Colts, and Cleveland Browns, agreed to join the AFC (American Football Conference).

            One change happened immediately. The leagues agreed to play an AFL-NFL Championship Game in January 1967, after the 1966 season. The NFL champion Green Bay Packers played the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. Because an agreement could not be reached, the game was televised on the NFL Network, CBS, and the AFL network, NBC. Before a crowd of only 60,000+, the Packers crushed the Chiefs 35-10, thus apparently proving that the AFL was still an upstart league. The following season, the Packers easily defeated the Oakland Raiders. To the football experts, the AFL still had a long way to go.

Football: Super Bowl III: New York Jets QB Joe Namath (12) in action vs Baltimore Colts. Miami, FL 1/12/1969 CREDIT: Walter Iooss Jr. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X13781 )

            1968 would be the fourth season Joe Namath played for the Jets. The NFL had nothing that matched the charisma of “Broadway Joe,” and they wanted to keep it that way. The Jets won the AFL title and would face the powerful NFL champion Baltimore Colts in what would soon be called the “Super Bowl.”  The Colts, still quarterbacked by an aging Johnny Unitas (hero of the 1958 overtime title victory), were heavy favorites. While training and relaxing at the game’s site, Miami, Namath guaranteed that the Jets would win. They did win. The Jets outplayed the Colts the entire game and won 16-7. Having been injured earlier in the season, Unitas entered the game in the third quarter. It did not matter. The magic was gone; his time and the time of the old NFL had passed.

                                  For the last time, the Minnesota Vikings carried the NFL banner in 1969. They faced the Kansas City Chiefs, who toyed with the Vikings. Their speed and innovation broke the Vikings’ will. Over the next forty-plus years, the NFL, specifically the Super Bowl, captured and came to dominate the American imagination. Super Bowls are the most-watched television shows in the United States since 1980. Networks will spend whatever money is necessary to obtain NFL broadcasting rights. The cost of those rights reaches billions of dollars. 


                                             The two most popular sports in the United States are now Professional (NFL) and College Football. The growth in the popularity of College Football can also be attributed to television. One thing should be made clear: the NFL would not exist without College Football. That link has been there from the beginning and, over time, has only grown stronger. The growth of the NFL has both hurt and helped College Football. Some colleges in NFL cities have had difficulty competing with the local pro franchise, while others have thrived.

                                       Texas-Arkansas, 1969

                                           From the time of the AFL-NFL merger in 1966 through 1979-80, nine universities dominated the highest levels of college football: Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Southern California (USC), Texas, Penn State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Alabama. They became nationally known brands that were “must-watch” when their games were televised, especially nationally. Notre Dame already had a national following by 1966, when they won the “national championship” by tying Michigan State 10-10 in a game that drew a vast television audience. The following Saturday, Notre Dame humiliated USC 51-0 to clinch “Number 1”.  There would be no bowl game for Notre Dame. They had not played in one since 1924 and would not play in another until the 1969 season. Michigan State also did not play in a bowl game that season. Michigan State had played in Pasadena the previous season, and the Big Ten Conference did not allow consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl, the only bowl Big Ten schools were allowed to play in. After the 1961 season, Big Ten champion Ohio State turned down a trip to the Rose Bowl after the OSU Faculty Council voted 28-25 that Ohio State was under no contractual obligation to play because the Pacific Coast Conference went out of business in 1958. At a time not that long ago, academics mattered more than any other consideration.

  During this period, some of the greatest games in the history of the sport were played: USC-UCLA 1967, Ohio State-Michigan 1969, Texas-Arkansas 1969, Oklahoma-Nebraska, 1971 (probably the greatest college game ever played) USC-Notre Dame, 1974, USC-Alabama, 1978, Michigan-Notre Dame, 1978, Alabama-Penn State (Sugar Bowl), 1979, to name a few. Change, however, was already in the air. In 1970, the number of games a school was allowed to play increased to 11 (In 1968, Ohio State still only played nine games. The season opened in late September, as the academic fall quarter was starting.) In 1972, first-year students became eligible to play on the varsity team. This move completely changed the nature of recruiting. Top players could play immediately. The number of scholarships allowed was also changed. The “gang of nine” could no longer stockpile players, keeping them from the competition.


USC-Alabama, 1978

                                    In 1979, taking advantage of the growth of the cable television industry, a new network was founded. The Entertainment Sports Programming Network (ESPN) began operations as a 24-hour sports network in Bristol, Connecticut. After a slow, painful start, the network was saved by televising first-round NCAA basketball tournament games in the early 80s. As far as college football was concerned, they showed taped college football games on Sundays until 1984. A Supreme Court ruling that year changed everything. The Universities of Oklahoma and Georgia sued the NCAA over television rights. Until 1983, the NCAA controlled the televising of college football games. The NCAA required the telecast of regional games and strictly managed the number of national games televised each season. For example, on the second Saturday of November 1974, there was only one college football game on television across the entire nation, Ohio State-Michigan State. The court ruling opened the television markets. The money was about to begin pouring in.  

                                 Except for the Big Ten and the Pac-10 (12), every major conference joined the College Football Association (CFA). Games were televised at Noon, 3:30, and 7:30 PM Eastern. Stadiums that did not have lights for night games used lights provided by a mobile lighting company. The Big Ten and Pac-10 signed lucrative contracts with the networks as well. The sudden windfall of television money and scholarship limits, and freshman eligibility began the shift away from the “power nine.” Georgia, Clemson, Washington, Iowa, Miami, Florida, Florida State, BYU, UCLA, Tennessee, LSU, and Auburn directly challenged the power nine for championships and prestige.  Several power schools went through noticeable periods of decline from the early 80s into the 21st century, including USC, Notre Dame, Texas, Alabama, and Ohio State.  

                                Television changed the nature of the college game immediately. Every year, up to our time now, more games have been added to the programming schedule. Most schools in the “Power 5” conferences now have at least 8 to 10 games on television. All the games of the top schools are now televised. Midwestern and Eastern schools began adding permanent lights to their stadiums as the number of night games increased. Schools in the South and West had to take extra safety precautions for the heat and humidity of 2:30/3:30 PM August, September, and early October kick-offs, as perfectly good permanent stadium lights, sit unused. When USC plays at Notre Dame in late October, the Trojans had better bring cold weather gear for a 7:30 PM kickoff in Northern Indiana, televised nationally on NBC.NBC televises all of Notre Dame’s home games. Schools, over time, have lost the ability to schedule the start time of their games. Television networks now do that. In 2022, except for the Big Ten and Pac-12 regional networks, all televised games are seen nationally. By the late 1990s, the move toward nationalizing college football was well underway. 

                               Going back to the early 1960s, a slow, steady, increasing drumbeat began from fans, pundits, and “experts to have a true “champion” in college football. The saying was that college football was the only major American sport with no champion determined on the field of play. The increasing belief was that the polls and bowl games were inadequate to determine a champion: 1962, USC, Wisconsin, and Mississippi; in 1966, Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Alabama could say they were “Number 1”; in 1969, it was Texas and Arkansas, with undefeated Penn State left out of the discussion. Texas, Ohio State, and Nebraska claimed the title in 1970. In 1974 it was USC and Oklahoma; in 1978, USC and Alabama; in 1979, USC, Ohio State, Alabama, and Houston (USC beat Ohio State in an epic Rose Bowl that season); BYU won in 1984, despite being locked out of a major bowl (they beat an average Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl) …and on, Colorado and Georgia Tech, 1990, and Michigan and Nebraska 1997. All the ranking controversies showed the historical regional nature of college football. The major bowl games were contracted to bring in at least one conference champion as a participant: Orange (Big 8), Sugar (SEC), Cotton (SWC), and the Rose Bowl since 1947, Big 10 vs. Pac 8/10/12. The other major bowl games were the Sun, Liberty, Gator, Peach, Citrus, and Fiesta Bowls. In total, 20 schools played bowl games. They were making it to a bowl game that used to be a great achievement after winning your conference championship and at least 8 or 9 games out of 11. You were one of the best 20/25 schools in the country.  In 2022, 84 schools play in 42 “bowl” games. Your school qualified to become “bowl eligible” if you won 6 of your 12 games.

                            The next move toward college football’s nationalization (and professionalization) was the creation of the Bowl Alliance and the Bowl Coalition. The Rose Bowl, the Big Ten, and the Pac-10 refused to join either group. The next attempt at creating a national champion was the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in 1998. Four bowl games (including the Rose Bowl) agreed to participate in the series. The championship game, between the number one and number two ranked teams in the polls, would be rotated between the Fiesta, Sugar, Orange, and Rose Bowls. This new system did ensure that a “true” champion would be created; however, it guaranteed that the other bowls would become irrelevant to the final poll results. If you were a player eyeing a professional contract, why risk it all in an irrelevant game? More on that later. In 2022, there are now 40 irrelevant bowl games.

                            For the advocates of a “true” college football champion, the Bowl Championship Series was still inadequate. What was needed was a real playoff between the top teams. The College Football Playoff was founded in 2014 to solve the problem. As far as the Power 5 conferences are now concerned, the CFP is the governing body of “big-time” college football, not the NCAA. Their panel of administrators and experts begins selecting the four playoff teams in November. The “New Year’s Six” bowl games (Peach, Fiesta, Sugar, Cotton, Orange, and Rose) rotate the semi-finals, and the championship game is played in early January. The two schools that play in the final will have played in fifteen games; the total for a National Football League regular season is currently seventeen. As of this writing, the playoff is scheduled to be expanded to 12 schools in 2024. The current regular season schedule of games will not change. It should be evident that 12 schools are too many, and four is not enough. Eight schools would have it right. A 12-school playoff would be the college football equivalent of the “wild card” in baseball and the NFL: an average, mediocre team gets “hot” at the right time and wins the championship.


                       The first significant reform must 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. 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. Returning 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.

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, and Mid-American schools will be eligible for the playoffs if they play two non-conference games 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 regularly). 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. Two 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, except Army vs. Navy. 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 on the first Saturday of December (before semester exams). Under this system, using the current final AP and Coaches rankings for the 2022 season, first rounds games, with the higher-ranked school at home, would take place: 

The 2022 National Playoff: 1st Round –

8 USC at 1Georgia

7 Utah at 2 Michigan

6 Tennessee at 3 TCU

5Alabama at 4 Ohio State  

                        Instead, Alabama is playing Kansas State, Tennessee is playing Clemson, USC is playing Tulane, and Utah is playing Penn State. Before the emphasis on playoffs and crowning a “real” champion, these games would have counted for a lot. 

                       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 not hosting a semi-final can have their regular bowl game on December 31st. 

It is time to stop rewarding mediocrity. Having 84 “bowl teams” has reached the level of being ridiculous. No school with a “7-3” record or worse will be allowed to play in a bowl game. All bowls games except those already mentioned and the Liberty, Sun, Citrus, and Gator Bowls would be discontinued. “Bowl season” would be permanently canceled. No bowl games will occur after December 31. Under this system, the two final teams will have played thirteen games, not fifteen.

                     The National Championship would 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 weather. An annual match like this would be a positive promotion of the sport.

2022 “Bowl Season”- without a “playoff:”

Rose – (7) Utah vs. (2) Michigan

Cotton- (3) TCU vs. (6) Tennessee

Sugar- (1) Georgia vs. (4) Ohio State

Orange-(11) Kansas State vs. (10) Clemson

Fiesta- (5) Alabama vs. (8) USC

Peach- (16) LSU vs. (9) Penn State

Gator- (13) Florida State vs. (15) Oregon

Citrus- (12) Washington vs. (19) Notre Dame

Liberty- (20) South Carolina vs. (17) Oregon State

Sun- (18) UCLA vs. (14) Tulane

 Pac-12: 6 Schools

SEC: 5 Schools

Big 10: 3 Schools 

Big 12: 2 Schools

ACC: 2 Schools

AAC: 1 School

Independent: Notre Dame 

So much for the PAC-12 being below average. The games mentioned above are worth watching and playing in. Championship-caliber play is rewarded; mediocrity for the sake of profit is not.  


                       None of the proposals in this essay will be adopted. The powers behind the nationalization and professionalization of college football will not allow it. The saying goes: “That train has already left the station.” College Football is now a multi-billion-dollar business. For the multi-national corporations that now run the sport, continued growth, expansion, and realignment are the only options. “Lip service” will be paid to education and player health/safety; however, actions speak louder than words. The schedules will get longer, the traveling more arduous, and the injuries more serious. 

                     College Football is now an unofficial subsidiary of the NFL. Using a baseball analogy: The Power 5 Conferences are the minor-league level closest to the NFL, “the show.” They are AAA; their televised games will seamlessly be integrated into the Saturday/Sunday package of televised College/NFL games. The Group of Five conferences are “AA”; it will be pointed out that many of their players have the potential to “play at the next level.” The FCS, Divisions II and III are single “A” and the developmental leagues. The professionalization of the college game has become so dominant that a movement is now afoot to allow military academy graduates with the ability to “play at the next level” to be eligible to join the NFL after graduation. Readers should be aware that the mission of West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy is to train and educate future combat leaders, not NFL players. 

                    University administrators and faculty have lost control of academia in football and most other areas. The politicians and corporate leaders are victorious. Open professionalization of college sports is only a few years away. “Name, Image, and Likeness” (NIL) payments are just the beginning, as is the “transfer portal” or college “free agency.” If College Football continues to “grow” as it is now, full-salary employee status is highly likely.

Time will tell. The genie is out of the bottle.

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