As the 2023 college football season dawns, it’s time for the annual State of the Union address. In fact, that’s not true. Let’s call this the state of disunity. There is no unity in college football, and that is precisely the theme of today’s column.
College football is like the kid who leaves home for the first time to go to college, and he goes crazy for his newfound freedom. Suddenly, there are no more rules. There is no adult to tell him what to do or point him in the right direction. So he eats ice cream for breakfast, makes 15 as a freshman, plays video games all afternoon, stays up late every night, does whatever he wants, and the outcome is predictable.
College football left its roots, and with all the rules thrown aside, it went crazy with its newfound freedom. It’s become big and complicated, with everyone doing what they want, and there’s no adult in the room to take charge.
Almost overnight, everything changed. Boosters were prohibited from recruiting and financial transactions; now they are openly luring players to their university with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Players were prohibited from receiving money beyond their purse; they can now collect cash anywhere and however they want. Players had no rights to their name, image and likeness (NIL); now the door is wide open for anyone (especially the aforementioned boosters) to monetize their NIL and use it as a recruiting tool. Players were prohibited from transferring to another school without penalty; they can now move to the highest bidder and play immediately by simply teleporting to the next school via what is called the “transfer portal”.
The transfer portal and NIL have turned college football upside down. College coaches denounce the situation, but no one does anything about it. It’s a collection of warring fiefdoms, with schools and conferences stealing from each other to attract new members and players, all in pursuit of victories and TV money.
Exhibit A: Last year, it was reported that former NFL quarterback Charlie Batch tweeted a zero million dollar deal with Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams if he came to Eastern Michigan. He openly tried to steal from a player from another school.
Exhibit B: After the 2021 season, Lincoln Riley left his head coaching job at Oklahoma to take the head coaching job at USC and a parade of high-profile players followed him there from various schools. About twenty players transferred to USC, including the Trojans’ starting quarterback (Caleb Williams of Oklahoma, future Heisman Trophy winner), the team’s two best running backs (Travis Dye via Oregon and Austin Jones via Stanford), three of their top four receivers (Jordan Addison via Pitt, Mario Williams via Oklahoma, Brenden Rice via Colorado) and five of their top six scorers. The Trojans went from 4-8 a year ago to 11-3. Oklahoma went from 11-2 to 6-7.
“We didn’t take any players from Oklahoma; we took players from the transfer portal,” Riley said rather misleadingly on “The Herd” radio show.
Exhibits C and D: Jarret Doege played quarterback at three schools in three years (West Virginia, Western Kentucky, Troy). Kedon Slovis does the same thing (USC, Pitt, BYU). College Football: See the World Through the Transfer Portal.
Exhibit E: The Pac-12 is now the Pac-2 and is on the verge of extinction. The Big 12 and Big Ten did it a hostile takeover bid it would have made Gordon Gekko proud. They attacked the Pac-12 and stole UCLA, USC, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Arizona. Friday, the ACC announced that Stanford and Cal would join the league starting in 2024-25.
Just like that, the 108-year-old conference — the league of Wooden and Jackie Robinson and Marcus Allen and Lew Alcindor and Steve Prefontaine — is on life support, barely hanging on in the world of college football. This is just the latest conference “realignment” (a polite word for a takeover), regardless of regional rivalries, travel, traditions, fans, time it takes for “students- athletes”, etc.
Meanwhile, the only adult in the room who was punishing athletes for accepting free pizza hasn’t been heard from in years. The NCAA, once the big bully on the block, is supposed to be in charge, but it has ceded control to the conferences, whose only interests are their own. No one is mourning the fall of the NCAA, given the harsh and even mean-spirited treatment of athletes, but someone has to take charge. The game badly needs a central government. In the meantime, every conference, every athlete and every coach will look out for their own interests while the chaos continues.
“I don’t think what we’re doing right now is a sustainable model,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told AP in April 2022. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN pretty much the same, calling the college game “out of control, “unsustainable” and “an absolute mess and train wreck.”
Three weeks ago, Pete Carroll, the former USC coach who now leads the Seattle Seahawks, told NBC Sports: “I’m pretty disappointed in college football right now. Just in general. I’m just disappointed that it happened like this. With everything going on, I hope they can succeed.