Jacobs: College football championship still faces challenges

When Ohio State and Oregon take the field Monday night in major-college football’s latest version of a championship game, the meeting will be hailed as a landmark moment, the culmination of years of popular advocacy, aspiration and agonizing. Finally, common sense will have prevailed. Satisfaction is mine, saith the horde.

And soon enough, as sure as someone will insist the Ducks are not soft and the Big Ten’s reputation is redeemed, the call will be raised for the College Football Playoff to go forth and multiply, expanding to include eight, not four teams, and seven, not three games.

But before we careen farther – toward more games, more practices, more TV inventory, more coaches’ pay, more revenues for everyone except the players involved – let’s recognize how far we’ve already traveled down the road to excess. For one simple gauge of how far we’ve come, consider that Duke’s spring practice for 2015 starts less than a month after college’s 2014 champion is determined.

You can appreciate college football and still question placing greater demands on the bodies and minds of players, who are supposedly students first. Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes coach, opposes expanding the Playoff. He noted prior to the Sugar Bowl that the length of the college season was positively “NFL-ish.” “I think it’s something we all need to consistently monitor … because the wear and tear on the student-athlete is real,” he said. “It’s never been like this. This is the first time in college football history.”

We’ve reached this point in increments, so slowly we’ve barely noticed. Each step seems to make sense when considered on its own merits. Taken together, though, we see a sport that seemingly never stops, from mandatory spring, summer and fall workouts to a 12-game regular season, from league championship games to postseason outings, all with attendant practice sessions.

Even conducting spring practice once was a matter of heated debate. “People were worried about over-emphasis” on college athletics, recalls Eugene Corrigan, a retired ACC commissioner and NCAA president. “That’s all you ever heard about. Everything was about keeping it under control.”

How old-fashioned!

Attempts to “make football more rational” have occurred periodically since the 1890s, according to John Sayle Watterson, a retired history professor at James Madison and the University of South Dakota and author of a book on football history. A surge in reform occurred after World War II, leading new leagues to form and some schools to downsize, abolish spring practice, or eliminate their football programs entirely.

These days few question holding 15 days of spring football practice. Prominent programs are apt to view their intrasquad spring games as revenue- and publicity-generators. Some charge admission. Last spring, ESPN’s cable networks televised a sampler of intrasquad games, Clemson’s and Florida State’s among them.

Six schools nationally each had at least 60,000 fans in attendance at their crowning spring contest in 2014. Alabama drew 92,000 in 2011 and has averaged 83,600 spectators over the past eight years. There’s also talk nationally of adding exhibition games during spring practice. “It’s a very different world,” says Corrigan, 87.

The demands on players continue to intensify. Last year the NCAA replaced so-called voluntary summer workouts with eight weeks of mandatory strength and conditioning training, film study included. Coaches can also observe the workouts, and meet with players for two hours weekly, just as their basketball brethren do.

Avalanche of expansion

Fall practice begins in early August, long before most schools start regular classes. Twenty-nine practice sessions follow. Coaches like Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer and former N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien advocate emulating basketball in playing an exhibition game against a lesser opponent toward the end of preseason.

The preparation of spring and summer is followed by weeks of in-season training sandwiched around a dozen games. Wake Forest kicked off the 2014 ACC regular season on August 28; the league concluded play on Nov. 29. Seasons have lengthened since World War II, going to 11 games in 1970 and a dozen in 2006.

Not that the regular season encompasses the competitive football cycle any more than it does in basketball. Thanks to a rule advanced by a Division II conference in Pennsylvania and co-sponsored by the CIAA, in 1987 the NCAA authorized an extra football championship game for leagues with a dozen members. The unintended consequences emerged slowly at first. After the SEC grew to 12 schools by adding Arkansas and South Carolina, it launched a title game in 1992 that generated $6 million.

Suddenly it became attractive financially and competitively for other power conferences to do likewise, adding momentum to what became an avalanche of expansion since the mid-2000s. Changing the 12-member rule, which might have been easier, is belatedly under discussion.

Meanwhile, the number of bowl games has proliferated as fast as the ranks of rude cellphone users, from five in 1940 to 15 in 1980, 19 in 1990 to 38 this season. All but five of 81 FBS schools with at least six wins found a bowl berth. That’s 59 percent of the 128 FBS squads overall. Seventy-four percent of bowl participants came from the five major conferences, with the ACC’s 12 of 15 (counting Notre Dame) slightly above average.

The balance of power is thereby reinforced, since bowl games offer exposure, revenue and extended practice sessions. “When you think about it, good gosh, you’ve got an extra month of practice,” says Corrigan, a former Virginia and Notre Dame athletic director who ran the ACC from 1987 through 1997. “I really think that is the most unfair thing ever for those schools that don’t go to a bowl.”

ESPN’s power

Corrigan’s solution, though, is to give all schools the extra practice time reserved for bowl teams. Equitable as that may be, the approach would also formalize extension of the season.

Back in 2006, worries about athletes’ health, safety and academic well-being led some coaches to join the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in opposing the addition of a 12th regular-season game. Now Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission, calls for a reappraisal before yet more student time is devoted to football.

“In my view, if there’s a discussion about expanding the playoff from four to eight teams,” Perko says, “what also needs to be on the table is whether the 12-game regular season is now appropriate, within that full package of looking at the entire season and postseason.”

Good luck. Whomever ostensibly runs the college show, we all know what drives the decisions: the marriage of money and television programming. More specifically ESPN, which created several new bowls in 2014 and plans to add another in the 2015 season. TV’s influence has been a growing factor since what Watterson, the historian, calls “the turning point in modern football history”: the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming the rights of colleges to wrest control of football telecasts from the NCAA.

Three decades later, the NCAA has little influence over football, a burgeoning sport whose content drives immensely lucrative TV contracts like the $500 million annually through 2025 for the Playoff. “When the revenues go up, the spending goes up to follow,” Perko observes. And so the journey toward excess continues, propelled by our fascination, dollars and complicity.