College football's stakes, climate provoke serious battle
Posted: Monday August 18, 2003 10:05PM; Updated: Tuesday August 19, 2003 10:44AM
Stewart Mandel, SI.com
There was a time, maybe a decade or so ago, that nary a soul outside of Blacksburg, Va., would have cared if Virginia Tech decided to change conferences.
Ten consecutive bowl appearances, two 11-win seasons and one captivating superstar later, the Hokies found themselves at the center of a political firestorm earlier this summer that stretched from upstate New York to south Florida and involved everyone from conference commissioners to state governors.
Welcome to college football in the 21st century, an enterprise so massive and with stakes so high that the kind of vicious power struggles we've come to expect on the field are now playing out behind closed doors at universities and conference offices across the country.
"Intercollegiate athletics is a big business," said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. "For anyone to say it's not would be disingenuous."
Everyone wants in on the action
With the dramatic success of such former non-powers as Kansas State and Virginia Tech serving as models, all kinds of schools that were once football bystanders are upping the ante in an effort to crash what was once an ultra-exclusive power structure. Some, like Oregon and Pittsburgh, were sleeping giants that just needed a kick in the right direction. Others, like Louisville and South Florida, are trying to build powerhouses from scratch.
All of them thirst for the type of national exposure and prominence that through most of the sport's history was reserved solely for a few fabled institutions like Notre Dame and Michigan, but which in today's ever-changing climate can be achieved by almost anyone willing to make the commitment.
"I was talking to a recruit the other day, a 17-year-old kid," said N.C. State head coach Chuck Amato, "and I asked him, 'When you were growing up, did you think Oklahoma was good? Southern California? Alabama?' He shook his head no.
"That is why we've all got a chance to do it now."
That, along with more televised games, increased spending on facilities and the NCAA's 85-scholarship limit, has opened the door for programs like Amato's to earn unprecedented national exposure.
N.C. State, for example, is a school with almost no football tradition; in the past, basketball has held far more importance. Most people scoffed when Amato arrived from Florida State in 2000 talking about winning a national championship.
Sure enough, three years later, the Wolfpack are coming off their first 11-win season in school history and looking at a likely preseason top-10 ranking. While Amato's coaching ability deserves its fair share of credit, the university also has made an unprecedented commitment to the sport, investing $26 million in a brand-new, state-of-the-art football facility and a couple million more for one of the highest-paid coaching staffs in the country.
"Whether you call it parity or balance, we now see teams that haven't been dominant programs rise up and have special years," said Mid-American Conference commissioner Rick Chryst. "It probably starts with the scholarship limits, but the other big difference we've seen is as television opportunities have escalated, everyone's now investing in facilities."
That's because in this era of the BCS, expanded conferences and fat TV contracts, the potential riches of big-time college football have become too lucrative and the climate too favorable for the N.C. States of the world to ignore. Fair or not, football success can greatly affect the overall welfare of a university.
Just ask Kansas State president Jon Wefald.
During his 17-year tenure, Wefald has overseen the remarkable transformation of Division I-A's all-time losingest program into a perennial top-10 powerhouse, one that has reshaped the morale of an entire community.
"When I got here, there was a sense of futility," said Wefald. "If the old administration had stayed on here for three more years, I think football would have been dropped. We would have no marching band, and we'd be at about 12,000 students today."
Instead, since 1986 Kansas State's enrollment has increased from about 13,000 to 23,000, its fundraising has gone from $7 million a year in '86 to $83 million in 2002-03 and the city of Manhattan's economy has grown exponentially.
Ten years before earning its coveted invite by the ACC, Virginia Tech was a largely overlooked program that had played in three bowl games since 1969. Today, Frank Beamer's Hokies are an ESPN fixture.
"People have an image of that school they never had before," said ESPN's Chris Fowler. "That university has the silliest name in the world [Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University], it's hard to pronounce, but it's now known by the entire country as Virginia Tech."
It's stories like these that the University of South Florida had in mind when it decided in the mid-'90s to start a football program from scratch, one that in just two years of I-A competition has beaten bowl teams Pittsburgh and Southern Miss and finished 9-2 last season. Same thing at Louisville, a traditionally basketball-oriented school that has more than doubled its athletic budget, from $16 million to $33 million, in the past six years while beefing up a football program that's been to five consecutive bowl games and knocked off Florida State on national television last season.
The battle lines are drawn
Most would agree that the trend toward more non-traditional powers is a good thing, but with it comes a growing sense of chaos, a poignant example of which played out this summer with the ACC's controversial pilfering of Big East powers Miami and Virginia Tech.
Contrary to what those involved might say, theirs was entirely a business decision, one so profound in its effect that it left one conference, the Big East, lying in near ruin and several others bracing for a potential ripple effect. And, in a telling sign of the times, it was a decision made not by coaches, athletic directors or conference commissioners but by the presidents of the universities.
"Ten years ago, that wouldn't have been the case; you wouldn't have the CEOs on conference calls," said Wefald. "But they all understand business, and this was a huge business decision. There's so much at stake in terms of prestige, status and certainly the BCS."
With 117 Division I-A schools all chasing the same pot of gold, many believe the ACC's power play was just the beginning of a massive upheaval in the months and years to come. With the current BCS contract set to expire following the 2005 season, no one wants to be left behind as the sport begins charting its next era, and thus an even bigger power struggle is beginning to take shape.
In one corner are schools from the traditional power conferences that currently control the BCS (Big Ten, SEC, etc.). Their goal is to maintain their stranglehold on the elite bowls and television revenue.
In the opposite corner are schools from the other I-A conferences (MAC, Conference USA, etc.), no longer content to sit on their hands while the big boys have all the fun. They've formed the Presidential Coalition for Athletic Reform, headed by Tulane president Scott Cowen, which hopes to break down the traditional power structure and create a bowl or playoff system inclusive of everyone.
And all the while there are countless other subplots, like whether the Big East can remain viable as a football conference, whether leagues like the Mountain West or WAC will expand and where independent power Notre Dame will fit in to everything. Some lower-end teams are facing potential eviction from I-A if they fail to meet new attendance minimums and other requirements, while others, like Florida A&M, are proceeding with plans to move up from I-AA.
"I think we're early on in what could be one of the watershed moments in intercollegiate athletics," said Chryst. "This is clearly a pivotal time in terms of the next decade or so, both in terms of conference membership and what the next generation of the postseason will look like. Not withstanding some of the Darwinian aspects to it, I do think there will be a place for everybody."
You can never be too sure.