Anniversary Mailbag (cont.)
With all the heat coming down on the NFL over concussions, do you see college football taking any greater measures toward player safety like Greg Schiano's push to eliminate kickoffs?
-- Brandon Mettler, Austin, Texas
We better hope so. Concerns over player safety at all levels of football are going to greatly intensify over the coming years due to increased media scrutiny, advances in science and eye-opening tragedies like Junior Seau's. Some alarmists like acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell and acclaimed author-turned-professional hothead Buzz Bissinger are skipping ahead to the most extreme possible outcome and arguing college football should be banned entirely. Fortunately, more level-headed parties are exploring the topic in a more constructive manner. Last week the Fiesta Bowl hosted a summit panel on concussions, moderated by NCAA president Mark Emmert and featuring four leading experts in the field. According to ESPN.com's Ted Miller, the attendees included Stanford coach David Shaw, Wisconsin's Brett Bielema, Texas Tech's Tuberville and UTEP's Mike Price.
The NCAA made one minor related rule-change for this season, moving kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line and rewarding touchbacks by moving them from the 20 to the 25. When I tweeted this news a couple months back, the reaction was almost universally negative, with fans lamenting the likely reduction in the number of ever-exciting long kick returns. That's a huge part of the problem. Cutting down on life-altering health consequences for the players is far more important than our viewing enjoyment. If it can be conclusively proven that eliminating the kickoff would have a discernible effect on long-term injuries, then by all means, do it. But ultimately, a rule tweak here or there is not going to make as big a difference as greater awareness of the symptoms and effects of head injuries and improved medical treatment, both of which are already well underway at the college level but need to progress earnestly and quickly.
Obviously college football will never be injury-proof. But as Every Day Should be Saturday points out, the same holds true for a lot of things.
The Pac-12 and the 10-team Big 12 currently play nine-game conference schedules. The ACC will move to a nine-game schedule once Pitt and Syracuse are aboard, the Big Ten as well in 2017. The SEC currently seems content to stick with an eight-game schedule, despite the obvious headaches that creates in a 14-team league. Just curious on your thoughts about what the SEC should do with its schedule?
-- Brian, Dickson, Tenn.
The SEC is the last major holdout left on the nine-game train, but so far there's very little support within the conference to change that stance. It's understandable. The current setup has been working pretty darn well for that league. Every team gets to play as many home games as possible, and it's obviously yet to work against them in the national championship race. As long as pollsters continue to perceive the SEC's eight-game slate as tougher than everyone else's regardless of the number of games, and reward it accordingly, why change?
But it will be interesting to see whether the as-yet undecided parameters for the forthcoming four-team playoff force the league's hand. One of the reasons I adamantly oppose restricting the field to conference champions is the inequity by which leagues crown their champions, not just from conference to conference but within each conference. For instance, Alabama this season misses two potential top 10 teams from the East, Georgia and South Carolina. Yet if the Tide go 11-1 again, their 11-1 record will undoubtedly be viewed more favorably than nearly any other team's 11-1 record, even though the entire Big 12 will not only play an extra league game but may well play more Top 25 opponents.
Whatever new selection system emerges will almost certainly place more emphasis on an objective strength-of-schedule metric. If, heaven forbid, an SEC team ever misses out on a playoff berth due to its schedule, the league will go to nine games the next day.
Regarding your column about John Marinatto's resignation, you are ignoring a key piece of the puzzle in saying that school presidents should not be involved in the decision making of the conferences: This is COLLEGE football. Hundreds of millions are at stake. It is their job to be involved in these sorts of decisions.
-- Mark, Madison, Wis.
Of course college presidents should be "involved in" conference decisions. I never said they shouldn't. In fact they should have final approval on all matters (which they do). But presidents don't spend all day, every day immersed in the world of college athletics. Most don't fully understand the greater landscape beyond their campus. How could they? That's why, in theory, they entrust a hired commissioner (and conference staff) to do the legwork and make recommendations. Conferences like the Big Ten, SEC and (recently) the Pac-12 are so stable and fruitful because they follow the lead of their commissioner and athletics director.
However, in the Big East's case, John Marinatto failed to garner full support from his presidents, and they in turn made his job that much harder. There have been many great nuggets the last couple of days from various reporters about the extent of dysfunction in that conference. One of my favorites: According to Brett McMurphy of CBSSports.com, USF president Judy Genshaft continually blocked the Big East from inviting UCF last year, because, you know, USF hates UCF. At a time when the league sorely needed to fortify its football lineup, a successful program with pristine new facilities sitting in the league's existing footprint was readily available, and one spiteful president prevented it. Months later, Syracuse and Pitt bolted. Around the same time, the presidents shot down Marinatto's recommendation to accept ESPN's reported nine-year, $1.4 billion contract proposal. That of course backfired spectacularly, leaving Marinatto to undertake a massive rebuilding effort, which, of course, wound up including UCF.
Think of a conference as an NFL team, and the presidents as the owners. All owners have last word on key decisions, but most trust their general managers/coaches to do what's best for the club. Others, like Jerry Jones, meddle, make bad draft choices, give out excessive free-agent contracts -- then fire the GM and coach when things predictably don't work out. That's what just happened in the Big East.
I bought your book, Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls: Tackling the Chaos and Controversy that Reign Over College Football, and loved reading it. Now, just under five years after you released it, how dated does this book feel today?
-- Stephen, Chicago
Certainly the sport has changed dramatically in five years, yet many of the recurring themes endure. In 2007, Notre Dame was coming off consecutive BCS berths under Charlie Weis. Obviously, the end of that chapter is now incredibly dated. The conference realignment chapter might as well be scrapped entirely. And the NFL chapter regrettably begins with bewilderment over Matt Leinart's draft-day plunge. On the other hand, the opening-chapter discussion about the politics of the BCS is all the more relevant today as the various parties go about changing it. The polls are just as mind-numbing as ever, the Heisman race is full of all the same fallacies, recruiting is full of all the same hyperbole. And that chapter "Everybody Cheats -- Just Not My School" gained a lot of new material the last couple of years.
I think we're going to see much the same dichotomy with these forthcoming Mailbag flashbacks. College football is at a crossroads, stuck between trying to preserve traditions and embrace innovation. I don't know whether the sport will be better or worse 10 years from now, but it will definitely be different. And I look forward to continuing to chart those developments along with you in this space.
We're going to go every other week until we get farther into summer, so the next Mailbag will appear May 23. Fire off those e-mails.
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