What we are encouraged to feel for college football this fall is pity. We have been reminded by college administrators and ministers of the NCAA that these are indeed hard times, that football programs are not making enough money, that various fiscal wolves are at the door (some in skirts demanding equal time), and please to get your season tickets early so we don't have to turn the stadium over to the Savings and Loan. Pity the administrators.
We are also expected to feel sorry for the coaches, who have been ordered by the NCAA to exist without 30-man staffs and 200-man rosters, and will not be allowed to take three jetloads of players to Blacksburg next month. The players, though fewer in number, will arrive slightly rum-pled-looking because they will no longer be getting $15 a month laundry money. Pity the poor coaches and players.
The words "sanity" and "parity" and "economy" have been used a lot in this context. Also some stronger words. The NCAA was sued a couple of times this summer. Alabama's Bear Bryant sued over the new roster limitations (total scholarships cut from 105 to 95, home-team dress-out rosters to 60, road teams to 48). The new limits were called "cruel" by some coaches. Coaches and administrators argued heatedly and repeatedly over scholarship numbers, the re-division of the NCAA, the best ways to cut the television pie, and so forth.
The root of it all, as any moralist or recently fired football coach knows, is money. The way money is spent, the way it is lost. The need to get in the black (or out of the red). To break even. Breaking Even has become the clarion call of college football. After 105 years in business, the game has come to that. A dollars-and-cents, bottom-line existence. Just like the pros. College football has, at last, become like the pros. Complete with litigation.
In its original ideal form, you will recall, college football wasn't intended to make money. It was intended to contribute to the campus whole, like other worthwhile things. The repertory theater does not make money; the band, glee club and student paper do not make money. Football, despite excesses and occasional scandal, held a unique position. A rallying point it was, and a means to push the school name if only onto the Sunday sports pages. Where college football apparently went wrong was in discovering that it could make a buck. And by doing it.
Wistful reminiscing aside, and dire prophecies made at the NCAA convention in Chicago notwithstanding, how bad off is college football, really? Is it about to go under, as some have predicted? (See the red ink; see it wash over the bow.) Will it bleed to death, as some coaches believe, from cost cuts? Will the big football schools split and form their own version of the NCAA, no holds barred? Will Bear Bryant start his own league? ( Alabama I vs. Alabamas II, III, etc.) The answer is "A lot better off than you've been led to believe" to the first, and "No" to all the rest, although who can speak for Bear Bryant?
College football—separate from its role as sugar daddy to the rest of the athletic program—is not in poor health. The game itself, technically, is better than ever; superior, in concept and design, to any other kind of organized football. Portions of it are depressed, of course. Portions always are. Much of it staggers under the load of its own budgetary extravagance. Lately it has suffered the heebie-jeebies as well, mostly because of fear of the unknown. (Like what to do about the Title IX equal-cash-for-girls legislation. No profit in that.)
So what about the knowns? After making the rounds of the outpatient clinic, here are a few of the findings:
Q. Which major colleges are about to sacrifice football?
A. None. Dayton, Davidson and Boston University are in trouble and may yet throw in, but they are the only ones in Division I (big football) that seem inclined. On the contrary, there are schools clamoring to be upgraded to Division I, or which have just been so, including Central Michigan, Northeast Louisiana, Grambling, Ball State, Indiana State and the entire membership of the Ohio Valley and Big Sky conferences.