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Biggest storylines of college football offseason
2:51 | College Football
Biggest storylines of college football offseason
Monday May 11th, 2015

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby had just put his league's football championship tiebreaker to bed during last week's conference spring meetings in Phoenix when he was asked about another hot-button issue. Did Big 12 football coaches and athletic directors broach the topic of satellite camps?

“We did not talk about that,” Bowlsby said before chuckling. “We didn’t want to get a fistfight going.”

What seems from the outside to be one of the silliest off-season debates in college football’s storied history of silly off-season debates inspires some serious passion inside rooms full of football coaches. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh hilariously asked the coaching rhetorical equivalent of “Why do you hate America?” when he invited coaches who disagree with the Wolverines staffing camps at smaller schools in seven recruiting hotbed states to come work Michigan’s camp, but the debate has raged in the Big 12 for several years as programs within Texas fight the ones from outside Texas who send coaches to work camps in the Lone Star State. It makes sense; there is no NCAA rule preventing Oklahoma State coaches from joining with the staff at Mary Hardin-Baylor, which conveniently sits about two hours south of Dallas and one hour north of Austin in Belton, Texas. But this angers the four Texas-based members of the Big 12, which want to keep all the Texas players to themselves even though they can only bring in 100 combined new scholarship players each year. (The state produces significantly more FBS-level talent than that.) In two weeks, SEC coaches will don their finest cabana wear and meet on Florida’s gulf coast to complain about Michigan and Penn State invading their territory. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t respond in kind because their league has a rule banning coaches from working camps more than 50 miles from campus.

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Meanwhile, head coaches in every conference will debate the “Bump Rule” while their assistants scatter to high schools across the country and either break the rule or play Inspector Clouseau in an attempt to the catch coaches who do. What is the Bump Rule? It’s the NCAA rule that bans assistants from speaking to recruits while on those players’ high school campuses during the spring evaluation period. Never mind that the recruits, their coaches and their parents desperately want to forge relationships with the college coaches, while the college coaches want a chance to do some valuable reconnaissance that might help them avoid bringing a criminal or a locker-room cancer on campus.

Since school administrators and the NCAA seem to be entering a new age with regard to the making and enforcing of rules, maybe it’s time the coaches revised their attitudes toward these rules. Put simply, they need to band together and get most of them tossed. Stop trying to beat one another on a technicality and start trying to beat one another on the field.

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The five wealthiest conferences designed their own autonomy plan last year to allow them to spend some of the gobs of cash their football product brings in on players. The new structure will have more rules of a permissive nature. Basically, the gist will be “you’re allowed to do it if you can” instead of “if Slippery Rock can’t afford it, no one can do it.” The leagues did not do this out of the goodness of their hearts. They did this because they find themselves on the business end of several nasty federal lawsuits that could cost them a lot more money in the future if they don’t give up a little now. The result is more money and resources for the players while coaches and administrators get to keep making obscene salaries.

Now, let’s import that permissive attitude into other parts of the NCAA rulebook. The NCAA’s enforcement branch has been left in shambles thanks to ham-fisted management and rules that make less sense with each passing year. So, why not remove the burden of enforcing the unenforceable? There is no good reason why college football coaches can’t text recruits but college basketball coaches can. The NCAA actually tried to lift that ban a few years ago, but football coaches freaked out and had the governing body reinstate the ban because they are so accustomed to living in a police state of their own making that they can’t handle a little extra freedom. They need to work past that.

Fort Worth Star Telegram/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

They can begin with the Bump Rule. College assistants aren’t supposed to talk to recruits, but that doesn’t stop high school coaches from setting up meetings in the office. College coaches will wait in line for their turn to talk to a prospect knowing they could turn in their colleagues for talking to the player. But a coach who wants that player will play along and break the rule anyway. Sometimes, when a player makes his college decision, spurned coaches get retribution by reporting a Bump Rule violation. The rule has a noble intent. It is supposed to keep college coaches from disrupting the class schedules of high school players. But since most of the players—usually juniors who will sign the following February—want to talk to the coaches, it mainly becomes an impediment to open conversation.

Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville, the president of the American Football Coaches Association board of trustees, likes the Bump Rule. “Sitting down like some of these guys do and doing a recruiting spiel, you don’t need to do that,” Tuberville said. That isn’t entirely true, though. A player might find himself holding a conditional scholarship offer in the summer before he can take an official visit, with the caveat that the first player at his position who accepts the scholarship gets it. He may have to make a commitment decision by August or risk losing that scholarship. That player would likely want to have a deeper conversation with college coaches than “Hi, how are you?” in May. Tuberville understands that. He also understands that so many assistants break the rule now that it is virtually impossible to enforce. “You still have some out there that are going 10- or 15-minute conversations,” he said. “That’s probably how they’re going to start defining it.” Maybe they shouldn’t define it at all. Maybe coaches and players should talk for as long as they like. The coach who disrupts a player’s classes will run afoul of the principal and the high school coach, so he’ll keep it brief enough. And there is no law that says a player has to talk to a coach to whom he doesn’t want. It’s an easy fix. The coaches simply have to be willing to relax a little.

The same goes for the satellite camp debate. This argument seems silly because it is completely idiotic. While it’s understandable that coaches in Texas and the SEC states would want to protect their turf, they need to understand exactly what they are fighting against. Basically, they don’t want recruits to have a low-cost option to help them make the most informed decision possible when choosing a school.

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The aforementioned acceleration of the recruiting process means players who want to examine all their options need to either ask their parents to fork over a bunch of money for travel in the spring and summer before their senior seasons or hop in a van with some shady dude who is getting paid under the table to take 12 prospects to 10 schools in 11 days. Recruits aren’t allowed expenses-paid official visits until September of their senior years, so they stand to miss out on potential scholarship opportunities if they can’t afford visits. Satellite camps solve that issue.

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A player who lives in Atlanta can pay $50 to attend a camp at Georgia State on June 16 that will also be staffed by Penn State’s coaches. According to Delta’s website, that player or his parents would have to pay $784 per person for a round-trip ticket from Atlanta to State College around that date. It’s much cheaper ($296 a person) to fly into Pittsburgh, rent a car and then drive three hours each way to State College, but after flight, hotel and car costs, it still adds up to far more than $50. This way, Penn State’s staff could evaluate a player and possibly offer him a scholarship based on what they see. Or maybe he’s not good enough to play at Penn State, but Georgia State’s coaches—whom he might never meet if not for the draw of the Penn State coaches—take notice and pursue the recruit.

Everyone wins in that situation. Coaches who live in recruiting hotbeds need to stop fighting this. SEC administrators can help by eliminating their league’s foolish rule. This would allow some of the coaches complaining about the practice to set up their own camps. Who really gets hurt if Alabama wants to send its coaches to work at Florida Atlantic’s camp? It allows more players to be seen and chokes off a revenue stream for shady handlers. If Miami, Florida and Florida State have a problem with that, they should get over it. Players would still have to drive much farther to get to Tuscaloosa, and the top criterion in school selection for elite football recruits remains proximity to home.

Last week Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said his coaches and administrators suggested setting up regional combines so coaches from around the country could evaluate players in a setting that’s cost-effective for the players and the schools. That’s fine, but it’s not as good as a quarterback from Mobile, Ala., having the ability to drive north on Interstate 65 to Prattville and pay a small fee so he can learn from and be evaluated by Michigan coaches Harbaugh and Jedd Fisch.

The regional combine solution is a good compromise, but why bother settling for compromise? This is a new age in the NCAA. For once, the governing body of college sports seems ready to lighten up. Why shouldn’t the football coaches do the same?

A random ranking

Mad Men will air its series finale on Sunday night, so here are Don Draper’s top five secretaries.

1. Peggy Olson, who went on to bigger and better things.

2. Megan Calvet, who became a millionaire.

3. Meredith, who might make a fine interior decorator.

4. Dawn Chambers, who got promoted when Don flamed out.

5. Ida Blankenship, who was an astronaut.

[pagebreak]

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First-and-10

1. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is tired of hearing that his football officials are incompetent. In fact, according to him, postseason assignments and performance reviews suggest Pac-12 referees are no more or less competent than their Power Five counterparts. “There’s a big perception gap between what gets reported and the reality as I see it,” Scott said.  “I certainly view our football [officiating] as having been certainly on par and, in my opinion, in many respects better than our peer conferences.”

The problem is when that kind of reputation takes hold, it’s awfully difficult to shed. That will be the task of David Coleman, who was hired away from the NFL last month to run the Pac-12’s officiating programs. Coleman, who ran the NFL’s officiating development program, will have to find a way to make people trust officials in an age when the fan at home often has a far better view and access to replay than the referee. Since we don’t notice when officials get calls correct, it’s tough to overcome a negative image. So, Coleman may have to be creative.

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One suggestion is to follow the NBA’s example. That league faced the worst officiating scandal in decades when referee Tim Donaghy became embroiled in a gambling scandal. If any league needed transparency to revise its image, it was the NBA. Since March it has been issuing “Last Two Minute” reports in which the league office examines all controversial calls made in crunch time and issues public rulings either confirming or disputing the officials’ calls.

This would be a great idea for a college football conference. Instead of tying the reports to the time remaining in the game, a league could simply release the rulings by its coordinator of officials on all the calls coaches sent to the league office on a given Sunday. This happens in every league, and the coordinators are already examining the calls, ruling them correct or incorrect and providing context to the coaches. It might help build trust if those rulings and that context were made public. Smart football fans understand the game moves too fast to get every call perfect in real time, so there shouldn’t be a call to fire every official who missed a call. This practice would help bolster officials’ accountability and help show that leagues are doing everything within their power to ensure games get called fairly.

Scott said that isn’t in the works as of now, but he could see a day when such reports are available. “Things are changing so quickly in terms of what people’s expectations are,” Scott said. “A public sense of credibility and integrity is what you aim for. … I tend to err on the side of openness and transparency. I do think the world is going that way.”

2. The Big Ten has proposed making freshmen athletes ineligible to play in order to help schools strike a better balance between academics and athletics. So far, that idea seems to be falling on deaf ears. SEC commissioner Mike Slive came out almost immediately against the plan, and last week in Phoenix Scott said his constituents weren’t big fans of it, either. “We have not gotten a very positive response in our conference about freshman ineligibility,” Scott said.

The Big Ten’s big idea was an attempt to make the actions of the leaders of major college sports match the statements of their lawyers as they defend themselves in federal court. But it seems most of those leaders are content to have their attorneys say one thing while they do something completely different in real life. That strategy produced a suboptimal result—from the standpoint of the powers that be—in O’Bannon v. NCAA. But who knows? Maybe it will work in other cases.

3. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed the Todd Gurley Bill into law last week, making it illegal to entice college athletes to risk their eligibility by accepting money. The bill was introduced last year after Gurley was suspended for signing autographs in exchange for cash. Under that law, someone like Bryan Allen, the man who told Georgia’s compliance office that he and another man paid Gurley to sign items, would now face penalties up to a year in jail.

Congratulations to the NCAA, which becomes the beneficiary of grandstanding politicians. Now, actual law enforcement in Georgia can help enforce the NCAA’s arbitrary rules. But just as with the state laws against illegal agent activity, don’t expect cops to get involved too often. They tend to get tied up with real problems.

That said, the law will help keep players eligible. Had it been in effect last year, there is no way Allen would’ve breathed a word about the signings to anyone. Autograph dealers and agents won’t stop paying athletes under the table—the market abhors an artificial price ceiling or floor—but at least in Georgia, now no one will admit to paying athletes. That should cut down on NCAA violations for the schools in the state.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

4. USC coach Steve Sarkisian said last week that his team would likely need at least two seasons before it gets close to full capacity (85 scholarships) following the end of NCAA sanctions in the Reggie Bush case. Sarkisian said that because of a large senior class, the Trojans should be closer to 85 this fall than they will be in 2016.

Sarkisian also said academic issues will take recruits off the Trojans’ board in the 2016 class. With the NCAA instituting what amounts to an academic redshirt for players who don’t meet certain benchmarks coming out of high school, Sarkisian said his program can’t afford to recruit guys who can’t contribute as freshmen.

5. As the major players in conference realignment turn over, there is hope some canceled rivalries will resume. Texas coach Charlie Strong and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin recently expressed their desire to renew the rivalry between those schools, and now new Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades is offering hope that the Tigers and Kansas will renew their historic blood feud.

Speaking with FOX Sports Kansas City, Rhoades said he has a cordial relationship with Kansas AD Sheahon Zenger. Rhoades hopes the two administrators can find a way to get the Tigers and Jayhawks playing again in multiple sports.

“Hopefully, in the future, we can find a way to come together and play, because I think it's good for certainly his fans, our fans, and most importantly, our coaches and our student-athletes,” Rhoades said. “So, you know, there [are] certainly no promises, but the hope was we can have some positive discussion in the future.”

6. Chicago Bulls star Joakim Noah later said he didn’t realize the Ohio State player he trash-talked to last week was quarterback Cardale Jones, but it was no surprise that Noah, who once shared a class at Florida with Tim Tebow, expressed a little bit of conference pride.

Of course, Noah has been in the NBA for a while and might not be fully aware of what has befallen his Gators in the intervening years. At the moment, no one from Florida is allowed to trash talk to anyone from Ohio State about the current state of his football program.

As Noah-engaging-people-near-the-court moments go, this now ranks second to when he blew a kiss at the UCLA cheerleaders during the 2006 national title game.

7. The digs for the Big 12 meetings (The Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix) were plenty swanky, but TCU coach Gary Patterson may opt for a more exotic vacation. He said he and his wife Kelsey visited Africa in the off-season before the Horned Frogs won the Rose Bowl and in the off-season before his team won the Peach Bowl. Could another trip to the continent get TCU into the College Football Playoff?

“I told her, if we do, it’s an awfully expensive superstition,” Patterson joked.

8. A bowl game in Australia between a Pac-12 team and a Mountain West team is in the planning stages and could begin as early as 2016. So, we can once and for all lay to rest the myth that starting a playoff would kill the bowl system.

I suggested to Scott that there could only be one title sponsor for such a game, so we eagerly await the official announcement of The Vegemite Bowl. “Have you ever tasted that stuff?” Scott said.

9. It would have been chin music for a right-handed hitter, but Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who played in the minors before playing football at Cincinnati, threw a pretty good first pitch for a guy recovering from an emergency appendectomy.

Now see how it compares to Penn State coach James Franklin’s first pitch last month at Yankee Stadium.

10. This week in Mark Dantonio …

“Hey, we just work at it. Right now, we’re selling results. I’ve said this over and over. We’re selling results. Other people are selling hope.”—The Michigan State coach on ESPN’s Championship Drive podcast.

Oh, you thought only one coach in Michigan was worthy of a “This week in …” feature? Nope. The one in East Lansing can land a punch every once in a while—and this was a doozy. Just like when Dantonio looked south and asked, “Where’s the threat?” in 2012, the head Spartan has a truckload of recent history on his side. While Harbaugh will improve Michigan, Dantonio’s program has been excellent for quite a while and deserves the benefit of the doubt until its in-state rival proves something on the field. Michigan has only beaten Michigan State once in its past seven tries. Of course, that came in ’12 after Dantonio asked where the threat was.

What’s eating Andy?

Now that I’ve seen those NBA "Last Two Minute" reports, I want college football leagues to start releasing those contested call reports starting this season. This could be my next hopeless crusade.

What’s Andy eating?

Those who have read this space for a while know that while I consider my palate fairly refined with regard to barbecue and Southern comfort food, my standards are far less rigorous with regard to pizza. I don't have a favorite type, and while I can tell the difference between average and superb, it all tastes pretty good to me. This goes double for Mexican food. Take a protein, melt some cheese, toss in some beans and wrap it in some kind of carbohydrate shell. This formula works at a Michelin-starred restaurant or at the local Chipotle. It all basically taste good, so I always wondered why friends who spent more time in the Southwest would rave about one place and bash another when almost all clung to the protein-cheese-beans-carb model.

Of course, they probably wonder the same thing when I praise one barbecue joint and bash another. You just don't understand, man. They use Post Oak instead of hickory. My obtuseness regarding Mexican food continued unabated until a friend mentioned the chicken green corn tamale from El Bravo in Phoenix. The sentence started with "It's so good," and it ended with a phrase that called to mind the most memorable moment in American Pie. That, dear readers, is high praise indeed.

So, while in Phoenix last week to cover the various conference meetings, I ventured to El Bravo. It doesn't look like much. It's tucked into a strip mall on a street full of them. The decor is wholesale club chic. In other words, it's perfect. The members of the family that runs El Bravo probably haven't ever uttered the word "concept" in relation to their restaurant—even when they were opening a branch in Sky Harbor Airport. They probably talk a lot about taste, though.

The green corn chicken tamale my friend so enthusiastically endorsed is the unquestioned star. The corn melts in the mouth and the juicy chicken offers a chance to chew and savor the sweetness of the corn and the bite of a tomatillo sauce that fights in gravy's weight class. I ate two of these. I would have eaten 12. I would not have done what my friend suggested, because then I would have had one fewer tamale, and wasting such a treasure should be punishable by law.

Andy Staples

El Bravo wasn't the only place in the Valley of the Sun that came so highly recommended. While no one endorsed an inappropriate fate for a pie from Pizzeria Bianco, the reviews were generally excellent. This place, we were told, would rival the best we've had in New York. This could be my lack of pizza sophistication talking, but I wasn't aware that it was a badge of honor in the pizza world to make a razor-thin crust. I understand why some prefer New York style over the pizza-shaped cakes they serve in Chicago—I'm happy with either; they're completely different dishes—but I thought the idea was to have something to chew, not a cracker that holds toppings.

The ingredients were excellent. The soppressata on my Sonny Boy kicked, and the fresh mozzarella melted to velvety perfection. But the crust cracked upon the slightest collision with a tooth. My favorite crusts—the ones at Motorino in New York and Antico Pizza in Atlanta—put up a fight. They require a little chewing. This crust surrendered instantly, and that made it no match for the splendid toppings.

This is not to say that I would avoid Pizzeria Bianco entirely. The gnocchi with pork required the perfect amount of chewing. I could eat bowl after bowl. Which is good, as a pizza with a paper-thin crust tends to leave the stomach longing for more.

Andy Staples

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