Monday June 15th, 2015

Scott Stricklin and his wife weren’t getting crushed by debt when they began to divide their money into envelopes a few years ago, but they weren’t handling their money as well as they could have been. Stricklin was an associate athletic director at Kentucky when he signed up for a course through the family’s church that taught him financial concepts he wished he had learned in college.

“We were never in dire straits, but we had no savings,” says Stricklin, who is now Mississippi State’s athletic director. “It totally changed the way you look at that and the way you approach money. It’s just so healthy to have some basics that I’d always heard people talk about but didn’t really understand.”

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The course was called Financial Peace, and it was developed by radio host Dave Ramsey. Ramsey has built an empire teaching listeners how to avoid debt and how to save for retirement. He also coined the term “stupid tax” to describe money lost when people rack up consumer debt on items they can’t afford. With Mississippi State—and most of its fellow FBS athletic programs—about to start giving a few thousand dollars to athletes in addition to tuition, room and board ($5,126 a year in Mississippi State’s case), Stricklin wanted to find a way to help Bulldogs athletes manage that money better. After examining several options, he landed on the guy whose program helped reshape his own personal finances. Beginning with the next school year, Mississippi State athletes will have to complete a specially designed version of Ramsey’s collegiate course* in order to receive their cost-of-attendance stipend. “We’re not going to tell them how to spend their money, but we’re going to give them some basic foundations and building blocks,” Stricklin says. “All of us are crazy if we just hand money out without giving students the tools to maximize the benefits of it.”

*The Financial Peace program Stricklin signed up for at his church has a religious element to it, but Mississippi State will be using a Ramsey program called Foundations in Personal Finance: College Edition, which does not include a religious component. 

Stricklin said Mississippi State compliance director Bracky Brett has studied the new NCAA rule regarding cost-of-attendance stipends to ensure the Bulldogs are allowed to require the course as a condition of receiving the money. This makes sense. The stipends are a result of one of the new “permissive” rules that have come from the autonomy plan, which was designed to allow the five wealthiest leagues to create rules that allow them to spend more money on players. Basically, the rule says, You can do this if you want. That means Mississippi State could also apply a condition. That might change, however, if the Ninth Circuit upholds Judge Claudia Wilken’s ruling in O’Bannon v. NCAA. That ruling bars the NCAA from setting its definition of an athletic scholarship below the actual cost of attendance schools report to the U.S. Department of Education. It would also force schools to allow trust funds to be set up to pay athletes for their Name, Image and Likeness rights once their eligibility expires. If this is the law of the land, a school probably wouldn’t be allowed to put extra conditions on an athlete’s eligibility to get paid. Stricklin understands that, and it doesn’t bother him. He and his coaches would still offer the courses even if they weren't allowed to require them, because they believe they could help.

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He’s correct. My parents explained the concepts of saving and debt avoidance to me when I was younger, but, like a lot of people, I thought I knew everything. I graduated from college with no debt. Then, over the course of about five years, my wife and I racked up about $50,000 in credit card debt. That was our stupid tax. We paid it all back, but I wouldn’t wish that credit card minimum payment death spiral on anyone. I wish I'd taken a course in college that explained exactly what would happen if I wasn’t careful after signing up for one of those credit cards being hawked by the telegenic people in the kiosks outside the student union. Maybe the message would have stuck and I would have avoided the pain of the stupid tax.

Stricklin said he and his staff also met with several banks while deciding which program to use. “I felt like that was more about customer acquisition for them,” Stricklin says. “I wanted us to be pretty agnostic from the standpoint of not pushing them toward a certain bank.” At each of these meetings, he noticed the same red flag. The banks were concerned with teaching athletes how to improve their credit scores. Stricklin wanted a course that stressed the avoidance of accruing debt.

Stricklin hooked up with Ramsey and his team through former Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton. Hamilton has been friends with Ramsey, a Tennessee alumnus, for years. So, when the Mississippi State men’s basketball team was in Ramsey’s home base of Nashville this past winter, Stricklin met with Ramsey’s staffers about the program. Hamilton, who now serves as the executive director for the orphan advocacy group Show Hope, said he has received calls from several of his former colleagues asking if he could put them in touch with Ramsey about similar programs. Hamilton, who spent 26 years in college sports, understands why. “When you think about somebody that’s got maybe a Pell Grant and $3,000 to $5,000 in COA money, that’s a pretty substantial amount for a college student,” Hamilton says. The responsible thing for administrators, he said, is to offer the athletes the tools to help manage that money.

Mississippi State is not alone. Arkansas is also using a modified version of Ramsey’s curriculum. Ohio State football players receive financial, job-skill and job-hunting advice through the Real Life Wednesdays program that Urban Meyer started at Florida. Some coaches and athletic directors are planning for the coming new age in major college athletics instead of just complaining about it.

But there are still a few complaining. At the SEC’s spring meeting in Destin, Fla., some coaches and ADs groused that some schools will get a recruiting advantage because they can offer more. At his final spring meeting as the SEC commissioner, Mike Slive tried to hammer home the idea that complaining won’t help when the driving force behind the payments is litigation and the payments are based on numbers the schools have reported to the federal government for years. Yes, the league could require transparency in how those federally mandated numbers were calculated so no one tried to game the system. But, no, the league could not do anything about the discrepancies. For decades, schools passed rules to make sure the playing field was level. This is how cream cheese got banned. In the past year, though, they have moved to a system that allows schools that make more from athletics to give more to their athletes. This is a response to public pressure and various federal lawsuits. The SEC can’t celebrate the largesse brought in by the SEC Network with its left hand and then clench its right hand tighter when it comes to sharing some of that money with athletes.

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“Now we all have to adjust to a new foundation or basis for legislation,” Slive said last month. “When it’s no longer about a level playing field, it’s about kids—about students. You’re going to end up with differentials that we’re all going to have to learn to live with.”

Stricklin and some of his fellow forward-thinking athletic directors are learning to live with the new environment. Hopefully, they can drag the rest of their colleagues along with them, because sticking to the old way will only invite more lawsuits. “We’ve always said, ‘Hey, we’re about the students.’ And I really believe we have that intention,” Stricklin says. “But I think there’s always this thing in the back of our minds that we’re going to do what’s best for the students as long as it doesn’t hurt our ability to be successful from a win-loss perspective. I think we’ve all got to break that habit. We’ve got to do what’s best for our students—period.”

That’s why Stricklin also opposes any national change to the graduate transfer rule, which currently allows the holder of a bachelor’s degree to transfer and play immediately if switching to a graduate program the athlete’s original school doesn’t offer. The majority of administrators want to appease control-freak coaches and force those athletes to sit out a year. Stricklin is smarter than that. The former sports information director understands the public relations aspect of changing the rule now. “I have a hard time taking something away from students that we’ve been giving them,” Stricklin says. “I’m not comfortable with that. That’s looking at what protects the school as opposed to what’s best for the students.”

Stricklin and the other eyes-forward ADs are going to get along a lot better in the new world than the ones who insist on fighting the major changes that are coming to college sports. Just as Slive told everyone before he retired, everyone is going to have to live with the new world.

Some are better at adjusting than others.

A random ranking

Even though my job has taught me all about the dark Internet arts, I sometimes get sucked into clickbait slideshows anyway. This weekend I clicked through a 100-slide piece on Spin’s website that examined the top 100 alternative rock songs of 1994. Needless to say, I disagreed with the ranking. Here’s my top five.

1. “Undone (The Sweater Song),” Weezer (Spin rank: 4)

2. “Disarm,” Smashing Pumpkins (Spin rank: 23)

3. “Fell on Black Days,” Soundgarden (Spin rank: 17)

4. “Self Esteem,” Offspring (Spin rank: 26)

5. “Possum Kingdom,” Toadies (Spin rank: 42)

[pagebreak]

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

First-and-10

1. Four members of the U.S. House of Representatives—two Democrats and two Republicans—reintroduced a bill last week aimed at reforming the NCAA, which should offer a pretty good indication of how bad the NCAA’s public image is right now. In today’s reductive, polarizing government, it’s tough to get members of the two parties to agree on anything. Yet Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.) all agree they are displeased with the way the NCAA operates. They even offered the requisite extreme rhetoric that so endears politicians to the populace.

“In my mind, the NCAA is the last plantation in America,” Rush said, according to Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com. “Certainly it takes the layman's capital and talent and the skills of its participants under the guise of being amateurs, promises them education, but then it exploits their labor—without pay I might add … It should be the National Cabal of Collegiate Athletes.”

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Actually, major college sports have always been more like a logging company town where the pay is scrip that qualifies as legal tender only in the company store. But that’s changing, too. As noted above, the wealthiest athletic departments are going to start giving athletes actual money. If the O’Bannon v. NCAA verdict is upheld, they'll have to give them more money. What the legislators want is better safety regulations, scholarships that can’t be yanked as a result of poor play and something more closely resembling due process for coaches and players accused of NCAA violations. They also want to form a presidential commission to examine college sports.

Why do they want this? Rush has been a frequent critic of the business model of major college sports. Dent remains unhappy with the NCAA’s sanctions—since lifted—against Penn State, which were tied to no violation of an actual NCAA rule and marked the first time the NCAA has inserted itself into a matter meant to be handled by the criminal justice system. Katko is mad at the NCAA’s punishment of Syracuse, which was caught rigging grades to keep men’s basketball center Fab Melo eligible and ignoring its own substance abuse policy.

Does this bill have a chance of passing? It didn’t last year when it was introduced before a lame-duck Congress, and it’s difficult to determine whether any other members of the legislative branch care enough to pass it. Not that it matters one way or the other. Most of the reform the legislators have asked for is either in the pipeline or already changed. Because of lawsuits and public pressure, the power conferences are moving to four-year scholarships from the one-year, renewable model. Leagues like the Big Ten and SEC have implemented better concussion protocols. In fact, both will hire medical spotters independent of each school who will have the power to remove a player from a football game if that player appears to have suffered a head injury. Legislators want an appeal process for penalties involving violations of NCAA rules. That already exists. A better request would've been to make Committee on Infractions hearings public, since cases involving real crimes are far more sensitive yet somehow manage to be tried in the sunshine.

What doesn’t already exist is that presidential commission, which sounds a lot like something the NCAA's members would request themselves. They love steering committees that report to subcommittees that report to committees. In this way, the NCAA and Congress aren’t that different.

What’s funny is that, according to Opensecrets.org, the NCAA spent more on lobbying ($580,000) in 2014 than it did from 2011-13 ($500,000). It still has to deal with a bipartisan bill from critics in the legislature. Another group that has recently faced bipartisan opposition? Patent trolls. The NCAA is in select company.

2. The biggest takeaway from the thorough ESPN Outside The Lines report on how reports of crimes by big-time college athletes are handled was that the players who have access to the best defense attorneys usually get off pretty light. This concept isn’t new, nor is it limited to college athletes. But I got a chance to study the phenomenon up close while covering Florida as a beat writer for The Tampa Tribune from 2004-07. As the OTL piece pointed out, Gators in trouble—and there were a lot in those years—tend to turn to an attorney named Huntley Johnson.

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We beat writers used to joke that if Johnson didn’t represent a player who got arrested, it meant that player was probably already kicked off the team. That wasn’t true all the time, but Johnson almost always seemed to get retained when a player got sideways with the law. Johnson rarely talks to the press about cases, typically letting the plea deals he negotiates do the talking for him. I tried to interview him in 2007 after former (and future) Florida lineman Ronnie Wilson pleaded no contest to battery and discharging a firearm in public. Wilson had hit a man and spit on him, and after realizing the man was following him to give Wilson’s information to a 911 dispatcher, Wilson switched to a vehicle that had an AK-47 in the trunk. Later, he would pull that AK-47 and fire it in the air to scare the man he had hit and spit on. The man said in court that Wilson pointed the gun at him before firing into the air. Thanks to Johnson, Wilson served no jail time beyond the brief period between his arrest and his posting bail. He got two years of probation. I asked Johnson after the change of plea hearing if he’d talk about the case. “What do you think I’m going to say?” Johnson asked. My reply was something to the effect of, “Your client pulled an AK-47 on a guy and won’t spend a day in jail, so I’m guessing not much, but I’m going to ask anyway.” Johnson smiled. “You’re pretty smart,” he said. End of interview.

3. I spoke to Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook last week for a column that will run this week on TheMMQB.com. At the tail end of the interview, I asked Cook about his feelings on the 2015 NBA Finals. The night before we spoke, the Cleveland Cavaliers had taken a 2-1 series lead over the Golden State Warriors. I figured the Hinckley, Ohio, native would be ecstatic. Instead, he considered the development bittersweet because while it was good news for his favorite team, it also meant former Spartans star and current Warriors standout Draymond Green had a more difficult path to a title. “I am pumped, but you always want to see a Spartan Dawg succeed,” Cook said. “I know Draymond. He’s a great guy. Super down to earth. … So I’m kind of torn.”

Since that conversation, Cook’s school pride has surged while his civic pride has dipped. On Sunday the Warriors beat the Cavs to take a 3-2 series lead.

4. The ACC released its tax forms for the 2013-14 school year to USA Today last week. The numbers are interesting for a couple of reasons.

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First, they reinforce the fact that the Big Ten and SEC are playing an entirely different game in terms of revenue than the rest of the Power Five. The ACC listed a record $302.3 million in total revenue, with per-school distributions ranging from $21.3 million (Clemson) to $17.9 million (Wake Forest). These are not the most recent numbers, so it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison. But remember: These numbers do reflect the ACC’s renegotiated television contract for its current alignment of 14 members and Notre Dame as a partial member. All those contracts are backloaded, so the numbers will rise gradually each year, but it’s difficult to imagine that the ACC could come close to the $31.2 million the SEC distributed per school in 2014-15 even after accounting for a first-year-of-the-playoff windfall that should add several million per school. Plus, the SEC will make more next year from a full year of the SEC Network. The Big Ten, meanwhile, should tower over everyone once it renegotiates its media rights next year.

Second, the numbers offer a window into how much football drives the revenue train in college athletics. Notre Dame isn’t a full ACC football member—though it does now play five games a year against ACC teams—and received $4.9 million. In other words, it received about a quarter of what the most valuable football-playing schools in the league received. So, the next time realignment pops up—and it will, probably when these current media rights deals expire—remember that football is pretty much the only thing that matters in these discussions.

5. In the Lone Star State, the summer edition cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football is akin to SI’s Sportsman of the Year cover or Time’s Person of the Year cover. In fact, it’s probably more important. In that state, the only thing more widely read than the Bible of Texas Football might be the actual Bible. Whichever player, coach or issue the DCTF editors choose to highlight is the biggest deal in the state. So, what made the cover this summer?

You heard ’em, Aggies and Longhorns. Play the game already.

6. The Collegiate Commissioners Association, which administers the National Letter of Intent program, will vote this week on whether to establish an early signing day for football in December.

The proposal may pass, but expect one commissioner to come armed with pages of arguments against changing the signing date without tweaking other recruiting rules to accommodate it. New SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who took over from Slive on June 1, remains opposed to the proposal. He explained why during his league’s spring meetings last month. “You’re asking some prospects to sign National Letters of Intent on the same week as their state high school playoffs,” Sankey said. “You don't have access to another semester’s academic information. The concern is that if you go to the third week in December and there is no filter, then you have just created a new signing date. It becomes the signing day. Under the current recruiting calendar, you have two weeks of contact. We’ve heard over time that [coaches] don’t get to know these young people. I’m not sure how you get to know young people when you don't have contact.”

7. USC’s Adoree’ Jackson finished fifth in the nation (7.91 meters) in the long jump last week at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, capping a sparkling freshman year for the two-sport star. As a starting cornerback, kick returner and occasional wide receiver on Trojans football team, Jackson was named a freshman All-America by the Football Writers Association of America.

Jackson wasn’t the only star cornerback in the field. Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, who is moving to the position from safety, finished 14th (7.6 meters).

8. LaQuan McGowan, Baylor’s 400-pound tight end, threw out the first pitch at a Texas Rangers game last week.

9. Clemson assistant strength coach Adam Smotherman rose to stardom during the Russell Athletic Bowl, when he put on a coach "Get Back" clinic by reeling in Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables any time Venables tried to venture on to the field. The performance of Smotherman, a former Vanderbilt defensive lineman, led to the discovery of this amazing wedding photo.

Smotherman isn’t resting on his standout bowl performance, though. With Venables bulking up in the off-season, Smotherman has had to train even harder.

10. This week in Jim Harbaugh …

What’s eating Andy?

NBA commissioner Adam Silver seems like another really forward-thinking guy. So why hasn’t he figured out a way to make these NBA Finals run until the college football season kicks off? This is the last great event before a looooong dry spell. The 2015 Finals have been particularly awesome. Watching LeBron James and Stephen Curry duel in one-possession games deep in the fourth quarter is about the most fun a sports fan can have outside of football season. So, commissioner, when are you going to give us what we need and declare this a best-of-57 series?

What’s Andy eating?

Because it’s college football’s slowest season, I haven’t been traveling much to find delectable food interesting stories. So, for the next few weeks, we’ll highlight a few the best spots I wrote about for my old Heaven Is A Buffet blog. If you weren’t one of the three people who read it, this will be new to you. This post first appeared on March 9, 2012.

The lord gave unto you 10 commandments. Heaven is a Buffet has only two.

1. There is nothing on earth that can’t be improved by adding a few slabs of bacon.

2. There are precious few things in this world that can’t be improved by deep-frying.

Frank Sodolak* knows these truths, and at some point late in the last century, divine inspiration struck the proprietor of Sodolak’s Country Inn in Snook, Texas. Forget the steaks and pork chops and assorted fried appetizers on the menu at Sodolak’s. You are there for one dish and one dish only.

Chicken fried bacon.

With a side of cream gravy.

Andy Staples

Go ahead. Scoff. Gag if you must. Declare that you are too good for fried bacon, that your arteries are too important to you. You’re lying to yourself. None of us is too good for fried bacon. Fried bacon is too good for us.

Before the fall of man, before Adam and Eve went bobbing for an apple, fried bacon grew on a tree in the Garden of Eden. For thousands of years, humans weren’t worthy. Then we must have done something to make the big man happy, and through His servant, Frank Sodolak, He showered us in the glory of fried bacon. Then, because He loves us, He inspired Sodolak to add a side of gravy.

Every time the bell rings at Sodolak’s to tell the waitress that another glorious, smoky, impossibly light batch of bacon has emerged from the fryer, angels sing. Can you hear them? They’re warning you. Nothing you ate before was good enough. Nothing you’ll eat afterward will compare.

So enjoy that first bite, and pray that you live a virtuous enough life to make it past St. Peter’s velvet rope.

Because this is what every day tastes like in heaven.

*Sodolak died in May 2012 at age 68. Rest in peace, you beautiful, beautiful man.

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