Freshman ineligibility debate forces college leaders to set their priorities; more Punt, Pass & Pork.
We examined several theories last week in an effort to ascertain why Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany would drive a proposal to make freshmen ineligible in football and men’s basketball. One reader of that column had his own theory, and given his recent work experience it carries a lot more weight than any scenario I could spin. It also seems like the most believable reason for the Big Ten’s push for what it calls the “Year of Readiness.”
Before speaking to me, Bernie Machen spoke to SEC commissioner Mike Slive. Machen, who retired from the presidency of the University of Florida in December, has been one of Slive’s closest allies in recent years. Machen wanted Slive, who had just come out strongly against the Big Ten's proposal, to know the two men would have to agree to disagree on this one. Why does Machen’s opinion matter? He has been as far inside the college athletics machine as any president. As Utah’s CEO, he helped dismantle the 16-team Super WAC and helped create the Mountain West. As Florida’s president, he helped lead the charge for the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri and for the creation of the SEC Network. He knows intimately how all of this works, and that’s why what he said was so interesting.
“We’re backing our way into a pay-for-play model for football and men’s basketball,” Machen said. “I think this is a Hail Mary from Delany to say, ‘Wait a minute. What if we do it the way it used to be?’”
To Machen, Delany’s idea is less a product of nostalgia for the way things were before the freshman ban was lifted in the early 1970s and more a product of a practical need to prove that the wealthiest athletic programs aren’t just running quasi-professional football and basketball programs without paying taxes on the revenues. Would Machen have made the above statement if he still sat in his old office at Florida’s Tigert Hall? Maybe. He was always brutally frank, but that may have been too bold an admission for a sitting president to make.
Machen believes the collegiate model works. For evidence, he points to graduation rates for athletes in every sport except football and men’s basketball. Most of the others outpace the general student body, and the success beyond graduation for former college athletes is well documented anecdotally. The problem, Machen said, is anyone can see that football and men’s basketball at the highest level aren’t using the collegiate model. Players are essentially required to practice year-round, which makes it tough for the NCAA’s lawyers or lobbyists to keep a straight face when they call college sports an avocation that enhances the college experience. “You look at the schedules of these kids,” Machen said. “They are essentially in a full-time mode.”
And right on cue, a coach at a Power Five program opened his mouth and proved Machen correct. “Their summertime is my summertime,” Colorado basketball coach Tad Boyle said of his players to the Broomfield Enterprise last week. “This year they’re here and they’re going to be with (strength coach James) Hardy and they're going to be two hours a week in the gym with the coaching staff. We're going to use the time allowed by the NCAA to get better and to commit to making sure that we don't go through another year like this. That's what's going to change." Boyle also hinted at attrition if the summer edict isn’t palatable to the players. “Hard to predict that,” Boyle said. “But absolutely it’s possible.” In other words, players who want to keep their scholarships will work in the summer.
Boyle’s attitude and demands are perfectly reasonable if those players are his employees. But the schools have gone out of their way to claim in court—and in Northwestern’s case, to the National Labor Relations Board—that these “student-athletes” are absolutely not employees. Because employees might have to be paid more than tuition, room and board. Because employees who get injured would be entitled to disability payments. Because the entity that sells tickets for and sells the television broadcast rights to those employees’ games—which are not part of said employees’ college curriculum—might someday be asked by the IRS why it doesn’t pay taxes on what looks an awful lot like a for-profit operation that only keeps from turning a profit by constructing buildings and by paying the people it does consider employees ever-higher salaries. (I realize Colorado, thanks to colossal financial mismanagement in the past, might be the worst possible Power Five example for this. But Boyle said what he said. Feel free to insert Alabama or Ohio State or Texas if you’d like.)
This does not make Boyle a bad person. He is only doing the job he was hired to do, and it’s reasonable of him to expect maximum effort from people receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of goods and services in trade for those efforts. The problem is it goes directly against the fantasy the aforementioned NCAA lawyers and lobbyists are trying to paint as they attempt to defend a collegiate model the colleges themselves don’t seem interested in using for those two (especially lucrative) sports.
That’s why Machen thinks Delany’s proposal has merit. Instead of merely voicing support for the collegiate model and then doing exactly the opposite in two sports, schools would instead walk that particular walk for the first time in years. “I just think the collegiate model doesn’t hold up when you look at football and men’s basketball,” Machen said. “I don’t care how hard you put lipstick on that sucker. It still is a pig.”
The subtext of Machen’s theory is this: If the schools don’t actually start doing what they claim, the courts will push them into the professional model that they have been hellbent on creating—with the exception of the giving raises to the labor force or the paying taxes parts—for years. Federal judges, especially ones not versed in the quirks of the economic model for major college sports, will tend to look at what schools have done. They will see conference realignment for the purposes of higher television revenue. They will see soaring salaries for football coaches and athletic directors. They will see a refusal to budge on any additional benefits for the athletes until the athletes started filing lawsuits.
But if the schools were to make freshmen ineligible—something that would be expensive for them for reasons I outlined last week—that might offer tangible proof they do care about the education of athletes in those two sports. If schools voted to further restrict organized practices and time commitments out of season, it might offer more proof of that dedication. Instead of merely saying they aren’t running quasi-professional programs, officials would actually do something to back up what the NCAA’s lawyers keep saying. (The flip side is if the schools keep voting against these measures, it makes the people in charge look like even bigger hypocrites.) Machen believes the university side has to take the lead on these issues, as most athletic department officials will understandably balk at such drastic measures.
“You can’t believe the coaches. The coaches are hired to win games. They’re going to be against it,” Machen said. “You can’t really believe the commissioners. They’re sort of in it. It’s really going to have to be the institutions to say, ‘Are we really serious that education is first over here or not?’”
And what if a school president comes out in favor of such a change and that school’s football coach flips out? “We’re going to have to make them do it,” Machen said. “We hired them.”
Machen agrees with Slive that new initial eligibility requirements, which will force an academic redshirt for players who don’t meet certain scholastic benchmarks coming out of high school, should be given a chance to succeed before blanket freshman ineligibility becomes the norm. But Machen also agreed with Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione that Delany’s proposal should get everyone talking about what ideas might actually work. “Mike is right. We haven’t seen all the rule changes implemented,” Machen said. “But I still think it’s bigger than that. I think this thing needs to be aired out.”
It’s bigger than that because, as Machen said, the people in charge of the schools must decide at some point what their priorities are. Do they care as much about the education of their football and basketball players as the NCAA’s lawyers claim in court? Or do they want to run a multibillion-dollar business selling games to ticket-buyers and TV networks and then deal with all the attendant issues that such a business spits out? Neither federal judges nor legislators—the only people who can keep the officials' preferred model intact—are going to believe them if they continue to make the same kind of decisions they’ve made for the past 30 years.
Neither outcome is bad. The first might make less money and could frustrate coaches, but at least actions would square with words. The second would be financially successful at the highest levels of those two sports, but occasional labor issues would be inevitable and a tax bill would be possible. The people running the schools simply have to decide which path they want to choose.
Delany’s proposal has opened the door for a robust discussion. It has also forced the people in charge of college sports to pledge their allegiance to education or money. “I think Jim is really on to something,” Machen said. “We need to stop, take a hard look at what we’re doing and see if we can look ourselves in the mirror.”
If they can, they should carry on with the expectation of some court-enforced changes. If they can’t, they might want to consider catching Delany’s Hail Mary.
A random ranking
Thanks to Jim Harbaugh, some daytime television will be discussed in the sections below. So, here are the finest shows we watched when we should have been at work or in school.
1. The People’s Court (Wapner and Llewelyn O.G. version)
2. The Price Is Right (Bob Barker version)
5. The Jerry Springer Show. Don't worry, I didn't forget the king. Jer-ry! Jer-ry!
1. The hurry-up offensive coaches won last week when the NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel kicked the proposed ineligible-man-downfield rule back to the football rules committee. So, instead of linemen only being able to move one yard past the line of scrimmage before a thrown ball crosses the line, those linemen can still move three yards. This will allow programs like Auburn, Baylor, Clemson, Ole Miss and Oregon to keep the same packaged plays they have been running without making major changes.
Officials are supposed to make the rule a point of emphasis in 2015, which means the aforementioned hurry-up coaches may still have to alter their offenses. The reason the rule was set to change in the first place is officials’ refusal to throw a flag when one or more disengaged linemen wander four or five yards down the field before a thrown ball crosses the line of scrimmage. This puts defenders in an impossible position. They close toward the line because the rules dictate that an offense with linemen venturing past three yards must be running or throwing a screen pass. When the quarterback then throws beyond the line of scrimmage—usually to a wide-open receiver—and no flag is dropped, the defense gets hosed.
All Gus Malzahn, Art Briles and company wanted was a chance to see if actual enforcement of the current rule will eliminate the above scenario. Now they’ll get it. But if officials don’t enforce the three-yard rule consistently this season, it needs to be changed. It’s possible the difference between three and four yards is simply too difficult to judge with a bunch of 300-pound bodies flying around. Maybe the difference between one yard and two is easier to spot.
Defenses stand no chance if linemen can move five yards downfield on a downfield pass play. Hopefully officials will actually emphasize this point of emphasis.
2. The panel’s decision likely had as much to do with the way rules get changed as the complaints from the hurry-up coaches. In 2014 and ’15, the rules committee proposed changes that came as a complete surprise to a large group of coaches.
“Additionally, the panel was concerned about the lack of participation in the rules process by head coaches, both in the survey process and comment period,” Greg Johnson wrote on NCAA.org. “Specifically, while 57 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches supported this proposed change in the initial survey, only 65 FBS head coaches participated in the survey. Also, while 54 percent of FBS head coaches were supportive of the rule change in the comment period, only 46 FBS head coaches offered comments.”
That 57 percent figure sounds like less of a mandate when one takes into account there are now 129 FBS programs. With only 65 coaches participating in the survey, that means 37 of them voiced support for the rule change. That’s 29 percent of the group. Meanwhile, coaches complained that the rules committee’s surveys tend to arrive in January when they're scrambling to finish their recruiting classes. The committee must find a better way to communicate with its coaches. Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez suggested discussing rule changes at the FBS head coaches meeting at the American Football Coaches Association convention. That way, coaches would know every year exactly when and how they could have their say on potential rule changes.
Whatever method the committee chooses, it needs to find a way to get the input of as many coaches as possible. That way, it won’t waste time on proposed changes that just get shouted down.
3. Coaches still looking to find a quarterback this year will be searching for puffs of white smoke out of Stillwater on Monday. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said he expects quarterback Daxx Garman to decide whether he will remain with the Cowboys or transfer to another school.
“I want him to do whatever he thinks is best for himself. Selfishly, we would love for Daxx to be here, but he could decide he wants to go somewhere else and I don’t think it would surprise anybody,” Gundy told Fox Sports Southwest's David Ubben. “He did a great job for us last year and made some plays for us at times. We couldn’t protect him at all.”
An injury to Garman late in the 2014 season opened the door for true freshman Mason Rudolph, who played very much like the Cowboys’ quarterback of the future and was declared the starter after leading the team to a bowl win over Washington. Garman is set to graduate from Oklahoma State this spring and would be eligible to play immediately at any school.
4. Michigan coach Harbaugh tweeted this last week …
Big Congrats to Judge Judy on signing her contract extension thru 2020 from a Devout Fan!— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) March 3, 2015
5. That allowed everyone to turn to Google and find this …
And this …
Just wait until Harbaugh discovers Maury Povich’s show.
6. In case you forgot just how ice cold the pre-draft process can be for former college football players, read Ross Dumlao’s story in The Clarion-Ledger about the abbreviated pro day at Jackson State last week.
7. I’m not sure how I missed this when it made the rounds in February, but this press conference to choose between Boy Tech and Girl State was epic.
8. In an interview with Tiki Barber and Brandon Tierney last week on CBS Sports Radio, Texas coach Charlie Strong said he didn’t kick a bunch of players off the team in his first season in Austin. To hear Strong tell it, some players didn’t do what he expected and he simply gave them the opportunity to explore the breadth and variety of America’s institutions of higher learning. Listen to the full interview.
9. It didn’t get nearly as much ink as its basketball counterpart, but the Syracuse football team also got caught up in the NCAA investigation that began some time during the Cretaceous period and ended earlier this year. As part of a light smattering of penalties that thankfully shouldn’t harm anyone currently playing, the Orange agreed to vacate victories from three seasons in which they used ineligible players. So, goodbye to 2005’s lone victory, a 31-0 win over Buffalo. Just know that the NCAA can never truly take away a win. We all know who prevailed on the field that day. (And we won’t bring up the remainder of the season.)
10. Your defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes begin spring practice Tuesday. But the players haven't been idle. Watch this recent agility drill. Also, note that tailback Ezekiel Elliott proudly rolls up his jersey even though the NCAA has declared war on six-packs.
What’s eating Andy?
This is more of a public service announcement for a complaint. If you’re working on a tight deadline and your project requires you to select the perfect clip from Maury, just take the first one Google spits out. Do not go down the Maury rabbit hole. Thirty minutes will pass like 30 seconds, and that’s one fewer half-hour you’ll get to spend on this planet. Of course, you might also see this …
What’s Andy eating?
Nearly every time I traveled to Atlanta over the past few years, someone would tell me I absolutely had to try Antico Vera Pizza Napoletana. Those recommending the place had varying tastes, but they all agreed it had the finest pizza in Atlanta, if not the entire South. So intense was their enthusiasm for the wood-oven pies that I began to experience an internal backlash. Maybe I didn’t want to try the place because I was already sick of hearing the raves. I avoided watching The Wire for several years for the same reason.
But just as disciples of Bunk and McNulty were proven correct when I finally watched the five seasons, the Antico adherents were vindicated last week when I picked up a Diavola (sopressata, pepperonata and buffalo mozzarella) pie while passing through Atlanta. The crust really is impossily light and perfectly charred. The toppings really are of such high quality that they seem decadent on such a common food item.
I knew as soon as I walked in I that had found a place that catered to my particular sensibilities. The main courses were cooked by fires fed by wood. The posted hours were “11:30 a.m. until out of dough.” In other words, this was a pizza place that operated by the same rules as the best barbecue joints. And the trio of ovens that produced the pies inspired as much awe as a fully loaded, custom-built smokehouse. The embers in the ovens produced an ethereal glow that promised a flavor no place that plugs in its oven could reproduce.
Those ovens delivered on that promise. My pie had the faintest stripes of char on the underside. On top the cheese melted under chunks of spicy meat and whole peppers. The crust bubbled on the edges into a fluffy tube while still remaining hearty enough in the middle to hold the toppings and oil. That slightly sweet crust also provided the ideal foil for the fire of the sopressata and the peppers.
After one bite, I was hooked. After downing an entire pie, I knew I’d become one of those people who insists you try Antico because you simply won’t believe what you’ve been missing. I apologize in advance, but like those people who drove me mad with their recommendations, I’m only looking out for your taste buds.