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.
September 7, 1975
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.
Q. Is it true that 90% of major college football programs operate in the red?
A. No. With few exceptions, every team in the major conferences—Big Ten, Big Eight, Southeastern and so forth—makes money. The rich, of course, get much richer. Ohio State grossed "about four million" last year and Notre Dame "in excess" of that. The latter cleared about $2 million. USC made so much money that John McKay won't even talk about it, save to say, "It's none of your business." Penn State netted almost $1 million; Nebraska netted $813,914; Florida netted $866,069. And so on.
Q. Do the rich get richer at the expense of the poor?
A. Yes, to an extent, and for that reason there is a need to find means to encourage parity. Means short of the Robin Hood proposal of Long Beach State President Dr. Stephen Horn, who wanted to split all television money 477 ways. Equality of competition is something to strive for. It was the making of the NFL. The proposed "super conference" of 75 schools (the major conferences plus leading independents) would align those with similar goals and problems; the NCAA has indicated a willingness to create such a subdivision. But until the rich see the need for parity, they will continue to make it difficult for the lowly to rise up.
Q. With polarization setting in, is the status irreversibly quo?
A. Apparently not. Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Maryland have made dramatic returns to glory, and to signing deposit slips. Even Mississippi State, a perennial SEC invalid, has had its "greatest seat sales in history" after a 9-3 season.
In 1968 Baylor, following a long sickness, got worse, winning three games and averaging 14,866 fans, lowest in the Southwest Conference in a decade. Orville Henry of the Arkansas Gazette wrote the consensus view that Baylor, athletically, "was ready for the last rites."
In 1974 Baylor won the SWC championship for the first time in 50 years, went to the Cotton Bowl (also a first), averaged 40,200 at home and showed a substantial profit. Coach Grant Teaff was named Coach of the Year. Contending again this year, Baylor has had its highest preseason ticket sale in history. Promotion Director Catfish Smith says the big executives who used to slip out the back door when he came in the front now roll out the red carpet. "I've never seen so many smiling faces," Catfish says.
Winning is always good medicine for the shorts, but it also "pays to work." Baylor, Teaff and Smith went to work. So did Athletic Director Willis Casey at North Carolina State. In his six years in that capacity the football team has not always won, but it has always made money. The Wolf-pack (booster) Club raises more than $1 million a year. The stadium (44,000 capacity), built in 1966, was to be paid for by 2004; it now appears likely that the debt will be retired by 1982.
Q. But these are pretty much big-name football institutions. What about those that have no history of success, no tradition to draw on? Can they cope?
A. Last year Arizona beat Arizona State for the first time in a decade and won more games (nine) than ever. It is now 17-5 in two seasons under Coach Jim Young, who learned at Michigan. It has enlarged its stadium in Tucson to a 58,000 capacity, tops in the Western Athletic Conference. Arizona is coping.
Q. But Arizona is winning. How does the spirit move those who do not win?
A. What do you want, miracles? Southern Illinois has had successive seasons of 3-7-1 and 2-9 but is entering the Missouri Valley Conference next season with a beefed-up schedule and a renovated stadium. Furman and The Citadel operated in the red but are actively promoting their games. The Citadel brought in an outside public-relations agency, and Furman staged a series of special promotions, including a rather breathtaking innovation: a money-back guarantee on season tickets.
Florida State has lost 24 of its last 25 games. Yet it increased home attendance by 8,000 per game in 1974 and balanced the budget. FSU went to work, scheduling night games, bringing in Burt Reynolds, a onetime Seminole halfback, booking local rock groups to thump and bang two hours before kickoff, and so forth.
Q. Is it true that almost any football budget can be cut?
A. Of course. The NCAA's recent cuts, though relatively superficial, will save the colleges $15 million by the estimate of Walter Byers, the NCAA boss. A few breast-beating coaches complained that by not being able to suit up 70 players they will be hard pressed to hold down the score against weak opponents. Well, there are other ways to hold down the score. Off-tackle left, off-tackle right, to name two. Coaches will have to use their imaginations.
Rosters can be cut (the NFL has 43 players per). Recruiting limits can be enforced. A head coach does not need 18 assistants. A team does not need a color TV in every dorm room, first-class air travel and every new muscle-building piece of paraphernalia and fitness apparatus in the catalog.
One of the greatest penny-pinchers in athletics is Georgia Athletic Director Joel Eaves. The Bulldogs have never operated in the red since Eaves took over in 1963, though the budget has more than tripled (to about $2 million). Eaves is not above posting Day-Glo orange stickers in athletic-department rest rooms to remind people to turn off the lights. Or to advise them to get off the phone more quickly, or to avoid writing unnecessary letters. "We're not too big," says Eaves, "we're just too wasteful."
Q. But Georgia and the various name schools get those TV windfalls every year. How can those who are blacked out compete?
A. In the first place, TV windfalls are often illusory. Georgia made one TV appearance last year, in the Tangerine Bowl, and the proceeds barely covered expenses. Florida spent most of its Sugar Bowl money on expenses. Florida and Georgia would have been in the black without television. It is true, however, that TV checks have rescued many a treasury over the years. Navy had to lobby hard to keep its game with Army on TV, and thus prevented a year-end financial bath. Two regional telecasts kept Miami afloat. Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana, Kansas and other major-conference members admit that TV splits helped them avoid deficits, though they weren't on the tube themselves.
The trouble with TV money is that schools which get it four or five times begin to rely on it. Business Manager John Reed Holley says that "television has been a lifesaver" at Ole Miss, which realizes about $200,000 a year from SEC slices of the various TV pots. "If it weren't for TV we'd almost always be in the red," says Holley.
Well, just up Interstate 55 and west a bit from Ole Miss is Memphis State. Its last—and only—TV game was in 1966. It doesn't count on another. Memphis State's program has been in the black every year since 1958. San Diego State doesn't even have a television highlights show, but it has surpluses that will keep it going "for at least another 10 years," according to Dr. Ken Karr, the athletic director. Karr holds his $1 million all-sports budget in line by limiting road trips to one night out, by never leaving California to recruit, by discontinuing on-the-spot scouting in favor of film exchanges and by cutting down on training-table privileges. Can such terrible austerity work? San Diego State is 17-3-2 in the past two seasons under Claude Gilbert, and won more than 100 games in fewer than 12 seasons before that.
Boston College has a $240,000 check coming this fall for next week's TV date with Notre Dame, the first meeting of the Catholic schools. It has sold out 61,000-seat Schaefer Stadium. But Boston College's program has been in the black year after year without TV money, Notre Dame or 61,000-seat sellouts. It plays a representative schedule—Texas, Pittsburgh, Tulane, et al.—and wins, and watches its budget, and succeeds despite living in the same hutch with a popular pro team.
Q. Is it possible, then, for a big-city school to find happiness in the shadow of the NFL?
A. It is, if sometimes belatedly. There is no doubt the pros intimidate the colleges when they invade an area. Miami has been suffocated by Dolphinmania for years. The University of Tampa dropped football last February after 38 seasons, not because of current losses but because of what it expected to lose when the NFL comes in next year.
The proved formula to solve this kind of crisis is a heavy dose of victory, with a side order of fan re-education. Fans do not always realize how good college football is. At USC John McKay gave a deflated budget a transfusion of advanced offensive stylings and victories galore, including four national championships. In no time he had Los Angeles eating out of his hand. "Who ever heard of the University of the Rams?" says McKay.
At a more modest level, the University of Pittsburgh is winning back its fans. And so is Georgia Tech in Atlanta. And Maryland, which sits in the trough between pro-mad Washington and Baltimore. Maryland, under Jerry Claiborne, went to its first bowl in 18 years in 1973.
It is possible that these big-city fans have discovered some basic facts about the college game. That it offers more action—many more plays per game, more diversified offenses, more points. It is possible. But it is probably more basic than that. Probably more to do with the heart than the head. Also the pocketbook. It's usually cheaper to watch the colleges play, as any harassed college business manager would be quick to point out these days. Hold your flowers. College football ain't down yet.