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Inside the Huddle: College Football Ventures Into the Red Zone


Conference realignment and adjacent marketing deals threaten the foundation of college athletics.

Don McPherson uses the power and appeal of sport to address complex social issues. With testimony before the US Congress and national media appearances, including Oprah, Don McPherson is a highly recognized leader and voice on sports and social issues. He was a unanimous All-America quarterback at Syracuse University and is a veteran of the NFL and Canadian Football League. In 2008 McPherson was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Read more about Don at his site,

Forty-five minutes before my final college football game at Syracuse University, we accepted a bid to play in the Sugar Bowl. It was an amazing culmination of an undefeated season. At least, we were undefeated at that point. We were 10-0, ranked #6 in the nation and about to face a very good West Virginia team (that would go undefeated in the following season). WVU needed the win to become "bowl eligible." They had future College Hall of Fame quarterback Major Harris and a very tough defense. Our team boasted the eventual consensus Coach of the Year, four All Americans, three finalist-for-position awards, and I was the consensus All America quarterback who won every major player award and was second in the Heisman Trophy voting.

It was a Saturday night game and it was not on television.

We beat WVU and remained undefeated. ESPN picked up the final 41 seconds of the game as we came from behind to preserve our storybook season. Still we ended #4 in the polls. It was the beginning of the nation's dissatisfaction with media and coaches polls determining the national championship in college football. Today virtually every college football game is televised, on multiple media platforms. College football is enjoying billions of dollars in revenue. And, still there's no exact formula to determine a national champion.

Each year the drum beat gets louder as college football pundits and stakeholders criticize the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and consider a way towards a true national champion.

This insatiable quest will change the course of college sports, placing in jeopardy the very foundation of its appeal; the "assumed" altruistic pursuit of competition and altruism.

For more than two decades the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has worked to maintain the underlying goals of higher education against the commercialization of college sports. Formed in 1989, the Knight Commission successfully highlighted and emboldened the role of college presidents over the burgeoning business of college sports. But, while fingers were pointed at the most egregious violators of NCAA rules, most college presidents played the free market and have incrementally ushered in a new college-sports horizon. Conference re-alignment and the TV and the adjacent marketing deals are expanding the business of college sports in a way that will not only compromise the integrity of athletics in higher education, but impact the industry of sports across the board.

I've experienced the business of sports and, in particular, college sports from almost every possible perspective. In 2008, I was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame for my days at Syracuse University. Following a seven-year professional football career, I worked in higher education for 16 years, consulted with the NCAA on student-athlete issues, and have lectured on more than 150 college campuses. I've been a college football analyst with ESPN (DIS) and XM-Sirius (SIRI) satellite radio. I've also been involved in two major capital campaigns and am acutely aware of how the tentacles of athletics reach an entire institution.

In every corner of higher education and the collegiate sports world, the genie is out of the bottle. College sports is big business and the tenants of academic pursuits and amateur athletics have given way to decreasing enrollments, public funds, and alumni contributions. A successful sports program can market an institution far beyond its budget.

In professional sports, no league comes close to the National Football League (NFL) for its aggressive forethought and business acumen. In many ways the NFL sets the trends. Similarly, in college sport, football, as they say, drives the bus. And, although we've seen the recent sanctions levied against the University of Southern California (USC) as evidence of "what's wrong with college sports" and the subsequent NCAA remedies, the system is changing...and football is the driving force.

For many years, as so many clamored about the BCS and the lack of a playoff system in college football, I have maintained the only way for it to happen is if the top 60 or so schools leave the NCAA to form their own league. They'll completely secede, bringing their women's and Olympic sports, or they'll seek amnesty from NCAA rules for football (and eventually basketball). Either way, they'll no longer be beholden to NCAA governance that impedes an institution's prerogative on how they build and operate their program. Further, as conferences realign, they'll gain more regional control of television rights and other merchandising deals.

But, don't expect current stakeholders to go silently. The United States Congress' Committee on Energy and Commerce will weigh in on conference realignment and the revenue it pursues. Further , Men's and Women's Basketball and their lucrative tournament will also weigh in. In fact, Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim has already made his position known, directly on stating:

"And it's ironic that basketball raises 90% of the money for the NCAA, and football's making all these decisions. It's amazing really when you think about it."

They have...and he's right. Basketball serves the NCAA well and vice versa, but not so well for football. That's because of the bowl system and lack of a tournament/playoff for football. Also, the decision for realignment being made due to revenue opportunities will certainly raise eyebrows with women's sports, bringing Title IX claims, and student-athletes will begin to ask, "Where's my cut?"

Despite the many obstacles, the process of realignment is in full motion. And, with the expanding possibilities presented by the digital media age, college football has ventured into the red zone of a new college-sports landscape.

Personally, I think realignment is a bad decision. Amateurism, academy, and age-old rivalries are the backbone of college sports and its appeal. The implications of pursuing a national championship and television dollars in the face of the altruism of higher education is a selling of the soul. But, I've been wrong before. I never thought Auburn would kick a field goal from the six-yard line to tie us in the Sugar Bowl.
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