(Reflections of an aging sports writer in an old car)
By BUDDY MARTIN
As I point the nose of my six-year-old white SUV toward Gainesville for the Florida Gators’ 2013 opener against Toledo, I am wondering: Has college football become a ticking time bomb or a golden cash cow?
This will be somewhere around my 200th trip to Gainesville and nearly a third again that many road games over the 50-plus seasons I’ve ventured out to write about, talk about, or just watch and cheer for my school’s team.
It also occurs to me as I enter deep into the second half-century of covering college football that I’ve got about the same number of miles on me as my 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe, which has toured every city in the Southeastern Conference.
So while enjoying this annual rite of passage, the 136,000 miles on my odometer looks — and feels — very familiar. What doesn’t feel familiar is a deep concern for the game I so dearly love.
I fear the apocalyptic forecast that my friend coach/friend made this summer:
“In ten years there won’t be anymore college football.”
Odd, to hear that, isn’t it, as the game appears to be flourishing at its absolutely zenith of popularity? But the rain of money, the inability to fairly govern the game and a proliferation of social media snipers have exacerbated all the problems. And as the most famous college player in history has proven to us, when pop culture meets athletic celebrity, the game eats its young.
Let’s get this on the table right now, however: While everybody seems to enjoy cheering over the dead body of the BCS, albeit antiquated and exclusionary, we who root for the SEC must admit that the system has served us well in the past seven seasons. Especially Alabama and Florida fans, whose team owns four of those national championships.
So what’s so bad about the BCS? we ask.
Even so, as we switched on the South Carolina-North Carolina opener Thursday night, won by the Gamecocks, 27-10, there was this marvelous anticipation of another football season – all the joy the overriding most angst and aggravation.
Conflicted, however, about our desire to see Johnny Manziel playing this weekend and this season, yet outraged at the hypocrisy of the NCAA.
What a conundrum! Whether to penalize their own Johnny Moneymaker with a major suspension or pretend that the game’s integrity is intact and allow him to play on. Really?
We all knew the NCAA didn’t have the balls to neuter the biggest game of the regular season – of several regular seasons — and DQ Manziel Sept. 14 when the No. 1 ranked, back-to-back champion Crimson Tide rolls into College Station.
Benching him down for 30 minutes wasn’t even a slap on the pinky, let alone the wrist. The punishment sounds like a recipe for pilaf: One half against Rice.
They won’t like this in Columbus or Los Angeles, or wherever the NCAA has wreaked havoc, but the money explosion has dictated these days that the show must go on, regardless. Anything short of an axe murdering will only get you a parking ticket.
Who owns Manziel’s image and signature, anyway? And why was the NCAA so nervous about the alleged signing-for-dollars incident after which the 2012 HeismanTrophy winner was interrogated for six hours — the NCAA’s version of a Guantanamo waterboarding? With absence of proof, what they extracted was a plea bargain.
Manziel, from a privileged background, rode a comet to white-hot fame; consumed by his celebrity and now the poster boy for college football player capitalism.
Meanwhile, we’re still debating where the athletes should be doled out tip money.
* * *
Cash is king in college football and the alliance between the game and the ABC/ESPN cartel, as so poignantly illustrated in a recent New York Times article. At the same time, the lust for gold is shattering the game’s very foundation.
No doubt the decision in 2006 to allow teams to play 12 regular season games increased padding of schedules with cupcakes and damaged, or eliminated, long-time rivalries. Fattening up with those W’s allows schools to continue gouging fans for tickets, parking and contributions. But the money doesn’t trickle down.
Meanwhile, elite athletes from an economically challenged backgrounds now caught up in a swirling mass of testosterone-driven competition, are paradoxically driven by the lure of NFL riches. At the same time, most of them too broke to afford a pizza or a movie on a weekend date night.
Millions, of not billions of dollars, are up for grabs. Lucrative television contracts for college football and basketball have genetically altered the landscape and are drawing a sharp line between the haves and have-nots.
Splintered conferences with geographical misnomers. Abandoned rivalries that once fueled Saturday’s passion parades. High-stakes flesh markets that seed corruption and contempt for integrity in the system.
Mid-level programs — and even larger ones — threatened by money-grabbing super conferences and scrambling to find an alliance with a playoff sanctioned-league like they were in a game of musical chairs. To think that for a fleeting moment Kansas — Kansas, one of America’s premier basketball schools! — was momentarily hung out to dry when the Big 12 was nearly dissolved.
Those are only minor tremors compared to what may lie ahead. Many feel that player-revolt is breeding and organized bargaining on their part is inevitable.
Therefore unrest is festering among the rank-and-file and even some of the so-called establishment members are starting to line up behind them. Can rebellion be far off?
* * *
At SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama recently, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier delivered his own version of the Magna Carta on behalf of his fellow coaching Barons. Spurrier stumped for more player benefits, calling for the conference hierarchy (Commissioner Mike Slive) to govern under a new set of financial guidelines and allow payment of $300 per game for player expense money.
Spurrier cited a unanimous straw poll among his conference peers, 14-0, by both football and basketball coaches. If the league or schools didn’t want to pay it, Spurrier claimed, the coaches would be willing to take it out of their own pockets.
The Gamecocks coach made it a point to tell the media in Hoover not to make it sound like “pay for play — just some expense money.”
This was not the first time Spurrier had presented his case. On several occasions in the last year when the opportunity presented itself, he tweaked the overlords about not sharing in some of the embarrassment of riches.
Meanwhile, Spurrier’s stipend has gained support from many coaches, though not as many athletic directors or school presidents. The Head Ball Coach isn’t going to let go of it.
”I’m hoping President Obama gets behind it,” Spurrier told me. “Let’s be honest about it: Most of these kids come from African-American families and many of the parents don’t even have the money to come to a game and see their kid play.”
Yet another person suggested that we watch closely for a leader to emerge from NFL Players Union.
There is even a more bizarre scenario floating out there among coaches that, if implemented, could bring the game to a standstill at the worst possible moment.
Consider, if you will, two college teams counting down the final 48 hours toward a national championship game under an expanded eight-team playoff — say, undefeated Oregon and Ohio State — at the peak of the game’s popularity, with a billion or so dollars or the line.
Theoretically, hundreds of millions of fans around the world poised for what will be the largest audience ever to see a football game.
”And,” theorized an attorney/coach close to the game, “two hours before the game the captains of the two teams send word to the networks, school presidents and coaches that they will not take the field unless an agreement is signed to pay the players.”
Now Spurrier’s $300 stipend would look like chump change.
* * *
In the year he took off coaching to work at ESPN, Urban Meyer said he came to realize that with the popularity of college football “comes incredible scrutiny, incredible money.” He believes it’s inevitable that players will receive some kind of stipend, but that it might be at the expense of other sports in schools.
Then there is the safety issue. Some mommas and daddies, horrified by what they read and hear about NFL players turning into vegetables after so many concussions, appear to be steering their sons toward soccer but were perhaps relieved a little by the NFL’s $765 million settlement over the concussion suit.
The threat of serious head injury, however, is still there.
So is the game safe anymore?
Meyer says “the concussion issue is real, the safety issue is real” but he told me he feels with the measures being taken now and proper oversight and coaching are making it better.
The Ohio State coach has a son playing eighth grade football and feels so strongly about the game taking measures to insure safety that he made a video about it with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“I’m proud as anything (of Nate) and I’m very involved in making sure they’re teaching it the right way, ” say Meyer.
“But it’s a very critical era of college football.”
* * *
Counting five books and nearly 35 seasons covering the Gators professionally over more than the last half decade, I figure in the next few months I will be passing the million-words mark in writing about Florida football.
As I step into the press box Saturday that has been my observation platform for so many decades and hunker down for yet another season, I wonder what may lie ahead. Theunpredictability of college football, however, is why I love it so.
As for the current state of Florida Gator football, this from the latest updated version of my book, The Boys From Old Florida. (Skyhorse Publishing, see below.)
“Few programs have enjoyed the prosperity of Florida since 1990. Whether it will gain or lose momentum under Muschamp remains to be seen, but Florida did experience another banner recruiting season for 2013.
“Perhaps the interest in Gator football has just peaked with the unprecedented run of coaches Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer, and Will Muschamp combining for 218 wins, including eight SEC titles and three national championships.
“Remarkably, despite seven straight national championships, the powerful SEC was tinkering with ideas of how to bolster attendance in the 2013 season because nine of the 14 had lost attendance.
“No matter, The Boys From Old Florida play on and they still have the biggest show around these parts. Traditions have been advanced for generations to come.
“And there was a measure of optimism in Gator Nation, despite some stumbles along the way and more late staff changes in mid-2013.
“We may have already experienced the Golden Age of Gator football — a veritable feast — not to be confused with the Golden Era of Gator football, which it was not.
“Fair warning to Muschamp and all future Gator coaches, however: Now that fans know what’s attainable, they will continue to grow less tolerable. Even though the song purports, ‘in all kinds of weather…’”
* * *
Though the 37-mile drive from Ocala to Gainesville on US Highway 441 through Orange Lake-Micanopy-McIntosh is still one of my favorites, I depart this year a bit apprehensively. But it is more about the future of the game than over the concerns of Will Muschamp’s team in 2013, which, by the way, looks pretty good. My forecast?
With outstanding defense, a green wide receiver corps and a quarterback still with a bit of on-the-job-training to learn, I see this team losing at least twice — Georgia or South Carolina being one of them and a loss at LSU the other — but getting to a final BCS game. But not losing to a Louisville again. With a bowl victory they enjoy another double-digit-plus win season.
Back when I first started covering Florida football, that would have been enough for a ticker tape parade. Today, it’s just another day at the office. But a good day at the office.
(For information on how to order your autographed copy of the updated version of “The Boys From Old Florida,” email Buddy at firstname.lastname@example.org.)