Thursday, July 30, 2009

Book review - Fifty Year Seduction

Following on from my post about recent scheduling trends, I want to consider the question of revenue. The gears of my mind started turning recently after noticing one comment responding to a column by Senator Orin Hatch. The comment asked what business the Mountain West had telling the Big XII etc. what to do with ‘their money’?

This notion got me thinking about the question of revenue. Where does college football revenue come from, who generates it, how is it shared and why? Most importantly for this blog - how did we get there?

In all the BCS controversy over the last half-year the whole national championship game discussion has been a red herring. The BCS is primarily a revenue sharing system. The #1 vs. #2 title game is the lipstick on the revenue sharing pig.

I have not found any source as informative on all these questions as Keith Dunnavant’s book The Fifty Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS. I consider it to be required reading for any informed football fan. It is a meticulously researched and fabulously detailed eye-opener.

Dunnavant takes the story back to the NCAA's growth from a tiny organization with a handful of employees. He shows how completely dependent it originally was on football revenue. The annual TV contract, run as an absolute monopoly, was negotiated centrally and sold to the highest bidder. The money was shared equally among division one schools. Only one game a week was televised. Fans had no choice and the most popular programs had no independent access to TV rights and coverage.

As college football grew in scale this relationship began to tear. The first major change came with the division 1 spilt in 1978. But the more prominent football powers were still not satisfied. Some, like Notre Dame with their long established national radio following, chafed under the system. They felt that they could generate far more alone, trading on their own mystique and appeal, than by relying on collective bargaining power to drive up prices.

After years of discontent and discussion, the landmark 1984 Supreme Court ruling Board of Regents vs. NCAA smashed the monopoly. The enormous slate of televised football we have today is the result. But initially, the glut of available products depressed the market. For over a decade reduced prices and starving athletic departments fought to recover the golden goose they had seemingly slaughtered with the monopoly. Dunnavant locates the creation of the BCS within this process, showing how worried and hurting schools with massive football-driven athletics departments replaced one monopoly with another.

My summary cannot possibly do Dunnavant’s work justice. He goes into detail as to how ABC created modern TV football coverage. He reveals intricate human stories as to how deals were cut, and why. Most importantly, he writes with nuance, intelligence and impartiality. No doubt many readers would take the insightful detail in the book and view the story differently than I do. The bottom line is, this is an invaluably informative work. However the reader feels about TV revenue, the NCAA and the BCS, this is a must read.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


There has recently been a lot of chatter regarding scheduling. It is an increasing trend for supposed power-house programs to line up less-than tantalizing non-conference slates of all home fixtures against multifarious current and former 1-AA sacrificial lambs. A recent rant by Jay Christensen (a.k.a the Wiz of Odds) on the In The Bleachers podcast got me wondering exactly how recent this trend is.

In 1978, NCAA football's top division split into 1-A and 1-AA. Big-time football schools felt shackled by their long-standing marriage to an equal number of much smaller programs. Each school possessed one vote in all matters, regardless of revenue or scale of operations. Big-time football schools felt that they needed different rules and organization for the very different requirements of high-revenue big-time ball. Many of the smaller colleges saw the split as an attempt by the big boys to starve their programs to death.

But how far was the 1978 split truly a divorce? Exactly how often did these big fish and their minnow bed fellows play against one another?

All the data for this post is taken from a survey of the game's major powers in the modern era. I define that as schools with more than one AP national championship since 1950. Those schools are Oklahoma, Texas, Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State, Penn State, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, LSU, Florida State*, Miami, Nebraska and Michigan (who I included because they're Michigan, even though their 1997 championship is amazingly their only AP crown since 1950. They just kept finding ways to lose the Rose Bowl when it really mattered).

I looked for the number of games these teams played against schools which have spent more than a decade of the modern era below college football's top division. That includes schools who began in division 1 but moved down sometime after 1978, as well as schools who have risen to division 1-A from a lower level. It also includes several now discontinued programs such as Wichita State, Pacific etc. who went straight from the top division into non-existence.

The following graph indicates the number of games played between top-tier programs and smaller schools when both teams were technically competing at the same level. For example, Alabama vs. Wichita State in 1979 - WSU continued as a 1-A school until dropping football in 1986; Texas vs. UNT in 1992 - North Texas only moved up to 1-A in 1982; and Miami vs. Florida International in 2007 - FIU moved up to 1-A in 2005 and only began football in 2002.

I dropped the 1950s from this graph because the results were skewed by the fact that the three Florida schools did not really grow into major powers until after that decade. After the 1950s no decade contained a total of more than 22 games between the major programs and these smaller opponents. Until this one...

Not a pretty sight.

A more recent trend has been for division 1-A schools to play current 1-AA members. After 1978 such games did not count towards the necessary win total for bowl eligibility. That rule changed in 1998 after an NCAA amendment was proposed by the Big XII and adopted.

That this rule should come from the Big XII is interesting. Neither Oklahoma nor Texas had ever played a game with a team then competing in a lower division. With the exception of a few games against the South Dakota schools in the early 60s and one fixture with Middle Tennessee in 1993 (MTSU moved to 1-A in 1999) neither had Nebraska. Obviously some Big XII powers hoped to clear the way for some serious resume padding. And the giants of the SEC were only too happy to vote for the move.

From the divisional split in 1978 to the adoption of the bowl eligibility measure in 1998 no single season contained more than two games between major powers and a team then competing in 1-AA ball. More than half of those years contain none at all. Then this happened...

Inexcusable cowardice.

Seven games in one season between schools with more than one national championship and programs with twenty less scholarships competing a division below. If that doesn't make you change the channel, either your alma mater is involved or you've dozed off.

For more context, the following graph shows games between the major powers and schools then competing in a lower division by decade.

Not for the feint of heart.

The other regrettable recent trend is the number of big programs refusing to sign home-and-home series for non-conference games. This is tied to the declining value of the average September fare because obviously better opponents will only sign contracts to play return fixtures. So now we have Notre Dame, the historic giant of the game known for its many inter-sectional rivalries against other big boys, playing one-and-done home fixtures against Nevada - a school which only moved to 1-A ball in 1992.

I wondered how far back the trend of playing an unbalanced home slate went. I counted every season the big boys played six or more home games in a ten games season, or seven or more in an eleven or twelve game season since 1950. The figures were skewed somewhat by the fact that Michigan has apparently played more home fixtures than away since the dawn of time, and Florida and Tennessee are almost as travel shy. By comparison Texas, Notre Dame, USC and Oklahoma played a combined four seasons with a home-away imbalance prior to 1999!

Since then...

"Oh no, we can't travel. What about our precious revenue?"

Apparently, we are now told, home revenue is so vital that big football schools cannot possibly play less than seven, usually eight home games. This is clearly nonsense. For one thing, a decent one-and-done opponent will now run you over $1 million. That's what Clemson is paying TCU this September. Even your local UT. Chattanooga will claim around $750,000 for the eight touchdowns they guarantee your future Heisman winning QB Sam Bradford. Furthermore, how did all these schools ever make ends meet before this decade on only six home games?

What has happened to college football in the last decade?

For one thing, the 2002 move to the 12 game schedule has been a total joke. People love college ball because its amatuerism encapsulates the very essense of competition for its own sake. The 12th game has universally been used to add a cheap win to the record and fill athletic department coffers through $85 bleacher tickets for a 58-0 win over East Podunk State U. Whenever anyone talks about playoffs to improve the game ADs and Presidents complain about "too many games," yet they added an extra one already this decade for no competitive reason whatsoever. How about dropping the 12th games as part of post-season reform? Are there any greedy coaches and administrators brave enough for that?

I see two main issues that require reform. Firstly, the rule allowing one win per season against a 1-A opponent to count towards bowl eligibility should be scrapped. It's an indefensible joke. If 12 games is too many, play 11. If you need the revenue, then man up and actually play someone. There's no need to offend your fans and waste precious transmitter space that could be better spent on Saturday afternoon made-for-TV movies.

The Wiz of Odds goes as far as to suggest that teams playing a 1-A opponent should be disqualified from the national title game. That seems fair to me. This season's favorite is the Mighty Gators. Is it really necessary for Tim "second coming" Tebow and pals to beat the living snot out of Charleston Southern? Why not just stay home and have a nap instead? Oh yeah, revenue...

Secondly, the problem is the BCS. Defenders of our current nightmare system claim it is a better way to determine a genuine national champion than the previous regime. I actually disagree. Sure, the BCS guarantees a #1 vs. #2 matchup, but those teams won't necessarily actually be the first and second best. Generally they are just the two undefeated or one-loss schools from the fancied conferences.

The AP poll actually does several things the current BCS formula does not. For one thing, it recognizes the value of a quality loss. Look back over the records of former AP national champions. You'll find the 1975 Sooners with a 3-23 loss to Kansas, the 1966 Irish and their famous "tie one for the gipper" game with Michigan State, 1977 Notre Dame who lost 13-20 AT Mississippi (will ND ever go to Oxford again?), the 1978 Crimson Tide who lost at home to USC, the 1967 Trojans who lost a game at Oregon State, the 1970 Huskers who tied a game 20-20 with USC...

The BCS format elevates the golden record of 13-0 above everything else, so that beating up on Florida Atlantic is a better bet than testing your manhood against Southern Cal. Here are a few random samples of the non-conference slates played by previous AP national champions.

1978 Crimson Tide: Nebraska and USC at home, Washington and Missouri away.

1963 Longhorns: Navy and OU in Dallas, Tulane and Oklahoma State at home.

1975 Sooners: Oregon and Pitt at home, Miami away and Texas in Dallas.

1993 Seminoles: ND and Kansas away, Florida and Miami home.

According to all the pundits this year's champion will likely come from among Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, Penn State or USC. Leaving aside the ever fearless Trojans, the non-conference offering of this pack consists of Idaho State, Tulsa, BYU, Miami, Louisiana Monroe, UTEP, Wyoming, Central Florida, Charleston Southern, Troy, Florida International, FSU, Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois.

There are a few good games in that list. Oklahoma playing BYU and Miami is certainly a cut above the rest. But shame on Penn State who made a late dash to sign TCU but were turned down because they refused a home-and-home. And on Texas and Wisconsin who flirted with each other but chickened out.

So this September, while you're flicking through the dial looking for something other than a ten touchdown home romp to watch, think about this. Before 1998 the average schedule of a major college football power consisted of all home-and-home series against equally weighted division 1 programs. Unless you cheer for Florida or Tennessee, you might never have seen your alma mater play a significantly smaller program in your life before the last ten years.

When you're at home watching Nebraska opening at home with Florida Atlantic, think back to better days, when Bud Wilkinson's Sooners volunteered for losses against Frank Leahey's Fighting Irish, or John McKay's Trojans butted heads with the Bear's Tide because they could.

And if you don't like what we have now, thank the BCS and your local athletic director's general lack of guts.

*(FSU only started football in 1947 and their first 15 years are not representative of what the program is now. Their schedules before 1965 totally skewed my data so I omitted them).

(Sources: national champions; John Underwood, NCAA spilt decisions;;; All graphs by Prolate Spheroid)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Air II

According to the 2000 U.S. census, the population of tiny, rural Mount Olive, Miss. is a whopping 893. It was about the same in 1973, when Lucille McNair bore her husband Selma a second son. They named him Steven. The better part of half-a-hundred of those townsfolk were directly related to Steve and lived within a pigskin toss’ radius of his humble home. The family was far from affluent, but growing up with three brothers, numerous cousins and plenty of space Steve never wanted for entertainment. The boys played endless games of baseball, basketball, and football with all comers.

Life got harder when Steve’s father left in 1981. His older brother Fred, then thirteen, had to grow up fast. As the younger boys looked up to him he led the way through high school and onto college. Steve followed his brother Fred every step, gladly learning from his experience and coaching in ball games as in life. And at every stage he seemed to surpass his friend and idol. The nickname “Air McNair” first attached itself to Fred as quarterback of Mt. Olive High, though Steve would later assume it and make it famous. Fred’s High School career attracted enough attention to earn a scholarship at Alcron State, the historically black college located in Lorman, south-west Mississippi. Steve took his prep career to a new level. He played both quarterback and safety for four years, leading Mt. Olive to a state championship as a junior. He notched fifteen interceptions as a senior, making a state record career total of thirty.

While Steve attracted attention from major colleges across the south, Fred worked hard to earn the starting job at Alcorn. He finally took over as the Braves' signal-caller as a fifth-year senior in 1989, throwing for 1,898 yards and 14 touchdowns. That performance earned him a place at training camp with the Dallas Cowboys, but he did not make the final roster. Fred spent the next four years bouncing around the Canadian Football League. During those same years Steve made earning and keeping the quarterback job at Alcorn look easy.

McNair had no shortage of scholarship offers. Miami and Mississippi State pushed especially
hard. But without fail, every coach steered the Super Prep Magazine All-American towards a collegiate career on the defensive side of the ball. In fairness to them, McNair had excelled at safety. Prep defensive-back stars transfer to successful college players far more often than quarterbacks, especially those coming out of tiny schools. But Steve believed he could play quarterback. He wanted to be like his brother. More importantly, he wanted to win. He had the drive and desire to be in command. He didn’t want less gifted players controlling the fate of his team in the offensive backfield while he watched helpless from the sidelines. Jackie Sherrill and Dennis Erickson did not share McNair’s confidence. The Uncle of a Mt. Olive High teammate told a Sports Illustrated reporter in the frankest terms:

“The thing is, Steve wanted to play quarterback. And to do that round here, a black kid has to go to a black school.”

So Steve “Air II” McNair went to play for first-year head coach Cardell Jones at Alcorn in 1991. It took him less than a quarter to assume the starting role he would not relinquish until graduation. It took only 60 minutes to prove the South’s elite college coaches wrong. In the Braves’ annual season opener against cross-river rivals Grambling State – the greatest black college program of all time, coached by the legendry Eddie Robinson – an unintimidated McNair led his team from behind in the fourth quarter to win 27-22.

Alcorn’s first two possessions sputtered and disgruntled locals began calling for Fred McNair’s kid brother. Jones had already been amazed by the freshman in fall camp. McNair went 9-of-9 for a TD in his first contact scrimmage. Jones made the best decision of his career in his inaugural game as head coach. He gave Air II a shot. His reward came immediately in the form of a touchdown. McNair added two more, along with 230 yards. By the end of that first game there was no doubting the talent Alcorn had on its hands. Those performances continued every week, every season.

As the truly great athletes always do, McNair played his best against the best. When McNair matriculated, W. C. Gordon’s Jackson State Tigers had been Southwest Athletic Conference champion nine times in the preceding eleven years. They had beaten in-state rival Alcorn in the traditional season finale fifteen of the last twenty. McNair delivered four straight victories by ever increasing margins. His freshmen year the Braves squeaked a two-point win. The next year it was seven, then nine. As a senior, McNair embarrassed the hated rivals 52-34. Larry Dorsey, who took over from Gordon in 1992, acknowledged before the 1994 season:

“I don’t have a clue how to stop him.”

Performances against Grambling were equally memorable. As a sophomore McNair sprained his ankle and needed help to reach the locker room. The Braves were losing, had not reached the end zone, were on the road, and their star was hurt. The outlook was bleak. McNair came out for the second half, threw three touchdowns, and ran for a late game-winning score with a visible limp. Alcorn won 35-33. The following year, he threw for 268 in the first half alone. With the game tied 35-35 at half time McNair pleaded with his defense to give more and promised his team he would lead them to victory. He passed for 217 yards in the second half, totaled five TD passes on the day, and also ran for 99 yards and a score. Two other certain touchdown passes were dropped, one with only seconds remaining. The Braves lost 62-56.

Alcorn offensive coordinator Ricky Taylor summed up McNair’s skills as succinctly as anyone. He told a reporter:

“He’s perfect.”

He had a strong case. McNair racked up 758 rushing yards with 16 touchdowns and threw for 6,436 with 53 scores in his first two seasons alone. He added 23 more TDs through the air and eight on the ground as a junior. These performances were incredible enough to garner serious Heisman talk, making McNair the first player at a historically black college to even be considered for the trophy. No player before or since at a division I-AA school [never mind one with an enrollment of only 3,300] has attracted so much national attention.

McNair summarized his obscurity best. He told the New York Times before his senior year:

“I’m just Steve the country boy from Mount Olive. There are about 900 people there; there were 42 in my high school class. I guess Lorman has about 300.”

That year McNair passed for 5,799 yards in 11 games – a divssion I-AA record. Over four seasons he averaged 400 yards passing per game - then an NCAA record. He totaled 928 completions on 1,673 attempts for 16,823 yards and 119 touchdowns – also a I-AA record. Not a few of his 58 interceptions could fairly be blamed on receivers, though he certainly never did. How could Heisman voters ignore him? Junior running back Rashaan Salaam of Colorado, one of only a handful of elite college backs to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, won the award. But McNair gained 655 voting points and polled third. For a small-town quarterback at an unfancied, tiny land-grant school in an unfancied state, third place practically is winning the Heisman.

McNair should have won. He deserved it. Pro-scouts salivated over him the way college recruiters ought to have done. He had always believed he could play quarterback at any level and set out to test himself at college. He passed the test on his first possession and proved it was no fluke in every game for four years. But at a school like Alcorn he simply didn’t have the skill around him to go all the way. As a sophomore and senior McNair delivered SWAC championships, but the Braves went out of the playoffs first round both times.

Regardless, McNair was the best at any level. If Heisman voters weren’t quite convinced, the NFL was. He went as the third overall pick to the Houston Oilers in the 1995 draft. His pro career lived up to every expectation. In 2000, he came within inches of being the second black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

This play brought the Titans within a yard of a PAT for overtime or two points for the win

At the time of writing the circumstances of McNair’s death remain unclear. Even if they were fully know it is not for me to discuss or comment. I can only say that such deaths are always a sad waste. Steve McNair will leave many legacies to many people, no doubt. Of all the things he was, college quarterback does not rank as the most significant. But let there be no mistake: he was a great one.

(Sources: SI, 1992 Offensive POY; Tim Crothers, Loyal to his roots; S. L. Price, Air McNair; McNair, Wiki;, bio; ajc, McNair’s death; AP, McNair & Alcorn; Thomas George, NYT, Halo over Alcorn;