The $7 million coach with waterfalls in his locker room is worried. The league with a smashing success of a television network and the best brand name in college football is sounding the alarm. The big, bad Southeastern Conference — which used to flaunt its seven consecutive national titles and dare the rest of the country to catch up — is suddenly on the run.
Go ahead and change the SEC’s name to Conference LPF — as in Level Playing Field. Because after one day of the league’s annual spring meetings, that now appears to be the mantra of a group of football coaches who simply do not understand the new normal of college athletics.
Just a year ago, it was the SEC leading the charge for the five power conferences to gain autonomy over certain NCAA rules, even floating the threat of a breakaway to form their own division. Now that world is here, and the unintended consequences have Alabama’s Nick Saban and his brethren whining like multi-millionaires who expected their private plane to be stocked with Ace of Spades and instead only got a bottle of Dom Perignon.
“Let me say this in general about all rules, whether it’s transfer rules or camp rules or any rules: We need to have the same rules in the big five in all the leagues,” Saban said Tuesday. “If we’re going to compete for the championship and everybody is going to play in the playoff system and everybody’s going to compete for that, we need to get our rules in alignment so we’re all on a level playing field.
“These things need to be global, otherwise we’re going to become a farm system for all the other leagues.”
If you need to read that last sentence again, go ahead because it is shocking in its disengagement from reality. And yet, it came directly out of the mouth of a coach who has won four national titles, reeled in five consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes and works at a school that spends more on football than anyone in the country
As the SEC holds its meetings this week, a few issues are simmering in college sports that showcase why autonomy was not going to be the be-all, end-all solution for school in the cash-rich Power Five. While characterizing autonomy as a way to solve the divide between haves and have-nots made for good media fodder, the much bigger issue was always going to be the philosophical divide between the haves and have-mores.
Take so-called satellite camps, for instance. The SEC doesn’t like them because it allows schools from the Midwest — Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, specifically — to have a bigger recruiting presence in the South. The Big Ten, which doesn’t have as many talented players in its geographic footprint, wants the ability to keep doing them. (SEC incoming commissioner Greg Sankey said the league will propose a national rule to mimic the SEC’s.)
This spring, three SEC coaches who haven’t named starting quarterbacks — Saban, Georgia’s Mark Richt and Florida’s Jim McElwain — were unable to successfully recruit Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson, in part because it would have taken a waiver of an SEC rule to get him eligible.
And then there’s the entire cost of attendance issue, which has coaches up in arms because players at Tennessee and Auburn will be getting stipends of more than $5,500 while Georgia’s players get around $3,200 based on how each school’s financial aid office calculates estimated costs above tuition, room and board.
“Big-picture wise, I mean even in the NFL they have a salary cap,” Saban said. “You can’t create a system that, really, can almost promote fraud. But when we don’t have a cap that makes it equal for everyone, it’s really going to go against all the things we’ve tried to do in the NCAA in terms of having parity for players in what you’re allowed to give them.
“This is an issue, to me, that is completely different than anything else we’ve had to deal with. I’m all for the players getting more. I always have been. I’ve always promoted it. I still think that is important that we improve the quality of life. There’s just some unforeseen consequences of this that may affect the competitive balance we’ve always tried to keep relative to college football.”
Saban, of course, failed to mention the unforeseen consequences of paying a coach $7 million or whether it would promote a level playing field to cap coaching salaries at $3 million so that Mississippi State doesn’t also become a “farm system” for schools like Alabama.
What Saban doesn’t understand — and he’s far from the only one in his profession, by the way — is that the days of pining for a level playing field are over. The moment the last round of television deals were signed, creating an entirely new financial ecosystem for schools in the five power conferences, there was no longer a way to contain the market forces we’re seeing play out now.
Remember when everyone made fun of the NCAA (and deservedly so) for the rule that, in essence, allowed schools to provide players with bagels but not cream cheese? Well, the idea behind that rule wasn’t really about cream cheese. It was about limiting what one school could provide so that it wouldn’t put another at a disadvantage.
The entire wave of autonomy was supposed to rid the NCAA of that notion, but it’s much easier for coaches to accept in theory than in reality — even in a conference that has pretty much every advantage known to man.
“We all have to adjust to a new foundation or basis for legislation, and when it’s no longer (about) level playing field and it’s about kids, it’s about students, you’re going to end up with differentials we’re all going to have to learn to live with,” outgoing SEC commissioner Mike Slive said.
Still, when you tell a coach he can’t do something that a coach in another conference can do, you get the kind of nonsense that came out of the SEC meetings on Tuesday. Given the immense pressure and media scrutiny of everything in this conference, sometimes coaches just can’t see the bigger picture.
“Are we playing by a different set of rules than, say, the Pac-12 or the Big Ten?” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “I think we need, as college football in general, to make sure we’re all on the same playing field.”
But why? And what does that really look like?
This is not the NFL, which shares revenue, negotiates a salary cap with a players union and hires a commissioner to make decisions. This is college football, which has 128 independent operators in the Football Bowl Subdivision governed by different academic standards, athletic missions and state laws.
If you want to let the players unionize and collectively bargain every rule, have at it. If you want to take the multi-million dollar windfall schools are about to get from the SEC Network and redistribute it to the rest of the FBS, great. Otherwise, there is no reason Iowa State should feel the need to operate its athletic department the same way as Vanderbilt, just as Alabama does not want to be stopped from doing things Southern Miss can’t afford.
“Every university is different, has different philosophies, traditions, ways of doing things,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I think with the autonomy of that group, we’re going to get closer and closer but to get everybody on the same page like that, I don’t know if it’s possible.”
The SEC has every right and responsibility to do what’s in the best interest of its schools. But even Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze admitted Tuesday that the furor over satellite camps is a “selfish position, somewhat.”
Still, the SEC should be above whining and complaining about level playing fields. This is the conference with the most passionate fans, the best facilities, the top recruits, the highest coaching salaries and now the best media platform with its 1-year old television network.
If Saban can’t make that work, he might as well petition the NCAA to put USC and UCLA in a biosphere. Wouldn’t want those sunny, 70-degree days to sway recruits, now would we?
Source: Dan Wolken/USA Today Sports