If you’ve ever attempted to understand the events that led to World War I, you know you’ve stepped into a mess created by decades of greed, bruised egos, out-of-touch patriarchs, old grievances and a complete lack of sagacity. About 20 million people died during The War to End All Wars, so it’s ridiculous to compare its trajectory with something as trivial as the demise of amateur sports. But it is fair to say that the End of College Football is a mess created by decades of greed, bruised egos, out-of-touch patriarchs, old grievances and a complete lack of sagacity.
What follows is a brief and likely incomplete timeline of how we reached this terrible moment in college sports history.
1979 30,000 Viewers Tune Into the Launch of ESPN
When Bill Rasmussmen realized that Americans did indeed have an appetite for 24-hour sports coverage, he set in motion a series of unfortunate events equatable for when automobiles radically increased the value of oil – college sports was a product, and its value has, thus far, not hit its ceiling.
1991 The SEC Expands to 12 by Adding Arkansas and South Carolina
The SEC was a good football conference in 1991, but in the decade prior to Arkansas and South Carolina’s entry, the SEC had won zero national championships. Programs like Miami and Penn State dominated the landscape. The SEC understood that getting better meant getting better. Though Arkansas and South Carolina have never become powerhouses, both programs helped the conference rake in exposure and capital. The SEC would win three national championships in the 1990s.
1991 NBC Secures Exclusive Television Rights to Notre Dame Football
Some programs are just more valuable than others. NBC realized that gold-helmeted Notre Dame was a lucrative brand, and marketed it as such, positioning the private university with about 8,000 undergrads as college football’s gold standard. The deal enable the Fighting Irish to remain independent of conferences.
1994 The Big 12 Dissolves the SWC and Big 8
When the Big 12 was founded in 1994, it eliminated both the Big 8 and the SWC – the eight members of the former Big Eight Conference joined with the Southwest Conference universities Texas, Texas A&M University, and Texas Tech. Left in the dust were TCU, SMU, and Houston, who would toil in smaller conferences for years. Combining two once powerful conferences into began what is now known as The Power Five.
1996 Steve Spurrier Becomes the First Million Dollar Football Coach
As the popularity of college football grew, so did the value of its commodities. Since the forward-facing asset of College Football Incorporated worked for free, the piles of cash had to be invested somewhere. Spurrier’s million-dollar contract signaled a new shift in the payment structure for amateur athletics, with coaching becoming less about relationships with the university and more about the financial bottomline.
2009 Nick Saban Wins His First National Title With Alabama
Before Nick Saban led the Crimson Tide to a national championship in 2009, college football dynasties were measured in a handful of years. Saban has now participated in eight national championship games and won six championships for Alabama, a program that appears stronger than ever in 2022 – thirteen years of iron-fisted Crimson rule. Alabama’s gravity has pulled a majority of NFL-level talent to the SEC. (Since taking over Alabama in 2007, Nick Saban has produced a 106 NFL Draft picks; the SEC has had 46 first-rounders since 2009.) Saban has carved the SEC into the prep conference for the NFL, leaving other conferences to make bricks without straw.
2011 University of Texas Launches the Longhorn Network
No university takes pride in its self-worth more than Texas, who flipped its conference mates the bird by creating its own broadcast network. Not only has the Longhorn Network failed to make a profit, it put many Big 12 programs in broadcast bind, with Texas petulantly refusing to play nice. The selfishness created a rift in the entire college football community – can one program be bigger than the entire conference? Not wanting to ruffle the Longhorn’s pretty feathers, the Big 12 bent over backwards to accommodate the mad whims of Texas, which eventually rewarded them by suddenly bailing for for the SEC in 2021.
2012 Missouri and Texas A&M Jump to the SEC
Even with the SEC winning on the gridiron and on the balance sheet, there at least existed a measure of harmony between the Power Five conferences. That goodwill evaporated when Missouri and Texas A&M left the Big 12 without two of its major academic campuses and a buttload of fans. Suddenly, the 14-member SEC featured the majority of the most valuable brands in college sports.
2013 Big East Football Calls It Quits
Desperate to remain at the table, the Big East attempted to consolidate power by adding football programs like Memphis, Central Florida, Houston and SMU, Boise State, San Diego and Navy. That plan collapsed, transferring larger assets to the Big 10, Big 12 and ACC while the majority of the remainders formed what would eventually become a threat to the P5 order – The American Athletic.
2014 Four-Team College Football Playoff Era Begins
Seven of eight years, Alabama has made the Playoffs. The year it failed to make the Four, LSU won the title. Five champions have hailed from the SEC. Twice the championship was decided between two SEC programs. It’s obvious that the Power Five leans to the Power of One, and it wasn’t long before the SEC would want more.
2014 The NCAA Grants Autonomy to The Power Five
As the Group of Five grumbled about its lack of representation, the Power Five began to consolidate its power. In 2014, the NCAA agreed to cede the majority of its decision making to Power Five conferences. In essence, the new structure allowed the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 create their own rules, and if other conferences wanted to adopt those rules, well okay.
One of the changes enabled schools to cover the “Cost of Attendance,” which is roughly $4,000 per scholarship player. For P5 schools, such a cost is a pittance. For G5 programs, it represented an enormous dent in budgets already stretched by “the facilities war.” The new policies would open the door to concepts that would become Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) and the opening of the Transfer Portal.
2020 COVID-19 Proves That In-Conference Games Have Most Value
For years, G5 programs and lessor P5s have argued that cross-conference competition was what the fanbase craved. But when COVID-19 pressed many conferences into limiting schedules and playing within conference only, the revenue numbers suggested that big games between conference rivals was what filled the coffers. The idea of “Super Conferences” began to have new value – the bigger the conference, the more conference games that can be played. Why even entertain the prerequisite four non-con matchups if more cash can be made by keeping 100% of the broadcast on one conference?
2021 SEC Poaches Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12
In a move that stunned everybody in the College Football Community, Texas and Oklahoma elected to demolish the natural order of things by joining the SEC, demoting the Big 12 to Power 5.b status. While the shift was seismic for nearly everyone, the path seemed to have two forks: one led to the American absorbing the Big 12’s remaining assets, and the other had the Big 12 filling holes with Group of Five standouts.
The universe chose the latter, with the Big 12 accepting UCF, Cincinnati, BYU and Houston into its bosom. Meanwhile, Conference USA found itself poached by a desperate AAC and its old rival, the Sun Belt while the MAC and Mountain West weathered the storm.
2022 NIL and the Transfer Portal Shift the Paradigm Over the Precipice
COVID-19 suddenly made it necessary to compensate player for busted seasons. The NCAA reacted by widening the transfer portal, enabling athletes to transfer without sitting a season. Meanwhile, NIL legislation was passed in 2021, transferring ownership of name, image and likeness back to the athletes.
The problem with NIL is that the rules are wide open. Nothing prevents a car dealer to pay a 5-star quarterback $250,000 to attend his favorite alma mater. Before long, shallow-pocketed boosters began pooling resources to create NIL Super Pacs, luring talent with the prospect of cash.
The transfer portal posed another problem. Coaches long had the luxury of bailing programs for greener pastures, but now players had that power too, leaving the power structure to gnash their teeth. Corralling the Portal and taking advantage of NIL has triggered the Power Five to propose massive changes to how college football operates. Ideas under consideration reportedly include radically expanding the number of scholarships available and increasing the number of staff coaches are allowed the hire. Once again, these costs are chump-change for the Power Five – especially the SEC. But for the Group of Five, the costs could be crippling.