TCFA

Posted Jan. 8, 2015

Sep 23, 2011

Money First. Everything Else Second.

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On November 6, 1995, a haggard-looking Arthur B. Modell stood before a small collection of media at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and announced that he was moving his storied old football team, the Cleveland Browns, to Baltimore.

In so doing, he sent an entire city into convulsions, flushed four decades of good will down the toilet, and generally proved himself to be a world-class jerk.

As a native Clevelander, I remember that day vividly. Perhaps too vividly. I remember the bizarre scene on that podium: Modell standing up on stage, pretending to be sad, pretending to care about those he left behind; Modell gladhanding with the thoroughly disgusting Parris Glendening, governor of Maryland; Modell sitting awkwardly while the myriad other speakers of the day spoke of the glories to come for the City of Baltimore, a city whose residents had been complaining for years (quite ironically) about the injustice they had suffered at the hands of Jim Irsay, former owner of the Baltimore Colts, who packed up his team in the middle of the night and took it to Indianapolis, proving himself to be, you know, a world-class jerk; and, of course, most notably, Modell uttering that awful, stilted, lie—that lie that rings hollow, even today, 15 years later. “To the people of Cleveland,” the miserable old man said, “I had no choice.”

Which was a load of crap, of course. Because Modell did have a choice.

He didn’t have to leave Cleveland.

He didn’t have to tear the hearts out of all of those people who had supported his team through thick-and-thin, the people who filled that beautiful-and-miserable stadium each Sunday, the people who bought enough tickets and beers and paraphernalia to make him a very, very rich man.

He didn’t have to shred the very Autumnal fabric of my hometown.

He didn’t have to steal Cleveland Browns football away from the kids that loved Cleveland Browns football more than anything else in the world.

No, I promise you, he didn’t have to leave.

But he left anyway. He left for money. And money is exactly what he got.

Make no mistake, folks: From a strictly bottom-line perspective, it’s pretty much impossible to argue that Modell did the wrong thing in moving to Baltimore. He got a pretty new stadium out the deal. Quite a few tax breaks. A few rich partners. And the scummy friendship of all of those politicians down in Maryland.

Of course, the Browns fans didn’t care about any of that. They just wanted their Browns. They just wanted somebody to step in and stop the insanity—to tell them that, no, the big bad NFL was not taking their team away.

That never happened, though.

So they were left behind. They felt betrayed. They felt that something that was theirs—something that had brought real joy to their lives, and to the lives of their families—was stolen. They felt violated, helpless, and victimized. Heck, I felt that way, too.

Sixteen years later, however, I don’t feel any of those things. More to the point, I don’t have any feelings about the NFL at all.

Because on Nov. 6, 1995, I learned that the NFL wasn’t about football, and it wasn’t about family, and it wasn’t about tradition, and it wasn’t about fans.

I learned that the NFL was about money.

So I stopped watching.

And I’ll be honest: I don’t miss it.

***

On September 18, 2011, ACC Commissioner John Swofford announced that his league would expand to 14 members with the addition of Syracuse University and the University of Pittsburgh.

In so doing, he sent an entire footballing region into convulsions, flushed a good bit of goodwill down the toilet, and generally proved himself to be a world-class jerk.

The expansion announcement was a titanic moment for the ACC, a league that has spent the better part of its football existence living in the long shadow cast by that other Southern league, the SEC. To hear Swofford tell it, the addition of Syracuse and Pitt is a game changer for the ACC. The move, he says, will bolster his league’s football profile, expand its geographic footprint, make it the unquestioned powerhouse of college hoops and, most importantly, ensure the league’s very survival for years and years to come.

In that sense, it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that Swofford (or Pitt, or Syracuse) are doing the wrong thing here. From a strictly business perspective, they are very clearly doing the right thing. This move means more money for the league, more money for Pitt, more money for Syracuse. It’s a win-win-win. Really, it is.

Of course, I’m quite certain the people down at West Virginia don’t see it that way. I’m quite certain the folks up at Rutgers and UConn don’t particularly care that Pitt and Syracuse did the right thing, financially speaking. I’m quite certain that Skip Holtz and South Florida aren’t interested in hearing about the dollars and cents, or the strategy behind the deal, or the long-term benefit that Swofford, Pitt and Syracuse see in absolutely and undeniably screwing basically every person involved with every other football program in the Big East.

I'm quite certain that all of the fans and all of the kids who love of all of those left-behind Big East schools are absolutely reeling right now, trying to come to grips with the fact that they may not be playing big-time college football in a year or two or three, that their Saturdays may have just been stolen from them, that their alma maters may indeed be forced to stop playing football altogethe, at least at the highest level.

I am quite certain these good folks are feeling violated, helpless, and victimized.

And, sadly, I am quite certain that they have realized, all at once, that in the grand scheme of things, college football is not really about college football anymore. It’s not about tradition, or history, or rivalries, or Saturdays in Autumn. It’s not the teams or the players. It’s especially not about the fans.

Instead, more than ever before, college football is about money.

And nothing else.

The only question, of course, is this: Now that those folks have come to this realization—now that they understand what the game is really about—how many of them will keep watching?

How many will walk away?

And how many, in 15 years time, will look back and honestly say that they miss it?

***

It would of course be both unfair and inaccurate to pin all of this nonsense—the fall of the Big East, the abandonment of those poor Big East left-behinds, the still-unfolding demise of the Big 12, this unending march toward complete conference realignment/annihilation—on John Swofford. It would be unfair and inaccurate, too, to say that Pitt and Syracuse are the only bad guys here.

Because the reality is that this big old mess is a great deal more complicated that. There are plenty of victims--new ones every day, it seems--and plenty of villains, too.

There’s Texas, which has alienated one Big 12 partner after another (and, apparently, most of the Pac-12, too) with its limitless greed and monumental ego.

There’s Notre Dame, which could have saved the Big East at pretty much any time by, you know, actually joining the Big East, instead of just pretending to be part of the Big East.

There’s Nebraska, which walked away from the Big 12 last year, kicking this whole process into high gear, and the Big Ten, which probably didn’t need to expand in the first place.

There’s Larry Scott from the Pac-12, whose repeated efforts to expand even further have left pretty much everyone west of the Mississippi feeling unsettled.

There’s ESPN, which is providing the money (and hype) to make all of this possible.

There’s Texas A&M, which bolted the Big 12 at its first opportunity, if only to make life miserable for Texas.

Heck, even the Big East had a role to play here, stealing TCU away from the Mountain West not even a year ago.

I mean, it’s been a real group effort, this realignment mess, with everyone seeking security, or chasing the next last dollar, or looking to strengthen their position, or looking to screw their rival.

Everyone wants market share.

Everyone wants power.

Everyone wants status.

Everyone wants a bigger piece of the proverbial pie.

Everyone wants more, more, more. Maybe more crucially, everyone feels entitled to get that “more”—and so they happily do whatever it takes to get it. They’ll screw over a longtime friend just as surely as they’ll screw over a longtime enemy. They’ll break contracts. They’ll backstab. They’ll lie—to you, to me, to everybody, to anybody.

But hey, it’s not personal, they say. It’s business.

As for those who suffer as a result? For those who get left behind? For the fans who lose the game they love? For the traditions that are lost? For the rivalries that fade away?

Well, too bad. Progress is progress.

***

I suppose none of this stuff should be surprising.

I suppose we shouldn’t be shocked that John Swofford would so willingly destroy another conference, that Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg would tell his Big East friends to remain loyal one day and then sign a deal to join the ACC the next, that Syracuse would try to justify its actions by saying that the ACC is simply a better fit for its “Olympic sports.”

I suppose we should have expected this. Besides, it’s not as if the idea of college football as “a business” is anything new. The game has always been a business, at least to a certain extent, because it’s always been something that people actually care about. And when people care about something—when they care about something very deeply—those people can be exploited. For money.

College football in its earliest days was a source of pride for students—fodder for the campus newspaper, reason for celebration on the quad, something to brag about to the rival next door. But yes, even then, even back in the fin de siècle era of no helmets and Ivy League supremacy, the game made money. And the colleges gladly took it.

College football in the 1920s was the biggest sport this country had ever seen—something that could build palaces on the East Coast and palaces on the West Coast, something that could draw crowds in excess of 100,000, something so beautiful and so important that it could even give birth to the very idea of sportswriting. In the heady days of the 1920s, in other words, the game made money. And the colleges gladly took it.

College football in the 1960s was colorful, and passionate, and beautiful. It had superstar players and superstar coaches and the best trophy in American sports. It had rivalries and history and tradition and controversy. It had bowl games. It had television contracts. It made money—lots of money—and the colleges gladly took it.

College football in the 1980s was bold and aggressive and bigger than it ever. It was Jimmie Johnson at Miami, Barry Switzer at Oklahoma, Joe Paterno at Penn State. It was the ’83 Orange Bowl and the ’87 Fiesta Bowl. It was ABC and CBS and Notre Dame on NBC. It, in a word, was massive. It made gobs of money—I mean, more money than the old guard could have ever been imagined—and the colleges gladly took it.

So, yeah, the money has always been there.

The money has always mattered.

The money has always played a big role in deciding what happens to college football—and when.

The money has always shaped the game, influenced the game, changed the game.

This is not new. Not in the least.

What is new, I think, is the fact that we have reached the point where the money has become more important than the game.

It’s not about football anymore. It’s not about Saturday afternoons in October. It’s not about rivalries and it’s not about tailgates. It’s not about marching bands or fight songs or alma maters or memories. It’s not about spending time with your family, or reuniting with friends, or reliving old times, or telling old college stories.

It’s not about the players. It’s not about the teams. It’s not even about the schools, really.

It’s not about the game we love.

It’s about one thing and one thing only: Money.

Money is why the Big East is dead and why the Big 12 teeters on extinction. Money is why the Backyard Brawl will be played no more. Money is why Louisville and Cincinnati and UConn and Rutgers are running for cover. Money is why there are thousands and thousands of kids out there who will very soon see their favorite college football team relegated to the fringes, doomed to walk the college football wilderness, left to wither and die.

And money is why, when they’re all grown up, those kids may actually not care one lick about college football.

That’s sad.

But that’s life. Life in college football, where it’s money first, everything else—friendship, loyalty, tradition, history—second.

And a distant second at that.

MISCELLANY: NOTES FROM THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL FRINGES

♦ First, you may be wondering why there was no news this week. Well, there's two reasons. Reason No. 1: I ran out of time because I have three jobs and four kids and because I had to catch a flight to Memphis on Friday morning. Reason No. 2: I am not entirely sure that any of you actually read the news. So tell me: Do you read the news? Is the news too lengthy? Would you prefer shorter items, as per the Miscellany style? Please write and let me know, because I don't like feeling aimless.

♦ Second, I want to thank everyone for their kind words regarding last week's column. Got some great response and it's greatly appreciated.

♦ Now, as for actual college football content, let us move on, and start with this: Penn State co-offensive coordinator Jay Paterno is blamed for far too much. I mean, I promise you, Penn State fans, this man is not your main problem. Your main problem is his father. That being said, Jay needs to understand the public relations business a bit better, and needs to understand that writing self-serving columns in the wake a semi-awful start to the season is not in his best interest. He doesn't understand this yet, however, which is why he wrote, you know, a self-serving column on Thursday, opining that the Penn State fans who are grumbling about the Nits' shaky start aren't "true-blue" Penn State. Wrote Paterno: "Tough times have their benefits. One is that they expose the true character of the people in your life. Under pressure, everyone shows his or her true stripes. Some back away slowly, some run to be supportive, some tell you the truth you need to hear and some turn at the first sign of trouble and rip into you."

♦ South Carolina is under investigation by the NCAA. And if you're a Gamecocks fan, I don't think this quote, from Ole Ball Coach, sounds very promising. Said Ball Coach: "I hope we're not in serious trouble."

♦ Do not be surprised, not one bit, if Ohio beats Rutgers on the road this week. The Bobcats are 3-0 on the season. They rank 12th in the nation is points-against, 21st in the nation in points-for, and 12th in the nation in rushing yards. Rutgers, meanwhile, is 1-1 and looking mostly uninspired. Ohio by 7.

♦ I'd hate to kick a man while he's down, but the reality is this: Dan Beebe was (understatement to follow) a very ineffective commissioner. He lost the plot down at the Big 12. He let Texas run the show. He oversaw the collapse of what used to be a very good league. And now? Well, now he's out of a job, having agreed to resign from his post on Friday after eight years of not much of anything. Said Beebe: "It is satisfying to know the Big 12 Conference will survive, and I congratulate the members for taking strong action to ensure a bright future as a premier intercollegiate athletics conference. I put all my effort into doing what was best for the Big 12. With great fondness, I wish the Big 12 Conference a long and prosperous future."

♦ By the way, despite the firing/resignation of Dan Beebe, the Big 12 still has Big Problems. Specifically, there is the fact that Missouri still won't commit to the league. And if the Tigers leave? If they pack their bags and head over to the SEC? Well, then the good people at Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State are going to be in a world of hurt. Like I said: Money first. Everything else second.

♦ Ohio State sent out a news release on Thursday, stating that tickets remained available for the Buckeyes' Saturday showdown against Colorado. Yep. The Luke Fickell Era is off to a roaring start.

♦ Looking for this week's TCFA Podcast, in which Mike and I chat about our trip to The Grove, conference realignment and, yes, actual football? Well, click here. You can also find us on iTunes and Stitcher.

♦ Looking for picks? Well, click here.

♦ And so I'm off to Memphis and off to Mississippi. Have a great weekend, all. And if you are at all curious about the TCFA Podcast Team's weekend in The Grove (I know you are), please follow us on Twitter @IntelligentCFB.

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