This excerpt appears in the book The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. The authors spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview and read Bill's book review.)
Prologue – GAME ON
From the blimp’s- eye view high above sold- out Sun Life Stadium the helmets looked like shiny gold dots, bank after bank of thousand- watt halide lights adding an almost ethereal glow. As the view compressed, more colors came into focus— first the crimson, then the white, and finally the navy blue. It was January 7, 2013, a perfect night for football in South Florida— a balmy seventy- three degrees with winds out of the northeast at five miles per hour. A record crowd of 80,120 erupted as four Wings of Blue paratroopers stuck landings on the field. Another 26.4 million fans were tuned in at home, making it the second- largest audience of any program in cable television history. On paper, the Discover BCS National Championship game was a match made in football heaven: No. 1 and undefeated Notre Dame (12- 0) against No. 2 and defending national champion Alabama (12- 1). After six weeks of analysis and hype the big boys were finally getting down to business. It had all the earmarks of a storybook ending to a wild, crazy roller coaster of a season that had driven the popularity of college football to dizzying new heights.
For fourteen consecutive Saturdays in the fall of 2012 college football owned the sporting public’s attention from noon till deep into the night. Click and there was Johnny Football, on his way to Johnny Heisman, performing magic tricks for Texas A&M; click and there was Bill O’Brien’s gritty Penn State squad rising from the ashes of the soul- crushing child abuse sex scandal to go 8- 4; click and there was Ohio State bruising its way to an undefeated season while barred by NCAA penalties from competing in a bowl game; click, click, click, click, and there was Oregon, Stanford, West Virginia and K- State taking their turns on the national stage.
Off the field the news wasn’t so good. A dozen programs were on probation for major NCAA violations, including USC, Ohio State, Tennessee, Boise State, LSU and Texas Tech. Graduation rates for African- American players continued to lag behind, highlighted by 2011 national champion Auburn, where only 49 percent of black athletes graduated, compared with 100 percent of white players. A 2012 study found that student- athletes in top football programs are more accurately athlete- students, averaging 41.6 hours per week preparing for football, compared with 38.2 hours in the classroom. The economics of college football were upside down, too. The latest figures showed only 22 of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) programs broke even or made a profit in 2010– 11. “If anybody looked at the business model of big- time college athletics, they would say this is the dumbest business in the history of the world,” said Michigan’s athletic director, Dave Brandon, the former CEO of Domino’s Pizza. “You just don’t have the revenue to support the costs. And the costs continue to go up.” Another study, released in 2012, found that FBS schools spent more than $91,000 per athlete compared with just over $13,000 per student. Yet students across the country faced steep tuition hikes and increased fees. Yet, as colleges and universities absorbed painful cuts in funding and went deeper into debt to stay afloat, a nationwide building boom— an arms race— was under way when it came to stadiums, premium seating, weight rooms and football facilities.
At the same time, a seismic shift in conference realignment had schools bolting conferences and abandoning long- standing rivalries in order to capture a greater share of the multibillion- dollar television contracts. “I don’t know where this all ends,” NCAA’s president Mark Emmert said at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in early December 2012. “But it does make clear that those moves are, if not entirely about money, predominantly about money. So when people say, ‘It’s all about the money,’ they’re at least not inaccurate because it’s 90 percent about the money.” The result, said Emmert, was the erosion of friendship and trust that existed for decades among college presidents, athletic directors and conference commissioners.
“I really don’t know what to do, but I’m really concerned about it, really, really concerned about it,” said Emmert. “It’s not healthy at all.”
As for the players, what had essentially become an eleven- month job extracted a pernicious price: a staggering 282 players from eight of the ten Bowl Championship Series (BCS) conferences and major independents suffered season- ending injuries. And those were just the officially reported ones. Plenty of other players were carted off practice fields, never to return to action.
Meanwhile, in March 2013, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic released a study showing that college football players are likely to experience significant and long- term brain damage from hits to the head even when they do not suffer concussions. The findings were based on blood samples, brain scans and cognitive tests performed on sixty- seven college football players before and after games during the 2011 season. As the debate over the long term effects of head injuries in football continues to escalate, it is now an established fact that college football players who never make it to the NFL are at risk of being diagnosed with degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma.
But none of that mattered as Notre Dame and Alabama squared off for the national championship on ESPN. The last time the two storied programs had met with so much on the line was the 1973 Sugar Bowl, remembered for the gutsiest call of Irish head coach Ara Parseghian’s career, a third- and- eight pass from the shadow of his own end zone, enabling the Irish to run out the clock and outlast Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Tide 24– 23. Epic. Four decades later, Brian Kelly and Nick Saban had come to power.
Kelly, in his third year, was a former women’s softball coach at Assumption College before making a name for himself at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. Six hugely successful seasons at Central Michigan and Cincinnati helped propel the son of a Boston politician to South Bend. Kelly had more than a bit of the Irish in him and, like his father, was wise to the media game. He offered smooth, thoughtful answers to almost every question, even ones he had heard for the third time in an hour. He also spoke of the importance of “painting a vision” of success at Notre Dame. “Your program is defined by consistency and Alabama is that model,” he said two days before the championship game. “I concede that. It’s where we want to be.”
Saban, on the other hand, was the reigning heavyweight champ of college coaching, gunning for his third national title in four years and his fourth in the last decade. His way had become the way in the game. Melding body and mind through “The Process” into a new breed of “Built by Bama” athlete, Saban had his players hardwired to perform at their best when it mattered most.
All of this had helped propel Saban to the front of the roaring, seemingly unstoppable race in coaching salaries. He had earned north of $5 million in salary, bonuses and other perks in 2012, just ahead of Mack Brown at Texas. In 2012 at least sixty- six head football coaches made more than $1 million; forty made more than $2 million; and thirteen cleared $3 million. Assistant coaching salaries had routinely reached into the high six figures or more.
“Athletics has gotten so disproportionate to the rest of the economy and to the academic community that it’s unbelievable,” said Dr. Julian Spallholz, a distinguished professor of nutrition and biochemistry at Texas Tech. “The students pay more tuition. The faculty pay for not having a pay increase. And the football coach gets a half- million raise. I think that speaks for itself, doesn’t it?”
Well, not exactly. College professors have tenure, and they are not expected to single- handedly fill stadiums in order to offset the eight- figure investments being made these days in stadium facilities. On the other hand, a college football coach may be the most insecure job in America. Between 2009 and 2012, seventy- two Division I head football coaches were fired. Auburn’s Gene Chizik was among those let go in 2012— following a winless season in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and just two years after leading Auburn to the national championship. The pressure to win— and win right away— has never been greater, and it is only going to get worse.
A four- team postseason playoff was finally here, with Cowboys Stadium selected to host the first national championship game in January 2015. The conference “pool” payout for the eventual winner is expected to triple to $75 million.
It was against this ever- changing landscape— in arguably the most tumultuous period in college football history— that the authors secured an all- access pass inside several mega- programs. We spent months behind the scenes with the coaching staffs at Alabama and Michigan and with top recruits headed to Texas A&M and Utah. We went on the road with BYU, Washington State and even up- and- coming Towson University; we traveled on a team charter, listened and observed inside locker rooms and team meetings and from the sidelines during games and practices. We traveled with the game’s most powerful booster and hung out with ESPN’s College GameDay crew. We also dug into some serious dirt at Ohio State, Tennessee and Missouri. We talked with tutors, hostesses, college presidents, agents, walk- ons, strippers, trustees, fans, directors of football operations and even “a janitor.”
In all, with the help of four additional reporters, we conducted more than five hundred interviews and logged well over two hundred hours observing programs at every facet and level of the game to gain a wider, deeper understanding of the power of The System and all its component parts.
In the end, we hope, we have produced an enlightened, unvarnished, deeply detailed look at the pageantry, pressure, pain, glory and scandal that make college football the most passionate, entertaining game in America today.
Green streamers and white hankies filled the stadium as Notre Dame lined up to kick off to Alabama.
“This crowd is ready,” said ESPN’s Brent Musburger against a deafening crescendo of “O- H- H- H- H- H- H.” The stadium fell instantly silent the moment Notre Dame’s kicker Kyle Brindza sent the football sailing toward Alabama’s Christion Jones. “Game on,” Musburger said.
Excerpted from THE SYSTEM: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian Copyright © 2013 by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.