It’s time for big-time college football to go long.
The tectonic shifts we have seen over just the last few weeks in college sports have made it obvious — if it wasn’t already — that the nation’s top NCAA football programs live in a different dimension than all other collegiate sports.
These schools should admit the obvious, spin off their football programs into a handful of super leagues, and give the thousands of student-athletes who go out for anything that isn’t football a chance to play their sports, get an education and avoid the ridiculous travel schedules that will be necessary when athletic conferences stretch from sea to shining sea.
The University of Utah and Brigham Young University, schools with successful football teams and admired academic programs, should lead the way.
The University of Utah was among the latest to jump to one of the new super athletic conferences — the reviving Big 12 — making a last-minute escape from the collapsing Pac 12. There they will be reunited with their primary in-state rival, BYU.
But, in so doing, Utah leaders basically admitted that the point of football at their level is to bring in tractor-truckloads of money, mostly from ever-more-lucrative deals with TV networks, and that the worst sin for a university president or athletic director would be to get left off the gravy train.
Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham is among those who saw this coming, seeing, he said recently, a move toward a few super football conferences as much as a decade ago.
Educating the next generation of nurses, engineers, teachers, writers, accountants, scientists, linguists, doctors, mathematicians, lawyers, business leaders, journalists, thinkers, doers and just plain good citizens? If that is still the point of a modern American university, the least our college administrators and trustees can do is make sure that a substantial amount of this football boodle finds its way into scholarships, housing and services for other sports, and for students and staff who don’t do sports at all.
At the very least, stop charging student fees to support giant sports programs. And give students more free tickets to games.
Utah President Taylor Randall and AD Mark Harlan worked until the 11th hour to salvage the Pac 12, the conference Utah was so proud to have joined only 12 years ago. But when Washington and Oregon broke for the Big 10, they were left with no choice but to accept the lifeline offered by the Big 12.
There was an air of celebration as Utah leadership welcomed their new media overlords. But, as wonderful as the new alignment may be for football, attention must now turn to what this new world order will mean for every school’s baseball, softball, tennis, volleyball, golf, lacrosse, soccer, swimming, track, cross country, wrestling, gymnastics and ski teams.
These programs, if they survive at all, will now be facing frequent, grueling red-eye flights to compete with rivals as far away as West Virginia and Florida. (Not that the University of Central Florida has a ski team.)
Those student-athletes are already left out of the TV spotlight and have little chance of gaining from the newly found ability of football and basketball stars to make money from endorsing products.
Now, as University of Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz pointed out, student-athletes will be living in airports, far away from support networks of friends and family, playing for schools that callously changed the rules on them after they signed on, endangering their physical and mental health to take part in activities that are supposed to boost both.
The Big 12, once centered on the High Plains, was looking for new blood after two of its marquee football teams — Oklahoma and Texas — jumped to rival powerhouse Southeast Conference. The Big 12 had already expanded to take in BYU as well as universities in Ohio, Texas and Florida, and in just the past few weeks welcomed Arizona and Arizona State and former member Colorado along with Utah.
The Big 10, originally a cluster of giant universities in the industrial midwest, absorbed big-time sports schools in southern California and the Pacific Northwest, leaving it with schools that are as far apart as 2,800 miles, three time zones and an eight-hour flight.
The obvious winners in all of this are the TV networks, mostly Fox and ESPN, and the athletic departments that will be raking in even more money in return for providing some of the most-watched programming America has ever had. Programming that the broadcast and cable networks are desperate for as more and more of their audience is leaving them for on-demand streaming platforms.
Big-time college football is already in its own universe. Those teams play once a week, usually on Saturday, and only a dozen or so games a year — up to three more if they make it to the championship bracket. In that sport, it is much easier to justify long journeys that match powerhouse against powerhouse in made-for-TV extravaganzas.
Even the next richest collegiate sport, basketball, plays schedules of 30 or more games, plus intense pre- and post-season tournaments. Returning college hoops to more traditional regional conferences, along with all the other sports, would make sense.
Unlike football, basketball and other sports are structured in a way that teams that aren’t giants bestriding the landscape have a shot at post-season play and even national championships.
The answer, then, is not to stand athwart sports history hollering “Time out!” It is for the biggest football programs to admit reality, create an entirely new structure and put all the other sports back into conferences that make more logistical sense.
Back to leagues where teams only have to travel a state or three away to find opponents, play in front of their friends and families and get back in time to go to class. To conferences that will include smaller schools — the Utah State and Weber State universities of the world — where competition can be on, so to speak, a more level playing field.
It’s only sporting.