Gordon Monson: A hard truth — Utah, BYU, Utah State and all of college football must find a way to pay the price for winning

Utah State coach Blake Anderson has expressed frustration in the wake of 22 transfers leaving his program.

(Vasha Hunt | AP) Utah State coach Blake Anderson reacts as Alabama pulls ahead during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

There’s a word that’s both plaguing and blessing college football coaches and their schools — Utah, BYU, Utah State included — in a big way, and the variable centers on another word, the single thing on which college football has pivoted since the beginning.

The first: transfers.

The second: money.

This is remedial for some readers, but let’s break it down and go on from there because it will have and is having a significant impact on the Utes, Cougars and Aggies.

The balance in college football, and other sports, too, is tipping from heavily favoring institutional power to making accommodation for power to individual athletes, and while some coaches have bemoaned that tipping, others have been busy adapting to it. Some have done both. The ability to adapt is made much easier by way of a third key word: collectives.

As they should, athletes are taking advantage of newfound NCAA rules allowing for transfers, in most cases during windows that give them the freedom they’ve wanted. For college football, those transfer portals, with some exceptions, come in the back half of December and the back half of April, time periods in which players inform their current programs that they want out and those programs are required to list the athletes’ names in the portal, opening them up for recruitment for whatever school can land them. Any process along those lines, either under the table or atop it, used to be a major no-no. And if a player transferred at the top level of college football, often that athlete was forced to sit out a year, in some cases two years.

To the glorification of amateurism, which was always something of a joke, many college athletes were restricted — in movement and in compensation — giving the aforementioned power to the schools. That advantage, that amateurism was heralded by those — institutions — that were favored by it, all as those schools wanted to limit their responsibility and liability for their “employees” in numerous ways.

What’s happening now is that athletes have options and opportunities to chart their own course, to transfer without penalty and to chase and to receive NIL money wherever those options and opportunities best suit them. In the old days, many scholarships were awarded annually, at the whim of coaches, all while players options were curtailed.

Well. There’s a new sheriff in town now, much to the benefit of those who formerly were restricted, and all of that movement is causing headaches among coaches trying to keep their programs intact. It should be noted that many of those coaches were and are paid large sums of money for their trouble, all while the athletes were formerly stuck with relative peanuts, but … not so much, not anymore.

Athletes now are being recruited by coaches, offered scholarships and, in some instances, sums of NIL money that can reach into the millions of dollars and those cash totals scale on down from there, depending on the athlete, the program and the program’s attendant money-brokers or collectives that are organized to help those programs land and pay talented players.

Utah has formed its collective, made up of businesses that can pay into funds for NIL money, to keep that program’s competitive trajectory moving on up. Kyle Whittingham has said it over and over again: The advancement of his program is absolutely dependent on the quality of players it recruits. To get the best, most promising athletes, money almost always comes into play.

Not just to get them, but to retain them. Which is to say, they must be re-recruited. Some athletes come into a program, find it not to their liking, on account of playing time or personal reasons, and they leave. Now, some key players, even if they are playing or do like their surroundings, are being lured away by financial opportunity elsewhere.

So, collectives are huge. Almost every school, including Utah and BYU, with ambitions to be at or near the top of college football, have to come up with the funds through their “partners.”

Some players don’t care about the extra money. And some believe the earth is flat and the moon is made of cheddar — just not many. New BYU quarterback Kedon Slovis came to the Cougars via the portal from Pitt, but offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said Slovis “didn’t ask for a dime.” He may get one or two or 500,000, anyway.

The effect is, athletes are on the move. ESPN recently reported that more than 6,000 NCAA football players entered the transfer portal since the beginning of the 2022 season; 2,179 entered the portal last December alone.

That movement is hurting and helping programs, as they struggle to hold onto what they have and take advantage of an influx of new talent in the portal.

Utah State, as reported by ABC4′s Dana Greene, has lost 22 players to the portal, including 10 who started at least one game on defense. USU coach Blake Anderson is quoted as saying the exodus is “unlike anything I’ve been a part of in 30 years. … It’s never been anything like this.”

Money is often an ultimate factor.

“This is what legislators have created,” Anderson said. “It’s happening all across the country. This is not a Logan problem, this is an NCAA football problem. And it’s not going to go back.”

It is a Logan problem to this degree: Utah State doesn’t have a sizable collective in place to keep its own. That will have to change if the Aggies want to stay competitive even in the Mountain West. If it’s a fact of life, like Anderson said, whining about it does no good.

“You’ve got a group of guys who feel like they’re marketable, have some leverage and can put their name out on the open market,” he said. “They’re going to be able to find places to go and get paid to play. There are people that can go out and get three, four, five, 10 thousand a month out of collective money.”

Anderson understands, but it makes his own job, for which he is paid millions of dollars, more troublesome. “We’re doing the best we can,” he said.

That’s all they can do.

But, even as some coaches and fans echo Anderson’s concerns, longing for the old days, when college football seemed more simple, when athletes seemed to be playing for the glory of the game and the good of the university, when many of the winningest schools were doing dirty business in hidden corners, when college athletes were restricted and getting just scholarships, except for the ones getting those illicit bennies and payments from boosters, all while the schools that awarded them that were hauling in millions and billions of dollars, there is an upside to the new way.

College athletes, many of them, are receiving something more for their efforts. And they deserve that, since they are the ones who make college football what it is. The question isn’t — shouldn’t be — why? It should be why not?

Yeah, there are considerations, such as fairness. Same as it ever was, some institutions have more economic firepower than others. We can feel Utah State’s pain, or at least sympathize with it. And such as funding for myriad college sports that don’t generate large amounts of money but still need funding. That’s also understood. But the idea that those generating the money in sports — like football — that do are not properly compensated for their contributions, especially when coaches, administrators and other officials make their stacks of cash, is off-putting and downright backward.

Since the legal system agrees with that, it’s up to the schools, from the biggest to the smallest, the most ambitious to the least, to do exactly what Anderson said — the best they can.

That’s life.

It’s the American way. Not going to wave the flag here. But, like it or not, removing money from a free-market system is not the American way. If schools and football programs and coaches finding their place in all of it, rewarding those with the special skills to make the product the success that it is en route, is complicated and inconvenient, and objectionable to some ticket-buying fans who long for the way things were, so be it.