The More Things Change…

I think there’s plenty for supporters of colleges and college football teams to praise in this evolution of the BCS process.  Hopefully we’ll have more competitive games,  higher stakes, and fairer and more-interesting match-ups.  On the whole, I think the new playoff era is a good thing.

I called it an evolution earlier because for all the good factors, a few holdovers sour the new format:

The Kiddie Pool

It’s doubtful that a reasonable national title contender has even been excluded from the NCAA tournament.  When there is angst, it’s because a bubble team missed out on a chance to enter the tournament.  Literally, fans want the experience of being “happy just to be there.”

Conversely, the BCS years brimmed with rage over excluded teams who conceivably would have contended for titles.  I think that, in the end, it makes sense to favor an undefeated LSU over an undefeated Boise State if it comes down to a single championship spot (to give a hypothetical example) just because of the difference in schedule strength.  I don’t think this guarantees, though, that LSU would be the better team.  Most would accept that the Tigers would have a marked advantage in raw talent in almost any recent year.  On the other hand, would you give LSU the same edge in coaching or player discipline in an all-the-marbles game?

A four-team model is certainly a step in the right direction, but far from a correction to this problem: the pool of entrants is still too small.  It’s easy to imagine a year where there’s a mix of undefeated and one-loss conference champs across the entirety of the former AQ conferences, and even a convincing undefeated team or two from a smaller conference.  Someone with a good argument will be left out.  When this happens it’ll hopefully be because of solid points like strength-of-schedule or head-to-head match-ups.  Of course, strength-of-schedule is a subjective art, and games between non-conference powers are likely to become rarer over time due to expanding conference slates.  Without something approximating clear delineations, we’ll be subject to…

The Human Condition

We don’t know who the selection committee will be, but if it involves people who are packing unconquerable biases and agendas, then playoff selection could become a muddled mess.  The folly of a ranking system that uses pre-season guestimates is well-documented, and these same rankings will no doubt play some role in deciding the four squads invited to the playoff.  Do you want conference associations, buddy networks, TV ratings, or outdated suppositions determining who plays for the national title?  Barry Switzer being the deciding vote on a Big XII school?  A pre-season Top-5 coasting in on residual rankings despite being thoroughly and convincingly humbled during the regular season?  A Pac XII president weighing the merits of a conference partner with whom he’s negotiating the details of a joint multi-million dollar health-care venture?  An ESPN mouthpiece advocating for a two-loss Notre Dame team?

I don’t, but I doubt there’ll be much to prevent things like these from happening.

Bowl Involvement

The governing bodies of bowl games are, for the most part, well-financed lobbying organizations that hide behind 501(c)(3) laws intended to help real public-service organizations.  At their worst, they’re self-perpetuating felony factories, as demonstrated by the Fiesta Bowl’s misbehavior.

Fan Travel

Even if playoff games take away some of the exhibition-like aspects of the bowl games they’ll supplant, I don’t think the raised stakes will compensate for the increased burdens on fan travel.  The complete lack of home-site games makes a tough travel schedule for a sport that’s still highly localized, especially given that many conferences have struggled to simultaneously maintain fan attendance for squads traveling from a conference championship game to a bowl game.  The still-struggling economy isn’t exactly a comfort in this regard.

Imagine students or average season ticket-holders–the pillars of a school’s fanbase–in Happy Valley.  A post-season travel schedule for a PSU playoff team might include a conference championship in Detroit, a first-round game in Pasadena, and a national championship game in Dallas.  Seeing all three games would be out of the question for most fans, and the combination of costs and a risk of missing out on a game would encourage most to attend the closer, certain conference championship game.  The same reasoning would likely lead many to likewise opt for attending the first playoff game, rather than take their chances with the national championship game.

The likely result would be a Super Bowl-like atmosphere for the championship game where most of the attendees have no real affinity for either team.  Issues of fairness to the fanbase aside, this distancing of the fanbase is bad for schools, as it separates the sport from the university proper, and reduces the chance for students and alums to engage in memorable game experiences.

Post-Season Length

I’m in the minority for considering this important, but the degree with which post-season football puts the screws to academics is a little troubling.  The sport already requires year-round physical demands.  When this is coupled with the mental strain of bowl/playoff prep that extends through first semester finals, the result is a far tougher balancing act for student athletes.  And I use the term “student athletes” without cynicism.  Most football players–even those on playoff squads–won’t go pro, and most that do won’t make a living off it.  The onerous post-season stretch is a direct impediment to the players who will rely on their education and their transcripts to land decent jobs when they graduate.

Subsidizing the ‘Skins

Funding privately owned sports franchises and private sports initiatives with taxpayer dollars has been a source of drama for the past century, going at least as far back as Cleveland Stadium in the late 1920’s, but taking off (and getting more divisive) particularly during the fifties and ever since.  A municipality-driven battle over stadium expenses is usually the source of headlines, and this is especially true when the stadium won’t pull double-duty as an Olympic or college facility.  This week, though, the Washington Redskins reminded us that when it comes to one of the most valuable pro sports franchises around, there’s a little more on the line than stadiums.

The team headquarters and training facilities have been the subject of a bidding war between Maryland, Washington DC, and Virginia, each hoping to have the Redskins and their hundreds of millions of dollars of income relocate/remain in their respective environs.  The Redskins are essentially in the convergence of a tri-state metropolitan area (the wealth and status of the District makes it reasonable to include as a state) where they are the primary sport franchise for each said state.  Prior to the return of a franchise to Baltimore in ’96, there was no regional pro football presence other than the Redskins, no competing professional or college sport that came close to the Redskins in terms of history or draw, and an established melange of geographical association.

It’s an enviable set of factors unique to this franchise, and a large reason for its sheer value today.  The closest analog I can think of off-hand would be the New York football franchises and their shared stadium in New Jersey.  Of course, the Jets and Giants compete with each other for fanbase share (and with the Yankees and Mets in baseball, the Knicks in basketball, and the Rangers in hockey.)  They also are tied in name and sentiment to New York to the point where shopping around for suitors can be a public relations problem.

Getting to the details, Virginia’s Loudon County is the current (and now future) home of the Redskins headquarters, thanks potentially to the large incentive package put together by Bob McDonnell, Governor of Virginia and part of a long line of state executives who’ve made attracting and retaining businesses a priority for the Old Dominion.  The deal gives the Redskins $6.4 million to remain in Virginia, with $4 million coming from the state, $2 million from Loudon County, and $400,000 from Richmond (which hosts the team’s 2013 training camp.)

Not only is the item being subsidized a bit different from the norm, but so is the developing controversy around it.  While expected debate over whether these maneuvers represent savvy leadership or a small part of a larger epidemic of states racing to see which can kowtow most to large businesses (and whether the team was actually ready to relocate if not placated), what’s gotten more attention is the fact that the Governor seems to have raised the ire of the Virginia legislature to make this happen.

Piecing together comments from both sides, at some point the Virginia General Assembly was privy to a $12 million demand by the Redskins; multiple members of the Assembly (a group including appropriations and budget committee members from both parties) balked and recommended the demand be ignored.  Rather than coming back to the Assembly for guidance (or even informing them of his decision after the fact), McDonnell made an executive decision to accept a lower demand of $4 million.  As I noted earlier, state subsidies of private businesses are par for the course in general terms, but aren’t very common for already-established businesses that won’t add lots of local jobs.  There’s discussion of facilities upgrades that might inject about $30 million into the pockets of local contractors, which is helpful in the short-term, but not over time.

Given the proximity between the Republican Governor and the largely Republican Assembly, it almost feels like a case of friendly fire.  Of course, politics is an old game and without innocent parties.  Among the discontents in the Assembly is Delegate Lacey Putney, Chair of the House Appropriations committee, leader of a district not quite in the Beltway news stream, and a veritable institution unto himself.  At one point during a few years where I spent my professional energies talking to Virginia politicians, Mr. Putney personally recounted to me an unprompted tale regarding one of his own similar, less-orthodox achievements in which he outmaneuvered his own legislative body.

So who knows for sure what subtext, untold stories, and called-in favors are involved here?  Still this is one of the most interesting examples to date of the pressures in keeping big-money teams happy, and could be informative for whenever talk of an NFL team in LA heats up again.

Recap from the Roanoke Times:  http://www.roanoke.com/politics/wb/310361

Embattled Leaders in the ACC

 

The ouster of UVA president Teresa Sullivan is just the latest (and most vivid) example of current and future ACC member schools experiencing unrest at their highest administrative levels.  Given that the conference is still viewed by many as a ripe target for poaching (and this despite its aggressive history in acquiring new schools), the added variable of real and potential leadership changes in the conference’s schools is another variable to the conference realignment conundrum.

Sullivan was discarded over revenue and expense clashes with board members  (and perhaps expedited by public and private workings of state leaders) regarding the school’s traditional academic focus and long-term strategy.  Aside from the firing itself, her departure seems to have also inflamed a power struggle between the school’s provost and chief operating officer, and made various internal assessments of the school’s problem areas a matter of public record.  For a school that was known for decades of steady influence and direction, this could be a shake-up on every level, including conference politics.

While I don’t see anything quite approaching this level of disorder in other ACC schools, there are a few current leaders who are in noticeably compromised positions:

Florida State

As noted in an earlier post, the Big 12 question is casting a lousy light on just about every higher-up at FSU.  FSU board chairman Andy Haggard has looked volatile and ignorant, President Eric Barron seems nervously defensive, Athletic Director Randy Spetman doesn’t look like he can manage an athletic budget, the boosters and school foundation have been publicly scapegoated, and football coach Jimbo Fisher seems to be playing the jester with one-liners worthy of a coach still in the SEC (and not one in the slightly less-powerful conference of the eastern seaboard.)

Maryland

Athletic Director Kevin Anderson isn’t just overseeing the lackluster Randy Edsall experiment, he canned Ralph Friedgen (reigning ACC coach of the year) to do so.  Add to this the school’s upcoming elimination of eight varsity sports over budget problems, and his childish public spat with local rival Georgetown, and Anderson looks more and more like someone on the hot seat.  To my outsider’s eye, he seems the likeliest of this gaggle to depart in the near future.

Miami

President Donna Shalala, already a polarizing figure due to her political history, has been cited as the beneficiary of “friendly” loans during the Countrywide Mortgage meltdown, and has been publicly hammered for failing to halt Ponzi schemer and walking NCAA violation Nevin Shapiro from wreaking havoc on Miami’s football squad.  She has a survivor’s reputation, however, and I don’t see her going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

UNC

While the improprieties of Butch Davis and his staff are their own (and have already taken out Athletic Director Dick Baddour), and the arrival of these men on campus likely owed as much to the influence of UNC trustees as anything, academic failings fall squarely under the watch of Chancellor Holden Thorp.  And when a prominent professor such as Julius Nyang’oro appears to have hosted phony courses with free grades for the benefit of football players, the responsibility ultimately lies with Thorp.  It’s rare for sport-related academic scandals to fell executives, though the heap of woes befalling UNC has to have weakened the position of Chapel Hill’s Chancellor.  If the men’s basketball team is tied in to this mess (or even inadvertently uncovered), well, the sky might start falling.  Improvements to the football stadium might also prove to be a funding albatross, though almost certainly not as damaging as a tarnished basketball program would be.

Syracuse

This future member will be arriving with baggage.  Chancellor Nancy Sullivan is attempting to redefine ‘Cuse as a community benefactor intent on revitalizing the city of Syracuse and increasing disadvantaged students’ access to the school.  Along the way, the school has bought and revitalized a great deal of property all across the city, among various other good works.  On the flipside of this endeavor is the slippage in national rankings the school has experienced, which has raised the ire of trustees, alums, and professors.

SU isn’t the only school to adopt this community-focused model.  Notably, Brown is simply throwing buckets of cash at Providence for the next decade, while every other school in the country seems determined to become a local real estate mogul (Ohio State is a big one.)  These schools aren’t having the perception problems of Syracuse, though, and that’s where the tensions lie.

What’s all this mean in terms of football?  Unpredictability.  Even for a conference built on long-lasting relationships, sudden  shifts in leadership are a volatile force.  School and conference histories abound with decisions that rested on a single vote, or were accepted or denied based on alliances between schools.

If an institution like UVA (a “public Ivy” in the eyes of some) can change its organizational focus to a corporatized model in the course of a year, as seems to be happening, it will likely impact a major revenue sport like football.  Would Mr. Jefferson’s school suddenly be seeking acceptance into the Big 10 or even the SEC just to maximize profits?  I doubt it, but if some things come to pass I won’t discount it.

Conversely, if the theater at Florida State sparks an embarrassed refocusing on academic issues (one reflected in trustee and presidential appointments), would it effectively squelch all but the most reactionary realignment discussion?  Even a football machine like FSU would be a drastically different enterprise if its administration were filled with non-football fans, and its fanbase too apathetic from disappointing seasons to mount much protest.

Whither the wild receiver?

Are diva wideouts facing extinction?  Terrell Owens seems out of mulligans, the player formerly known as Chad Johnson is looking for work after a quiet year, and Randy Moss has set-up shop in San Francisco without much fanfare.  The heirs apparent seem similarly subdued: Brandon Marshall’s antics have been softened (certainly in perception and likely in act) by a mental illness diagnosis, Desean Jackson has been quiet so far, Steve Smith appears to be happy in the revitalized Panthers offense, and Plaxico Burress is productive and free of new perforations.  Santonio Holmes seems primed for a season of blow-ups with the Jets, but he’ll never have the impact of an Owens or Moss in their prime. 

As far as theatrics meeting performance, we probably have to look a little further back in time to players like Michael Irvin and Cris Carter, who managed to steal headlines and earn Super Bowl rings.  Owens and Moss will likely be remembered for what could’ve been, while Irvin and Carter will be remembered for how they managed to outwork their already considerable talents. 

I don’t think the diva receiver will vanish, but it seems to be a diminished position of late.  I can’t discount the impact of bounties, concussions, labor negotiations, and the  Brett Favre’s philandering on setting the stage for recent NFL news.  It’d be hard for any one player’s touchdown dances, misdemeanors, or practice lethargy to beat these topics for page hits, or the players getting news because of concerns over their on-field violence (James Harrison and Nick Fairley being the current leaders.)  I don’t even think today’s bunch would have the mental fortitude to pull a performance like Max McGee, the Green Bay receiver/punter who played his best during his last years, and probably should’ve been named MVP of Super Bowl I, a prototypical example of diva excellence in which he played unprepared, tired, hungover, and did little things like catch game-changing one-handed touchdown passes. 

I imagine the movement away from two-receiver sets and long play action passes has something to do with spreading stats and tempering receivers’ expectations, and GMs are starting to look at them as interchangeable parts like tailbacks.  Still, I look at the list of Pro Bowlers and fantasy leaders and don’t see the twilight year tantrums and self-defeating self-promotion.  Reggie Wayne? He expressed a little displeasure during the with Peyton Manning cut, but not much else.  Wes Welker’s in some heated negotiations, but negotiations involving livelihoods and millions of dollars tend to be stressful.  Calvin Johnson?  He pulled down a game-changing touchdown against near-triple coverage, then celebrated with a simple spike before jogging off with teammates.  Where’s the Sharpie?  The convlusion-quiver to the football gods?  Dropping the drawers?  Changing your name?  Felonies?  Public breakdowns?  Baby mama drama?  The reality show?  Heck, even Dirty Harry himself is showing-up on one of ’em.

Is this a permanent thing?  Probably not.  The NFL is public entertainment, and entertaining players who add schtick to their skill stand gain more in endorsement dollars.  I’ll enjoy the relative peace while I can.  Who knows? Maybe I’ll be primed for some antics when we’re next graced with a T.O. or Playmaker.

Conference Realignment and Academics, Revisited

Following-up on my last post, it looks like there’s some new info to add to how we look at the academic side of conference realignment, and in particular how realignment impacts admissions.  Two doctoral students at UGA have just presented a paper that looks to be the first stab at figuring out just how much switching conferences can impact admissions.  The students–Dennis Kramer and Michael Trivette–believe they’ve constructed a formula using public data sets that allows them to quantify how conference realignment can impact admissions.  What they found was schools that switch conferences experienced bumps in admissions numbers and test scores, and a slight improvement in admitted students actually enrolling, when compared to institutions that didn’t move (which served as a control group.)

More specific to the current ACC/Big 12 hoopla, Kramer and Trivette note that three years after their staggered entrances into the ACC, Boston College and Virginia Tech had 37% and 16.6% increases in applications, respectively, that were owed to realignment.  Further south, TCU’s switch from Conference USA to the Mountain West was deemed responsible for a 50% surge in applications.  This indicates that the desirability of enrolling at these schools improved, which the authors speculate is due to increased/displaced media exposure. Of course, what everyone wants to know is what the next switch (real in TCU’s case, potential in VT’s) would bring, though that’s beyond the scope of this work.

The catch in all of this is that there isn’t much way to verify the authors’ methodology.  Judging from an article on their work and an included research brief drafted by Kramer and Trivette, it looks like they’re adjusting for the right broad factors, such as athletics success and institutional prestige, though their method is built off another paper that isn’t cited in-depth.  I’m not a statistician, but I’m pretty sure the massive upward swings experienced by the three schools mentioned above during the study period would be considerable headaches to adjust for. Also, since it’s a conference paper, the review controls might not be as strict as what you’d find in a journal (I admit this last concern stems from personal observation.)

Still, I’d wager that these results indicate a real trend, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the percentages themselves supported by subsequent research.  Don’t let the authors’ student status fool you–doctoral work breaks a lot of new ground, UGA’s higher ed program is well-regarded, and Kramer in particular has a strong background in the field.

Chronicle article on their work: http://chronicle.com/blogs/players/does-switching-athletics-conferences-lead-to-academic-gains/30227

Research Brief (PDF):  http://chronicle.com/blogs/players/files/2012/06/AIR_realignment.pdf