The Illusion of College Football Signing Day: Counting the Real Cost of a Championship

For avid football fans across the country, the season never ends. Having just experienced in person the College Football Playoff National Championship game where Alabama hoisted another trophy, I am still in amazement of all the complexities and nail-biting interest for such an intriguing institution. Yes, I do refer to the sport of football as an institution and not just another American pastime. The college regular season ends during the jockeying for divisional and wildcard positions for the NFL. The beginning of the playoffs for the professional leagues occurs during the Bowl games for the colleges. And the Super Bowl build up just happens to coincide with prime-time college recruiting and signing! Still want more? Hold out a few weeks and then the college spring practice is upon us. Truly Americans have a love affair with boys and men wearing helmets and tight pants throwing, kicking, catching, and running with an oblong-shaped leather ball. With National Signing Day now becoming another “must-see” television event (i.e., ESPNU National Signing Day Special), social media trendsetter, and soon-to-be an additional sport holiday similar to the Super Bowl and March Madness, it is only appropriate that I share my reflections on what it really takes for big-time colleges to wear that championship crown.

Clemson University adopted the motto “All-In” for their run to the 2015 championship of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and last month’s title game in Arizona. I think this phrase embodies the essence of how nearly everyone – alumni, administrators, faculty, donors, staff, students, and local residents and businesses must be 100% supporters of the program to achieve the ultimate success. So what does this cooperation look like? The community must be knowledgeable about their team, and the college administration must be transparent about their commitment. The depth of this charge, loyalty, and allegiance must be clear to all. To that end, I believe there are only 30 or so programs out of the NCAA Division I 128 Football Bowl Subdivision universities that are truly capable of winning a title. And of course, these programs are all in the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) where the money has a better chance to flow freely. The best teams all have outstanding coaches with technical competencies. And they all have very bright and athletic players with a great passion to play, learn, and compete. What makes the difference between national championship and good teams is not the technical teaching of the “X’s and O’s” but rather the total backing and collaboration from nearly everyone connected to the school. It’s “All-In” for the football program. Which colleges are willing to make the following commitments?

  • Consistently and openly admit and enroll academic underprepared students who have the potential to be game-changers on the field? There are 85 scholarship athletes on a football team. It has been postulated that at least 20 players on championship teams require some form of remedial studies. Are administrators willing to construct a challenging educational pathway for them without comparing and expecting this very small cohort to mirror the same academic experience as the 4.0 GPA honors students? That is, why do universities focus on the rigor of the academic course load rather than the execution of an effective support system for students who comprise less than .1% of the student body?
  • Create a culture whereby faculty and administrators ask fewer questions of athletics and let the athletic director and football coach run the show. Athletic departments appreciate an atmosphere of less scrutiny and micro-management from the high-salaried academic administrators. The academic side of campus should “trust and don’t verify.” With everyone embracing the goal to win the championship there should be minimal activities that present a conflict with the necessary tasks to make the championship a reality.  Hire the right athletic administrators and let them do their job. History has taught us that there will be a few athletic-related embarrassments, and when they do occur they certainly won’t outweigh the glory and branding for the entire university when the rings and monies are distributed.
  • Allocate more resources in facilities and equipment to keep up with the Joneses (aka Alabama). The “Show Me” mantra is now much more than a Missouri slogan but rather representative of the spirit of the top athletes seeking to offer their services to teams that want to win early, often and regularly. Everyone must submit to the whims of the 5-star athlete who is seeking NFL grade strength and conditioning apparatus, safety protocols, expensive gear, and brand name swag. Recruiting trips must include the best steaks, potatoes, and beverages, engaging professors, full campus tours, premium cars, happy and attractive faces, marble and cherry wood offices, and sunny days. The athletic trainers, doctors, and nutritionists need to say just the right thing, so pre-visit homework is essential to be in synch with their colleagues. Local businesses need to spruce up their stores and talk about how they love promoting and helping out former players. In summary, lots of campus and community members need to turn their heads and plug their ears during these critical visits or get on board in a big way. Fence straddling is not permitted.
  • Convince the local media that it makes sense to be an athletics ally and not an adversary. Championship teams enjoy collaborating with radio, television, and social media friends from their hometown. These reporters often bend the rules of journalistic impartiality to promote and bring attention to all the benefits of the spoils of a winning program. Johnny “The Jerk” linebacker doesn’t become a front-page story after committing a stupid antic or alleged criminal activity. When something “smells fishy” in the program, the story is buried or never gets written. Are questions asked? Absolutely. The difference with winning teams though is that there is a lot of deliberation by the oh-so-friendly media on the pros and cons of covering in great detail an unfortunate incident. They remember that the athletes are only 17-22 year olds, and the negative attention could affect recruiting, donor support, or the reputation of the team for years. When the media is considered part of the program and also desire a championship, it’s just not worth it. There are too many other great positive stories to share than to concentrate on than what is not going so well. Haters turn in your credentials.
  • Pump massive dollars into any, and all, entities that market the team. The band, cheerleaders, pep team, and dance squad all need to look and be the best. The campus should be clean and tidy. Flowers that bloom all year round should be the priority of the landscaping crew. The television camera now becomes the university’s best friend. Encourage media to attend events that showcase the players and community support. In fact, the college’s innovation team should look into other opportunities to brainwash – I mean engage — the student body into redesigning their life around football season. How about the creation of a spoken word, drum line, hip-hop or even line or country dancing football-support organization? Offer live or video competitions to foster school spirit. Take advantage of how ESPN’s GameDay has become another addictive drug for college sports fans. Get the entire campus focused each season to recruit their presence. In order to rank for consideration of a visit from this band of engaging celebrity broadcasters, the football team needs to have tradition, must be very good, and the fans need to be even better. How bad do you want it?

So National Signing Day is over and teams are raving about their big recruitment wins. I hope all the attention and limelight shone on this wonderful moment for these young men does not create a false impression that the bulk of the work is complete. Securing commitment from top athletes is important but it pales in comparison to building the support necessary for those same players to be embraced in their duty to work hard and smart as teammates and leaders.  Each new season brings about hope and excitement to challenge for the national championship. Only those communities that come together to fully support the demanding championship goal established by the college and the team really has a chance to win it all though. All the other activities are simply noise and distractions that provide a feel-good escapism for fans. And strangely, regardless of the particularly exorbitant cost of football for most universities, that effort in itself is simply enough.

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