Matt Jones, a new-media SEC firebrand, sat in for Paul Finebaum, an old-media SEC firebrand, on the latter’s daily radio show and dropped the sort of take that always makes waves this time of year.
Jones’ take? That the decentralization of college football on TV has left some formerly powerful programs with little hope of ever returning to glory. Here’s his opening argument:
“When college football only [had] a few games on TV every week, you could be a powerhouse program if you were one of those teams. If you weren’t, it was almost impossible to build yourself up to be one of them,” Jones said. “The same teams that were good in the 60s were good in the 70s were good in the 80s. Then all of the sudden in the 90s, sometime mid-90s to late-90s, everybody is on television. All of the sudden it became a lot easier to get good. What started to become a lot more important is how many schools have talent bases around them? Kids started to realize ‘you know what, I can go to school closer to home and still be on television.'”
This isn’t an unfamiliar argument, particularly in Nebraska where every change to the sport has been examined and relentlessly tested for its potential impact on the Huskers’ standing as one of the nation’s top programs. And, yes, Nebraska gets mentioned by Jones as one of three programs that will “never be great again” alongside Notre Dame and Tennessee.
“Nebraska used to recruit the entire Midwest. Why? They were the only team in the Midwest that was on television. It was Nebraska and Oklahoma, that was it,” Jones said. “So if you were anywhere good from anywhere in the Midwest, you went where? You went to Nebraska. But now you can go to Iowa. Guess what? You can be pretty good at Iowa. You can go to Kansas State to be good. There’s no reason for a kid to truck across the country and go to Nebraska now. And so now Nebraska’s not as good.”
I don’t know, man. One, that’s possibly overstating the monopoly schools like Nebraska had on air time. Prior to 1981, the NCAA, fearing declining attendance, negotiated a TV package for all of its schools. That deal basically included eight national games a year and five weekends of regional telecasts and it was great for small schools, not so great for powerhouses who could argue they held more sway in the market. That’s why a group of major schools formed the College Football Association, negotiated their own deal, and, when the NCAA tried to block it in 1981, Oklahoma and Georgia filed an antitrust suit against the NCAA and won that suit in 1984 in a Supreme Court ruling. But that didn’t mean the Sooners and Bulldogs were suddenly free to negotiate their own deals. No, they were part of the CFA, a group of 63 schools that included the ACC, SEC, Big Eight, SWC, WAC and a handful of independents. That’s a somewhat select group of schools — gone were the days of the Princeton-Harvard national game of the week — but it was still a group of 63. A program like, say, Iowa State, wasn’t totally left to just be a victim of market demand because it was part of the group, and eventually the CFA gave way to conferences negotiating their own rights. While major programs got the best time slots, it’s not like the rest of the schools in a major conference were ever left entirely by the side of the road.
Two, and this is the bigger issue here in my mind, that’s putting a lot of weight behind how much high school football players cared about being on television. It was definitely a part of coaches’ recruiting pitches during that time so it wasn’t perceived to be worthless by the people that should know, but how many top-flight recruits really chose Nebraska (or anywhere else) over another school based on maybe three extra TV games a year? Did it perhaps grease the wheels for a kid from New Jersey to pack up and head to Lincoln? Sure, maybe. Does that scenario no longer exist? It does not, but because the disappearance of that “edge” — if you buy it as a significant one — mostly coincides with the last 20ish years of the Huskers winning 67 percent of their games (instead of 86 percent over the previous 20) doesn’t make the disappearance of that edge the primary reason for the decreased winning percentage. It just makes it easily identifiable if you know a little bit about the sport’s history.
Test it out for yourself. What meant more to Nebraska’s rise to a program with national titles to its name, TV appearances or a groundbreaking strength program? What meant more, TV appearances or conference strength? What meant more, TV appearances or having a really good coach in Bob Devaney? What meant more, TV appearances or having another really good coach in Tom Osborne? Those are all things that have changed, too.
We can talk a lot about those changes to the game that ding and dent the best programs in the game. (Check out the forthcoming Hail Varsity Yearbook for more on that topic.) We can even make bold proclamations about whether those dings and dents can ever be buffed out, but if you really dig into this topic the answer becomes pretty simple — It’s about the coaches. College football has always been a coaches’ game. Get your hire right and things will be fine. Get it wrong and people will start talking about if your school can ever be great again. It’s really not much more complicated than that.
Say Nick Saban was Nebraska’s (or Notre Dame’s or Tennessee’s) coach tomorrow. Would you feel it was hopeless because the TV landscape has leveled? Would you doubt his ability to recruit to Lincoln (or South Bend or Knoxville) because every Rutgers game was on TV in 2016? Heck, put Saban at Minnesota. You buying the Gophers then? That’s the extreme example, sure, but think about what it means. Add up all the reasons a formerly great program can’t be great again, and ask yourself if it can all be mitigated by getting a great coach? (It’s effectively what Alabama did after bungling three straight hires.)
But that’s not really a take that makes for an easily digestible 4-minute radio segment.
The Grab Bag
- If you want more on the Notre Dame/Nebraska/Tennessee discussion, check out yesterday’s podcast of the Hail Varsity Radio show.
- Seven Huskers make Athlon Sports’ four-deep preseason All-Big Ten teams.
- Nebraska baseball got the win in the Big Ten Tournament last night and now, thanks to the weather, the Huskers get a day off.
- Steve Sipple catches up with incoming freshman defensive back Elijah Blades.
- Which team has the best pass catchers in the Big Ten? Nebraska’s listed as a sleeper.
- Nebraska volleyball has double the number of Twitter followers of any other volleyball program in the country.
Today’s Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.