Monday, September 17, 2007

Not so fighting Irish

I have to be honest. I love see Notre Dame suffer. It’s got nothing to do with Charlie Weis, although his ego is only rivaled in size by his belly. It’s also got nothing to do with the classless way Notre Dame pulled the rug out from under Ty Willingham. While I think that the color of his skin made it easier for the trustees to send him packing before he crossed that fifth year threshold every other Irish coach had been afforded to that point, I don’t think race was the reason he was fired. A factor? Sure, but not the reason.

My hatred of Notre Dame goes way back and has cultural implications. I grew up in the Cleveland area. Catholic high schools dominate the football landscape throughout Ohio but in Cleveland they seem untouchable. Somehow the Catholic schools always had the best athletes in every sport. Cleveland St. Ignatius high school was among the top five ranked high schools in the country for five years straight.

To those from outside the area the run seems impressive but people living in Cleveland understand the corruption involved. Football is a big deal in that part of the country and every year there’s a scandal involving some outstanding player changing schools. Public schools have to follow pretty strict rules regarding sports recruiting but Catholic schools are private entities who do not answer to public administration. It’s no secret that these schools offer scholarships to standout players but it goes deepe: parents are offered administrative jobs, siblings get scholarships and other financial considerations are presented.

Although he didn’t play football, Lebron James was implicated in a high profile example of this sort of tomfoolery. James didn’t come from a family that could afford parochial tuition but somehow he managed to attend Akron St. Vincent St. Mary’s for four years. Before he signed an NBA contract, James drove to school in a brand new Hummer. The car was in his mother’s name but his team…his high school team…was traveling around the country playing in NBA venues to sold out crowds. His school got a huge portion of the gate. Even with such a remarkable player most public schools would not be able to absorb the expense of marketing their basketball program and if they did it would draw the attention of public officials. A Catholic school, however is part of a much larger organization that doesn’t have to answer to the same people. In the end the diocese invested in marketing Lebron James and reaped massive financial rewards. Make no mistake, they paid him. They had to. Good luck proving it.

High school football players are rarely so publicized but the top recruits heading to big time college ball seem to come from large catholic schools. In Cleveland you’ll see kids transfer from a rough inner city high school to a posh Catholic campus just weeks after completing a break out season. Sometimes the transfer will entail a move of 40 or 50 miles. Where does a family scraping by on food stamps come up with the money to make that happen? Other private schools join the fray as well but in the Midwest the Catholic schools have a stranglehold on athletics.

This is a big part of the reason Notre Dame was so successful. NCAA recruiting rules are designed to level the playing field and give each program a fair chance to make a pitch to a promising high school athlete but for decades Notre Dame had its hooks into the very best players long before any other college could consider them. By using the Catholic diocese to funnel top athletes to Catholic high schools, Notre Dame was able to exploit the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to contact players about playing for Notre Dame.

Notre Dame saw its fortunes turn for the worse when the NCAA imposed scholarship limits on the major programs. That leveled the playing field. Before those scholarship limits were imposed players prestigious programs could hide great players on the bench strangling other schools. Well endowed schools could offer countless scholarships while less known programs scraped by. Now those lesser programs are starting to shake things up. That’s why Boise State and Rutgers are suddenly contenders while Notre Dame struggles to establish some consistency.

Another factor in Notre Dame’s demise is that the NCAA is allowing for much earlier contact between high school players and college coaches. Players are verbally committing as juniors and contact can start as early as junior high school thanks to skills camps and other events coaches are allowed to participate in. Notre Dame has lost its advantage. The Catholic high schools are no longer a safe haven for Notre Dame recruiters.

Notre Dame’s biggest problem is that its trustees refuse to change with the times. They still approach recruiting as though Notre Dame is doing the athlete a favor. While it’s true that Notre Dame does have more stringent academic requirements, the problem is that Notre Dame is arrogant enough to believe that its legacy sells itself. That is no longer the case. Today’s players don’t care about Knute Rockne, Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes. And they shouldn’t because it ancient history. They care about playing time and media exposure. Nobody wants to sit on the bench for three years…not even if its at Notre Dame.

The final problem Notre Dame faces is the expanded media coverage. Notre Dame enjoyed a national television contract and gleefully crammed its product down the throats of a sports-watching public that simply didn’t have a choice. Now there’s plenty of choice. Credit the Big East and the MAC for leaping at the opportunity to play weeknight games on ESPN. Now they have an advantage in recruiting players because they get prime time exposure. Notre Dame and other traditional powers balk at the idea but a high school player dreaming of playing on Sunday would be wise to eschew regional coverage on Saturday for prime time coverage on Thursday. It won’t be long before USC loses a top recruit to West Virginia and then you’ll see the mad dash for weeknight games.

Notre Dame used to be the only show in town, now Saturday is a blitz of intense coverage. Games are analyzed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Fans aren’t easily fooled and everybody knows Notre Dame isn’t the best show in town. Fans are smart and they are getting smarter. Failing to recognize the changing market place has put Notre Dame at a severe disadvantage. People are no longer enamored with the Irish.

And I’m loving every minute of it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Polls or Playoffs?

As you look up and down the two college football polls one has to wonder what people are thinking. Ohio State certainly hasn't performed like a top 10 team, nor has Texas but yet they remain fixed in their places because they won. USC looked flat in its opener but held on to its top ranking in spite of taking a week off while LSU spanked Virginia Tech. West Virginia is entrenched in the top 5 even though the Mountaineers feature a defense that couldn't stop a Pop Warner team from scoring. Never mind that five or six teams ranked outside of the to 10 look much better than half the teams in it,.the preseason poll determined the national champs before a game was played.

BCS advocates will tell us that the BCS rankings take much more into account but the polls carry quite a bit of weight in the final tally. The polls wouldn't be so bad if the people casting their ballots watched every game or at least analyzed the stats to appreciate how teams win. If I'm being objective I can't justify Ohio State being ranked ahead of Oregon at this point in the season and I certainly couldn't leave USC ranked ahead of LSU simply because USC didn't lose. But even if the polls did a better job of analyzing each team, there are still fatal flaws in the system.

Champions should be determined on the field. BCS proponents warn that there would still be controversies over who got into the playoffs and some erroneously argue that playoffs would diminish the importance of the regular season. The enormous success of the NFL proves that theory wrong and while there would be a handful of people crying foul over one or two of the playoff selections, the fact that pretenders and contenders would run a gauntlet to win it all would dry those tears in a hurry. You can't say the same for the BCS.

Arbitrary champions winning paper titles? That's not football.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Michigan seals fate of NCAA Football.

Michigan put together a nice run last year that was capped by a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of a talent laden Ohio State squad that could only be stopped by its own complacency. Coincidentally, that is precisely why Florida won a so called national title. Even after the loss Michigan was very close to getting another shot at Ohio State and a chance to be crowned BCS champs. Ultimately the Wolverines fell short of enough points to qualify for that title shot.

Ironically Michigan chose to play a team that won a legitimate national title last year. Appalachian State is a division 1 AA college which means it is considerably smaller than Michigan but somehow the NCAA has no problem with organizing a playoff system for the smaller programs. Appalachian State didn't have to worry about computer points and polls because in division 1 AA champions are determined on the field.

Appalachian State had little hope of beating #5 Michigan. Michigan was loaded on offense and only needed to tune its defense to march through the season unscathed. Nobody gave Appalachian State much of a shot and starting the season off with a beating at the hands of a division 1 A powerhouse was not going to hurt Appalachian State's chances of repeating it's championship run. Michigan, however couldn't afford to lose a single game this year. Under the BCS system perfection is the only sure way of getting a title shot which means its better to be lucky than good.

Appalachian State is not better than Michigan and if they played 100 times Michigan would win 99. Appalachian State simply caught Michigan asleep at the wheel. Everybody knows this but that won't stop Michigan from free falling in the polls. Now Michigan, a team capable of beating anybody in college football will have to hope that other top-ranked teams lose later this season if they have a shot at playing in the BCS Championship game. Appalachian State, on the other hand, gets nothing but a pat on the back for pulling of the massive upset. Later this year Appalachian State will have to run a gauntlet of top caliber teams on the road to a real championship game while Michigan waits for reporters, coaches and computers to award it with enough points to play for something meaningful.

Lost in this story is the fact that Michigan did what every other top-ranked team in D1A did this year. Everybody scheduled a D1AA opponent in order to pad the schedule with an easy win while still collecting ticket revenue. The NCAA realized that there was more money to be made with a 12th game but nobody wanted to give up a home game so they opened the door to the newly dubbed Championship subdivision. It sounds better than D1AA.

While everybody is snickering at Michigan's misfortune the policy makers in the NCAA office are thrilled. This upset legitimizes the scheduling of D1AA foes and increases the marketability of these games. Who will be the next to fall?

The problem is it won't be anybody of Michigan's caliber anytime soon. Michigan was looking past this game and down the road at key match ups such as its November grudge match against Ohio State. Appalachian State went out hoping to catch Michigan by surprise. In the end it was all about motivation. What happened to Michigan will serve as a wake up call to the rest of college football. Coaches will have a tangible example of what can happen on any given Saturday and getting players motivated to play their best against a weaker opponent will no longer be a struggle.

Sadly that game will keep the critics at bay for a few years too. The NCAA can point to this upset anytime somebody questions a soft schedule. People will claim that parity has equalized the balance of power but when you ask why the Western Athletic Conference doesn't get an automatic BCS bid they'll change the subject. In the end it's all about the money and though Michigan will pay the price for this loss in the polls all year, this game has secured the financial future of the NCAA for the next decade.