College football is in desperate need of a leader or else the sport as we know will be gone forever within two years.
The rapid restructuring of the sport is happening because of a perfect storm of escalating coaching salaries, the addition of the early signing period for high school recruits, the rule change that allows players to transfer from one school to another without having to sit out a season, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ruling that athletes can make money off of their name, image and likeness.
The results of all these events have been staggering. Here are some of the signs the sport is in trouble:
Brian Kelly left Notre Dame to become head coach at LSU two days before the one-loss Irish were set to find out if they had qualified for the four-team playoff. It didn’t help the optics of the situation when the head of the playoff selection committee said Kelly’s absence could adversely affect the Irish’s chances to earn a berth.
Dozens of players decided to opt out of bowl games because they wanted to concentrate on preparing for the NFL draft. It was one thing when Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey first made this career decision. They were highly regarded running backs who were guaranteed to be selected in the first round. Now there are players opting out who may not be drafted at all. It’s become a status symbol to say you’re good enough to opt out.
Even worse are the players who opt out and then opt in to making the bowl trip, picking up their bowl swag before standing on the sidelines to watch their teammates compete.
Players are entering the transfer portal even before their current season is over because they know they need to make themselves available to a new team before roster decisions are made in December. The most egregious case of this is probably Alabama defensive back Marcus Banks. The junior didn’t like that he wasn’t starting, so he entered the transfer portal on Nov. 8. A month later, he would have probably been a starter in the SEC Championship and college football playoffs after starters Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis were injured.
Instead, he was merely a spectator, all because he wanted to secure his position next year at Mississippi State.
The 2021-22 bowl season featured some great games, but the opt outs and COVID issues caused many of the games to be a mockery of the sport. Texas A&M elected not to play at all in the Gator Bowl, saying the program had too many COVID cases. UCLA did the same thing the day before the Holiday Bowl. LSU went the other direction, electing to play in the Texas Bowl despite being down to only 38 scholarship players (including zero scholarship quarterbacks) and four coaches.
Here are some quick fixes to help preserve the sport so many of us love:
Eliminate the early signing period. High school players can wait until February to sign. This will allow college coaches to coach the season then concentrate on putting the finishing touches on the signing class. Coaches from Liberty and Eastern Michigan were in Mobile for the LendingTree Bowl on Signing Day in December. That divided attention can’t be good.
Have a transfer portal period at the end of the season just like we have a signing period for high school players.
Don’t allow colleges to hire or negotiate with potential new coaches until after the National Championship game. This will stop the trend of colleges firing coaches midseason.
Require players to sit out a season if they choose to transfer. This is a requirement now that players are allowed to profit off of their name, image and likeness.
It makes sense to allow a star player to cash in on his popularity once he’s established himself as a positive brand. But it cuts at the fiber of the sport when a player can have a good year then open up his services to the highest bidder at any school. Caleb Williams tried this at Oklahoma, entering the transfer portal while saying he might return to the Sooners. Instead, Oklahoma immediately picked up UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel, leaving one less bidder for Williams.
The sport of college football, with all of its passion, college and pageantry, is still awesome. But it needs help immediately, or else we are going to lose what makes it special.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 19 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on Sports Talk 99.5 and the free iHeartRadio app.
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