Nobody actually cares about competitive balance

So when you hear somebody cite it as a reason not to do something...be very skeptical!

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Okay. Let’s do the rest of the shilling at the end of the newsletter. But first? Some news.

No, nobody ACTUALLY cares about competitive balance

Many of the bigwigs of college football are at the Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, in New York. I’m sure plenty of other interesting stories will be written about the conference over the next several days, but two tweets from #insiders really stuck out to me.

First, there was this line from NCAA President Mark Emmert, during a discussion on NIL rights and legislation.

Now, Mark is not the only college athletics leader to make a similar argument. And as The Intercollegiate recently pointed out, Emmert does serve a role as a performative outrage sponge. I’m not bringing this up to dunk on him, personally.

But I hate this argument. Nobody actually cares about the distance between the haves and have-nots. Nobody, or at least no decision maker in college sports, cares about competitive balance at all.

College football programs succeed based on their ability to do two things: recruit talent, and develop talent.

The ability to recruit talent is highly imbalanced, and a lot of that has nothing to do with anything Mark Emmert, or the NCAA, could hope to control. Elite CFB talent is not distributed uniformly across the country and everything from state education budgets, demographic shifts, to religion, culture, and a litany of other factors dictate where really good high school football players live. No NCAA rule can sweep away Ohio State, Clemson or LSU’s advantageous geography, Notre Dame’s history, Stanford’s academics or Nebraska being in the middle of Nebraska.

There are a few structural rules that limit how unbalanced recruiting gets, though. The NCAA established scholarship limits. A football program gets up to 85 (no matter how much money they have), and (generally) can only sign 25 kids a class. So for a program like Alabama or Clemson, it’s literally very difficult for their recruiting to get much more elite than it already is…virtually every kid they sign is a blue-chipper. They can’t realistically sign more.

There’s also a market correction mechanic built in here. Even if Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, etc., sign 22 elite recruits a cycle, they can’t keep them all, because they can’t play them all. Recruits want to go where they can actually play, and we’ve already seen a lively transfer market filter talent from elite programs to places like Illinois, Northwestern, TCU, and elsewhere.

If the NCAA was concerned about competitive balance, they could lower scholarship limits even more, forcing some elite kids that might otherwise go to Alabama to go to mid-tier programs. Nobody wants this. It’d take away scholarship opportunities from athletes, it might make the game less safe, and it might make the television product worse. If there’s been any meaningful recruiting policy pushed that could actually incentivize more equality in recruiting, I can’t remember it. The preference for the status quo is strong.

There are a few basic rules about what is permitting in developing talent (players can only practice X amount of hours, schools can only have so many on-field coaches, etc.), but there’s plenty of room for elite programs to do more. There are no coaching salary cap rules. There are no rules limiting the number of analysts or supplemental staffers. There are no rules limiting facility spending, or scouting, or any of the other gazillion things an athletic department might spend money on. On the contrary, the biggest schools have sought flexibility and autonomy to allow them to do even more than the smallest schools.

If competitive balance was something anybody cared about, surely there’d be an internal push for postseason access equity, right? How could we have balance if half of FBS is eliminated from the playoff before it starts?

Nobody, no conference commissioner, no influential AD, no television executive, cares enough about this concept to push changes that might actually bring it to pass. Competitive balance is not the historical norm in college football. We’ve seen in sporadically, like shortly after WWII, or for a few years in the 1980s, but generally, blue-bloods have ruled the sport.

If nobody is seriously interested in changing that, then it shouldn’t be an excuse to avoid improving the lives of athletes, be that from NIL marketplace access, to providing additional benefits.

Imagine - a world where Alabama gets better football players than Kentucky! Imagine where they win that game almost every single time! Imagine how unfair that would be! Who could possibly remain invested in such a sport….besides everybody currently invested in the sport?

The 8/9 conference games debate is bad

Another perpetual debate that pops up whenever conference commissioners are given a live microphone is schedule equality. See, some leagues play eight conference games. And other leagues play nine conference games. And there’s a college football bylaw somewhere that states that the proper method must be argued about at all times.

Here, we can see a conference commissioner that benefits from playing eight games, much to the chagrin of his peers, recommending that people do things his way:

As a fan, I think it would be preferable for leagues to play nine games. As conferences have expanded, nine games gives teams more opportunities to play regional opponents that fans might actually care about, and help strengthen conference bonds. Generally, I think nine conference games are more attractive to TV partners (so it’s tough to tell the Pac-12, for example, to drop to eight. Fox isn’t going to pay the same amount of money for eight games!) But I understand why some leagues prefer to play eight games.

Here’s the thing. This debate usually comes up in the context of the College Football Playoff, and I think it usually misses the entire point. It doesn’t matter if a team plays eight or nine conference games. What matters is who those opponents actually are.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I stubbornly believe we can strive for a world where we judge college football teams not by the name on their jersey, but by the merit of their program. I am not a college football Calvinist. Teams are not preordained to have certain merit every season. Even big brand names can go 4-8 occasionally.

To pick an example completely at random…like Notre Dame.

Anyway, I think it’s dumb for a Big Ten East program to pretend like they are paragons of virtue for playing nine league games when one of those league games is Rutgers. Sagarin, SP+, whatever advanced stat you want, puts about two dozen FCS teams higher than Rutgers, and well over 100 FBS programs. A Big Ten East school would play a “tougher” schedule by replacing Rutgers with nearly any other program.

The real problem with all of this, I think, is that college football stubbornly refuses to stop scheduling games a gazillion years in advance, which makes right-sizing schedule strength impossible. Consider the following:

I intellectually know why this is the case. I know ADs are terrified of not having inventory, so they need to lock down games because everybody else is. But this is a terrible policy that leads to terrible arguments over Arkansas and Rutgers and Arizona and all of this would be so much better if we just decided to rip up all these contracts for games in the 2040s and try to pick games against comparable opponents.

If you play eight games in a competitive league and schedule a Boise State, a UCF, or a BYU out of conference, you very well may have played a tougher slate than somebody with a nine game league schedule. Maybe your eight game league schedule skips every other good team, and your decision to schedule four “FCS Northeast” programs out of conference should be mocked openly. I dunno. It depends on your schedule!

Stop making eight or nine games out to be some dadgum morality play. Judge teams based on what they did, not who they were friends with in the 1930s.

Speaking of friends in the 1930s,

How one earth do you figure out who the best college football coaches are?

College football is old. Really old. 150 years old, specifically, which is why lots of outlets, including my own, have done lots of neat college football historical stories this season.

But it makes comparing programs, players and coaches across eras very difficult. Take ESPN’s attempt at figuring out who the best 150 college football coaches ever, for example.

ESPN has Bear Bryant #1, and Nick Saban #2, which, hey, fine, I don’t think too many folks will complain about that. By trying to suss out the entire middle is very difficult.

Do you judge how good a coach is by how much they dominated their peers? If so, I think you’d have to put somebody like Michigan’s Fielding Yost at the very top. Nobody kicked ass like Michigan did from 1901-1905, after all. But Yost was only a part-time coach himself, and he was coaching against programs that sometimes didn’t have professional coaches at all. The structural gap between his program and say, Oberlin or Case Technical Institute, was enormous.

How do you evaluate an HBCU coach? FAMU’s Jake Gaither, for example, was a chalkboard wizard, and his coaching clinics were some of the most influential across the history of the sport. He had to play with a budget a tiny fraction of his PWI peers, and institutional racism locked his programs out of major opportunities. There’s little doubt in my mind that had he replaced Woody Hayes at Ohio State, for example, he would have won a ton of football games. But where do you rank him? To just throw Gaither at like, 53rd place, seems almost unfair.

In my opinion, great coaches are seldom great at every facet of coaching. Some are elite recruiter, elite gameday managers, elite at hiring and developing assistant coaches, and some are elite as playcallers and developers. Most of the 150 on that list are great are multiple things, but very few are great at all of them.

I’d be very interested in a ranking of the most influential coaches, which may be easier to do across eras. That’d allow the sport to recognize a guy like Mouse Davis, whose career record won’t get him in any Hall of Fame (he’s just 42-24 as a college head coach), but his influence as a godfather of the Run and Shoot might.

I’m interested in any of your takes on ESPN’s list. I think Urban Meyer at 46, Jake Gaither at 53, and John Merritt at 71 are all probably way too low, but hey, this is also an impossible task and question, so what do I know?

Okay, before we wrap this up, two last things:

Everybody needs clothes. It’s too cold, and very illegal, to go without them. And if you have to buy clothes, you might as well get clothes with awesome, vintage college logos on them. You know who makes those? Homefield! These are legitimately great shirts with fun logos and prints that you can’t find anywhere else. And if you use the promo code EXTRAPOINTS at checkout, you get 20% off your order. Pretty neat, if you ask me!

You know what’s more fun that clothes? Books. Looking to buy a book? How about a college football alternate history book? I wrote one! My book, What If?, examines questions like, “what if the Metro SuperConference actually happened?”, or “what if Penn got to keep their special TV deal and became a national power?” and a bunch of other questions. Readers of this newsletter would probably enjoy it! You can find it on Amazon.

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