The SEC’s annual Media Days — the biggest football conference needs three calendar days just to accommodate all the blather — convene Wednesday in Hoover, Ala. The ACC stages its (two-day) convocation this weekend in Pinehurst, N.C. This means we’re not that far from actually getting to watch the One True Sport, the game we Southerners know and love.
One question, though. Should we love it?
For college football, 2011 has already been an annus horribilis, which is Latin for “lousy year.” And yes, it’s only July. We’ve still got the 2011 season to go. Maybe things will get better. They could scarcely get worse. In calendar 2011 we’ve seen:
• The 2004 BCS titlist (Southern Cal) stripped of its crown, largely because of an investigation into the financial arrangements of Reggie Bush, the 2005 Heisman winner.
• The 2002 BCS titlist (Ohio State) stripped of iconic head coach Jim Tressel, who resigned after it was revealed he hadn’t reported allegations of players trading memorabilia for tattoos and had been less than forthcoming in statements to the NCAA.
• The 1998 BCS titlist (Tennessee) stripped of athletic director Mike Hamilton, who quit ahead of an NCAA hearing into basketball and baseball, yes, but also football. Which can happen when you hire Lane Kiffin.
• The 2009 ACC champion (Georgia Tech) stripped of its title because it used an ineligible player and stripped of $100,000 because its administration ticked off the NCAA.
• One of the three 2010 Big East co-champions (West Virginia) placed on two years’ NCAA probation because of a failure to monitor its coaches.
• The 2010 Music City Bowl champion (North Carolina) informed that the NCAA has levied nine violations, ranging from impermissible benefits to academic misconduct, against it.
• Both teams that played for the 2010 BCS title fall under scrutiny: Auburn because of the presence of Cam Newton, the 2010 Heisman winner whose recruitment is still apparently the center of an ongoing NCAA investigation, and Oregon because it paid a Texas man named Willie Lyles $25,000 for what it contends were “scouting services” but what Lyles says were something else.
• The Fiesta Bowl, one of the BCS flagships, lose its president and nearly lose its exalted status after it was revealed staffers had been (illegally) reimbursed for contributions to political campaigns.
• One of the 2010 Big East co-champions (West Virginia again) accepting the resignation of head coach Bill Stewart, who had become implicated in the attempt to smear Dana Holgorsen, whom the Mountaineers had just hired as Stewart’s successor-in-waiting. Quick succession, huh?
The NFL and the NBA are locked out because of money. After such a run of regrettable news, we who follow college football should be asking if this sport mightn’t be better served locking its doors and disbanding its programs. Even those among us who have long known of the seamier side to the Color & Pageantry are wondering if color and pageantry are worth all this.
College football has long been a dirty business, but it’s bigger and dirtier than ever. The strange spectacle of recruiting has become a sport unto itself. (Esteemed colleague Michael Carvell offers the best description I’ve heard: “A lot of fans would rather see their team get a big commitment than score a touchdown on Saturday.”) Assistant coaches now make more than Hall of Fame head coaches did a quarter-century ago. At least one father — an ordained minister, of all things — has been accused of trying to sell his son’s services.
And yet: For all the grime, college football is the one game for which our passion is never diminished. Look around the SEC. Notice many empty seats in those massive stadiums? Even college basketball has seen its regular season diluted because nobody can remember who’s playing from year to year, but never college football. There’s big money to be made. (Except if you’re a player and you’re looking to sell your Independence Bowl jersey. That’ll cost you four games.)
Back to the SEC. It’s the biggest, and its five consecutive BCS titles brand it as the best. It’s also, as Brett McMurphy of CBS Sports noted, the slimiest. Since 1987, no conference can match the SEC’s 13 major NCAA violations. Every SEC football program save two — LSU, which saw its last major violation in 1986, and Vanderbilt, which has never been hit with one — has been docked over that span. The (im)moral of our story: To be the best, cheat the hardest.
And yet: We know all this stuff and we love it anyway. And, cognitively dissonant though we are, we’re about to get excited all over again. Heaven help us all.
By Mark Bradley