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Overreaction Monday: Kirk Ferentz and the Changing Landscape in College Recruiting

There’s a lot of money at stake in college athletics these days. Iowa coach Krik Ferentz thinks that’s changed the game and it’s time for the NCAA to adjust.

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NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Florida
LSU basketball coach Will Wade is on a wire tape discussing paying for players. While the NCAA has the far held off on enforcing their rules, the FBI may soon force their hand.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The game has changed. The players playing the games have changed. The rules governing the games have changed. The coaches coaching the games have changed. And the money at stake on the games has changed.

That last one is really what drives all things, good or bad. In today’s college sports world, there are millions of dollars at stake for everyone involved and sums that large will drive people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t.

For big time universities, it’s often $50M+ a year. Each of the Big Ten’s full participants took home roughly $54M last year as the conference brought in a record $759M in 2018. That money didn’t come in because the schools have great academic standards or they’re graduating athletes at a higher rate. No, those dollars came through the door because commissioner Jim Delaney sold television executives on the idea that millions of people want to watch Big Ten schools play football and basketball on TV.

And they do. They most certainly do. That’s why those TV execs happily forked over their money despite declining viewerships. People across the country (and abroad) watch Big Ten football and basketball, and to a lesser extent women’s basketball, baseball, wrestling and hockey.

But just like those TV execs didn’t shell out their money for no good reason, people don’t watch Big Ten athletics for no good reason. They watch because they want to see the top athletes in the country play against other top athletes in great matchups. Ok, maybe they also watch because they went to one of the schools or they group up rooting for them, but those aren’t the people being targeted by the TV companies who are falling all over themselves to get their hands on the marquee matchups.

Think about your own fandom. Of course you have the game time for every Iowa game marked on the calendar. You aren’t missing those. But when the Hawkeyes aren’t playing, you aren’t flipping over to check out Buffalo take on Western Michigan. Not unless everyone else is on a commercial break or it’s Tuesday night (if it’s MACtion, it probably is Tuesday night). No, you’re looking for the most exciting, entertaining game. The one with the big name players, the high profile coaches and the teams you love to hate.

So the TV execs dish out their millions to the schools with those to offer. And to have those shiny things, the schools fork over their millions to the top coaches they can find. We all joke and mock the absurd money Kirk Ferentz makes, but in today’s world it’s not at all absurd.

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Ferentz barely cracked the top 20 of college coaches’ pay despite being the longest tenured coach in the country. For comparison, Alabama’s Nick Saban, the talented coach that he is, made nearly twice as much as Ferentz last year ($8.3M vs. $4.7M ~1.77x). That is at least understandable. But how about Illinois paying Lovie Smith $5M a year to get beaten 63-0 by your Iowa Hawkeyes and win only 4 games?

All over the country, schools are throwing lots of money at coaches they think can deliver them wins because wins mean more money. The coaches know it too. Without the wins, they’re out of a job in a hurry. With the wins, the money keeps flowing and then some.

It should come as no surprise then that so many coaches are willing to do whatever it takes to go get those wins. It starts small with building up the ego of some 17 year old kid you’ve never met. Then you’re calling, texting and sliding into the DMs. You’re liking all their social media and visiting them at their school. You have to build a relationship with a prospect just to get them on your campus.

But that’s just half the battle. EVERY coach is doing that. You have to sell that kid. Convince them you’re is the best school, the best team, the best opportunity and the best situation. That may mean a cheesy salesman pitch. It may mean bending the truth some. It it may still mean something more.

That has perhaps always been the case at certain schools. The most widely known example came from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with SMU. At the time, the Mustangs were a well-oiled machine both on and off the field. And while the egregious disregard for the rules was ultimately met with the death penalty for the football program, that’s perhaps the last example of the NCAA handing down any sort of meaningful enforcement for such violations.

Since then we’ve seen North Carolina commit widespread academic fraud in an attempt to ensure their players (not just for football) remained academically eligible, Auburn win a national title on the backs of a quarterback who chose the school after his father received hundreds of thousands of dollars, USC buy a house for Reggie Bush’s mother and on and on and on. And while USC did actually lose some scholarships, most other programs have walked away unscathed.

The NCAA is a governing body made up by the member institutions. Thus far, those institutions have seemed pretty unwilling to punish themselves for their actions. That appears to be changing soon, but not by choice.

Following months and months of investigations by the FBI, we’re finally looking at some potential movement from the NCAA on actions against the basketball programs involved in the Adidas/Chris Dawkins scandal.

That investigation implicated 20 programs nationally, including Kansas, Arizona, Louisville, LSU and a slew of others. Coaches at 10 different schools, including Auburn, Arizona, USC and Oklahoma State all pled guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery. It’s not unreasonable to have each of those 20 schools hit with a level 1 violation.

For reference:

Level I violations are considered the most serious by the NCAA. They carry the strongest punishments that can include scholarship reductions, postseason bans and show-cause orders against coaches. According to the NCAA, a notice of allegations is sent after an investigation has closed.

This seems like it could have some teeth. But the NCAA has been so inconsistent with their enforcement and so cautious about punishing the top tier programs it’s hard to expect anything significant.

What’s more frustrating is that the probe is entirely limited to NCAA basketball programs. Those were the ones caught on tape explicitly indicating they were paying their players. But during the trials, a witness pointed fingers at NCAA football programs.

Not just any old programs, the witness fingered Alabama, Michigan, North Carolina, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Penn State and Pittsburgh as schools he had paid players. What’s really troubling about the entire situation is that virtually nobody is talking about it. It is a non-story.

That’s because it’s a simple fact of life. Football programs need good players to win big games. They get good players by greasing the wheels. And it’s worth it, because the most likely outcome is nothing happens. Even if the NCAA does find the school to have broken the rules, they’re likely looking at a couple of scholarships lost or -gasp- being stripped of their title retroactively, which literally nobody remembers.

There is no incentive for programs not to cheat other than the integrity of the people inside the program. On the flip side, there are millions of reasons to pay players, hire recruits prostitutes, create fake classes for players to take or local law enforcement to bribe to look the other way. It just is the way it is.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Mississippi State vs Iowa
Kirk Ferentz doesn’t typically speak his mind about college football rules unless it involves a chop block. When he does, we should pay attention.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

But when the dean of college football starts asking for some consistency in rule enforcement on the recruiting trail, we should all take notice. College football has long been dirty, but if Kirk Ferentz is sounding the alarm, as he did around the 40 minute mark of his interview with the Des Moines Register’s Chad Liestikow last week, things have really gone off the rails.

This wasn’t some planted prompt from Liestikow either. Instead, in an interview littered with questions about breakfast food and Dave Matthews Band, Kirk Ferentz said the one thing he would ask of the new Big Ten Commissioner was to get the 5 BCS commissioners get together, as well as an AD or two from each conference and a few head coaches to establish ground rules for recruiting as we move forward. He suggested they form a system of enforcement because people are pushing the boundaries thanks to revenue being sky high and inconsistency in terms of how things are interpreted and looked upon nationally.

For a guy that typically is focused on the handling of chop blocks or improving things for the student athletes, it’s a stark contrast. But alas, the game has changed. The players have changed, the coaches have changed and the money has changed. Perhaps someday, we’ll see the rules change.

Happy Monday everyone. Go out there and get some of that money for yourselves this week.

Go Hawks