College football steps into the 1980s a bit like a jaywalker sizing up Times Square, which is to say, cautiously. For despite rising national attendance figures and a general glow of prosperity, there are more than enough hazards on the horizon.
The main areas of concern are the game's cost, safety, degree of professionalism, and the way in which it promotes questionable behavior for the sake of winning.
A manifestation of trouble in this latter area is the recent scandal that has rocked the Pac-10 Conference. Five member schools -- Southern Cal. UCLA, Oregon , Oregon State, and Arizona State -- have been called on the carpet for using shady means to keep players academically eligible. The conference has banned them from appearing in bowl games this season and made them persona non gratas in the league standings.
This whole question of ethical behavior could become even more of a burning issue during the '80s.
Dan Devine, Notre Dame's head coach, simply says he would like to see more people living up to the spirit of the rules.
Some, of course, didn't even live up to the letter during the 1970s. Among the football programs reprimanded by the NCAA for one reason or another were those at Oklahoma, Michigan State, Houston, Kentucky, Kansas, California, and Mississippi State.
College presidents and administrators no doubt need to assume greater responsibility for the conduct of their football programs, but those directly involved with the game have a mandate too.
Michigan's Bo Schembechler says the "1980s should see us develop stronger recruiting rules and stronger enforcement."
Though most coaches echo this opinion publicly, pressures to win continue to cause some of them to cut corners, if not commit outright infractions.
A chief reason why big-time coaches have felt under such intense pressure to win is because football is often the major money-making sport. It's the sugar daddy that feeds the rest of the athletic program. When Daddy Warbucks falls on hard times, however, everybody may take a cut in allowance.
Schools struggling to maintain athletic quality while making ends meet find that skyrocketing inflation doesn't help matters, nor do Title IX guidelines calling for women to get a bigger slice of college sports budgets.
The challenges of operating in the black have forced a new, more business-like approach to selling college football. The most noted pioneer in this regard is Michigan athletic Don Canham, who has drawn extensively on his business background to keep the Wolverines' 100,000-seat stadium filled to capacity.
Marketing can work in non-winning situations too, as Russ Potts has proved at Southern Methodist. In 1978, with Potts working his promotional magic, SMU's attendance doubled to 51,960 even though the team's record was 4-6-1. It's important to note, however, that young head coach, Ron Meyer, had applied a fresh coat of paint to the football program, giving it a healty, progressive look.
The financial challenges of the '80s may see even more major colleges taking a clearcut, football-as-business approach. In fact, such a tact seems inevitable for school's with self-sufficient athletic departments, as most of those at Division I-A institutions are.
These athletic departments are, and likely will continue to be, responsible for their own operating expenses. For with rising costs and declining enrollments putting the financial squeeze on the academic community, colleges just don't have the money to fund athletic departments used to "going it alone." This independence, of course, has helped to spawn a high degree of professionalism in major college football. Coaches frequently contend that unless the college game retains a high gloss, it cannot compete with the pro game for public attention, whether on TV or in the stadium.
Overall national attendance rose dramatically in the '70s with an increase of 80.2 million spectators over the previous decade, but college football TV ratings dropped off during the past two years. The decline seems to stem from an arrangement preventing a steady diet of glamorous games, which the national audience may prefer, but the NCAA doesn't feel is in the best interests of its entire membership.
The NCAA is a broad-ranging association of 478 member schools divided into four classifications (I-A, I-AA, II, and III). It's a mixed union that simultaneously tries to serve the University of Wisconsin on one hand, and Wisconsin-Oshkosh on the other. Because of this, the big-time schools, the ones with self-sufficient athletic operations, sometimes feel like oranges in an apple bin.
While maintaining their NCAA membership, 62 of these schools have joined the College Football Association, a lobbying group that lists every school in the Big Eight, Southeastern, Southwest, Atlantic Coast, and Western Athletic conferences among its membership, in addition to such major independents as Notre Dame and Penn State. The CFA should emerge as a very influential group in the coming years, particularly in addressing such issues as eligibility, academic standards, TV appearances, and recruiting. A proposal that would limit football recruiting to three months has already been drawn up for presentation at future NCAA meetings. Among other things, a shorter recruiting season would save money.
An even greater savings might result from further limiting the number of scholarships a school can award. Presently, there is 30-95 formula (a maximum 30 scholarships awarded per year, 95 total for four years). This still seems very generous, and at least one coach, Colorado State's Sark Arslanian, thinks the total should be dropped to 75. (Scholarship limitations, by the way, even up the competition by providing for a greater distribution of talent.)
Player safety is one area everybody agrees deserves attention, especially with today's faster, stronger, and larger athletes.
During the '70s, rules were written to protect players from crack-back and chop blocks. All blocking below the waist could be oulawed in the '80s, and certainly more emphasis will be placed on getting football back to a shoulder game. Some coaches are calling for the elimination of face masks, which gave rise to dangerous head-first blocking and tackling techniques. An even greater number favor cushioned helmets.
Indirectly, at least, soccer could prod college football through its most safety- and cost-conscious period yet. On some campuses, soccer has already emerged as an economical, non-violent alternative to football, and considering the number of youngsters playing the game today, soccer's collegiate growth should continue.
Indeed, the next decade might change the whole face of college football as we've come to know it.