College Football 2.0: Leadership void must be filled to address sport’s uncertain, unregulated future


College athletes are becoming quasi professionals! Coaches are overpaid and overbearing! College presidents have lost control!

Those conclusions are both timely and shocking. They are also from a 93-year-old report on American college athletics.

There remains a void atop college sports despite nearly a century passing since that 1929 investigation by the nonprofit Carnegie Foundation. This time, however, the circumstances that vacuum has created are almost certainly to change.

This week, CBS Sports recognizes the first anniversary of name, image and likeness rights being granted to athletes as a jumping off point for a three-part series taking a more intensive look at the state of college football and future of the game.

The nation’s No. 2 sport is at a crossroads. It must adjust. The adults in the room are no longer in charge. (At least not completely.) Players have unprecedented freedom. As the NCAA and its members have been slow to change, the courts have filled the space to mandate change. 

Coaches who are frequently their state’s highest-paid employees oversee their still-underpaid labor force. NCAA deregulation is sharing lanes with a landscape increasingly in need of regulation. The transfer portal is joined at the hip with game-changing NIL. Congress, if it ever catches the scent from a divisive Washington, D.C., could one day run the entire enterprise.

Whatever the outcome, college football has reached an inflection point.

“I feel a little like an escapee,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, due to retire this year after more than 40 years in athletic administration. “You think of it in ‘Shawshank Redemption’ terms. I’m out of the 500-yard sewer. I’m in the rainwater, but I don’t have my dirty clothes off yet.”

The next iteration of the sport might as well be called College Football 2.0. It seems fated the NCAA has lost control over the only sport in which it does not sponsor a championship at the Division I level.

Powerful antitrust lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, who has fought the NCAA on its amateurism model, believes the legal groundwork has been set for the departure of major college football from NCAA jurisdiction.

“I think that’s where we’re headed,” Kessler said. “It’s really just a question of how quickly it gets there. We’re going to head to a world where the NCAA doesn’t have any regulations at all or authority regarding the compensation of benefits and athletes.”

A sport once dominated by cigar-chomping bowl directors, college football’s power brokers have become commissioners, television executives and mega-millionaire coaches leading outsized staffs. Even agents and lawyers have become influential marketing representatives for players in the NIL age.

Some form of leadership must materialize to oversee this mess.

Speaking with CBS Sports, the game’s stewards agree en masse: College football is destined to break away from the NCAA.

What shape will that take? Will the College Football Playoff step into the power vacuum? Will the 130 FBS teams — or a reduced number of Power Five teams — form a new entity? Whatever happens, College Football 2.0 must address its longstanding problem.

‘There’s a leadership void’

“There’s a leadership void right now,” said UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out. But in chaos, there are leaders that emerge. You’re going to see leaders emerge at the school level, at the conference level, at the national level.”

What will be there to meet them?

College football’s eventual leaders will have to consider player empowerment, perhaps even the prospect of sitting across a table in a collective bargaining session with athletes. They will need to oversee the stewardship of riches from an expanded playoff. They will have to help determine whether all — or how many – of the 130 FBS programs should be a part of this new endeavor.

Powerful people have been advocating about major college football breaking away from the NCAA. Among those who have said as much publicly are ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, Ohio State AD Gene Smith, Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick and Pittsburgh AD Heather Lyke.

If they are all saying as much out loud, imagine the activity behind the scenes.

“I believe that it makes sense for the 10 conferences in the FBS to manage everything related to college football, period,” Kliavkoff said. “The 10 [FBS] conferences should have full autonomy to set rules and enforce rules and eligibility. … It doesn’t make sense, in my opinion, that rules related to football have to get approved by boards at the NCAA that includes membership that doesn’t play football.”

Kliavkoff favors a CEO or czar to run the day-to-day aspects of a new operation and answers to a board, such as the FBS commissioners.

The reform-minded Knight Commission was prescient, suggesting in December 2020 that the sport should be taken over by the CFP. The commission went so far as to hire law firms to sketch out the legal ramifications.

“To me, this is not a time to tinker around the edges,” said Arne Duncan, Knight Commission co-chair and former Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama. “These are all self-inflicted wounds. The threat to most organizations, most governments, it’s rarely external. It’s always internal. The lack of leadership, a lack of vision for years has led to the crisis.”

Such a move away from the NCAA would be appropriate given we have reached a point where, at the highest levels, college sports is headed towards professionalization. The NCAA has been diminished to the point it may end up being nothing more than a heck of a March party planner.

That’s why the next leaders to emerge must be progressive and proactive in juxtaposition to the decades-old model of the NCAA being reactive.

“Litigation typically tells you what you’re not allowed to do,” said Gabe Feldman, professor of sports law at Tulane. “It doesn’t tell you how to run your business. There still needs to be a model in place that can survive a legal attack.”

For this reason, the NCAA (and others) have begged Congress for intervention: federal oversight of college athletics with an antitrust provision capping NIL benefits.

“I appreciate people saying, eventually, there has to be a Congressional solution,” Swarbrick said, “but if these guys can’t figure out how to limit automatic weapons in the United States, they’ve got no shot at college football.”

Added a former prominent NCAA executive: “I don’t see any scenario where the horse gets back into the barn. I think [NIL is] the greatest, most beneficial thing that’s happened to student-athletes in 50 years.”

Lucrative media rights will expand further as Oklahoma and Texas join the SEC in 2025.

Extreme Makeover: College Football Edition

College football faces the equivalent of an HGTV-style teardown and rebuild. This one involves reconfiguring a multibillion-dollar enterprise that is wildly popular with great bones but stands in desperate need of repair.

“We’ve set the stage to rebuild the structure, rebuild the house,” said MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher. “We owe ourselves to examine whatever models are there. This is no time to be thinking inside the box.”

“You got to get the right person in charge,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “You’ve got to give him power like an NFL commissioner. Some of the mess we’re in is there hasn’t been one strong voice. … We’ve messed that part of it up.”

The role of academics must be addressed. What is the thinnest thread tying education to athletics that will be tolerated? Will players be able to major in football? Will they have to go to school at all? As long as college-age men don Ohio State and Michigan jerseys on the last Saturday in November, does it matter?

“I really do think collegiate athletes may be — along with the military possibly — the best training ground for future leaders of America. That’s my greatest interest,” Duncan said. “This is about a small handful of schools, five [Power Five] conferences. If they want to play by a different set of rules, let’s be honest about that. Let the NCAA focus on 95% of schools and conferences where the athlete experience is important as well as education.”

TV rights, conference realignment could complicate matters. Two industry sources stressed, amid expanding revenues and a forthcoming reorganization of the sport, realignment may not be over. “Everybody is talking to everybody,” one source said.

Kliavkoff says he fields an inquiry from a school wanting to join the Pac-12 every 10-14 days. His league is happy at 12 teams, especially with a new media rights deal being the priority in 2024. “I think realignment at the top of college athletics is done for now, for this round,” he said.

Still, industry estimates have the 30 schools in the Big Ten and SEC each earning $80 million in annual rights fees once the new Big Ten deal is finalized this year. That would be $30 million per school more than the next-highest conference. And the SEC’s rights are only going up once Oklahoma and Texas join ahead of the 2025 season.

That creates a drastic budget disparity when it comes to key mitigating factors like hiring top coaches and staff, funding a recruiting budget, upgrading facilities and (potentially in the future) paying players. As things stand already, the Big Ten and SEC have combined to win 19 of 24 BCS/CFP championships.

“The concept of competitive equity is really a mirage,” said Bowlsby.

That leads to a basic question: How are these diverse groups going to get along when that has already proven difficult? The disparate COVID-19 response highlighted that, even during a time of national emergency, the conferences first looked out for their own best interests.

The FBS commissioners met last week in Park City, Utah, to begin hashing out their deep divisions over topics related to playoff expansion.

“If there were a time … for us to evaluate the role of college athletics in society, it’s now,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said. “It’s up to us now to collectively work together.”

Who (and what) will rise to the top?

Leadership of College Football 2.0 can take place in two forms: an organizing body with or without a czar to man the wheel.

Since 1978, the NCAA has overseen all four divisions of college football. It could grant the FBS full autonomy and keep it under its umbrella, or the FBS could break away completely and fall under a separate limited liability corporation, such as the College Football Playoff.

Discussions are already underway in terms of what a breakaway would look like. At least three Power Five commissioners are in favor. Lead1 Association — the professional organization consisting of the FBS’s ADs — plans a formal working group to study the subject by September.

As a separate structure, the FBS would have more financial, ethical and moral responsibility. Its captain will need to be savvy in TV negotiations and aware that the players’ voice must be paramount in the decision-making process. 

FBS commissioners

This is the most likely option as the commissioners could appoint a CEO figure who answers to them and a board of university presidents. The structure is already there with the CFP, but these groups would have far more responsibility and liability. That’s part why the NCAA struggles to handle major-college football. It’s more of a disparate Fortune 500 company than a sport organizing body. With this structure, TV rights, rules and enforcement could all live together under one roof.

Asked if the commissioners can run the sport as a separate entity, Swarbrick, who would be part of that group of FBS commissioners, was affirmative.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “The question is what’s the benefit of it? Do you gain enough by doing that, or are you better off just further wrestling autonomy control from the NCAA? Could it be done? Yes. Does it necessarily put you in a better place? A case still has to be made.” 

College Football Playoff

The CFP seems like a logical leadership body for college football because it basically funds the sport — an average of $600 million per year for the FBS. That figure would soar to at least $1 billion per year if, as expected, the playoff field expands from four to 12 teams in 2026. With that move would come pressure and responsibility: pressure to share some of that revenue with players and responsibility to run the entire sport instead of just its playoff.

It is the NCAA that currently absorbs the liability for such hot-button items such as head trauma and academics, but the association has not thrived in that role. In fact, it has lost credibility, leadership ability and legal traction. Duncan calls it a broken governance model.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “… You have this separate corporation [CFP] that is in charge of [$600] million, but the NCAA is liable. It’s mind-boggling to me.”

CFP executive director Bill Hancock acknowledged that FBS institutions need a stronger voice in the room on issues facing college football. However, he was hesitant to say whether the CFP itself would someday be able to manage the responsibilities that come with governing the sport.

“It’s too soon to speculate about that,” Hancock said. “There is a fairly strong feeling that the FBS group needs that stronger say, but there’s many pathways to that. I don’t really have a strong feeling myself on the best way of accomplishing it.”

Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner

Sankey oversees one of the two biggest conferences in the nation. Some say he is already the sport’s czar, but another entity could make that role official. He certainly has the most power and leverage overseeing college football’s most successful and influential conference. The problem with any sitting administrator taking a CEO role is a perceived bias toward their current employer.

Sankey, 58, is at the height of his power and probably better positioned to oversee the sport at his current job. While a critic of the NCAA, he believes in the foundational underpinnings of the collegiate model. Even if he isn’t CEO of College Football 2.0, Sankey will have massive input into its look and day-to-day operation.

Dawn Aponte, NFL chief administrator of football operations

Long mentioned as a rising star, Aponte has soared through the ranks of the NFL. Her long-term prospects might be in the pros, but could a successful run overseeing college football thrust her to the forefront of the eventual search for Roger Goodell’s replacement as NFL commissioner? A former executive with three NFL teams, Aponte was called “a bad-ass” by one insider. College football sure could use a bad-ass.

Paul Tagliabue, former NFL commissioner

The commissioner when free agency was introduced into the NFL might be the perfect leader for college football as it enters its own free agency era. At 81, Tagliabue’s age might be a factor, but his experience probably trumps anyone else on this list. In addition to leading the NFL through a transformative time (1989-2006), Tagliabue was the chairman of the Georgetown board of directors from 2009-15.

“He was quietly urging within the NCAA circles that what they needed to do was change the system themselves or else the courts were going to change it for them,” Kessler said.

Dave Marmion, CFP chief financial officer

In a sport that is about to get another windfall, Marmion is ready to open the books. That’s because he keeps them. There will be pressure to allocate that new money — at least $1 billion annually with expansion — the right way with the CFP in charge. Postgraduate health and education must to be addressed. The players might get a piece in revenue sharing, too. Marmion added the title of CFP chief revenue officer this month. Prior to joining the CFP in 2017, he spent 16 total years at Texas (five as CFO) and Wake Forest (11 as associate AD for finance).

Rick George, Colorado athletic director

George has a wealth of experience having worked for the Big Eight, Big Ten, SEC, PGA Tour and MLB with the Texas Rangers. He is also a leading voice on NCAA issues having served on the NIL working group that developed recommendations — largely ignored by the NCAA — with some of the most powerful administrators in the country. George, a former Illinois cornerback, was previously mentioned as a finalist for Big 12 commissioner, though it appears the league is heading in another direction.

Joe Castiglione, Oklahoma athletic director

One of the most respected persons in college athletics, Castiglione would be a uniting force. In a quarter century at Oklahoma, he has restored the Sooners’ football fortunes with the consecutive hirings of Bob Stoops, Lincoln Riley and now Brent Venables. It’s fair to say OU has never been better athletically across the board.

If he pursued the jobs, Joe C. would get serious consideration for the NCAA president and Big 12 commissioner openings. There is no evidence he has gone after either opportunity, but the respect for him is such that he would be at the top of the list once submitting his name. Castiglione is also a former member of the CFP Selection Committee.

Oliver Luck, Altius Sports Partners chairman

Life is good for the former West Virginia AD and 61-year old father of Andrew Luck. He resides in the Colorado mountains and recently said his proximity to the slopes certainly beats a 50-hour work week that one would have as, say, the new Big 12 commissioner.

Think bigger. Luck’s wealth of institutional knowledge would be invaluable as the head of college football. He’s been an NFL quarterback, NFL executive (NFL Europe) and the NCAA executive vice president. If he doesn’t stump for the job, you can be sure his knowledge will be tapped to shape the future of the game.

Mark Silverman, Fox Sports president and CEO
Burke Magnus, ESPN president of programming

One cannot be mentioned without the other. Their evaluations of conference media rights have defined those leagues, their revenues and ultimately the game of college football itself. Silverman has positioned Fox Sports and the Big Ten as industry leaders since helping launch the Big Ten Network in 2007. As Fox has aggressively pursued sports rights, Silverman has been an industry leader.

Quoting an ESPN biography, Magnus helped “set the strategic direction of the company’s college sports content.” Assuming the future division of the sport is going to be based on media rights, either would be a wise pick. Both have the juice to run the game. Call this one a tie. The one problem? Each probably has a better job already.

Ohio State AD Gene Smith

Smith, who told CBS Sports he not interested in such a role, oversees the second-largest athletic budget in the country. He has been outspoken about NIL in particular and recently suggested it become part of the scholarship package along with room, board, books, tuition, fees, cost of attendance, etc. “I wouldn’t make this hard,” Smith said. “We don’t want to create some bureaucratic structure that we currently have.”

Smith foresees a system overseen by presidents and commissioners with day-to-day oversight going to an “operational group.” That would be the body responsible for some of the heavy baggage such as rules enforcement, officiating and bowl game certification.

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