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Original Issue


Reforms in college football must start at the top

In recent months you may have noticed some contradictory statements relating to academics by your favorite big-time college football coach. One minute he is railing against the NFL for diminishing his program's graduation rate by making his seniors miss spring classes to participate in endless tests and tryouts for the pros. The next minute he is fuming at the reformers who say they want to limit the time athletes can devote to football so that players will have more time for studies.

The supposed do-gooders—and there are many college presidents among this group—want to ban athletic dorms, limit the time a scholarship athlete can devote to his sport to 20 hours a week and abolish, or severely limit, training tables and spring practice. Some coaches are so mad they would like to secede from the NCAA.

As always, the coaches will tell you that their only concern is their players' welfare. "In our part of the country, it's imperative that we have athletic dorms and training tables," says Mississippi coach Billy Brewer, who is living in the Rebel athletic dorm this season with his wife, Kay, while they shop for a house. "Most of our kids come from poor economic backgrounds, and this is a chance to improve them. We're doing a good job on the academic part of it and the discipline part of it, and the players like it."

"Think about . the great football coaches—Rockne, Blaik, Bryant, Wilkinson, Dodd," says another SEC coach, Auburn's Pat Dye. "[The reformers] are trying to structure the game so that these types of individuals have less influence on young people's lives, and that's a tragic mistake. If [the reformers] really want to help the kids, they should see to it that the coaches have more time with them."

Dye and Brewer may be extreme in their intransigence—but not by much. Under siege, coaches are digging in their heels and insisting that the key to success on the football field has not changed: Control virtually every aspect of your players' lives. This argument might be more persuasive, of course, if we hadn't seen so many examples in recent years of how the current system has failed off the field. How many dreary stories have we read about football players, ostensibly living under their coaches' thumbs, becoming involved in drugs, brawls and rapes? And where is the evidence that proves there is a beneficial relationship between athletic dorms, curfews and training tables on the one hand and grades on the other?

Unlike ordinary students, who are encouraged to partake liberally of the feast of opportunities available on a college campus, football players live regimented lives and rarely stray from the athletic complex. Given the chance, maybe some of them would rather spend more time in a chemistry lab, or reading books, or even discussing world events over a brew.

This is what the coaches are afraid of. Coaches wonder why football time should be restricted, when it's O.K. for, say, journalism majors to work 10 hours a day on the student newspaper or for chemistry students to work late into the night in the lab. The difference is that football players are rarely given a choice as to how they spend their time. They are often little more than laborers who, incidentally, don't get compensated nearly well enough for their labors. It's big business, serious business, and there's the rub.

A great deal is expected of a big-time college football coach. As head of a multimillion-dollar business, he is supposed to win enough to fill the stadium, get the team on TV, earn a bowl bid and make the alumni so happy that donations keep rolling in. He must accomplish all of this in order to put his program so far in the black that it will be able to support not only itself, but the rest of the athletic department as well (as many as 28 varsity sports in the case of Penn State). At the same time, he is expected to see to it that his players graduate within five years, even though many come out of high school so ill-prepared that they have no business being in college in the first place.

From the coach's perspective, how can he help but be confused about his mission? Especially when it is the very university administrators who espouse reform—not the coaches—who are negotiating huge TV contracts and talking about creating superconferences. Many administrators still haven't come to terms with how to reconcile their desire for profit with the lofty ideals of their schools.

Until they do, the coaches will remain trapped in the middle, paying lip service to the ideal—that education comes first—while desperately trying to maintain control of their players and their sport. University officials could help coaches shed their antiquated notions about how to run their football programs by guaranteeing the coaches that their jobs aren't solely dependent on how many games they win or how much revenue they generate.

But you don't hear much of that, do you? Of course not. So don't be too hard on your favorite coach if he seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth. He's probably only trying to figure out what his university's priorities really are.