If Jim Harbaugh and his University of Michigan football program were sending scouts to Minnesota games to steal their signs, you have to ask yourself why. It’s hard to believe he was worried about losing to Minnesota.
Now, while Harbaugh’s program is under NCAA investigation for an alleged system of in-person sign-stealing that breaks the NCAA’s competitive rules, it doesn’t mean the Wolverines actually bothered to steal the Gophers’ signs. To be fair, it seems like overkill. The U has beaten Michigan twice since 1987, and it usually isn’t close. The teams met Oct. 7, and the Wolverines won 52-10.
On the other hand, Harbaugh was suspended three games this season for violating NCAA recruiting rules, which seems impossible in the Age of Name, Image and Likeness. So, maybe there’s something to the whole thing. Maybe Harbaugh felt as though Michigan didn’t simply have to beat the Gophers, but humiliate them — because no matter what anyone else tells you, margin of victory counts.
Maybe in the NCAA’s revamped booster free-for-all unleashed by NIL collectives, the haves like Michigan feel they not only have to provide the highest cash bid for star players, they have to do everything else within their power to earn a spot in the College Football Championship, a terrific bonus chit to the player already promised everything else.
That’s more national exposure, more NIL opportunities, more money.
This has created an existential crisis for programs like Minnesota’s, prompting Gophers coach P.J. Fleck to use his radio program to beg listeners to buy more beer and t-shirts that directly help Gophers student-athletes so that his star freshman running back doesn’t leave for greener pastures after this season. Coming from a coach making around $6 million a year, it’s rich.
Coach better. Buy the beer and the t-shirts. Grab an oar.
But while it’s existential for programs like Fleck’s, which got a peek at the big time with an 11-2 season in 2019, it’s different for the haves. They already have the boosters and exposure to make Blake Corum a millionaire and sure as hell aren’t going to cede conquered territory. Maybe, if any of this is true, Harbaugh and his program feel pressure to beat the Big Ten’s underclass by 50 points a game and enjoy whatever that helps them reap.
College athletics are off the rails. It’s great for athletes, which is good, but for a fan it becomes more difficult to enjoy the games, at least at the highest level. We already have pro sports, we don’t need more — especially if they’re the same sports, primarily football and basketball, that already have our attention.
The NCAA, of course, made this mess, creating a lucrative eco-system that rewarded coaches and administrators but not student-athletes. When the players finally became confident enough to challenge the system in court, it crumbled, and the NCAA — facing its own existential crisis — typed up a few vague rules and said, “Go to town.”
And now we have the NIL gong show. While Fleck begs Gophers fans to Row the NIL Boat, coaches like Nick Saban and Kirk Ferentz are begging for an intervention. Again, it’s rich coming from coaches who make even more than Fleck, but they’re right.
Basketball, with its 68-team national tournament, still makes room for underdogs, and not surprisingly, when they’re successful, they’re the big stories of the NCAA’s biggest TV extravaganza. Football isn’t on that trajectory, moving instead to a sort of Rollerball, an exclusive, corporate-sponsored hellscape featuring the same six to eight teams every year.
One of the great joys of college football is watching App State beat Michigan and Boise State beat Oklahoma. Do you want to live in a world where that will never happen again? Do you want a college landscape where even Michigan’s coach feels he needs to steal your signs?
In its race to save the status quo without a map, college football is eating itself.
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