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WITH WEALTH AND DRAMA, THIS IS COLLEGE FOOTBALL’S TAKEOVER
The NFL is king, but the $100 million coaching swirl — Lincoln Riley at USC, Brian Kelly at LSU -- and more stunning chaos on the field reminds us that the college game is a booming craze unto itself
What once was a little-brother, big-brother delineation is now a blur. Except for marching bands, drunken alums and athletes who need a GPS device and Sherpa guide to find a classroom, college football is big-booming into a mega-billion-dollar extension of the NFL, inevitably headed toward a 12-team playoff worth — ready? — $2 billion a year.
That’s more than Major League Baseball generates from TV in an entire seven-month season. That’s not much less than what the NBA commands in an entire season. It also blows up ancient thinking that basketball and baseball are the No. 2 and No. 3 sporting passions in America. No, move aside for college football, which even has come around to compensating players, thanks to the Supreme Court, if they are prominent enough to warrant fast-food commercials and free cars from local dealers who were sneak-providing them anyway.
If ever a weekend reminded us of the college game’s clout and ability to seize a national attention span, it was the one that concluded Sunday, when Lincoln Riley merrily filled the USC vacancy and became the latest head coach to push the $100 million threshold. Of course, Riley would leave Oklahoma, where he’d have dealt with monstrous SEC competition in four years, for southern California, where a fertile recruiting region awaits, including quarterbacks who know he turned Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield into Heisman Trophy winners. Of course, he’s headed to Hollywood, where USC’s wealthy, influential power base approved his record-breaking deal and also will shower lucrative NIL opportunities — for names, images, likenesses — upon recruits who don’t have enough reasons as it is to choose Tommy Trojan U., such as sunny skies and mid-70s temperatures for Riley’s opening news conference. Back on the prairie in Norman, where cold weather is arriving soon, quarterback Spencer Rattler received two vehicles from an automotive group and a deal with Raising Cane’s chicken chain — then played like chicken bleep and was benched.
At USC, Riley will point players to Hollywood studios, or to LeBron James and superagent Rich Paul, or to a CAA building where agents are knifing each others to sign prospects. Already, California-based recruits who were coming to play for him at Oklahoma are flipping to USC. It's about damned time. Finally, a school so full of itself that it kept dipping into a glorious past for inept athletic directors — and borrowing from the long, lost regime of Pete Carroll for head coaches — has reached its tentacles beyond Heritage Hall and located a young, innovative coach who will take over a navigable Pac-12 and, year after year, guide USC into the expanded playoff. That rumble is not an earthquake but the awakening of a snoozing fan base. This follows the 10-year, $95 million deal signed by Mel Tucker at Michigan State. And the 10-year deal, with escalators reaching at least $80 million, signed by an underperforming James Franklin at Penn State. Riley is said to be making about $12 million a year at USC, more than Nick Saban at dynastic Alabama. It's a figure exceeded in the NFL coaching ranks only by Bill Belichick, who has won six Super Bowls and might be headed to another in early February — imagine, Hoodie vs. Tom Brady in magical SoFi Stadium — by honing his own G.O.A.T. chops with a defense that compliments Mac Jones, the only successful first-round rookie QB so far.
Sean Payton makes less than Lincoln Riley. Andy Reid makes less than Lincoln Riley. Pete Carroll makes less than Lincoln Riley. Not bad for a dude, just 38, from Muleshoe, Texas. And only hours later, a coach who first made his name at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan would choke the echoes and make Touchdown Jesus faint at Notre Dame, which is looking for a new leader — wait, isn’t this the biggest brand in the sport? — as Brian Kelly leaves for LSU, where he cracked the $100 million plateau including incentives. He alerted his players via text and never discussed LSU with athletic director Jack Swarbrick, but obviously, like Riley, money and better opportunites preached to him in a new college power structure that emphasizes recruiting goldmines over leprechauns, Sooner Schooners and tradition. In 2021, forget tradition. Notre Dame and Oklahoma have been reduced to a second tier — in Kelly’s case, by a coach who could have been fired only a few years ago; in Riley’s case, by a coach few had heard of before Oklahoma elevated him to take over Bob Stoops’ canvas. For Kelly, being at a premier program in the almighty SEC meant more than Notre Dame, which is deluding itself if it thinks today’s teenagers care about 20th-century memories more than warm weather, playing Alabama on TV and NIL cash. If that’s a shock to Notre Dame’s system, it’s time to join a conference. At least Kelly wanted the challenge. If anything, Riley ran from his, knowing it will be easier to reach the College Football Playoff in the Pac-12 than in the SEC, where Oklahoma’s next coach must take on Saban and Kelly in the expanded SEC.
Describing USC's football tradition as "unparalleled,'' Riley said, "I look forward to honoring that successful tradition and building on it. The pieces are in place for us to build the program back to where it should be and the fans expect it to be.” When he arrived by private jet hours later in Los Angeles, he gazed at the panorama behind him — Pacific Ocean to HOLLYWOOD sign to skyscrapers — and sounded like, well, a tourist from Oklahoma when he said, “This is a surreal moment, to be honest.’’ That’s college football for you, in the third decade of the 21st century, throwing fortunes at hopes that quickly turn into massive expectations. How long will it take him to win at USC? “I’ve been in L.A. for a few hours,’’ he said, realizing what comes next.
Nor should it surprise anyone that the very first name floated out of Oklahoma as Riley's successor would be Kliff Kingsbury, who merely is positioned to lead the 9-2 Arizona Cardinals to a Super Bowl. Only in college football would a program have the audacity to target a coach whose team owns the NFL's best record.
Such is the magnitude of a sport that always entertains and never leaves us bored. Take the current regular season, spinning wildly off its axis. Other than a sudden loss by Georgia, which seems less likely than bulldog mascot Uga X peeing in the legendary stadium hedges, college football is one big mind-prank. Meaning: The unreal is real, including a Group of 5 interloper and Jim Harbaugh actually finishing an Ohio State game mobbed by Michigan people who aren’t trying to kill him.
In a memorable shot at losing coach Ryan Day, who inherited Urban Meyer’s juggernaut and spent recent years mocking “that team up north’’ while vowing to “hang 100’’ on the Wolverines, Harbaugh finally was able to zing: ``Some people were born on third and think they had a triple.’’ He already has won the Troll Bowl, but who out there can say unequivocally that Harbaugh won’t do or say something to sabotage his team before reaching the College Football Playoff title game?
When Saban rips his own fans for “self-absorbed’’ entitlement, then barely beats Auburn, yes, Alabama is vulnerable and might miss the four-team playoff as a two-loss victim. Still, much as we’re weary of Saban — “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, call me Deacon Blues,’’ Steely Dan has been singing for 45 years — wouldn’t the Greatest College Coach Ever stand a better chance in a one-game playoff scenario than upstart Cincinnati, which still looks suspiciously like a charlatan that might not last 5 1/2 minutes in a national semifinal? Who exactly has Notre Dame beaten, other than Wisconsin, after losing to Cincinnati? Wouldn’t Ohio State, with two losses to top 10 teams, reclaim its offensive dominance in the tournament? Is Oklahoma State overlooked or just another Big 12 survivor that happens to win some shootouts? If Baylor won a surprise national title in basketball, why not another run? In a wacky season, wouldn’t a wacko like Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin be a perfect fit for the CFP?
Anything is possible. The improbable is probable. In what may be one final gasp for upper-level parity, before the richest programs get richer and line up affluent boosters and alumni for NIL payments to the best players, what we have is a crapshoot that should be accommodated by an expanded bracket. Unfortunately, nice as it would be to ship away 13 committee members who have two more meetings at a hotel near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, they will choose the four finalists.
I don't want them deciding a championship. I want the championship determined on the fields, not in a meeting room with data and eye tests. Georgia is in, obviously and eminently deservingly. Michigan is in, unless Harbaugh lays an egg against Iowa in the Big Ten title game. If Alabama is skunked by Georgia in the SEC title game, the Crimson Tide can meet Deacon Blues for a drink and ponder a lost season. Then, an unbeaten Cincinnati would be in (assuming the Bearcats survive Houston in the American Athletic Conference title game), and the committee will decide on the winner of Oklahoma State-Baylor in the Big 12 title game versus the merits of Notre Dame, whose only loss was to Cincinnati.
But … say Alabama shocks Georgia, which doesn't seem possible after the Auburn slogfest. Then, Saban is back in the Final Four, likely against Michigan, which would be fun and ripe for more Harbaugh snark about Saban's slamming of Alabama fans. "When I came here, everybody was happy to win a game. Now, we’re not happy to win a game anymore. We’re not happy to win a game at all,'' said Saban, who has won six national titles in Tuscaloosa and made six CFP appearances in seven years. "We think we should win games by whatever, and I don’t think that’s fair to the players either. Because our players work their butt off to be the best that they can be, and to get criticized for what they work hard for to do, so that you can be entertained. Give me a break, this is not professional football. These guys aren’t getting paid to play here. They’re representing you all, you should be proud and happy to support them, and appreciate what they do and have some gratitude.”
By the time the warring conference commissioners figure it out — and they'll soon set aside their enmity, with $2 billion on the table — a 12-team playoff will be in place by mid-decade. No longer will a room of athletic directors, conference commissioners, former players, former coaches — even the group president of an energy company — decide via spreadsheets what should be determined inside stadiums.
That way, college football has a better chance to capture the random intrigue of March Madness. It never has made sense, allowing a season to rise to a rollicking crescendo in November and early December, only to let it fall flat in January games wedged between NFL showdowns. I once was opposed to playoff expansion, concerned about the health and academic issues of extra games, but I've been trampled by money.
The reality is, college football is a major economic player in 21st-century America. It's time to let a $100 million coach have a $2 billion stage without worrying about 13 people in a ballroom who have planes to catch.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.