March 17, 2013
The arrival of spring football is always heralded in the state of Alabama as the start of football’s “third season,” following the actual schedule and the two months when recruiting feels like a competitive endeavor in and of itself.
But this has been no ordinary offseason in Tuscaloosa. While there has been no earth-shattering news of despair (read: NCAA trouble), Alabama has still suffered a few cuts and bruises thanks to the alleged actions of a handful of its now-former football players. The basketball team then kicked in its two cents by dropping a game to abysmal Auburn on the road – likely taking itself out of the March Madness sweepstakes right then and there. And unfortunately, real life crept into the picture as well, as Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore remains hospitalized with an unspecified illness.
Given what’s on the table – especially relating to the news specific to Moore – football is little more than a distraction. But it’s an important distraction to most Alabama fans, who will likely again pack Bryant-Denny Stadium for A-Day, at its heart a glorified practice.
While spring football holds the spotlight, here are a few other topics for consideration.
1. What is happening to Tennessee’s athletic program?
It’s in a tailspin, that’s what. When it was revealed a couple of months ago just how bad the state of the UT program’s finances really were, it caused Tennessee’s friends and enemies alike to begin asking deep questions about just what’s going on in Knoxville.
Tennessee football has been in a perilous position for decades. The state of Tennessee produces about 15 kids a year that can help the Vols, and UT doesn’t get all of them. It’s incumbent upon whoever the Tennessee coach happens to be at that moment to recruit nationally. Unfortunately for Tennessee, whether it was the erosion of Phil Fulmer’s skills, the debacle that was the self-serving Lane Kiffin or Derek Dooley proving to be completely overwhelmed by the job, national recruiting hasn’t been a priority lately – the avoidance of drowning has been at the top of the list, and even that might be too much to ask.
The hiring of Butch Jones wasn’t exactly a high point. While Jones might prove to be the answer, right now all he appears to be is the guy who followed Brian Kelly twice (Central Michigan, Cincinnati) and knocked the program down a couple of notches at both stops. His initial Tennessee recruiting class was one of the worst in recent memory, and if he isn’t the answer, Tennessee’s finances will start to make Greece look like BHP Billiton.
For decades, Tennessee could legitimately call itself the No. 2 program in the SEC, historically speaking. The Vols are in serious jeopardy of yielding that title if they haven’t already.
2. For Anthony Grant, 2013-2014 just became tremendously important.
For any SEC program not named Kentucky, the question of what constitutes appropriate expectations has always been at the forefront of any discussion of a team’s resume. Then, Florida messed it up for everyone by winning a pair of national championships in back-to-back years.
In doing so, Florida kicked Alabama out of the No. 2 spot in SEC basketball history, and caused headaches for coaches across the conference, as fans began asking, “why not us?”.
The addition of Missouri brings added legitimacy to SEC basketball, although you couldn’t tell it by the 2012-13 season, because SEC basketball is just plain bad. And that’s one reason why Anthony Grant’s seat is officially hot – Alabama should have found a way to do better than it has.
Grant, though, simply hasn’t earned his impressive paycheck. Alabama’s recruiting has been average at best, the team’s offensive philosophy is as sharp as a bowling ball and excitement around the program is nonexistent. Alabama could still sneak into the NCAA tournament, but it would probably require a set of events so unlikely that there doesn’t exist a snarky analogy adequate enough to describe it. And, it would just take away from a discussion about the real issue: Alabama basketball needs help.
Whether it comes from a shakeup of the assistant coaching staff, a change in recruiting philosophy or something else, Alabama and Grant are probably heading into 2013-14 with the ultimatum of win significantly, or else. Grant’s contract will keep him safe until that point, but beyond it, all bets are off.
3. SEC keeping mum about expansion, but should it be on the table at all?
One thing’s for sure, the Big Ten (Twelve? Fourteen? Forty-Seven?) is determined not to stand still. The University of North Carolina allegedly has an offer to join the conference, along with probably Virginia and possibly Georgia Tech, to say nothing of the additions of Maryland and Rutgers.
Credit the Big Ten for going after schools with major academic reputations, if nothing else. As for football – which is the real money-driver for any talk of expansion – the viability of Maryland and Virginia football is borderline at best.
The SEC’s response so far seems to be talking to North Carolina State, Virginia Tech and possibly Duke. Forget Duke for a moment and look at the other two schools: Both are the “other school” in their state, but the school with the greatest potential for a decent football following. That’s probably not an accident.
SEC expansion is driven by television contracts. The SEC added Missouri and Texas A&M because it gave them the television markets of St. Louis, Kansas City, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, among others. If the SEC adds one of the Carolina schools and Virginia Tech, it will be because the SEC is looking at the television markets of Washington D.C., Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham.
And that’s precisely why the SEC isn’t looking harder at Georgia Tech or Florida State, because the SEC already owns that territory.
We’re quickly stumbling toward a four- or five-conference football league, where somewhere between 64 and 90 schools will form their own governing body and tell the NCAA to pound sand, which is both the right and the wrong thing to do. It will end an era of college football that goes back to the 1930s and the pre-poll days, but it will also be exactly what schools like Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma should have done a long time ago. There’s no reason the Delta States, Montanas or even the Florida Atlantics and Temples of the world should have any say-so in how the major conferences run their business.
4. NCAA throws in the enforcement towel
For anyone who pays even a modicum of attention to NCAA rules enforcement procedures, it should have been obvious decades ago that the NCAA can’t properly regulate enforcement of recruiting rules fairly and accurately.
So it comes as little surprise that the NCAA ended up with a farmload of eggs on its face while trying to prosecute the University of Miami (again) for recruiting violations. The NCAA’s missteps ended up costing enforcement hawk Julie Roe Lach her job, and brought criticism of one Rich Johanningmeier, the now-retired investigator who received plenty of criticism over his performance while investigating Alabama’s 1999-2000 case.
As the NCAA lacks subpoena power, it is forced to either hope it can glean information from official sources during the course of an investigation, or hope the people it has accused of wrongdoing are too stupid to say “no comment.” Given that the latter group is getting smaller and smaller with each passing investigation, it should shock no one that the NCAA picked 2013 to greatly loosen its death grip on such profound and important matters as counting the number of text messages sent to prospects in a week.
Of course, that decision was met with great wailing by a handful of national columnists who can’t stand the thought of the free market determining any part of the recruiting process – a fancy way of saying that coaches who are good at recruiting will use the new rules to their advantage more effectively, which would lessen the ability of the NCAA to artificially enforce parity, and we just can’t have that.
The NCAA is in a heck of a spot. It has been, to quote the great Cecil Hurt on many occasions, arbitrary and capricious with its enforcement of regulations. Yet it has no other choice, other than to let schools have greater leeway in determining their own course.
The NCAA seems to have chosen common sense, even it if is contained in a message printed on a white flag flying over a battlefield. And if the bottom-feeders of Division-IA can’t keep up, there’s an option. It’s called the Football Championship Subdivision. Use it.
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