College Football Headaches

February, 2014

Washington -- College football is the bane of many college leaders. Long ago, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln chancellor came into my office on a Washington visit; he was new on the job and I asked him how it was going. He said fine, but he had had no idea how much time football would take away from his other duties. There was not much he could do about it, he said; the fans demanded it.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked ten experts for their recommendations as to how to change big-time college athletics. Tinkering around the administrative edges was all they came up with.

I'm not sure the fans are the whole problem; maybe it's time to turn to them for solutions. I'm a fan (or used to be). Here are some changes I'd make: distinguish the game from the professional version; make it more exciting and less predictable; make it safer.

• In the professional game, coaches are the stars as much as the players. Colleges should emphasize schools and players, not some interchangeable coach's "program", whatever that is. Take the coaches off the sidelines and put them behind glass in the stadium. A distinguished former colleague of mine said of his state university's coach that he was an embarrassment to the whole state, what with his expletives and his sideline histrionics. He'd rather the team lost all its games than be represented by such a coach.

• A few rules changes could make the college game more exiting and unpredictable. Fans like broken-field running, clever plays, and heads-up heroics. The game is now too driven by formulas for everything: recruiting, conditioning, players' weight and speed, play-calling. Change a few rules to neutralize the formulaic approach. Perhaps allow more than one forward pass from behind the line of scrimmage, for example, or return to an old tradition of making (at least some) players play on both sides of the ball, to reward the all-around athletes over the clone-like position specialists.

• Get some of the weight off the field, to reduce injuries. If rule changes to reward cleverness and mobility are not enough, implement weight limits. It's done in other sports.

The experts should be looking to put some fun and safety into the game, not new ways to divide up money and liability and take up presidents' time. Make it just a game again.