All this recent talk about the danger of college football’s richest teams getting richer deserves a big fat eye roll.
Not that the observation is wrong. Ohio State, Alabama and Oklahoma keep amassing a wealth of talent and trademark profit while most other schools search for nickels and dimes under seat cushions. If the fat cats smoke rolled-up $100 bills, the strays scrounge for scraps, albeit scraps of steak tartare, given the amount of TV money available.
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But the fear-based “rich get richer” rallying cry misses the point that most of college football’s one-percenters are not exactly the nouveau riche. They’re old money who have enjoying first-class legroom for decades. Sure, the occasional Jeff Bezos surfaces — we’re looking at you, Clemson — but to say the sky is falling because Ohio State can upgrade from a 50-foot yacht to a 70-footer is to get lost in cloudy thinking; either way, the Buckeyes own a big boat.
In other words, if you already bathe in champagne, what difference does it make if you pour in another bottle of Dom Perignon?
If memory serves — and it doesn’t always, which is why I went looking for outside help from ESPN college football writer Ivan Maisel — the top teams in the nation today were the same giants when I was a fan following college football in the 1970s.
This week’s Associated Press top 10: 1. Alabama; 2. Clemson; 3. Georgia; 4. Ohio State; 5. LSU; 6. Oklahoma; 7. Auburn; 8. Wisconsin; 9. Notre Dame; 10. Florida. Throw Texas in at No. 11, Penn State at No. 12 and Oregon at No. 13 for a full baker’s dozen.
Compare to the final AP poll from 1972: 1. Southern California; 2. Oklahoma; 3. Texas; 4. Nebraska; 5. Auburn; 6. Michigan; 7. Alabama; 8. Tennessee; 9. Ohio State; 10. Penn State.
Familiar faces galore. And I don’t see Eastern Michigan, Indiana or Vanderbilt anywhere.
Zooming in, check out the top four AP teams from 1961: 1. Alabama; 2. Ohio State; 3. Texas; 4. LSU.
Keep in mind that outliers will always sneak into the top half of the polls, whether it be Utah State (No. 10 in 1961), Miami University (No. 10 in 1974 and 2003) or Kansas (No. 7 in 2007), among others. But to suggest that lack of parity is bad for business is to rewrite history and deny TV ratings, which skew heavily toward traditional powerhouse teams.
Hand-wringers who decry the loss of competitive balance have not been paying attention. Generally speaking, the same 5-10 schools have been kings of the hill for generations, which weakens critics’ arguments against SB 276, the California bill that was passed into law Monday, allowing amateur athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. The concern is that schools with more resources will benefit the most from the legislation. And they don’t already?
“I had a conversation at least 25 years ago with Roy Kramer, who was running the SEC,” Maisel said. “At the time, I-AA schools were trying to eliminate the classification and have it be one big Division I again. I asked Roy what he thought of it and he shrugged. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ he said. “I asked what he meant. He said, ‘Who were the big programs 20 years ago?’ I said Texas, Michigan, Alabama. He said, ‘Who are they now? Texas, Michigan and Alabama. ’”
Michigan has hit the skids, comparatively speaking, but the best programs seldom deep-six. Even Clemson is not entirely new to the throne. The Tigers won the 1981 poll championship, long before they took up their recent residence in the top five.
“Clemson is not doing anything innovative,” Maisel said. “They may be more akin to a Miami, who figures it out and sticks around for a long time. Miami has gone (18 seasons) between championships and everybody thinks they’re a blue blood now, but over 150 years they’re not. And neither is Florida State.”
Maisel is part of ESPN’s "Down and Distance" podcast that celebrates college football’s 150-year history. During research, he has found that the best teams remain the best teams and new issues actually are old ones.
“What you realize is that the issues never really change,” he said. “The specific element and how you approach them changes, but it’s always been about competitive balance, safety, compensating athletes and teams at the top never really straying that far, because it’s important to them to succeed.”
And yet for all the whining about the rich becoming filthy rich, the game still sees stunning upsets. Always has. Always will.
Just ask Michigan State, which in 1974, 1998, 2013 and 2015 stuck daggers into Ohio State hearts.
The Buckeyes and Spartans meet again on Saturday in the Horseshoe. Rich vs. richer. But neither one poor.