“One of the things I’d like to see us be able to work back to is everything in college football has always had parity. Same scholarship, same academic support, health care, whatever it is. I don’t think we have that balance right now, which could affect the parity of college athletics as a whole.”- Nick Saban
With all due respect to the greatest college football coach of all-time, this is one of the most unintentionally hilarious statements in the history of a sport filled with unintentionally hilarious statements. Set aside the fact the coach preaching for a return to parity is 183-25 with six national championships at his current historically great program. I’ll also try to overlook his 48-16 record at LSU, another historic powerhouse, where he won another national championship.
The key part to remember about these numbers at Bama and LSU is what happened at LSU after the greatest coach in the history of the sport bolted for the Miami Dolphins: two more national titles… won by Les Miles and Ed Orgeron. When you start to do a mental checklist of great leaders in American history, I doubt the checklist reads: “Washington, Lincoln, Patton, Lombardi, Wooden, Orgeron…”
I’m entertained by the Red Bull guzzling, Cajun madman as much as anyone, but one is definitely not like the other on this list. And Les Miles is known for his love of turf management and culinary arts as much as his tactical acumen. The point is that college football has never been about actual parity. It’s always been about the illusion of parity.
LSU proves this point. Even if you want to argue with me that parity actually exists and Saban is simply that much smarter and better than everyone else and him having his greatest success at two nationally elite programs located in talent rich areas doesn’t matter, I present to you national championship winning head coaches Les Miles and Ed Orgeron. LSU wins because they are in the SEC, located in a state where you never have to cross a state line to stack your roster with top talent, you have a large and engaged fanbase, and your program routinely INVESTS in football. If parity existed in college football, Iowa State should be able to compete with Bama for recruits. If this fairy tale world that Saban described was reality, Washington State would go back and forth with LSU in recruiting.
They don’t. They won’t. Why? Because the system is all about the haves and the have nots. And I’m just talking about the “haves” and the “have nots” in the Power Five. Don’t get me started on Group of Five and how they’ve never had a chance.
But what if there were an actual way for some of the “have nots” to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and rise to a level on par with Alabama and other football elites? Sounds like a great American success story, right? What if I told you the way to make this happen is for schools with access to business and alumni money to actually spend that money in creative ways in order to attract talent? We live in a new world where these things are all possible. And this has the established coaching power illuminati feeling a little uncomfortable. So let’s make them a little more uncomfortable. Who doesn’t love a good rags to riches story? Here are five programs that should decide to go for it.
Undergraduate tuition at Vanderbilt is $52,780 a year. The school is ranked 14th nationally by US News and World Report. There are prominent alumni all over the country. So why is Vanderbilt seemingly not taking full advantage of NIL? It’s a problem that’s haunted the athletic program for generations: Fan and alumni support. To put it frankly, not enough people care enough to contribute financially to building and maintaining a top-notch football program. Owen Graduate School of Management alum John Ingram and his family have long been big time athletic donors and his status is aided by his ownership of MLS club Nashville SC but there are plenty of other available pipelines to help with NIL. Throw in Vanderbilt’s location in the middle of hip and thriving Nashville and the untapped potential is through the roof. The recent partnership with NBC Sports to arm Vanderbilt athletes with tools to capitalize on their own Name, Image, and Likeness while in school is a step in the right direction but more money is needed. And money has never been an issue for Vanderbilt or their alumni. If they dive into the NIL space, they will become a very attractive spot for players looking for a top level education AND SEC football. It’s a stretch to say that Vanderbilt can become a national power but they are a great example of a program that can go from cellar dweller to middle of the pack in a hurry. And if you are middle of the pack in the SEC, you are one of the 25 best teams in America. So let’s hurry up and get Vanderbilt on another Top 25 ranking other than US News and World Report.
We saw the Runnin’ Rebs rise to basketball prominence under Jerry Tarkanian in large part because they outspent the competition. Now that spending is legal, so why shouldn’t UNLV try the same thing in football?
With famous sports loving alums like Jimmy Kimmel, Guy Fieri, and Gina Carano plus a plethora of casino and entertainment dollars in Sin City, there is an ocean of possibilities for UNLV football. What’s stopping Caesars from signing one of the top high school QBs out of California, where NIL is legal for high school athletes, to a $1 million deal to endorse their brand in Las Vegas? The NCAA? Of course not. Now is the time to be as creative as possible while the NCAA and lawmakers drag their feet on NIL.
Master of all Promotions Dana White bases UFC operations out of Vegas. There are so many potential partnerships with top UNLV athletes and UFC. And this is just scratching the surface. People go to Las Vegas with their mind set on winning. UNLV football needs to have that same mindset. And winning in college football takes money. The great Jerry Tarkanian once said, “The more you think on the basketball court, the slower your feet get.” So don’t overthink this, UNLV. Partner with the huge and lucrative brands in your backyard and get those feet moving as fast as a spinning roulette wheel.
Mormon money is a real thing. According to a 2020 report, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints amassed a fortune of over $100 billion in assets. Yes. That’s billions with a B. BYU is “founded, supported, and guided” by the Church, according to their website. That’s a lot of potential support in the NIL space.
It’s not like BYU isn’t already an incredibly successful program. They won a national championship in 1984 and are set to join the Big 12 in 2023. They know what it takes to win and are willing to invest to do so. There’s not much stopping them from contending for national championships again.
Mormons make up only 1.4% of the US population, but have a remarkable business portfolio. Jet Blue Airways, Marriott international, an insurance company, cattle ranches, radio stations, a large mall, and a Polynesian theme park are all examples of how broad the church’s influence goes.
This is where some of you start thinking, “How are you going to build a powerhouse program in 2022 based off of recruiting from only 1.4% of the population?” It can happen because you don’t have to limit recruiting to a singular group. Not every football player at Notre Dame is Catholic. Not every athlete at BYU is Mormon. This is not a sales pitch for the Mormon church. This is me looking through the lens of program potential in an NIL world. And when I do that, I think I may have BYU too low on my list.
College football is not currently a top priority in the state of New York. With over 19 million residents, New York is also the fourth largest state by population and yet doesn’t have a true state football power. That’s an opportunity for growth if I’ve ever seen one.
And if I’m ranking schools that have potential to be that top program for folks from Manhattan to Buffalo, it’s Syracuse. I understand that I’m talking about New York and not Arkansas, so it’s impossible to build a consensus around one school given its size and diversity. But like anywhere else in America, New York loves a winner. If Syracuse were to compete at the top of the sport alongside southern powers, you better believe they would receive a lot more support.
Doing so takes money, and Syracuse alums have done well in that department. And if you thought it was annoying to see all of those Northwestern alums in media come out of the woodwork when the Wildcats reached their first ever NCAA basketball Tournament in 2017, just wait until Syracuse becomes a true power for the first time since Jim Brown and Ernie Davis were toting the rock. You won’t hear the end of it from the likes of Orange alums Bob Costas, Sean McDonough, Mike Tirico, Ian Eagle, Nick Wright, and “Big Game” Beth Mowins. Syracuse has been mired in mediocrity for far too long. They could easily rise in this new world.
Stanford has the second wealthiest alumni base in America, behind only Harvard. Unfortunately for the Crimson, they don’t play FBS-level football. But Stanford does and has seen a lot of success since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2007. That success continued under David Shaw but has taken a turn for the worse since 2019. The Cardinal are 11-19 over the past three seasons.
Meanwhile, 78% of Stanford alums are considered “self-made.” I don’t need to bore you by telling you about the entrepreneurial spirit in Silicon Valley and how that “self-made” spirit could benefit the Stanford football program and their athletes. So I’ll just say that Stanford will never have to go 11-19 over three years again if they blend their high-minded approach to player development with a money-making opportunity for their players.
If you are reading this, you made it to the end, and I applaud you. I’m always working on column ideas and rankings that interest you all. Feel free to email me with your suggestions: Chad.Withrow@OutKick.com.