Who Benefits From College Football’s Money Moves? Take A Guess

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This is a bonus pack. Three columns for the price of one! 1) Auburn pays Gus Malzahn $21 million not to coach the Tigers. 2) ESPN/ABC, just weeks after announcing massive layoffs due to losses from COVID, is able to scrape together $3 billion of loose change to give to the SEC for TV rights. 3) The College Football Playoff committee makes sure Florida, not coincidentally also of the SEC, stays in the national championship race no matter who the Gators lose to.

It’s funny how three random stories all come together like an equation: That’s 1+1=2. Or 21,000,000+3,000,000,000=preferential treatment for Florida and the SEC. Anything to make ESPN happy with big-name, big-draw programs for the College Football Playoff.

This is an ugly moment in our education system, if that’s what college football is. College football’s national championship is becoming an ESPN corporate outing.

There is no excuse for Florida to still be in the national championship picture after its humiliating loss to LSU while little, undefeated Cincinnati has been erased from the national map. What can Cincinnati do? We believe in bootstrapping in this country, but in the college football world, the incestuous partnership between ESPN and the Power Five conferences and the sport’s good-ole boy decision-makers don’t just stack the deck in their favor.

They rig the whole sport.

Well, three columns:

1) Malzahn. After eight winning records in eight years, including one appearance in the national championship game (a loss), Auburn fired him. You might think the COVID season would provide a mulligan for coaches, but nope.

At Illinois, former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith was fired after taking maybe the worst major program in America to a bowl game in his fourth year, and then dropping off this year. Of course, in one game, his starting quarterback had COVID, his backup sat out because he’d spent time with the starter and his third-stringer got hurt.

COVID has messed up a lot of people. It’s a mix of ruined practice schedules, depressed players, depleted rosters and even learning in on-line classrooms.

Smith got a $2.3 million buyout, which is a bargain compared to what other fired coaches are paid to leave. Malzahn is getting $21 million, with half of that coming in the next 30 days.

College athletic departments across the country have been crying poor over the losses from COVID. Thousands of non-revenue athletes have been kicked to the curb while schools dump non-revenue sports to help cover football’s losses.

These numbers have gotten so common that we don’t even notice how out of whack they really are. So here’s a little dose of reality. I’m the head coach of a small college tennis team, Roosevelt University in Chicago. I have spent much of the past 24 hours trying unsuccessfully to find $3,164 of additional money so two guys can afford to come play for us. That’s $1,582 per kid. Guess how many kids in that situation could be helped with the $21 million Malzahn is getting not to coach. Answer: 13,274.

Colleges just don’t have the money for a swim team anymore. Yet somehow, Auburn has $21 million to throw away on Malzahn. I know, I know, these buyouts usually come from boosters. But it’s just sort of obscene somehow.

Of course, even if Auburn doesn’t get the money from boosters, there is always the money from its conference deals, like: 

2) ABC/ESPN’s new SEC contract, worth more than $300 million per year over 10 years, according to the New York Times. Nothing really wrong with that, I guess. If the SEC’s rights are worth that much, then it’s fine for ESPN/ABC and parent-Disney to pay that kind of money.

It’s a nice little 500% raise for the SEC, which had been getting $55 million from CBS.

It was just so touching a few weeks ago, though, when ESPN cited the pandemic as partially responsible for its massive layoffs just before the holidays. Yes, that was sarcasm. 

Who knew Mickey Mouse could cry crocodile tears?

3) It’s true that the SEC and ESPN — and the Big Ten — are the heartbeat of college football. And it’s an old story that the rich and powerful get more rich and more powerful.

But the SEC doesn’t need to be handed a free shot at the College Football Playoff just so ESPN can have the teams that draw the best ratings. At some point, it would be nice to at least let the national champion be decided fair and square.

Florida lost at home Saturday to LSU. The Gators were 23 1/2-point favorites and LSU, which has a losing record, was down to 54 scholarship players. It had to use a true freshman at quarterback. Starting his first game. On the road.

Florida then dropped in the College Football Playoff poll exactly one spot, to No. 7. Cincinnati, meanwhile, fell the same distance, one spot, to No. 9 without having played. Georgia, which also has two losses, is ahead of Cincinnati, too. The Bulldogs have beaten one team with a winning record, Auburn, which just paid Malzahn to leave.

As for Florida still being in the national championship picture, I guess $3 billion can buy you a lot. Meanwhile, time for me to go back to searching for $3,164.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.


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  1. Erm… it’s called the free market, that’s kinda how it works. Nobody’s paying to watch college tennis. Also, to my knowledge, Auburn did not cancel any other club sports like some other schools did. If their boosters want to make big donations, who cares?

    I agree with you on the ESPN part. It’s a bad look for them, but they look bad pretty much all the time if you ask me. They’ve proven time and time again they don’t care about optics.

    With the Big 10 rule change to get Ohio State in the championship and the overt exclusion of Group of 5 teams from the playoff, this year it has become crystal clear how the playoffs work. I wish the Group of 5 would just do their own playoff so we could get some more post season games.

  2. Never have bought into the College Football Playoff. College football was always the only entity that did not have a championship. In our power driven, must have an undisputed (gag) champion, the playoffs evolved. Way back, football had bowl games to reward programs that had a good to great season. It was a time to spend in the sun, during the holidays, a reward for a job well done.
    But $$$ pushed aside the smaller programs, regulating them to the smaller bowls that draw a crowd a little smaller than you can find today in the Chinese virus season (if you are in a lucky state that allows fans). But this hype year after year, beginning with the first week touting the “Football Playoffs brought to you by…” has me nauseated listening to every pundit revelling in their own sense of importance predicting the next national champion…
    The Big 10 (with 12 teams, mathematically challenged) stood bold to say they were not competing this season. When all of a sudden, it dawned on someone that Ohio State would not be the National Champions unless they played, then the Big 10 decided that indeed, it was safe to play… As this weary season dragged on, teams playing with less than normal personnel, some teams cancelling games (ACC at the last minute because of one player) and announcers sitting at home, not in the stadium calling the game. How could it be worse? Well, players allowed not to muzzle, but officials, coaches, game day personnel all muzzled, all the while being tested before they could even be there.
    So now, ESPN wants to guarantee who will be in the playoff. My Christmas wish has always been the same every year, in August… Lets just have Ohio State – Alabama play the first game of the year for the National Championship, the way ESPN would like it to be…. Then let the season unfold, without all the corporate hype…

    • I am becoming more and more in tune with the idea that crowning a college football champion is futile. Good teams beat better teams every week of the year. I also prefer the old days when we just played 10 really great weeks of college football followed by a bowl game if you were any good. The worst part of modern college football is the 3 to 4 throwaway games teams schedule just to pad their resume. Let’s have 10 conference games with one quality OOC game every year. That equals quality entertainment every week. We never need to see Alabama vs the Merchant Marine Academy again.

  3. Can one even comprehend being fired, then receiving $10,000,000 within the next 30 days, plus another $11,000,000 in the coming days? Wouldn’t you just love to coach for one year, then receive a couple million dollars to be fired? What a life!

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