Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion and College Sports

BENNER: Eager for college football—and hoping it won’t implode

August 24, 2013

College football season is upon us, and I don’t know whether to be filled with delight or dread.

As I’ve noted in this space before, I’m a sucker for the trappings of fall Saturdays on college campuses. Back in the day, I loved covering college football, the Big Ten in particular, for the local daily. And in my post-newspaper career, my wife and I have had season tickets to Indiana University football for a dozen years (and just STOP right there … I’ve heard all the punch lines already).

Besides, there is reason for cautious (very), guarded (even more so) optimism regarding Kevin Wilson’s third IU team. Under Wilson, IU seems to be following the evolution of another hard-nosed, no-nonsense (at the time) coach, Bill Mallory, who took the Hoosiers from winless in his first season to a bowl appearance in his third.

If the prognosticators are correct, Indiana should spend the holidays somewhere other than in front of a television. But with IU, you should never look further ahead than the next play and, in this case, that’s kickoff against Indiana State University Aug. 29 at Memorial Stadium.

Anyway, I digress.

The point is, I love college football, as so many of us do. But that popularity, I fear, is slowly killing the sport.

It’s kind of like the old line from Yogi Berra: “That place is so crowded no one goes there anymore.”

Similarly, the appetite for college football—especially the big-time variety—is so voracious that I feel like we all may perish from gluttony.

Sometimes, it seems it is only about money. Lots and lots of money. Money from TV networks. Money from advertisers. Money from alums and fans.

I can’t say that I blame the so-called Power Five—the Big Ten, the Pac 12, the Big 12, the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference—or their commissioners or their presidents, for that matter. Why should they turn down the billions being offered?

And we cannot dismiss the good much of the money does, in the form of providing grants-in-aid or facilities for student-athletes in non-revenue sports.

Still, we often hear that athletics is the front door to a university. If that’s the case, do we want to step inside? If we do, find a mirror and take a good look at the reflection. The colleges aren’t giving us merely what we want, but what we demand, which is programming for our televisions and victories for our contributions.

And, hey, I’m among those who both contribute to, and profit from, college athletics. I work for a conference (though non-football). I write checks to my alma mater in support of its athletics department (and also to ensure preferred seating and parking at football games … and STOP right there, I’ve heard all the punch lines, remember).

Yet, at this time in my life, fall football Saturdays are an important part of it. The tailgating, the rituals, the bands, the friends, the drives to and from Bloomington, the walks around campus … yes, it’s all superfluous stuff that maybe shouldn’t matter, but does.

Yes, even more than the winning and the losing.

I understand that’s part of the problem at Indiana; that among the IU football nation— unlike its basketball counterpart—there’s more apathy than anger that accompanies each loss. Just another shrug of the shoulders. And that is part of the culture that Wilson is trying to change.

Mallory accomplished that during his tenure, and all it did was cost him his job. By raising expectations with a series of successful seasons and bowl appearances, a two-year downturn earned him not a vote of confidence, but a pink slip. As a columnist for the local daily at the time, I concurred that a change was in order for Indiana to reach the next level. Five coaches later, it still hasn’t reached it. And I still regret calling for a change.

Anyway, I will continue to participate in the experience and, for three hours on a Saturday afternoon or evening, try to set aside the fact that I’m contributing to a huge commercial enterprise that might one day collapse under the weight of its own success.

I also will try to remind myself that, for every Johnny Football, there are hundreds of young men relishing the experience of playing college football, and thankful for the opportunities it provides.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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