College football structure has NFL feel to it

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(AP) — Fall football Saturdays look an awful lot like NFL Sundays, and not everyone is on board with the growing transformation. College football has taken on a power structure similar to the NFL – which is king of the sports world with its on-field product and popularity across the country.

While there are those who are fighting to hold off the change, Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe says colleges should want to duplicate that success. “I think that’s always the direction you’re moving in,” Grobe said. “You’re always trying to get better. The model’s professional sports. I don’t think that’s true just for college football, but for every college team, all sports. You try to look at what the professionals are doing and do as many things like them as you possibly can.

“I think the college game’s still a little unique because of all the different styles but I think there’s no question you’re trying to get better, and if you’re trying to get better, you’re looking at the best.”

And emulating the best. At times, the two multi-billion dollar industries are difficult to tell apart.

- College presidents and chancellors have roles similar to NFL owners, while their athletic directors resemble general managers – in charge of making the key hires that keep interest high and dollars flowing.
– When it comes to season tickets, colleges frequently make buyers pay for the right to purchase their seats in the form of donations to booster clubs – much like those ubiquitous personal-seat licenses in the NFL.
– Inside mammoth stadiums you’ll likely spot a towering set of suites. One of them probably belongs to the school president or chancellor, who’s entertaining rich and famous VIPs much like what goes on in the owner’s boxes at NFL stadiums.
– And now there’s a made-for-TV playoff coming to college football in a couple of years, and some projections have it generating as much interest – though perhaps not quite as much money – as the NFL’s crown jewel, the Super Bowl.

Critics of the progression say the bottom-line approach is getting in the way of a university’s real responsibility – education.

Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said he understands why there are raised eyebrows at the amount of money college football generates.

The Bulldogs are right in the middle of the cash grab as part of the behemoth Southeastern Conference – recently announcing a $75 million expansion of Davis Wade Stadium that will push its capacity to 61,337 seats. The expansion plans call for more luxury seating, a second high-definition video board and other amenities that would make many NFL teams proud.

Even with the expansion, MSU’s stadium will rank just 12th out of 14 in the league in capacity.

Defending league champion LSU wants to make already imposing Tiger Stadium even bigger, planning to borrow $75 million to add seats and suites and push the capacity past 100,000 by the 2014 season. That will give the SEC three stadiums with six-figure capacities – Tennessee and Alabama are already there.

Stricklin said any sort of “competitive marketplace” means costs will inevitably rise, but that schools haven’t forgotten the importance of the classroom or using the football program to benefit the entire university.

“We exist to educate,” Stricklin said. “The reason why college athletics exist is to market and promote the university, and give a reason to get people to come back and be engaged. It’s just a different dynamic – drastically different. Our core product is to create great experiences for alumni, whereas in the professional ranks you simply make as much money as possible.”

Still, both college and pro football have the same powerful revenue source – television.

The Pac-12 is launching its own TV network this season, following a template set up by the Big Ten in 2007 that has yielded millions of dollars for its teams during the past five years. The SEC expanded to 14 teams this year and broadened its geographic footprint by adding two schools located in major media markets – Texas A&M and Missouri – possibly with a television network of its own on the horizon.

In Texas – where the only team that surpasses the Longhorns’ popularity is the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys – the university has teamed with ESPN to create its own network.

And while the BCS has generated significant dollars during the past 15 years, an even bigger payday figures to roll in once the FBS begins determining its champion with a four-team playoff. Conservative estimates have the TV rights to the new system being valued at least double what the BCS was worth – at least $300 million, but perhaps upwards of $500 million.

Texas President Bill Powers said he understands the NCAA-NFL comparisons, but also stressed that differences are important. “I think we have to guard against going to an NFL kind of structure, but I think there’s a commitment to the collegiate student-athlete structure,” Powers said. “And from what I see – I spent a lot of time around it – it’s a different experience for fans and for the student-athletes than NFL football, in the same way that college basketball is different from the NBA.”

To the fans and television viewers the college and pro games may look similar. But perhaps lost in the shuffle is that for the players, the NFL and the college game are worlds apart. During the academic year practice time is regulated by the NCAA and players must hit not only ball carriers – but the books, too.

“The experience for the student-athlete is not NFL football,” Powers said, “and I think it’s very important to keep it that way.”

Dave Campo has had a close view of both sides. The new Kansas defensive coordinator was on Jimmy Johnson’s staff at Miami when the Hurricanes won a national championship in 1987, followed him to the Cowboys and later spent three years as the NFL team’s head coach. From his perspective, even as the college game adopts NFL traits of the NFL, the needs of college players generally don’t change.

“When you get to this level, you’re still talking to young men. When you coach in the NFL, it’s more of a family situation,” Campo said. “The guys you deal with on the college level are more like your children in a lot of ways. From a role standpoint, they’re still trying to figure out who they are. I like that part of it.

“I don’t necessarily think the guys look at me like a parent, but I certainly feel like I’m more of an influencer” in their lives, he added. “The game of football is a lot more than lining up on Saturday and playing a game. There are a lot of life lessons in there. I think the younger the players you deal with, the more it becomes a factor.”

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