We Are (Always) the Champions
Why college football's dynasties never lose.
Posted Friday, Aug. 24, 2001, at 8:30 PM
The hot topic in college football this year is parity. The word is in every preseason magazine, and it's springing from the lips of every college football pundit. It appears to be the dominant trend of recent years, which have seen doormat programs like Kansas State and Northwestern rise to the top, while erstwhile powers like Notre Dame and Ohio State have endured actual losing seasons, a once-unimaginable turn of events. But, at least at the very top, college football isn't growing more equal. It's growing less equal.
Perhaps the best measure of parity is the winning percentage of the top 10. In the 1970s, the 10 most successful programs won a combined 82 percent of their games. This was the era in college football when giants roamed the earth. Powers like Nebraska and Southern Cal, Texas, Alabama, Ohio State, and their great-power rivals routinely stomped hapless opponents by scores of 47-10 or 56-3, and, if they lost to anybody but each other, it constituted a goal-posts-destroying upset for the ages.
In the 1980s, that percentage declined to 78 percent. That decade truly represented the age of parity, relatively speaking. Then, in the 1990s, that figure rose back up to 80 percent. And the trend is accelerating. During the last five years, the top 10 programs won almost 82 percent of their games. In other words, we're just about back to where we were in the 1970s. At the very top, in fact, things have gotten more unequal. The top three programs of the 1990s—Florida State, Nebraska, and Florida—have better records than any team did in the 1970s. Far from entering an age of parity, we seem to have slipped back toward a dynastic age.
This should not come as a surprise. Several factors help ensure that college football will naturally tend toward inequality. Unlike professional sports, in which a reverse-order draft redistributes talent downward, college teams get their players through recruiting. Since the best players usually prefer to play for the best teams, this makes success self-reinforcing. And unlike college basketball, where one or two star players can make a team, college football teams field 22 starters, making quick turnarounds difficult. A college football dynasty is like the Roman Empire—a huge, sprawling thing carried on by its own momentum that cannot be deposed all at once, but only after years of slow decay.
So why, then, did things get more equal during the 1980s and then less equal again recently? The biggest reason is recruiting. For most of its history, the NCAA put no limits on the number of football scholarships schools could hand out. The major powers, thus unencumbered, could hoard all the high-school talent, leaving the also-rans to pick mainly from their leftover scraps. Pittsburgh's 1977 team, which finished the year ranked first, had 130 players on scholarship.
Beginning in the 1970s, the NCAA slowly imposed scholarship limits. In 1977 the cap was 95 (excluding grandfathered-in scholarships, like Pitt's) and then slowly fell to 85. This radically redistributed talent downward: Players who had once been second- or third-string at power schools were now starting for the competition. And, recruiting being an inexact science, sometimes the kid who went to the second-tier school turned out to be better. Recruiting was always inexact, of course. But, say, Southern Cal had better odds of cornering the market on tailbacks if they had a half-dozen on their roster than if they had three. And, the change worked—at least at first.
The tide, however, has now turned back in the other direction. There are no doubt several reasons for this, but probably the most important factor is a fairly straightforward one: Recruiting became far more precise. In the old days, coaches relied on word of mouth from alumni and a network of high-school coaches and maybe watched some grainy film. In recent years, a new class of recruiting gurus emerged, fueled by the Internet, to proliferate information about prep stars. Even more importantly, teams expanded the practice of holding summer football camps for high-school players. There coaches could watch prep stars firsthand and measure them against the top-notch competition.
In part, this was a direct reaction against the constrictions of scholarship limits. "Years ago, you could recruit people just based on name-recognition alone," one recruiter told the Washington Post. "But with the reduced number of scholarships, you can't afford to do that. You have to be right—or close to right—on every player." The more accurate the process of recruiting, the more efficient it becomes at funneling talent to the best schools. It has become less common for power teams to waste a precious scholarship on a player who could dominate weaker foes but couldn't hack it in Division 1. The undiscovered gems who once blossomed at second-tier schools are increasingly discovered by the first tier. Instead of gathering in all the prep stars and separating the wheat from the chaff when they arrive on campus, the top schools now do the separating beforehand.
The return of the college football dynasty is a nice example of how, with time, almost any reform can be neutralized by the ruling class. The initial effect of scholarship limitations was as predicted: a more egalitarian distribution of talent. But, given the fundamental structure of college football, it takes much more than a few rule changes to alter something as deeply rooted as the tendency for the game to be dominated by a few dynastic programs. Those programs have now learned how to make scholarship limitations work to their advantage. As Bear Bryant probably did not put it: Plusça change, plus c'est le même chose.