By Dan Rubin
Boston College used to sell a shirt at its bookstore with a “WE ARE…BC” logo on the back. Around the logo bore the expression: For Pride, For Passion, For Respect, For Responsibility. At their home football games, their sportsmanship announcement punctuated that with a “For Boston! We are! BC!” It was a way to tie the right morals about the game with what it meant to wear maroon and gold and what it meant to show respect for your opponent while hoping your team beat the stuffing out of their opponent.
Boston College football averaged a respectable 38,000-plus fans per game. Their stadium, located on campus in Chestnut Hill, seats only 44,400, so that number reflects an almost 75% full stadium every game. This, of course, doesn’t take into consideration that some games were against lower-profile opponents, not televised, and at a start time when fans usually didn’t show up (noontime starts against Central Michigan usually don’t cut it).
But where a [6-6] record got BC a date in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Nevada, the Eagles still finished the season as one of the top-ranked teams in the nation. That’s because Boston College graduated 91% of eligible student-athlete lettermen, a rate that placed them as the best academic institution in the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.
It’s a stat that is often thrown out there for pride, but is then immediately overlooked. BC doesn’t get $15 million for graduating all their athletes, and stringent academic requirements mean they struggle to recruit the same caliber athlete that would look at a Florida or Alabama. But, for Boston College, the ability to go .500, qualify for another bowl game, and produce an on-field product that is proud and plays tough will always come without selling out their first and foremost mission – producing college graduates that “turn pro in something other than football.”
Over in Columbus, Ohio, a different story is unfolding. The scandal surrounding Jim Tressel and the Ohio State Buckeyes isn’t necessarily about the actions of what happened, it’s about the integrity of the game and its place in society. The NCAA is ready to send a message that it wants to take back a game that has spent the last year being tainted by blatant circumvention of the rules and exploitation in loopholes.
In March, Sports Illustrated released a report documenting that 7% of all college athletes had some form of criminal record. There are over 2,800 student-athletes competing at the Division I-FBS level, and out of those with records, 40% have serious incidents. There were 56 violent crimes, 105 drug and alcohol offenses, and petty property crimes. Eliminating those players who walked on, 8.1% of all scholarship athletes committed some type of crime.
That’s not to say that athletes don’t deserve second chances. Players who commit crimes certainly could be labeled as young, dumb, and immature. They’re expected to grow up in college, and usually, they do. Many athletes coming with a label are able to straighten their lives out and use football as a way to get a degree. And the 66% graduation rate of all Division I schools certainly supports that most athletes are able to use their athletic talents for the betterment of their livelihood.
Ohio State in the Jim Tressel era went a combined [106-22]. In his ten seasons, Tressel lost only 14 conference games, had only two seasons in which the team failed to win 10 games (including his first), and won seven Big Ten championships (including the last six). They went to bowl games in each of his ten seasons, including eight Bowl Championship Series games and three National Championship games. He won one national title in 2002 over the University of Miami. Tressel’s teams were, in essence, the lightning rod for success for the entire 2000s.
But that came at a major price. The Buckeyes graduated just 62% of their players. It was a major improvement over the 52% from the year before, but it still ranked 8th in the conference. And it ranked below the national average of 67%.
Regardless, Ohio State finished the year ranked #2 in overall attendance, behind only hated rival Michigan. They averaged over 105,000 fans in attendance per game, and they ranked as the 3rd-most watched team in college football (combining home, road, and neutral games).
Looking at the Top 10 for combined attendance, three teams came from the Big Ten (ranked 1-3 in Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State); five came from the SEC (Alabama, national champion Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, and LSU); and two came from the Big 12 (Texas and Nebraska, where Nebraska is leaving the conference for 2011 for the Big 12). Of these schools, only Auburn and Ohio State finished the season in the Top-10 national polls. Of the same sample, only three schools had graduation rates over 70% (Michigan, Penn State, and Nebraska), and only one was over 80% (Penn State). Texas, by the way, was the lowest at 49%.
The top graduation rates in the nation belonged to Duke, BC, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Notre Dame, and Navy (all scoring over 90%). Of these schools, two are independents and only Notre Dame drew anywhere near half the attendance of an average Ohio State game.
So what do those stats tell you? Modern day Albert Einstein’s do not sell tickets, advertisements, sponsorships or television deals. Outside of the Army-Navy game, nobody can tell you who either team plays (Army graduated 83% of West Point candidates). And those graduates go pro in a profession that sometimes requires sacrificing their lives for America. Nobody wants to go to an average game to see a bunch of bookworms because a kid with a perfect SAT score can’t break ankles and tackles like any of Nick Saban’s boys can.
This, fundamentally, is what’s wrong with college football. Scholarships used to be the ticket out of decrepit lifestyles for underprivileged youths. It showed them that sports could provide a way out of the streets and into the classroom. It could be an avenue whereby they bettered themselves. But it’s become worse than that because it’s something rife with scandal and bad publicity. There’s not a program in that Top 10 of attendance that hasn’t been scandalized in some capacity. One of them, Auburn, is the national champion with a Heisman Trophy winner (Cam Newton) who was the worst offender of all. He was, in essence, sold to the highest bidder, even though Cam “didn’t know” what his father was doing. Cam Newton was the #1 pick of the NFL Draft and the toast of the football world. When Carolina picked him, they sent the message loud and clear – if you aren’t going to get caught, then who cares?
But that’s the problem. The NCAA doesn’t like having its loopholes and broken rules flaunted right under its nose. It took out years of frustration on Southern Methodist in the 1980s, when the lid blew off a scandal of corruption that went all the way to the Texas Governor’s mansion. It didn’t like when Alabama sniffed out rules violations in the 1990s, and it did not like when Cam Newton scooted away from the Infractions Committee without so much as a suspension. With scandals coming from cornerstone schools like Miami, USC, Auburn, Michigan, Florida State, and Oregon, they’ve sent the message that enough is enough.
Ohio State’s players originally didn’t do anything so terrible. They traded autographs for tattoos. That’s worth maybe a game suspension or maybe probation, but it wasn’t worth what eventually spiraled. All Jim Tressel had to do was come clean and come forward, and it would’ve saved the program from the watchful eye. Instead, he covered it up, and it sent the message that the coach would protect the team by selling out his integrity. So, apparently, it spiraled. Their quarterback has reportedly been patrolling the streets of Ohio in a car he didn’t have the means to buy with a license that was suspended for not having proof of insurance during a traffic stop (mysteriously, it got reinstated the day after the report). And reports are coming out that this has been going on under the watchful eye of Coach Tressel.
So now Tressel’s job is gone. Tattooed with the letters of scandal and deceit, the attention is also turning on Ohio State’s president, E. Gordon Gee. The questions are being asked about how much President Gee knew and if he did nothing to stop it. Indeed, in his last few jobs, Gee left with sour tastes on the tongues of alumni, and Brown University students still erect a “Gordon Gee Lavatory Complex” sign on a collection of porta-potty’s during Spring Weekend. Gee and Tressel saw revenue streams and notoriety on the heels of that football squad, but it came at the cost of integrity for their program.
This is the perfect storm that is poised to destroy Ohio State football, at least temporarily. With the Big Ten expanding to twelve teams, including powerhouse Nebraska, the Buckeyes will probably see an exodus of players threatened by sanctions, see reduced publicity by NCAA rulings, and most likely slide down the standings. But there will always be tickets to sell, and I’m sure they’ll be back, just like nobody really expects USC (currently on a postseason and live television ban) to fall off the map either. The message was sent, but it only puts a Band-Aid on the bleeding. It never actually stops it.
Boston College’s rebuilding continues this year with a team that looks to bounce back from last year’s disappointing finish. They’ll have a couple of marquee games on the schedule, including a trip out to Notre Dame Stadium on November 19 and a trip down to Sun Life Stadium in Miami to play the Hurricanes. They even return to Thursday Night Football before a nationwide audience when they host Florida State in early November. But before they ever get to those points, the season will begin on September 3.