What is the future of college football? Over 200 coaches, players and administrators respond15 min read
The college football world has endured a wave of change in the past two years, but this could be just the beginning, according to an ESPN survey of more than 200 coaches, players and administrators.
Answering a wide-ranging questionnaire distributed this offseason, respondents told ESPN that big issues such as realignment, name, image and likeness and the transfer portal are likely just precursors to more seismic shifts in the sport’s landscape.
Among the significant changes expected in the coming years are a diminished role for the NCAA, an expansion of the College Football Playoff, continued realignment and, ultimately, a pay-for-play model that would treat players as employees.
Nearly 80% of respondents believe schools will pay athletes directly within the next decade. Nearly 75% think the sport will eventually follow some sort of professional model, perhaps with schools forming conferences based on their willingness to pay players. And virtually everyone (98%) thinks more realignment is in store — sooner than later.
“It is important for all of us in business to recognize that we’re in a time of change,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said. “I think there’s two types of people in the world, that they look at change as a problem or they look at change as an opportunity. I’m one of those individuals that, when change occurs, I get excited about it. It’s really an opportunity for us to do a lot of things that people have thought about but maybe [were] a little bit reticent to do.”
The Big Ten, however, is on course to reap huge rewards from all that change. Other leagues, such as the ACC, seem more wary, with commissioner Jim Phillips using his time at the league’s kickoff event in July to warn about the dangers of moving too quickly and potentially limiting engagement opportunities and access for fans and athletes.
But for all the massive shifts in the sport’s landscape, nearly 60% of respondents said they believe college football is as good or better than it was a decade ago.
“There’s a lot of negativity around [college football] right now, and for me, it’s still the most amazing profession on the face of the planet and it’s the greatest game on the planet,” Charlotte coach Will Healy said. “I get tired of people acting like this thing is on fire. It’s not. There’s some things that need to be cleaned up. There’s some direction that needs to happen. I’m sure in time it’ll happen.”
ESPN’s survey, which took place from February to June — almost exclusively before the UCLA and USC move to the Big Ten — asked players, coaches, athletic directors, bowl partners and other stakeholders from all levels of college football to offer anonymous feedback on the biggest issues facing the sport and the trends they expect to shape its future.
Among the major topics were the NCAA and governance, NIL, the transfer portal, recruiting, the College Football Playoff, athlete empowerment and compensation, and realignment. While few questions yielded a unanimous opinion, the results show a clear belief that the sport is heading toward a more professional, more autonomous future.
The NCAA | NIL and the transfer portal
On-field rules | Recruiting | Bowl games and the CFP
Athlete empowerment | Realignment
The NCAA and governance
Nearly 60% of respondents agreed that college football should break away from the NCAA and form its own system of governance and oversight. Where to draw the lines of demarcation is far less clear, with some voices suggesting a breakaway of just FBS football (14%) — leaving the NCAA to manage other sports and host championship events — and others debating whether the departure should include all FBS schools or just those from Power 5 conferences (16%). Then there were those who think the NCAA is good for hosting championship events but not regulating any sports (18%). Nearly 12% of respondents said there was no need for the NCAA at all.
“Football is clearly a separate and distinct entity in the NCAA and could benefit from its own governance structure,” American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said. “With the interconnection between the regular season and the College Football Playoff, it may make sense to streamline the process through FBS self-governance. It’s going to be an ongoing debate in which our conference will clearly participate.”
Much of the frustration stems from the NCAA’s inability to properly respond to key issues facing the sport, and pressure is coming from all sides to act.
“It’s concerning to us that we’re really a year into what was announced to be a major transformation of the NCAA, and not that much has changed,” said Amy Perko, chief executive officer of the Knight Commission, a group focusing on college sports reforms. “It’s concerning to us that you would have broad consensus — more than 80% of leaders saying there needs to be a seat at the table for an independent expert on athlete physical and mental health and well-being — and that hasn’t happened yet.”
As for what the top level of college football should look like in the future, there was again a sharp divide in ideas. About 29% of respondents said there should be a break between the Power 5 and other FBS programs, which would all stand separately from FCS teams. Others saw value in the top-tier conferences continuing to work with Group of 5 and FCS teams (21%). More than a quarter of respondents said there should be a complete reorganization in which schools are grouped according to resources and revenue.
More than 60% of respondents said college football needs to name a czar or commissioner who could oversee all aspects of the sport and shepherd the disparate interests in a direction best for the sport as a whole.
“Somebody has to take over football,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Who’s in charge? The game on the field has never been better. And once you walk off of the field, it’s never been more chaotic.”
Whoever ends up leading the sport into the future, however, Alabama coach Nick Saban said he feels confident college football will withstand the wave of change and come out with a stronger foundation in the long term.
“We’ve always had significant changes that people have had to adapt to, and we always sort of find a way to come back to the center, some kind of way so that we can progress in a positive way,” S
aban said to ESPN. “And I think the current set of circumstances have created a lot of questions about how we proceed. But do I think something will happen in the next two or three years to sort of bring that back to the center? I think it will.”
NIL and the transfer portal
Half of respondents said it’s up to the federal government to create a uniform policy for name, image and likeness nationally, even if Congress has been reluctant to address the issue thus far. About a third of respondents said the NCAA should take the lead on determining a national policy, but nearly 70% of respondents said they believe the organization was hamstrung by fear of litigation in the aftermath of the Alston ruling, in which the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to open the door to antitrust litigation by college athletes.
While the NCAA does have a rule against using NIL as a recruiting inducement, most don’t believe it matters. Nearly 80% of respondents said NIL represents a black-market pay-for-play system that is being used to secure recruits and transfers. Meanwhile, nearly 60% of respondents said the transfer portal has created what amounts to free agency in college football, and they believe that will ultimately hurt the sport with fans.
Among players, however, a higher proportion thought the portal presented opportunities. While 70% of coaches and administrators said they thought the transfer portal was bad for the game, just 31% of players said the same.
“We’ve been getting a lot of good guys,” said Washington defensive back Alex Cook. “I’m actually thankful for the portal. A lot of guys are getting opportunities at other places, but they may have not gotten the opportunity at the place they were at.”
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has co-chaired the NCAA’s transformation committee, and he said finding solutions to the transfer issues is, if anything, an ironic twist on college football’s history of getting in its own way.
“Of anything over the last five years where the NCAA has controlled the change, it’s the issue of how we control transfers,” Sankey said to ESPN. “You hear this constant noise and concern about transfers, and now the transformation committee is being asked to transform differently the transformation that took place already. It’s really quite confusing.”
One thing everyone seemed to agree on: Tampering is a problem. More than three-quarters of respondents said tampering needs to be addressed.
Among athletes, NIL is a hot topic as well. Nearly half of players who responded said they felt their schools does not provide an adequate infrastructure for them to maximize their NIL opportunities. Nearly 70% said NIL opportunities are a frequent topic in their locker rooms, though it isn’t proving to be the divisive issue many ADs and coaches predicted.
“Seeing CJ [Stroud] do that deal or just seeing guys, you don’t even got to be on my team for me to be happy to see you doing something as far as NIL,” Ohio State safety Ronnie Hickman said. “College football has been around for such a long time and now that we’re legally finally able to benefit off of our name and image is huge. So when I see anyone doing anything successful or just good for them and their families, I’m happy for it, and I’m encouraging it.”
In addition to NIL, 57% of players said transfer opportunities come up routinely and 58% said players regularly discuss not getting their fair share of revenues from the school. Transfers and midseason opt-outs can be an issue, players said, but they were divided on how much of a disruption those things are within the locker room. Nearly 40% of players said transfers and midseason opt-outs are a distraction, while slightly more than 40% said they aren’t.
Players and coaches seem to largely agree that the transfer portal needs some guardrails. Nearly 70% of respondents said the optimal transfer policy would allow players to transfer once without penalty during specified “transfer windows.” Less than 15% of respondents said players should be able to transfer without penalty at any time as often as they’d like.
ESPN asked coaches, players and administrators which on-field rules changes they would favor, and while there were more than a dozen suggestions offered, a few ideas garnered widespread backing.
Two-thirds of respondents support giving replay officials discretion on whether a player should be ejected for targeting. Two-thirds also support allowing helmet speakers for ease of communication between coaches and quarterbacks, along with a designated defender.
Close to half of respondents said they’d like a rule that if an injury stops the clock the player is required to sit out the remainder of the series to prevent faking injuries to slow the game’s tempo.
Nearly 40% of respondents want to see a reduction in replay reviews, limiting them to touchdowns, turnovers and two coaching challenges per game.
About 29% of respondents said they’d back a running clock following first downs. Currently college football stops the clock while the officials reset the down markers, but as the sport looks for ways to limit wear and tear on players, several administrators have offered this as a potential solution.
Other ideas with less support include eliminating kickoffs (19%), a running clock following out-of-bounds plays (15%) or incompletions (12%) and extending the play clock to 45 seconds (8%).
Getting coaches to agree on an optimal recruiting policy is no easy task. When asked about an ideal calendar for signing days, respondents offered nearly a dozen different suggestions. A plurality (28%) believed the existing structure — with a December and February signing day — worked best, but significant percentages also supported returning to a single February signing day (23%), keeping only the December signing day (17%) or shifting the December signing date to one in the summer (18%). In addition, nearly 12% of respondents suggested deregulating signing day altogether and allowing high school players to sign at any time.
Coaches did largely agree on deregulating initial signings, with 58% saying schools should be able to sign as many new players as they want, as long as the total scholarship number does not exceed 85.
The biggest concerns with recruiting, Saban said, revolve around the “unintended consequences” of so many other changes that have occurred in the sport.
“Name, image and likeness for instance, nobody thought the unintended consequence would be collectives,” Saban said. “That’s the issue. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying that’s the issue. It’s impacting recruiting. And it’s creating an imbalance. Every rule that we’ve ever had in college football [has unintended consequences] — same with scholarship, same Alston money, same cost of attendance.”
Parity, bowl games and the College Football Playoff
If the SEC is winning the vast majority of national titles, most of the respondents didn’t think that was a problem. Just 6% of those surveyed said the sport had become too regional, while 45% said the lack of elite football played in the Northeast and West Coast wasn’t an impediment to the game’s health.
Still, Phillips said the conference commissioners continue to work on playoff expansion as a means of creating more national inclusivity, and for players in the Pac-12, that’s long overdue.
“I just feel it’s something that we want and need,” Oregon linebacker DJ Johnson said. “To not have a team on the West Coast in the playoff just irritates you, because we definitely have talent.”
Is there a way to address players opting out of bowl games? More than 80% of the players who responded said providing NIL payments to players who participate in bowls could help.
Nearly half of players said there would be fewer opt-outs if the bowl games were played closer to the end of the regular season, but the idea of adjusting the bowl calendar — possibly by moving non-playoff bowls to the start of the season — wasn’t popular among respondents.
Players, coaches and administrators all agreed that playoff expansion would help the bowl system. A plurality of responses (38%) said the best way to save the bowl system was playoff expansion. Nearly 80% of respondents also said playoff expansion would be the best way to address parity issues in the sport.
What should expansion look like? About a third favored the format put forth last year that would include 12 teams with six auto bids for conference champions. Another one-third of respondents said they preferred an eight-team model. Other responses included a 16-team playoff, a 12-team model without auto bids, a 32-team tournament and a few votes for returning to the BCS two-team model.
Athlete empowerment and compensation
For all the bluster over players using NIL and the transfer portal to create a de facto free agency system, the vast majority of respondents think player empowerment was overdue — about 46% of respondents said players have “about the right amount” of power today, while another 21% said they still don’t have enough.
Many respondents seem to believe the trend toward athlete compensation is irreversible. More than half of respondents (54%) said they believed schools would begin paying athletes directly within the next five years, while another 28% said it would happen within 10 years. Just 12% believed direct player compensation wouldn’t happen eventually.
“Absolutely, I think we’re moving closer,” Rutgers safety Avery Young said. “It’s a reasonable demand for the athletes. We bring crowds, we bring the fans, we produce revenue. People before this generation of college football players kind of set in stone, but now we’re just building off that, and we kind of get to reap the benefits. But it’s something that’s well-deserved.”
Still, even some of the athletes worry about moving too quickly toward player empowerment without creating a system in which those players can still develop.
“I feel like we can still make strides in that direction, but also I feel like we can’t let player empowerment get toxic,” said Missouri defensive back Martez Manuel. “And I feel like that’s kind of the reality of what we’re living in now. … I feel like we can’t let the chop-wood, carry-water aspect of the game go to perish. Like a lot of people, they’re there for one year, ‘I’m not starting, I’m out.’ And then it’s like, OK, but now you’re not starting where else you are. It’s not truly empowering them because they’re not learning as a freshman, like you have to sit behind guys who are better than you and learn from them so that when it’s your turn, you can be better.”
Realignment and superconferences
Money is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and nearly half of respondents said greed — from schools, conferences and the NCAA — has put the sport at risk. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said that revenue disparities between schools and leagues will ultimately force a major restructuring of the sport, and 64% said revenue disparities represent one of the biggest threats to college football’s long-term health.
“I wish we could put the genie back in the bottle,” U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has pushed for federal rules requiring proper athlete compensation, said to ESPN. “I wish we could go back to the day in which this was true amateur athletics. But I don’t think that’s happening. The colleges have put us in a position where we have to do something different. The colleges made a decision that they were going to turn Power 5 football into a professional sport because they got addicted to the money.”
While the majority of the survey took place before UCLA and USC announced plans to join the Big Ten, the move likely came as little surprise to the respondents, who overwhelmingly believe more realignment is on the horizon.
Indeed, when asked what college football was most likely to look like in 20 years, a sizable majority (58%) answered that,
while the sport would remain tied to academics, there would be a split between superconferences that paid their athletes and smaller leagues that don’t.
“Players don’t get paid for their name or their image or their likeness because they’re good at math,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “They get paid because they’re good at football. So we are in the world of professional athletics now. So now how do you manage professional athletics? Well, what did the premier league in our sport have to do to manage it? They had to have a collective bargaining group and they had to have a salary cap. If you’re going to ever get your hands around it, I believe that’s the way you get your hands around it. Otherwise, it’s going to just be more of what’s going on now, which is out of control, really.”
Change in college football is not necessarily a problem — it was long overdue in some cases — but the growing pains of the current era are causing serious angst for players, coaches, administrators and fans.
“I think there has to be an end game here,” Murphy said. “I think one thing that frustrates fans is they have no idea what conference their team is going to be in, who your natural rivals are. We have to have some conclusion here. And there’s no conclusion without the players getting paid.”
So how will college football reach its end game? If there’s a recurring concern among nearly every stakeholder in the sport, it’s that there’s no captain steering the ship. The NCAA’s transformation committee, the Knight Commission, the individual conferences, the federal and state legislatures, the courts — they’ve all had a say in varying measures, but the sport needs a more unified governance structure that can properly evaluate, implement and respond to changes, and at the moment, no such mechanism exists.
“When the smoke clears, whoever’s in the game, we have to have one commissioner or a football czar,” Schiano said. “You can have commissioners of a conference because there’s more than just football. But then there’s someone who is in charge of all of it, and there’s commonality. I don’t care if it’s the SEC, the Big Ten, if you want to be part of this [playoff], you have to play by these rules.”
Kyle Bonagura, Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg, Alex Scarborough and Dave Wilson contributed to this story.