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Saving College Football by Rotating Coaches
The recent decision allowing college athletes to benefit from others using their name, image, and likeness is the latest step from an amateur to a professional model. Nearly from college football's beginning, cash payments, ghost jobs, and eased admissions standards induced talented football players to attend one school or another. Over time, conferences formed among schools with shared philosophies regarding the role of athletics in the college setting. But, of course, not every conference member toed the line, and there were often dramatic differences in these practices across conferences.
In 1949, these conflicts once again came to a head when the NCAA passed the Sanity Code with several key provisions:
Athletic scholarships would be based on financial need and limited to the cost of tuition, fees, plus one meal per day in season.
All assistance had to come from the institutions themselves, not boosters.
Pay for student jobs had to be consistent with the services rendered.
The Sanity Code passed with overwhelming member support despite some schools openly offering full athletic scholarships that did not plan to change their approach. Seven schools were "charged" with violating the Sanity Code in 1950, but an NCAA member vote to expel them from the organization failed. The failed vote left the Sanity Code toothless, and the NCAA soon repealed it. Its repeal intensified the concerns of those who supported the pure amateur model, particularly after gambling issues emerged in college basketball, West Point had its test cribbing scandal, and William & Mary's president, football coach, and basketball coach resigned for falsifying athletes' transcripts.
In that atmosphere, Arch Ward, the Chicago Tribune's sports editor, entered the picture. Ward was an innovator and promoter who masterminded the Major League All-Star game in 1933, the Chicago College All-Star Football game in 1941, the Golden Gloves in 1941, and helped form the All-American Football Conference, an NFL competitor, in 1946. Given his track record, people listened to what he said and read what he wrote.
For Ward, the core problem in college athletics was the pressure on coaches to win, which led to proselytizing (recruiting) and inducements (scholarships or other benefits for athletes). His solution was to break the link between coaches and schools by rotating coaches from one school to another each year.
Operationally, Ward called for the creation of superconferences. One would include the Big Ten, Notre Dame, Iowa State, and Pitt, while a second had the Ivies, Army, Navy, Syracuse, Holy Cross, and Colgate. Presumably, superconferences would form in other parts of the country as well. The superconferences were to create boards to assign the coaches, announcing those assignments on August 1 each year. The rotation and late notice of the assignments meant coaches would have little incentive or ability to recruit players to a particular school. With little time to recruit to their new assignment and only being on each campus for one year, why would they bother with recruiting? By also eliminating spring practice, coaches would only need to be at their assigned school three months per year, so their families would not need to relocate.
While Ward received some support from college presidents in the days immediately after he published his proposal, the idea went nowhere. Few coaches supported the idea, particularly those who were successful under the current rules. Similarly, the schools that already enjoyed success had little reason to jump into uncharted waters. Further, teams would have to scrap their playbooks and acquaint themselves with a new system each year. In the end, the editor of a small-town newspaper best captured the shortcoming of Ward's proposal by suggesting he and Ward rotate jobs, a challenge Ward did not accept.
Ward raised the proposal later that season as coaches were fired or resigned -noting that they would not have lost their jobs under his system- but the idea disappeared by the end of the year and was forgotten, until now.
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