The world of college football has always been an ever-changing landscape, but recently the changes have been happening at an unprecedented pace. Power Five programs are receiving more money than ever before, and the implementation of the transfer portal has made the transfer process easier and more transparent. Both are arguably making college football run more like a professional league, where the moves in the “the off-season” are just as important as what transpires on the field during the season.
University of Georgia Grady College graduates and prominent figures in sports media Mark Schlabach and Tony Barnhart shared their expert insight. Schlabach is a New York Times best-selling author, columnist and reporter for ESPN.com. Barnhart is a college insider for CBS Sports on their college football coverage. They both agree that college football is changing and not necessarily for the better.
One of the most dramatic changes since the College Football Playoffs came to be in 2014 is the amount of money that exchanges hands. Head coach salaries have grown with Kirby Smart signing a 49 million dollar contract and Nick Saban’s being 74 million dollars. The more surprising jump is that of the assistant coaches’ pay.
“The gap is between the power five conferences and the group of five. They [power five] are benefiting the most from the influx of money that comes from the playoff,” said Barnhart. “You can go out, hire and retain those coaches. If you have a really good coach and you lose them it is not because of money.”
Over the last few months, Georgia has added new coaches to the program, as well as shuffle around some positions within the staff since Mel Tucker, former defensive coordinator, left to coach at Colorado and Jim Chaney headed to Tennessee to oversee the Vols’ offense. James Coley was promoted to Georgia’s offensive coordinator and Dan Lanning and Glenn Schumann are now co-defensive coordinators. Charlton Warren left Florida to coach the defensive backs at Georgia, and Todd Hartley, formerly at Miami, is the new tight ends coach.
These have not been the only changes within the program. In 2018, Georgia’s 10 assistant coaches were paid $6.42 million collectively compared to the nine assistants being paid a total of $4.56 million in 2017. Some position coaches at Georgia are making over $500 thousand while Coley and Sam Pittman are approaching $1 million.
The steep raises at Georgia are still nothing compared to other top football schools. USA Today reported that defensive coordinators Dave Aranda of LSU, Brent Venables of Clemson and Kevin Steele of Auburn are all making more than $2 million a year.
“The cost of doing business in college football right now is insane,” said Schlabach. “From the facilities, to the salaries … It’s just really difficult to keep up nowadays.”
The University of Georgia Athletic Board approved and carried out a $63 million improvement to the west end zone before this past season. Now, the board is planning a football-only building as part of the Butts-Mehre expansion and renovation.
These improvements act as magnets for recruits in addition to the millions dollar recruiting budgets that Barnhart mentioned. Georgia secured the No. 1 recruiting class in 2018 and the No. 2 class in 2019, according to ESPN.
The amount of money invested into football programs is not the only aspect of college football that makes it more like the NFL. On Oct. 15, 2018 the college football world was introduced to the transfer portal. The online site serves as a ‘notification-of-transfer’ from athletes so that coaches from other schools are able to contact them.
“I think we’re getting very close to complete free agency in college football, which I think would be very detrimental to the sport,” Schlabach said.
He continued to explain that there has been a growing trend over the last couple of years to enhance player rights and give players more power in terms of decisions that affect them. That is the positive side of the portal.
“If a guy wants to leave and find another opportunity it is a clear, understandable process that is out in the open,” said Barnhart. “Before the portal it was all done in secret. Now it is out in the open, transparent and schools cannot block transfers.”
On the other hand, this will benefit programs that are already well-established and leave others out to dry.
“[College football] is going to get even more top-heavy because if Alabama or Georgia or Ohio State’s coaches know that they can go pick a senior off of any team – I think they’re going to start to do it,” Schlabach said. “Teams are going to have even more talented rosters than what they had before.”
Since the transfer portal is a relatively new program, the NCAA is still working to fine tune the process. But as it stands now, it tends to favor athletes by weighing their wishes over the set regulations.
The Justin Fields situation is a perfect example of this. Barnhart and Schlabach agree that there is a growing sense of entitlement in young players, especially incoming quarterbacks. Like many others, they believe that Fields thought he was going to show up on campus and start from day one.
Fields decided that going to Ohio State was the better option for him and his career, and he capitalized on the portal as a means to do so. Schlabach did not think that Fields would be granted an immediate-eligibility waiver, but he was.
According to espn.com, 64 FBS players have applied for these waivers since the policy change in 2018, and 51 (79.7 percent) received approvals.
The waivers are meant for unusual situations and hardships. Barnhart questioned whether or not the number of granted requests should be that high.
“It’s implied to players that if you’re unhappy, you can go anywhere you want, the NCAA isn’t going to stand in your way,” Schlabach said.
Justin Fields is an example of a player who utilized the portal to go elsewhere, but Georgia has capitalized on this new process, picking up a handful of athletes going into the 2019 season. Two of them are a graduate transfers, one from Miami, receiver Lawrence Cager, and another, long snapper Steven Nixon from Mercer University. Most recently, Georgia added former Tennessee tight end Eli Wolf to their roster. These players will help fill some of the positions left open by Georgia players deciding to enter the draft early.
Some would argue that college football is beginning to become unrecognizable from what it used to be. No longer is it just for the passion of the sport, but now it involves more on the logistics side, mirroring large corporations. And in doing so, it is threatening programs that do not capitalize as much from both the money and recruiting standpoint.
“The biggest thing to me, and I’ve been talking about this for the last few years a lot, is the gap between the have and have-nots in college football is just growing wider and wider,” Schlabach said. “And I just wonder if we’re not getting to a point where we’re going to take some teams out of major college football.”
Georgia is adjusting well to the new reality in college football. Smart and his program are in the “have” side and trending upwards. With the coaching staff changes, player transfers and new recruiting class, Georgia fans are entering a season of unknown. The program has a lot to prove going into the 2019 season. The success of the changes made will be determined with the performance on the field over time. But patience isn’t at a premium in today’s landscape.