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Is College Football On Its Way To Self-Destruction?

(Editor's note: This article is written by Dr. Kay Collier McLaughlin, who currently heads Transformative Leadership Consulting -- -- after serving the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington as long-time Deputy for Leadership Development, Transitions and Communications. Collier McLaughlin is author of five books, vice chair of the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame and member of the Board of Directors of the Blanton Collier Sportsmanship Group. She is the middle daughter of former University of Kentucky and Cleveland Browns' world championship head coach Blanton Collier.)

By Kay Collier McLaughlin

On the one hand, it might seem a weird topic for the first Sunday in the season of Advent. On the other hand, since Advent is about shining light in the darkness, perhaps it is exactly the right topic at exactly the right time.

Self-disclosure. I grew up as the daughter of a football coach who went from to high school to professional to college to professional. I love the game. I'm an active member of two non- profits who celebrate and promote the good side of football. I have a better-than-average-fan knowledge of the game, both on and off the field. I have tended to keep my opinions confined to sharing with trusted companions of the gridiron wars.

But Patrick Towles' announcement on Sunday that he was leaving the University of Kentucky to play his final year elsewhere was my tipping point. I can't be quiet any longer.

The announcement was pure class, as is the young man who has until recently been the starting quarterback for the Wildcats. He reiterated his childhood dream of such a position. He thanked his coaches and the university for the opportunity. He thanked the Big Blue Nation. He acknowledged that he would always "bleed blue." What he did not say is how many other SEC teams recruited him more heavily than UK; how he chose UK because it was his dream. He didn't say the dream had turned into a nightmare.

And some of those fine folk from the BBN piled on his post more viciously than the hulking opposing linemen ever sacked him. It was rude. Crude. Unkind. Unnecessary. It sounded a lot like the angry posturing that we have come to accept from politicians. Like the kind of venomous spewing that passes, unchecked, for acceptable conversation in our world today.

The world and politics are a bigger bite than I can chew right now, and what's happening to college football probably is, as well. But I have a few things to say.

The University of Kentucky is one of the many schools of revolving doors for coaches. Ten men have come and gone in the past 54 years. I have not added up the buyout figures. Let's just say they are 'substantial.' Numerous quarterbacks, runners, receivers, linemen, kickers have been both praised and castigated for their roles. Interestingly, a number have fared well in the NFL.

My professional field is leadership and organizational development, with a foundation in systems theory. In this line of work, when the system is 'stuck' in an unhealthy pattern, it is critical to look at the system itself, honest examination of its history and the patterns revealed in the history; the strengths and weaknesses of leadership and with honest analysis in hand, report publically and transparently on the real issues, and the possibility of making the necessary changes to meet the goals of the organization. To date, UK's answer - as with many other colleges and sports teams - is to fire the coach. Pay a little more money or a lot more money and bring in another one. This has become business as usual at the University of Kentucky and many other schools. It is, at best, "technical fix" -- attempting to solve a repeated problem with a familiar solution. Unfortunately, when repetition of an old solution doesn't work, what's needed is an 'adaptive challenge' -- a new way of approaching the problem, based on a realistic assessment of foundational issues in the system, rather than the scapegoat approach now in place. Okay, so scapegoating, and riding the latest casualty out on the rails may temporarily quiet unhappy fans. It will, however, be a very temporary fix - because a new coach will have no better chance of truly changing the culture than the previous ones, unless the systemic issues are identified and addressed. And where the needs of the larger system mean certain issues can't be addressed, it's time to man up and name that to the public, and then support the coach.

If only it were as simple as 1) having a top notch recruiting class every year that guaranteed the necessary skills at every position 2) a head coach and staff who are great recruiters, great teachers and great motivators. But there are adjunct systems in the mix.

Once there were four major bowl games. Eight outstanding teams were honored to be invited to these bowls -- Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton. Exciting football that would interest any fan. Today there are 40 (yes, 40) bowl games. Thirty six additional towns hoping to draw crowds who produce revenue. Some 80 (yes, 80) teams hoping to be 'bowl eligible." That is, to have at least six wins in the regular season. 6-6 in a 12-game season.

Because there are so many bowls, the NCAA has relaxed its standards to permit a team with a losing season ( 5-7) to fill a slot in a bowl that needs a team to play in its game. Coaches' heads and player reputations roll based on ' bowl eligible.' Yet, with exception of the historic four, and perhaps three or four more, where's the honor? What's it about? An "e" for effort, and lots of parents and fans having a travel opportunity. A team getting in a few extra legal practices post-season? At the top of the heap there are bucks to be made for a school. The lower-tier bowl one goes, the more it actually costs a school to participate. So what does it actually mean today to say "we went to a bowl on my watch?" Sometimes, not much at all.

When the great running back Jim Brown was 48 years old, he signed on to run a foot race with current players Franco Harris and Walter Peyton. Brown hadn't played since he retired at age 29. People said he didn't want anyone breaking his records. In an interview, Jim Brown made it clear that it wasn't about his record. It was about the difference between one measurement and another. His records were based on running 1,000 yards in a 10-game season with no TV timeouts. At the time of the foot race, the measure was based on a 12-game season with TV timeouts. "Let's compare apples to apples," he said.

When there's talk of 'bowl eligible', let's be honest about the measurement. There's nothing wrong with a fun trip to a lesser bowl, and the opportunity for extra legal practices. But I have a hard time seeing it meaning anything - at least anything that could either assure or jeopardize a coach's future!

The other adjunct is the media. If scientific evidence is to be believed, then it is important to realize that repetitions increase the likelihood that that which you are carefully programming in your brain become your truth - even when it isn't. So the media are complicit in keeping this 'bowl eligible' game going.

There's much more, of course, but that has to do for now.

It's not the world, or politics, although it certainly is a reflection of these things. And it's time to shine a good strong light on the particular darkness, regardless of what the alums say. And of course, that's another adjunct. Another stakeholder. Somehow I'm not going to be surprised if they will not be brought into the circle that commits to take action. To join with others who would like to save the game of college football before it self-destructs. Who wants to see reality, after all?

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