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John Blanchette: More is not always better, just ask Jim Walden

THURSDAY, AUG. 21, 2014

College football is a modern monument to more.

More commitment. More resources. More time. More television. More money. More demands. More divisiveness.

Elsewhere in these pages, you’ll read of the no-break schedules of the contemporary player and the changes that have accrued on coaching staffs over the years. Off-season conditioning, expanded recruiting calendars, retina-ruining video study – those are just part of a trickle-down obsessiveness in the college football culture born both from the competitive gene innate in all the game’s principals and ever-skyrocketing financial stakes.

Simply, it’s all about more.

Which begs the question: with so much more being demanded, is the game more … better?

“No,” insisted Jim Walden. “It really isn’t.”

OK, you don’t reach out to the neighborhood contrarian to talk you out of a pet antithesis. We pretty much knew Walden would have some strong feelings on the subject of the evolution of the game. Remember, he may have resigned as coach at Washington State long ago, but he got fired as the radio color guy.

Still, it’s not as if he’s in lockstep with all of us throwing darts at college football these days. Take, for instance, the insanity – or obscenity, if you prefer – of coaching salaries.

“I love the fact that they’re making money,” he said. “It’s the American way.”

That doesn’t mean he necessarily thinks anyone – school, fan or player – is getting bang for the buck.

“Coaches are getting paid a lot more to do less – video has made it so much easier,” he said. “And the operations guys and staff positions have multiplied like crazy.

“But players are getting the same to do a hell of a lot more.”

Mostly, he just doesn’t see that the game itself is inherently more appealing than it was when he coached at WSU nearly 30 years ago.

This is eye-of-the-beholder stuff, sure. Since the end of unlimited scholarships in 1972, per-game scoring has increased by nearly 20 points. Quarterbacks who don’t complete two out of every three throws find themselves on the bench, when 50 percent used to elicit huzzahs. The players are bigger, faster, more explosive – as they’re better trained, better fed and better doctored.

“They have to be,” Walden said, “given the time they’re expected to put in now. But it’s not like the same people aren’t getting the same athletes.”

Hard to argue. The teams atop the preseason AP poll: Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Auburn and UCLA. Other than the nouveau riche Ducks, how does that look any different from the rankings of 20, 30 and 40 years ago?

“Washington State has one quarterback,” Walden noted. “If he goes down, good luck winning another game.”

And major college attendance hasn’t changed significantly since 30-odd programs were lopped off into what is now the FCS in the ’80s. No, stadium capacities aren’t going to allow for huge jumps, but the numbers confirm the game was already more than popular.

Turning players into year-round subjects was never going to goose the excitement – any more than calling that commitment voluntary makes it optional.

“When you talk to some of these parents,” Walden said, “they find out that they send their kids to college when they’re 18 years old and they go into a dark hole and don’t come out. It’s, ‘Whatever happened to my son? He didn’t come back for five years.’

“Money isn’t the only reason kids leave early to go to the NFL. If you make a pro team, you get some time off.”

It was comical to hear earnest testimony from fretful educrats in the recent O’Bannon trial warning that letting players earn on their abilities and likenesses would inevitably lessen college athletics’ fan appeal as a purely amateur endeavor, seeing as they’ve done nothing but enable coaches to ratchet up the demands on their athletes’ time. Meanwhile, they’ve erected football operations facilities that humble some NFL buildings, and in the process managed to further sequester their student-athletes from mere students.

“There’s an appeasement factor now, and maybe it’s to keep these kids from rebelling,” Walden said. “You go into these factories and there are all these amenities – the wide-open cafeteria and the rest. And when they get out, guess what? They have to stand in line with everyone else and pay for that.

“How many ways can we find to keep them from intermingling with the student body? It’s not normal, and it’s not healthy.”

None of this will mute the volume on Saturday afternoons – or Tuesday, Thursday or Friday evenings, depending on your local listings. At least not in those elite precincts that are home to schools in one of the five major conferences who have been granted significant autonomy from the NCAA. They’ll be a quasi-pro operation in due time, and it would be nice to think that the schools left behind could return to playing college football.

Or something less than the current game of more.



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