With the announced intention of fighting inflation, America's big-time football universities decided in the summer of 1975 to pinch athletic pennies. By majority vote at an NCAA convention, they decided to fire some assistant coaches and cut some scholarships. Trimming frills, they even outlawed those gawdawful team-insignia blazers. So was born The Blazer Issue.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association's 144 big-time football schools will take another vote in convention Thursday morning. The vote could change the face of college football forever and the voice of the doomsayer is heard in the land. The vote could establish a Division I and a Division I-A, with seven major conferences and assorted independents in the penthouse. Everyone else would be one floor down. No basement tenant ever railed more against his landlord.
"The purpose of the NCAA organization is to 'initiate, stimulate and improve athletic programs,'" said Fred Jacoby, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference. The proposal to split Division I, he said, "will hurt, damage or destroy more athletic programs than anything ever. It is negative legislation."
Bob Murphy, the atheltic director at San Jose State, says everything is beautiful, so why change? "It's like we've examined a patient and found him healthy, yet we wheel that patient into an operating room for surgery that can only be negative."
Both men have special interests in the legislation. Neither San Jose State nor the Mid-American Conference meets certain criteria for admission to the so-call "Super Conference" (not truly a conference, the new Division I would be an aggregation of 79 teams that would operate under its own rules). So far, no one at one of those 79 schools has said a discouraging word and it appears they have the votes to settle The Blazer Issue.
The blazer is the symbol of the war between college football's haves and have-nots. It represents the 1975 legislation in toto: the limit of 30 scholarships a year and 95 total, prohibitions on scouting and recruiting, limits on size of coaching staffs. All that and more.
"It was all stupid," said one coach, but the silliest thing was the blazer. Isn't that ridiculous, somebody from Upper Volta telling Notre Dame it can't wear team blazers?"
The vote Thursday is expected to be close, but believers in the Super Conference say they can survive a few defections and still win. Even Jacoby admits, "We're running second." So, by noon the Oklahomas and Southern Californias and Penn States will be ordering blazers.
Not Nebraska. "We've still got 'em in a storeroom," said Don Bryant, the Nebraska sports publicity man. He sounded as happy as a squirrel who had put up a load of acorns the days before a blizzard.
The 1975 legislation, approved narrowly and in a time when money pains were at their worst, has been interpreted darkly by the really big boys of college football. They weren't legislating economy, the big boys said, they were legislating equality. They were trying to bring us down to their level. The economics was only an excuse and now they're crying because we're getting back at them.
An immediate result of the 1975 legislation was the formation of the College Football Association, essentially made up of today's 79 revolutionists. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] CFA schools spoke of secession from the NCAA if they were not allowed to operate by their own rules.
Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach who is widely influential as a man of reason committed to the college student-athlete ideal, thinks the CFA is essential.
"If (we) would get together and try to get people to understand that there are problems peculiar to our situation, problems different from problems the other schools have, we could do a much better job of running and controlling the country's most popular sport," he said.
The seven conferences in the CFA are the Big 10, Atlantic Coast, Southeastern, Southwest, Big Eight, Western Athletic and Pacific-10. Major independents such as Notre Dame, Penn State and Pitt also are members. Even a squirrel knows that the power lays with those fellows. Jacoby's Mid-American Conference and Murphy's San Jose State mean little to the television executives who worked a $118 million deal with the NCAA this year.
Murphy says the 79 rebels are forgetting what college sports are all about. The games are for the students involved, not for the spectators, he said.
"We want to remove ourselves from being a junior NFL and stay in amateur competition," he said.
Jacoby, scowling: "Are we headed to an airplane conference where they take the top two or three teams out of existing conferences?"
College sports are wonderful. An athlete can profit from the experience. But even at San Jose State, where Murphy says they are increasing the stadium from 17,000 to 30,000 seats, even in the Mid-American Conference, where Jacoby proudly cites Miami of Ohio victories over the biggest boys, everywhere college sports have gone beyond a game for students.
The college sports arena is entertainment, and anyone likely to be in Division I-A already has acknowledged that (or he'd be in nonscholarship Division III). So all protestations by Division I-Aers have the hollow ring of plain jealousy.
The Super Conference teams will increase total scholarships probably to 105. They'll hire as many assistant coaches as they want. They'll scout teams and they'll recruit until the budget says no.
Meanwhile, despite warnings by Jacoby and Murphy, the lesser conferences will not break up. Their teams will not win as often in Competition with the big boys and may not even get on their schedules. But they'll survive, because they have their constitutency, and the Super Conference teams will improve the product they're selling the TV people.