Donnie Collins: For college football, battle is between ideals and realities
Big-time players leaving a big-time college football teams turned out to be a big story around the nation.
Happy Valley proved to be no exception. Name after name entered the transfer portal — 18 of them in all, as it turned out — and Penn State fans reacted as one might imagined they would.
They wondered what possibly could be going wrong in State College. Were the coaches losing the kids? Were the kids losing faith in the program? Was this an anomaly or a sign of the present or the future?
Maybe, coaches were feeling the same kind of thing about some of the players who looked down the road and saw greener grass elsewhere.
“Without getting too much into it, obviously we wish him nothing but the best,” one said in regards to a player who decided to leave. “Disappointed to see him leave.”
The coach who uttered those words this week wasn’t Penn State’s James Franklin, talking about a receiver like Juwan Johnson, or a good safety prospect like Isaiah Humphries.
Credit that quote to new Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who watched his top backup quarterback Tate Martel leave the Buckeyes for Miami in January.
Coaches don’t enjoy losing the talent they work hard to recruit, and they know the NCAA’s turn toward deregulation of transfers that began to take effect in the offseason will cost all of them their share.
But even a guy like Franklin takes no solace a top competitor like Ohio State is suffering the postseason roster shuffling his Nittany Lions are bound to face while the transfer portal settles in as the new normal for big-time college football.
“For me, my concern isn’t really about Penn State; I’m worried about college football,” Franklin said this week, during a press conference Wednesday at which the state of the game itself overtook the traditional National Letter of Intent Signing Day festivities. “I’m worried about what we’re teaching young people. One of the greatest things I think that college football and college athletics teaches is, it’s a tremendous complementary aspect to what they’re learning in the classroom: The mental toughness, the physical toughness, how to overcome adversity, those types of things.
“I worry that we’re creating a situation where it’s path of least resistance. And in my life, I don’t know if that’s ever been the right choice or the right path.”
It shouldn’t take decades worth of life experience to know Franklin’s right. There are two things most young athletes have these days that they didn’t have in the past, and one of them is an abundance of advice on how good they are, what their future should hold, and where the best path to that future exists.
That’s bad news for coaches.
But the other thing most young athletes have that they didn’t in the past are some actual rights.
Which brings up an interesting question: Are the problems coaches and programs are going to face in the future more of an issue than the many decades when players basically had no rights outside of choosing their school?
In the 1970s and 1980s, when a prospect committed to Penn State, he basically signed a five-year contract. Very few players dared ask if they could avoid redshirting. If you came into the program in the same class as Jack Ham or Shane Conlan or Mike Munchak, and you played the same position, too bad. You were a backup. Didn’t matter if you had designs on an NFL career. Didn’t matter if you were good enough to be a star at Pittsburgh or Temple or Ohio State or Boston College.
You were stuck where you were, with very few exceptions. And many of those exceptions involved getting permission from a coach who could tell you where you could or couldn’t go once he granted you the kindness of pursuing a dream that was no longer available to you where you were.
Franklin said he took a look at the transfer portal last week and noticed 1,789 names in it. He wondered how many of them would actually find the opportunities they wanted.
“I’m just a big believer that the (old) model has worked for a very long time,” Franklin said. “It is not perfect, but I think about so many people that I know … that this worked for. It created opportunities for guys to get a great education, to learn mental toughness, to learn physical toughness. There’s so much good that comes from this. I just worry that the direction this is going, that at some point the model is going to break.
“I want what’s best for the players. I want what’s best for colleges and universities. I want what’s best for our game.”
Franklin’s heart is in the right place. But he’s advocating a status quo for a game that is no longer appealing to the players’ reality. There are 11,050 scholarships handed out among the 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and there are only 2,016 NFL jobs, including practice squad positions. But it seems as if there are many more players today who feel they have legitimate NFL talent than there were a few decades ago. The NCAA did such a good job linking itself to the NFL in the past that college is now viewed by most of them as a minor league of sorts.
Need proof? When running back Noah Cain, a consensus top-10 running back recruit in the nation in the 2019 recruiting class, committed to Penn State in December, he said he would call Happy Valley home “for the next three-to-four years.”
“I worry about that mentality a little bit right now,” Franklin said, not mentioning Cain by name. “I see (high school) players constantly posting, guys commit and they say ‘I’m going to be at school X for three to five years.’ Literally, that’s the first thing. They’re already thinking about three years.”
Franklin is right. That’s concerning. It’s not what college football is supposed to be about. But the NCAA has not exactly done a good job maintaining what college football should be about.
Players are thinking about what all high school students think about when they go to college: The future in the field they want to pursue, which is a right they should be allowed to have. After all, if John Q. Business Major can pick up and transfer across the country for the fall semester, the same standards should apply to Juwan Johnson.