What’s the worst thing that can happen to your team in the offseason? Is it injury to key players? Is it a signing day flip? Is it an unexpected coaching change, or is it an off field distraction?
College football isn’t played in a bubble. It’s played by a group of college students, who are coached by men who are working to support families. It’s funded by people from every walk of life who make up the fanbase, themselves living everyday lives far from the football field. With such an intense focus on what happens on the field and the preparation for that, we sometimes forget about the off the field side.
Then news breaks which causes the off the field issues to overshadow the on the field game. The off the field issue is almost always negative. It can be a player arrest or suspension, a poor choice of coach’s words or a minor NCAA rule infraction. But it can be big, too. It can be as big as Sandusky at Penn State; it can be accusations of rampant academic fraud at North Carolina, and it can be an alleged culture problem at Tennessee.
Before we talk about its impact on football, we would be remiss if we don’t acknowledge that many of these distractions that overshadow the game are more important to the game. What happened at Penn State and what has been alleged at Tennessee are much, much more important than a football game, or a football program. Those issues take precedence for a reason, but it is possible to discuss the secondary (or tertiary) impact these off the field issues have without marginalizing them.
Each off the field scandal or problem is unique, but the impact can be gauged by analyzing a few common aspects. The magnitude of the impact on these factors will determine how much the football program is affected, regardless of the impact in the real world.
Direct Impact. By direct impact, we mean sanctions, either internally or externally imposed. Will the school forgo postseason games because of the issue? Will the NCAA reduce scholarships? This is the first place many fans look to determine how concerned they should be about the program, and it’s important.
Alumni Money. Donations to the school and to the athletic programs are indisputably important to the success of the school’s teams. If a scandal is such that alumni don’t want to give or don’t want to give as much, the off the field issue will manifest itself on the field for years. Jason Kirk has written about the recent Missouri issues and how they affected the finances of the school.
Recruiting. Recruiting impact is closely related to alumni money and direct impact. If it seems a school is about to have sanctions imposed or has already had them, a secondary effect will be recruits becoming wary. Few players want to go to a school that is ineligible to play in the post season. Even without a formal sanction, recruiting can be impacted. If the off the field issue drives a wedge between the school and its alumni, it can often drive the same wedge with potential players. It’s harder to recruit to a school with a big problem, resolved or not.
Resiliency. The position of each athletics program is different. Some schools are resilient and can withstand an onslaught of poor decisions. Alabama and Ohio State come to mind as schools who, no matter what, will almost always be back. Penn State is proving quite resilient. The scandal they had could have sunk other programs. Some schools, your historic powerhouses, have so much structure and culture tied to their programs that they can withstand a tremendous amount of adversity and bounce back. Others aren’t as resilient.
As we go through the offseason there will be more off the field issues. Some will be small; some will be quite serious. Although the magnitude of importance in the real world will vary, it may not directly correlate to impact on the field, meaning just because a scandal is very important (or not very important) to real world, the football impact won’t necessarily be the same.