Hey, You: Ask John U Bacon Stuff Comment Count

Brian September 2nd, 2013 at 2:38 PM


Noted author and man about town John U Bacon has just published a book, as you probably know from the excerpt that hit this space last Friday. John's been kind enough to give us the same opportunity he did when Three And Out came out: ask the man questions about things most people know nothing about because they haven't been inside a bunch of programs.

After Michigan, Bacon added Northwestern, Penn State, and Ohio State to his list over the course of putting together Fourth and Long, which means he's probably the only journalist with any basis to compare the Midwest's power programs. I've got a bunch of questions for him, but we thought we'd let you guys take a crack because crowdsourcing is always interesting.

So: what do you want to know about?



September 2nd, 2013 at 2:50 PM ^

In particular, why is the AD allowed to allocate ten times more points per dollar to its own donors than to donors to other parts of the University? The development people don't like it, and I don't think it makes any sense. Given that $1m to the general fund is far more valuable to the U than $100k to the AD, shouldn't the U should be mobilizing all of its resources, including its so-called front porch, to maximize contributions to the entire institution?

Not sure if Bacon is the person to answer these questions, but if he has any insight, I'd love to hear it.


September 2nd, 2013 at 2:54 PM ^

Would be great to hear about how the effect of the differeing sideline demeanor's of the respective coaches on the players.  Fitzgerald and Meyer seem to get very animated (RR was too and could be another point of comparison) while Hoke is much more mellow, and seems to always encourage the players when they come off the field after mistakes.  We see it from a distance but I wonder how the attitude of the sideline differs at each school and how that affects on field performance.

Bando Calrissian

September 2nd, 2013 at 3:04 PM ^

I just finished my copy of the book. It's a must-read.

Much of the book deals with the idea of an approaching "tipping point" for fans of college football, where the costs, hassles, and scandals associated with the game will outweigh fan loyalty on a massive scale. In other words, there comes a point where people stop donating, stop buying tickets, and start staying home on football Saturdays.

Looking at it from the Michigan perspective, we've put up with increased ticket costs, mandatory PSDs, and an Athletic Department that is transparently business-oriented, with the perception of being occasionally (if not often) tone-deaf to the fanbase and Michigan's traditions alike. When placed alongside other programs, if I read his argument correctly, it seems Michigan has fallen into being a follower, rather than a leader, in how athletic departments are trying to strike a balance between financial sustainability, competitiveness, and cultivating a fanbase. And looking at the game as a whole, it's clear the NCAA is a flawed, if not irredeemably broken governing body for college athletics. Yet Bacon argues we keep coming back for more because the lure of the game, our attachments to the University, and the intangibles of the college game (the bands, the stadiums, the rivalries, traditional allegiances with our schools, etc.). 

My question is in his estimation, where is that "tipping point" for Michigan, and what happens when we reach it? In his estimation, with the insight and knowledge he has of the culture of 1000SSS, in what ways could Michigan fundamentally change its attitude and strategies in order to be a leader in the movement to reform the NCAA and restore the fanbase's faith in the college game? Is there a way of putting the genie back in the bottle, or have the aggressive, business-oriented strategies of the Brandon regime that he highlights in the book (and there are MANY instances therein) put Michigan on an irreversible, faulty trajectory?


September 2nd, 2013 at 4:20 PM ^

every ounce of genuine and real college football interest into the NFL experience is what I think Bacon is talking about. 

The NFL has managed to make its product so antisceptic and so pay for play that its hard to get behind it except on the most superificial level,  that the biggest game of the season is about celebrating new ads. 

Even the league treats the preaseason and the making of a team as some loathesome enterprise that attempted personalization of the process in the Hard Knocks series on HBO, gets to be a reality show of the real knuckleheads from whicheve franchise agrees to have their culture revealed up close and personal. It might as well be a lottery.

I think there is a reason certain teams stay away from this. It would be like watching Nick Saban's Alabama program, and discovering that while he is a great coach, disciplinarian --and strong recruiter -- that he is what he is, kind of a guy you aren't really interestested in. 

The tipping point of college football is when the game becomes so nuanced and stripped of emotion that winning, like it has become at Alabama, has made the idea of not selecting a team from that conference no matter what its record or season, makes winning an NFL championship process. 

The NFL and the NBA are filled with great athletes. But they got nothing on college sports. And the reason they don't is because of the nature of the games, and the history and tradition of team at Michigan, and what it means to play for a school instead of a franchise, is how Tom Brady described the difference to members of Michigan's football roster. It's night and day. 

The day college football seeks to become like the NFL, it's done. 


September 2nd, 2013 at 4:41 PM ^

The tipping point will be when players are directly paid a salary.  The notion of amateurism is essential to college sports.  The quality of play isn't as good as it is in the pros, but dang it, they're college students out there playing for love of the game and all that, and so fans are forgiving.   You throw salaries into there and it will change things, a lot.



September 3rd, 2013 at 2:06 AM ^

I disagree... in the sense he's talking about, we're already past the tipping point. The condensing of the college football world into a few select conferences, with new additions to those conferences being selected via a process shockingly similar to that of pro expansion teams, was the begining. The TV rights deals we've seen since that process began basically guarantee it's continuation. The introduction of money and the various knock-on effects of it will only be another minor step toward the birth of NFL Lite. 

There is no going back, you can't just close Pandora's Box once it's been open. We need to either embrace that or find another hobby. 

Section 1

September 2nd, 2013 at 6:06 PM ^

I very much agree with all of what you've written. 

I'd say this, too; this is a much more fun read, than Three and Out.  This new book is less reportorial.  There is more high-level narrative.  For Michigan people, this book is probably going to be a lot less painful than re-living the Rodriguez era.



September 2nd, 2013 at 3:22 PM ^

What's wrong with a world where college football becomes NFL lite? Some traditions are worth preserving - why is amateur/college football one of those?

It is evident that there is a huge market for collegiate sports - at least, football and March Madness - and one that far, far outstrips the bottom-line dollar value of collegiate scholarships for those sports. Why shouldn't collegiate athletes get a bigger slice of that pie, one more in proportion to that market?


September 2nd, 2013 at 3:38 PM ^

I would definitely like to see the above asked just to hear Bacon's answer.  As long as we provide at least 4 years on scholarship, what is the harm?  After all during my college career I often made choices to say spend more time on a computer science project and half ass one of my cognate projects or an elective because I knew career wise it was more important for more career to have projects I could use to land internships, build my CV, etc.  

So isn't it in the interest of the players, at least ones with NFL potential, to play in a system dedicated to advancing their careers and rewards them for the money they bring in.  Namely I'm not exactly sure how this is the soul of just college althletics, these days most bachelors and master level degrees are professional degrees, where you get paid internships over the summer, maybe even make some money doing 10 hours a week for a company during the school year etc.  I see athletics more as lagging behind the rest of the school in this area.  The average Michigan student had figured out that they are in demand and can make money while obtaining a degree and athletics needs to catch up.


September 2nd, 2013 at 5:39 PM ^

I agree that this question should be asked, but disagree with your assumptions about these employees being "at least 4 years on scholarship."  There would be no scholarships if the players are employees.  They could pay tuition out of their salaries (presumably with an employee discount) if they desire to attend classes.

If Bacon is willing to go down this "pay the players" road, I'd be interested in his take on what that does to high school football.  In the minor-league-NFL model, there may be a lot fewer kids going into "D1" (now pro) schools, because there would be no graduation; players would stay employed by the university until they get picked up by the pros, give up hope, or get fired.  Does Bacon agree with my conclusion that this would mean a lot less turnover in the minor league playing jobs (and so fewer opportunities for HS kids to move up), or does he think turnover will be even higher in the absence of any incentive to retain employees who don't meet expectations?

M Fanfare

September 2nd, 2013 at 3:28 PM ^

My question is: how does this tipping point in the monetization of college athletics play into the age-old conflict between athletics and academics, especially as the state of higher education has developed some alarming cracks over the last decade? Specifically, I can't help but look at college students being crushed under mountains of loan debt, the decreasing value of a bachelor's degree, the ongoing demise of the tenure-track professorship, and entire academic departments being cut, all while ADs and major sports coaches are pulling in high six and seven figure salaries. I understand that the major sports pay for the smaller ones, and that revenues lead to better facilities for athletes and fans, but it seems that a good chunk of those revenues end up in the pockets of a privileged few (compare coach/AD salaries 40 years ago, adjusted for inflation, compared to now). Sure, the market dictates value, but at what point does it become obscene, if it hasn't already?

snarling wolverine

September 2nd, 2013 at 3:48 PM ^

We should keep in mind, regarding coaches in particular, that there are a lot of tradeoffs, like 100-hour work weeks during the season, the need to constantly recruit high school players, and the intense public scrutiny that comes with the position.  Money isn't everything.  You and I might never touch the kind of money coaches make, but we probably aren't in our office from sunrise to sunset, probably don't have to worry about being recognized wherever we go in public, and probably don't have people calling in to the radio saying that we suck and should be fired.  And our job performance probably isn't due in large part to the choices made by teenagers.  

Also, a coach that can instill a winning football culture is worth a ton to a university.  Compare Alabama now to where they were before Saban arrived.  I personally know two kids who just graduated from high school last spring - here in Michigan - who are now freshmen at Alabama.  (They're regular students, not athletes.)  You never heard of that happening just a few years ago.   They are now attracting a much higher caliber of student than they used to.  If Alabama remains a dominant football program for another decade, people are going to start calling them a public Ivy - seriously.


September 2nd, 2013 at 4:28 PM ^


While football dominance may translate into Alabama gaining more out of state tuition dollars, there's no way it's going to lead it to be considered a public Ivy. That status correlates to academic research dollars, quality of doctoral programs, and general prestige within the academy. Athletic success has at best a negligible effect and may actually harm the final consideration, as many faculty don't consider an institution in which football is afforded so much attention and importance a serious place.

I think Penn State might be the only place where you could argue that football success substantially improved an institution's academic reputation, and I'd argue that was indirect, as the prestige was substantially about Penn State gaining membership to the Big 10.

I would love to hear how the Sandusky scandal and its aftermath affected the relationship between the AD and faculty institutions at Penn State (as well as the way that those dynamics play out at the other schools).


September 2nd, 2013 at 4:39 PM ^

Notre Dame is the case example of a school that parlayed football into academic prestige.  I'm not sure where they rank in terms of research expenditures (my understanding is that they actually aren't that strong in that area), but they're a popular enough school to now have very stringent admissions standards, and by that token they are now considered an excellent school.


September 2nd, 2013 at 5:00 PM ^

At the undergrad level ND is a very good school. It doesn't, however, have the Research I profile that "Public Ivy" implies (ie, the mix of excellent undergraduate education with a deep institutional commitment to graduate training and research).

ND is more of a liberal arts college with a massively successful athletic program. In other words, its analogues are places like Wake Forest and BC, not Virginia, Berkeley, etc.

snarling wolverine

September 2nd, 2013 at 4:51 PM ^

That status correlates to academic research dollars, quality of doctoral programs, and general prestige within the academy.

And why can't Alabama attain those things? They're attracting better and better students (the two I mentioned were U-M-caliber students), and probably raking in a lot more in donations, so why can't they complete the picture? Good faculty want to work with good students. Good students and faculty together can produce quality research. It can become a virtuous circle.


September 2nd, 2013 at 5:08 PM ^

To be frank, undergrad students are relatively unimportant in creating what we can think of as a public Ivy.

Ivies and Public Ivies are more about graduate programs and the opportunity to train the next generation of scholars. Faculty who place that as their utmost professional goal will always leave a place like Alabama when given the chance because its graduate programs will not attract the best graduate students (who will go to the Ivies and public Ivies because those degrees have so much more prestige on the academic job market).

Money from successful football programs does not normally trickle into graduate education. Penn State is the exception because its affiliation with the Big 10 brought in new access to research money and collaboration previously unavailable, and it still sits on the margins of academic prestige.


September 2nd, 2013 at 8:15 PM ^

WHY should undergrad students be "unimportant" to the goals of a a university? Shouldn't they want to be a great research institution to turn out great students, their primary goal? You could argue the quest to be a "public ivy" is as skewed to their mission as big time athletics. Universities SHOULD be serving their undergrad population, not just trying to get their professors vitae thicker with useless publications.


September 2nd, 2013 at 9:35 PM ^

You're misunderstanding me (likely because of my unnecessarily blunt first sentence). I think undergrads are a priority for the vast majority of professors, largely because it's difficult to give a large portion of your time to something you don't care about, particularly given the strange nature of university teaching, in which you're "on stage." And undergraduate teaching is often incredibly gratifying. I've never taught anywhere (4 different institutions) where faculty considered teaching undergrads  unimportant. (It is considered relatively unimportant for promotion, likely, I think, because it's so difficult to judge, whereas peer reviewed books and articles, citations, etc., are easier to evaluate, particularly by the scholars outside the institution that evaluate people for tenure and other promotions.

The relationships with graduate students are also of a different nature than those with undergrads, much more personal and longer lasting since a graduate student is engaged essentially in a form of apprenticeship, in which graduate students are selected out of huge pools, mentored over 5-8 years, and stay in touch in a much more direct way after completing the doctorate.

Most centrally, though, I meant to imply that undergraduate education is relatively unimportant in the broader distinction between "public Ivy" and other institutions whose status is not considered equivalent (a place like Notre Dame). In my mind, when you talk about public Ivies, you're talking about institutions that combine excellent undergrad education, strong doctoral programs, and institutional support for faculty research. In my mind a public Ivy is primarily distinguised by graduate programs strong enough that their graduates will be considered for most jobs for which they apply (whereas someone from Alabama would likely have to have an award winning dissertation to be considered at many jobs, someone from Michigan or UCLA would not need the same level of acknowledgement beyond their institution).

My view is probably skewed as someone in academia, and I think your insinuation that people write and research just to add lines to their vitae is silly. Scholars pursue scholarship because they're part of a community that's invested in the creation of knowledge along disciplinary lines, and then, hopefully among a broader public. 


September 2nd, 2013 at 10:43 PM ^

But there are quite a few who are more interested in their research/career track.

And while your definition of what constitutes "public ivies" is true, I'm asking shouldn't the mission be teaching first and foremost over research, and the elite judge/ranking of the University? Whereas by your ranking of importance by the institution, if not the faculty, seems to skew to the later.

And while most believe in their research, as one one involved in academia and hiring in academia, I can say there's a lot of studies and publications that are needless drivel. They ask about your research and you publications for hiring/advancement....they don't really test your teaching ability when hiring (though it's monitored a bit more after the fact).


September 2nd, 2013 at 3:41 PM ^

What does Bacon see as the different sides in this issue and how did he go about interviewing?

The genesis behind this somewhat loaded question is that I felt 3 and Out really suffered from being more of a "Bacon hangs out with RR" type of book, as opposed a definitive history of era.  When Carr wouldn't comment, Bacon just left it at that and ignored one of the main actors in the saga.  So I'm curious as to the methodology here before I consume.

Bando Calrissian

September 2nd, 2013 at 4:44 PM ^

I think there is definitely a bit of imbalance in this book in terms of how the four programs (M, PSU, OSU, NU) are covered, in that of the four, Michigan was the only one for which Bacon had no access seemingly outside of a normal press pass. Dave Brandon apparently forbid any department employee, coach, or player from speaking to him for the book. So he talks to a lot of fans, former players, former administrators (Bill Martin's quotes are particularly good), etc. For the other three, we get current looks behind the curtain. Bacon talking to Penn State players, coaches, and staff. People at every level of Northwestern athletics, from players to President Morty Schapiro. For OSU, we get in-depth discussions with Urban Meyer.

I think the Michigan material in the book is an interesting complement to the rest, and even moreso enlightening if you read Three and Out. Yet it's a different kind of exposure that is more based on fans and what it means to be on the consumer end of athletics than what it means to be a coach, player, or administrator.

As for the "before I consume" line at the end, just read the book and come to your own conclusion. No need to be dramatic about it.

Zone Left

September 2nd, 2013 at 7:16 PM ^

I haven't had the chance to read the book yet, but I want to know a little more about the different centers of power at Penn State and his thoughts about that school's relationship with football. Does football dominate the culture so much that something like that could happen again? Is there genuine contrition among the new leadership along with dismay at some of the obnoxious behavior of a couple board members and Pennsylvania's elected leadership regarding the scandal? I think the Big 10 should have expelled Penn State, but am willing to be persuaded otherwise.

I feel like a genuine window from a somewhat disinterested party into that school's leadership would be fanscinating.


September 2nd, 2013 at 11:50 PM ^

What is the "end-game" in the minds of the ADs? Does it differ from school to school? Are they reluctantly engaging in what they see as a perpetual arms race to keep up with the Joneses? Or do they have a grand vision that they are working toward? Or are they just falling back on CEO instincts and seeking revenue for the sake of revenue because that's the only way they know how to measure success / progress?


September 3rd, 2013 at 8:20 AM ^

I would like his opinion on dynamic pricing.

On the one hand, if what he is forecasting comes true, then there will be fewer season ticket holders willing to pay the annual "donations" to get tickets at face value. This then frees up tickets to dynamic pricing. Presummably then the tickets for lesser games which currently bottom out at $69 will need to go lower to sell out the stadium.

On the other hand dynamic pricing seems to be one more thing that has irked the higher level season ticket holders (the ones who previously had the option to buy out all the multi-seat Ohio State, Notre Dame or Michigan State single game tickets before the general public).

Does not supply and demand ultimately bring the equation back into balance?


September 3rd, 2013 at 11:40 AM ^

I would be interested to hear John's thoughts (if any) on comparisons between professional soccer and college football.  I find the club loyalty and fanaticism there in soccer (other than US soccer) fascinating and am curious as to whether John or anyone else thinks college football could essentially become the #1 sport in the US if/when college players get paid. 

By way of background, as you all already know, many of the futbol clubs are academic institutions as well, with kids as young as elementary and middle school being signed by clubs and basically going to boarding school there with soccer being the main study.  (e.g. FC Barcelona is a classic example, with much of their first team talent having been home-grown.)  The young player gets "purchased" with the proceeds going to his family (and is thus paid to play) and also gets a free high-level education.  Follow the analogy and you've got college football in a nutshell except for the level of talent and the amateur status in the latter.

I don't pretend to know all of the dynamics of professional soccer and maybe college football is not a good analogy with it but, IMO, the comparison is interesting.  The levels of passion and fanaticism in college football and professional soccer are clearly comperable (just listen to crowd noise and participation in a European soccer game and a college football game vs. an NFL game).