Home Business OP-ED: No trivial pursuit

OP-ED: No trivial pursuit

By David Rogers. December 26, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC —  It was bound to happen sooner or later: the Cinderella story that has been Appalachian State football the last four years would eventually have a glass slipper fall by the wayside. The Prince Charming of a head coach left to write chapters in a different fairy tale, taking with him a half dozen or so key assistants.

But just as in the original beloved folk tale that embodies a myth-element of unjust oppression and triumphant reward, a lost shoe is not the end of the Appalachian story.

Romance aside, especially given the events of the last month, if we didn’t know it before we know it now: college football is BIG business, embracing student athletes, coaches, athletic directors, and fans, as well as other constituent interests.

A lot of people in AppNation were frustrated, even angry at Scott Satterfield’s decision to leave his alma mater for the University of Louisville earlier this month. Even though so many skeptics six years ago said it would be a disaster, Satterfield & Co. crafted the most successful transition from FCS- to FBS-level football in NCAA Division I history, including at least a share of three Sun Belt Conference championships and not just four consecutive bowl game appearances in as many opportunities, but four bowl wins in three different bowl game venues.

College football is big business.

Even among those understanding the compelling opportunity presented to Satterfield in taking the reins of a Power 5 program and securing the financial well-being of his family (an estimated $20 million in compensation over six years), many quibbled about the timing of his departure mere hours after the Sun Belt championship victory.  He should have stayed, they claimed, until after App State played in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

The critics have also been troubled by his immediately taking key assistants with him, leaving behind a big challenge for the remaining assistant coaches to organize team preparations for the post-season contest in The Big Easy.

Once in Louisville, Satterfield drew fire from several local media outlets — and the short-sighted high school coaches who had the media’s ear — for de-committing scholarships that had been awarded to a few high school recruits.  And this only a little over a week before the early signing period starting on December 19th.

Understanding the business that is college football: students first

The critics, the romantics, and the whiners either don’t understand or can’t accept that college football is big business. This “big business” narrative has several layers, and it begins with the student-athletes who compete on the field.

First, Satterfield was hired by Louisville to resurrect a program that had fallen on hard times because of presumed mismanagement by the former leadership team. Scholarships are a primary tool at every head coach’s disposal for achieving that goal. Moreover, the former App State mentor has high standards that influence decisions to allocate those scarce business resources.

In Louisville, Satterfield is not just rebuilding a football team, but re-crafting an entire football culture.

There are any number of reasons why Satterfield might have de-committed scholarships to certain recruits. Maybe their athletic talents did not measure up to Satterfield & Co.’s expectations. Maybe they were good athletes, but didn’t fit the “style” of play. Maybe the coaching staff assessed their position needs and saw that they had too many recruits at certain positions and not enough at others. Maybe — and this is a big one for Satterfield’s coaching team, we’ve learned from observing the App State transition — the student had not demonstrated a commitment to excellence in the classroom, as well as on the field.

Satterfield is not just rebuilding a football team at Louisville, but re-crafting an entire program’s culture. What’s more, by immediately de-committing the previous coaching regime’s recruits who don’t fit what he and his staff have in mind, Satterfield did those recruits a favor. It would be a disservice to have them sit on the bench or only play in mop-up situations for four years when there are other teams with different systems out there that might be able to better utilize their talents.

A scant few student-athletes go on to play as professionals in the NFL. As the NCAA’s deft marketing attests, something like 99% of the men and women competing in college athletics “go pro” in something other than sports.

Going professional in something other than sports means a full ride scholarship to represent your school competing on the court, field, track, mat or course for four years is more than tuition payments. It is a ticket to a future job. It might be in Communications, in Education, in Marketing, Finance or Management. Maybe it will be in Sustainability or Engineering or Public Administration. Possibly in Transportation or Computer Science.  A job may well be interpreted as personal business, but it is still business. The business of being a college student needs to be more than frat parties and rock concerts, more than playing football, basketball or field hockey.

The vast majority of student athletes “go pro” in something other than sports.

College Raptor, an Iowa City, IA based company that provides college planning tools to prospective university students notes that in the academic year 2013-14, more than a $122 billion in scholarships and grants of all kinds (not just athletic scholarships) were awarded to college students.  $122 billion is about equal to the revenue earned by General Electric, the giant industrial conglomerate, and Kroger, the big grocery store chain. It’s more than the annual sales of big companies like Boeing, Bank of America, Microsoft and Alphabet, Inc. (Google). Intuitively, we may not think of readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic as big business — but just in terms of the college scholarships and grants awarded each year to students, they represent a large American enterprise we collectively refer to as “higher education.”

For the 2017-2018 academic year, ScholarshipStats.com reports that the 130 NCAA Division I FBS-level schools awarded 15,167 football scholarships, averaging $21,749 each. That’s almost $330 million per year just in FBS scholarships — or over any four-year period more than $1.3 billion. Any doubts yet that college football is big business for the students? Well, add in another 13,000+ football scholars on the FCS level and roughly 19,000 more NCAA Division II football athletes — not to mention NAIA, Division III, and junior college scholarship recipients — and college football on the student level is BIG business.

Of coaches and brain surgery

Let’s peel back another layer of this narrative describing college football as big business.

Many sane people in America lament the fact that men (and yes, some women) coaching college football and basketball often receive far more compensation than a professor guiding his students toward, say, a career in brain surgery. They receive salaries far more than professors guiding future teachers who will lay the early foundations in our children and grandchildren for lifelong learning and critical thinking in primary education.

According to research compiled by ESPN and published last March, the highest paid public employees in 39 of the 50 U.S. states was a college football or basketball coach working in a public university. The University of Alabama’s Nick Saban stood at the head of the class with $11+ million per year in annual compensation.  ESPN added that it would require 248 median income people’s collective salaries to equal Saban’s take-home pay. According to research compiled by Alabama media company, AL.com, only one CEO of publicly-traded Alabama companies receives more total compensation than Saban.

Is it “fair” that football coaches receive higher salaries than professors teaching brain surgery?

Football and basketball are mere games. We play them for fun, whether in city recreation leagues or for “Turkey Day” family and friends get-togethers. But we also idolize those high school, college and professional level athletes who play the games better than we ever could. And for those of us who maybe could but life circumstances got in the way, we still root on those great young men and women who are getting the opportunity to compete at successively higher levels.

For coaches and even athletic directors, there is potentially big money at stake for crafting winning programs at almost every level of college football.  A sparkling resume fashioned at a lower division school — or even in heading a high school program — might well be the ticket to a job where the money really starts to matter. And it is all thanks to the rest of us in our collective purchases of tickets to see a game; sales of beer, hamburgers, BBQ, and soda pop at those games; corporate sponsorships; booster or alumni club memberships; advertising and marketing arrangements; and, of course, Board of Trustees-mandated student fees. Did we mention that college sports is big business?

Which brings us to the case in point: AppNation can hardly blame former head coach Scott Satterfield for accepting the challenge of taking over a floundering Power 5 team at Louisville, nor for gaining financial security for his family at more than $3 million a year for six years — and probably more than that in the future.

All the ingredients for potential success are there on the banks of the Ohio River, nestled within the boundaries of the 29th most populous city in the U.S. The school has 100 years more history than Appalachian State. Like the city itself, the university’s football program has a storied tradition, producing such future NFL greats as quarterback Johnny Unitas, placekicker David Akers and, of course most recently, Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, now the young starting QB of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.

Drawing not only from Kentucky, the Cardinals have a lot of nearby high schools (some two dozen secondary schools in the City of Louisville alone) to recruit from, as well as from schools in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and West Virginia. Although there is a lot of competition for quality student athletes with the likes of Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, Michigan, and Vanderbilt, among other universities within Louisville’s “sphere of influence,” the region is still a hotbed of football talent. That, of course, doesn’t include Satterfield & Co.’s proven ability to recruit in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

No, given the money and the seemingly “blank canvas” on which to craft even more football art from the bright, vivid colors on his palette, no one should fault Satterfield for seizing this opportunity to paint another gridiron masterpiece. And then there is the special bonus: with any kind of success in turning around the football program at Louisville, he and his family are likely to be honored guests at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, even if there is no recruiting relevance. It would be a perk of the job. Mint julep, anyone?

Few student athletes are willing to commit to a school where the composition of the coaching staff is uncertain.

Nor should he be blamed for the timing. Yeah, sure, if pigs could fly it would have been great to have the coaching staff remain intact through the New Orleans Bowl and beyond, but you have to remember that although there remains a significant amount of romance attached to college football, it is still BIG BUSINESS. Pressed by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), last year the NCAA instituted the Early Signing Period, or ESP. Before the ESP, it was early February’s National Signing Day when coaches knew definitively who would be on their respective rosters the following season. The AFCA lobbied for the December date, and got it, but that presented a new challenge for schools implementing a coaching regime change, such as Louisville and, as a consequence of Satterfield’s hiring, at App State.

Few student athletes are willing to commit to a school where the coaching staff is uncertain or in transition — and you can’t blame them because remember that college football is big business and, for the student athlete, big personal business.  To preserve and strengthen Louisville’s competitive recruiting position, Satterfield had to start right away.  And just as quickly, App State had to make quick work of its head coach hiring process for the very same reason.

What has been harder for many App State fans to swallow has been Satterfield’s dismantling of the Mountaineer coaching staff.  So much for their blood running Black & Gold, the critics say. Not only did relative newcomers Bryan Brown and Frank Ponce immediately follow Coach Satt to wear black and cardinal red in northern Kentucky before the New Orleans Bowl, but longtime members of the App State coaching staff have gone, too: Dale Jones, Stu Holt — and now we understand that the interim head coach who shepherded the Mountaineers through the tumult leading up to and victorious in the New Orleans Bowl, Mark Ivey, has been pirated to Louisville, too.

You can blame none of them for jumping at the chance to make more money on a bigger stage by staying a part of the Satterfield-led, success-laden coaching team. And what a team it has been.

There is unlikely to be any industry in the world where there is as much volatility in the management ranks in a short span of time — every year — as there is in college football.  Whether you call it a domino effect or “trickle down”, change is the name of the game.

There is no industry with as much volatility in the senior management ranks over a short period of time — every year — as there is in college football.

As with every business, there are cause-and-effect aspects to individual, as well as organizational decisions. To fill the void left by Satterfield, App State athletic director Doug Gillin had to hire a new head coach. By all accounts and initial assessments, his hire of Eliah Drinkwitz from N.C. State may well prove brilliant. But just like Louisville’s new football CEO Satterfield wanted his guys on the management team to nurture the Cardinals’ resurgence, there were no guarantees that Drinkwitz would keep any or all of the App State assistant coaches regardless of their history with the school, their success in the Sun Belt, and the recent win in the New Orleans Bowl under challenging circumstances.

We are not privy to any of the negotiations that may or may not have gone on between Drinkwitz, Gillin and any or all of the assistant coaches. Maybe some of them wanted to stay, but only under the right terms, which might include their role on the new coaching staff, their compensation, or the length of their respective contracts, among other considerations. Like Ponce, Brown, and former Mountaineer co-offensive coordinator Dwayne Ledford, who more recently helped nurture the N.C. State program’s resurgence, there is a good chance that several of the assistant coaches wanted to stay with the Satterfield coaching team and take their formula for success to a Power 5 school.

But just like Satterfield now at Louisville, Drinkwitz has his own vision of football success and how to achieve it — and he has his own strong relationships with potential coaching staff hires to form his management team.  His recent hire of two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and former Carolina Panthers quarterbacks’ coach Ken Dorsey is testimony to that thought.

Does change mean that App State’s Cinderella football story is ending? No, it just means that the story line is taking a different path.

Like it or not, the FBS has a two-tiered pecking order when it comes to money and prestige in college football.  The “elite,” the Power 5 schools belong to conferences like the ACC, SEC, Pac-12, Big-12, and the Big 10. They are the first to get consideration for the more prestigious bowl games and a chance for the national championship. The Power 5 is the stage to which the best known high school athletes are drawn because competing for those colleges and universities are the surest path to a potential NFL ticket. For many student athletes, that is their personal business objective.

The fairy tale is not ending. The story line is just taking a different path.

The Group of 5 teams toiling in the Sun Belt, the American Athletic, the Mid American, C-USA, and the Mountain West conferences are often lucky to get two- and three-star recruits out of high school to perform in front of (usually) smaller crowds than those Power 5 powerhouses. The number of alumni from the Group of 5 schools who get to play in the NFL after graduation is dwarfed by the list of players from Power 5 universities.

Of course, every once in awhile an upstart like App State comes along to surprise a Michigan or send chills down the collective spine of Penn State fans with an upset-minded performance.  For Group of 5 coaches, their successful university tenures like Satterfield’s are more likely to be stepping stones to even bigger opportunities in the Power 5, just as successful FCS head coaches or FBS assistants become popular candidates to fill Group of 5 head coaching vacancies. It’s simply business.

Whether Drinkwitz stays at App State until he hangs up his whistle in retirement remains to be seen. If he can build on the program’s historic success, he might well fashion a resume that prompts an offer for a big money job down the road with a Power 5 school, just like Satterfield.  On the other hand, maybe Drinkwitz is the guy to nurture the development of App State football as a perennial threat to any Power 5 school the Mountaineers might face at any time and every weekend. Maybe one day things fall into place and App State receives an invitation to join the ACC or the SEC and becomes a Power 5 program.

For that to happen, of course, it will not materialize overnight and a few BUSINESS developments are probably going to be required. A High Country airport would help, but certainly a full-service hotel in Boone or Blowing Rock is a necessity. And the fan base needs to grow considerably. Putting 25,000 people in Kidd-Brewer for the first half and have a large chunk of them trickling out by halftime isn’t going to get it done. This college football thing is a business, after all.

Athletic Director Doug Gillin and staff have done yeoman’s work in raising the profile of App State Athletics. Getting Power 5 schools on the football schedule, especially getting them to travel to Boone, is still not easy, even with the Mountaineers’ FBS credentials. After the 2007 upset at Michigan and respectable early season threats to the likes of LSU, East Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Wake Forest and, more recently, Penn State, the Mountaineers are no longer considered a “patsy”, early season warm-up opponent before the conference schedule begins. No, the Power 5 schools must calculate the odds of an App State match-up potentially ruining their aspirations for a national championship with an early season pairing.

Even though it is some nine months away, App State football’s 2019 season already has several compelling story lines. A new head coach leading a differently comprised coaching staff, is but one. How will the “new” Mountaineers fare in a more competitive Sun Belt Conference, with its three bowl game victories (App State, Georgia Southern, and Troy) vs. one loss (Louisiana) in 2018? Will the defense be just as good with the coaches that crafted it now on Satterfield’s Louisville staff?  Will the offense be more dynamic under Drinkwitz? And how will the Mountaineers fare against arguably the toughest early season schedule in the program’s history, with successive tilts against regional rivals East Tennessee State and a revamped Charlotte program (which also made a head coaching change), and then away games at Power 5 schools North Carolina (also a coaching change) and South Carolina?

Change, whether wanted or unwanted, creates challenges and opportunities. Welcome to the big business that is college football. I, for one, am excited to see the product(s) being manufactured for us to collectively buy.


  1. This op-ed certainly explains that “business” of college athletics, especially football. Clearly many folks don’t understand how things have changed over the last few years. Coaches being fired during the season. Recruits backing out of commitments for a better deal. Scholarship athletes transferring right and left.

    The problem is, at Appstate and many other FBS schools, all of this is on the backs of students through various fees. At Appstate, a four-year student will cough up $4,000 in the course of her academic career. Sorry, but that is real money. Last time I looked, students were bearing one-third of the Appstate athletic budget. Then there are the many examples of the economic incentive to cheat. Big time athletics are a business but in my opinion, not sustainable over the long haul.

  2. Schoenfeld got it right when he said App is putting the high cost of FBS on the backs of students….exactly what Charlie Cobb (former athletic director) said they wouldn’t do.

    Additionally App has lost sight of its priorities. They can’t provide raises for faculty, but they can afford a new $60 million end zone facility.

    And please don’t tell me the new end zone facility will be covered by fundraising and leases. It’s not true. Drastically increased student fees are footing the bill. The Athletics budget loses $20 million per year but the University covers the debt through student fees.

    BTW – App is changing its name to Appalachian State Football University.


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