The Arms Race

“There is no way you can be Harvard Monday through Friday and try to be Alabama on Saturday.”

With those words, Art Guepe resigned the post of head coach at Vanderbilt University in 1962.  To date, he is the last Vanderbilt coach to have 100 games under his belt – and he sports a record of 39-54-7.  More to the point, his conference record in the SEC was 19-43-6, or a winning percentage of .324; fifty years after his resignation, no Vanderbilt coach has an SEC record over .300.

After World War II, Vanderbilt’s chancellor set up a series with Yale, in hopes of fostering rivalries with Vanderbilt’s aspirational peers.  When Vandy won the opening matchup in 1948 by a score of 35-0, Yale cancelled the rest of the series.  Shortly thereafter, the chancellor reached out to other small Southern private schools – Tulane, Rice, Duke, SMU – with an eye toward forming a conference of their own.  Duke was too attached to the UNC rivalry, and Rice and SMU didn’t want to give up the Cotton Bowl money they got from the Southwest Conference, and so the notional “Magnolia League” died on the vine.  By the mid-1960s, Georgia Tech and Tulane had left the SEC, and Vanderbilt was left as the only private school in the bunch – and the only one not chasing football success on a dead run.

You probably know how that worked out.  Five bowl games, ever.  This year’s seniors included nine players who are the only ones in Commodore history to play in TWO bowls.  Since 1982, Vanderbilt has won six games in a season exactly twice – 2008, and this year.

I say that to say this: the new-look Pac-12 is headed for SEC territory.  Academically, the California schools alone quite frankly beat the hell out of the SEC’s offerings (Texas A&M??  THEY SUPPOSED TO BE AAU) but with the coming of Larry Scott’s Imperial Patent Televisual Money Engine, the resources are in place for an SEC-style arms race.  And Washington has fired the opening salvo by basically shattering the pay scale for assistant coaches – half a million dollars for Cal’s recruiting coordinator and D-line coach Tosh Lupoi and similar money to turn Cal’s WR coach Eric Kiesau for the Huskies.  And now, Cal has to make a choice: to join the Pac-12 arms race, or sit it out and hope for the best.

Vanderbilt in 2011 is where Cal was in 2002: new coach makes an immediate impact and restores hope for the future.  The pain and drama of getting the SAHPC built is now being reflected as the ‘Dores attempt to build the indoor practice facility which every other SEC team has. (Although I suspect the tree-dwelling hippie problem will be less of an obstacle.)  But as the SEC’s own perpetual cash machine keeps spitting out dollars – matched by thousands of donors who resemble nothing so much as caricatures out of John Grisham and the profits of merchandising to the kinds of sidewalk alumni who make Justin Bieber fans look reticent – and I don’t think for a second that the Commodores can keep up with the kinds of resources generated by Alabama or Florida or LSU or Georgia or Tennessee or…you get the picture.

Football as tail-that-wags-the-dog has gone national.  Conferences are being realigned and torn up and remodeled around football and only football, to the exclusion of things like basketball and academia and geography (Boise State  and San Diego State in the BIG EAST? SERIOUSLY?) and those of us who would like to see some decent pigskin without selling our souls to ESPN are up against it.

I don’t have a solution, because there isn’t one. Cal’s donor base has been tapped to bleeding for the Memorial renovations, for the SAHPC, for saving baseball and rugby.  To come up with an extra million dollars a year to keep assistant football coaches, at a time when state budgets are still hemorrhaging red ink and other sports are being eliminated or slashed to the bone, is going to be beyond the pale. Without an Arillaga to stroke eight-figure checks to the athletic department on demand, or eighty years’ worth of money and merchandise from USC fans who never set foot in the state let alone on campus, Cal is back in the position of doing more with less.

Ultimately, there has to be some way to have reasonably big-time football without the crasser excesses of the modern game as practiced in the SEC or Big “12” – we should be able to play bowls and be on television without having to go the route of building stadiums that seat a hundred thousand or having our own television networks or the like.  But I don’t know how we get to that point, short of splitting the College Football Premier League off for its own contract and playoff system and hoping that the football equivalent of the Coca-Cola Championship is going to be plausible and satisfactory.

Meanwhile – Cal, Stanford, Notre Dame, Army, Navy, Vanderbilt, Rice, Tulane, maybe Georgia Tech?  It’s a start…

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