Bob Ryan

Big-time college sports hit an all-time low

Want a good laugh?

When Bob Cousy was head basketball coach at Boston College, he changed the daily practice time one year because Winthrop and BC High’s Terry Driscoll, then a pre-med major, had a lab.

After all, Driscoll was a student, so no one thought this was strange.


Driscoll was not just good. He remains the greatest player in BC history. But there was no remote thought of making any kind of exception. And I’m not merely bragging on the ol’ alma mater. There were countless similar stories all across the country. Sure, there was lots of cheating and chicanery, too, but in those days big-time college football and basketball were, well, reasonably under control.

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And today?

Today it is downright embarrassing to proclaim your allegiance to big-time college sports. Almost daily, something occurs to put those of us who love college sports into bag-over-the-head mode from dawn to dusk.

I don’t think it’s a reach to suggest that big-time college sports have fallen into a state of complete and utter madness. The Big Ten having 12 and the Big 12 having 10; well, that’s merely amusing. But San Diego State, Boise State, Houston, SMU, and Central Florida in the Big East? To paraphrase John McEnroe, “Surely, Big East, you cannot be serious!’’

But it is. Big East commissioner John Marinatto had this to say: “Over the last 32 years, the Big East Conference has constantly evolved along with the landscape of college athletics. The inclusion of these five great universities, which bring a unique blend of premier academics, top markets, strong athletics brands, and outstanding competitive quality, marks the beginning of a new chapter in that evolution. We are proud to welcome these schools to the Big East family.’’


Scheduling, anybody? Travel costs, especially for women’s and all non-revenue sports? Time away from the, ahem, classroom? Minor matters.

Across the country, nothing matters anymore. I should amend that to say that only one thing matters: the pursuit of money. Rivalries, tradition? Discarded concepts. Missouri is leaving the Big 12 in favor of the Southeastern Conference. One casualty will be its football rivalry with neighboring Kansas, which began on the gridiron in 1891 and whose general rivalry predates the Civil War (Ever hear of “54-40 or Fight’’?). Kansas still cares. Mizzou apparently doesn’t.

The villain is football. The late Dave Gavitt’s Big East was an ingenious concept, a basketball league bringing together natural rivals for a common good. Six years in, three of its members occupied spots in the Final Four. Within four more years the league had begun to be hijacked by football interests. Now it is an embarrassing, bloated mess with a five-day basketball tournament that taxes the financial resources of all but its best-heeled fans and that now will have a preposterous Atlantic-to-Pacific football league. And somebody thinks this all makes sense?

BC was a proud charter member. BC is now in the Atlantic Coast Conference, 400 miles from its nearest partner (Maryland). The reason? Football. And the ACC stinks in football, seldom able to place a team in the Top 25.

Once again, I remind you that we are the only country that does this. But that’s OK. At their best, college sports are truly great fun, and I cannot imagine the American sporting scene without them. But they have always been dangerous and troublesome to the universities that have them. The NCAA was formed at the behest of Teddy Roosevelt a very long time ago, the stated reason being to put restraints on the violent physical football practices of the day, but a very clear secondary reason was to impose regulations that allowed suspicious schools to keep an eye on each other.


Right after World War II the NCAA instituted the so-called “Sanity Code,’’ which was “adopted to establish guidelines for recruiting and financial aid.’’ Yup, that got everyone in line, didn’t it?

So where are we, some 65 years later?

We’ve got outdoor stadiums seating 70, 80, 90, 100,000 and more.

We’ve got indoor arenas seating in excess of 20,000.

We’ve got football and basketball coaches making in excess of $2 million a year.

We’ve got “one and done’’ players who barely know how to locate the classroom buildings.

We’ve got TV contracts worth billions; that’s “billions’’ with a “b.’’

We’ve got a ludicrous bowl system in which teams playing in most of the 35 “sanctioned’’ bowls lose a great deal of money between travel costs and the, it seems to me, quasi-criminal act of forcing schools to purchase, at face value, huge amounts of tickets they cannot sell (Just ask UConn).

We’ve got astonishing annual expenditures on the athletics programs at schools, both public and private, where cutbacks are the order of the day in every other department of the school.

We’ve got a disgraceful circumstance such as the shocking Xavier-Cincinnati brawl, when what should merely be an intense rivalry turned into sheer thuggery.

At the highest level, the entire enterprise has spun out of control. The NCAA appears to have no say regarding the conference game of musical chairs. The thicker they make the rulebook, the harder schools work to circumvent it. Everyone appears to have lost their minds over the possibility - possibility - of making some money.

If you’d like to throw in the Penn State and Syracuse situations, be very careful. Restrict yourself to the ideas of institutional control and self-image, which, admittedly, come very much into play. But athletics, per se, are not on trial here. Molestation is a far broader topic.

Many of us are frustrated by the seaminess of big-time college sports because we truly love the product. We love the history and traditions. We love the competition. We love the atmosphere. If you love sports at all and have gone to a school that is involved in high-level competition, your collegiate experience has been enhanced, no question.

We desperately want it all. We want the bands, the cheerleaders, the crowds, the tailgates, the game-winning touchdowns and last-second shots that beat some hated rival, or maybe just some ballyhooed team, period. But we want it supported by the notion that the players - players, not that pompous NCAA-mandated term “student-athletes’’ - were recruited on the up-and-up, do go to class and really would like to earn that degree, because that is the mythology justifying it all.

We want to think our best player’s lab affects the team, not the other way around.

Some of us want that, anyway. In other areas people only want to win, for whatever reason. You can see where that’s gotten us.

Yeah, yeah, I know I’m dreaming. Good thing I’ve got a large supply of bags.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on He can be reached at