College Football, And What the "Rise of the Rest" Looks LIke

The Oregon Ducks football team runs on the field at the start of a game at Autzen Stadium.  Source: huffingtonpost.com

I’m a big college football fan.  Specifically, a big University of Michigan college football fan.  And if you know anything about Michigan football now, you know that the program has been mired in mediocrity unbefitting one of college football’s original bluebloods.  However, Michigan’s example, and the college football landscape of the past 25 years, offers many instructive lessons for cities. In fact, what’s happened in college football can give us a glimpse of the future of cities.

First, let’s look at Michigan’s football legacy.  Michigan was one of the early success stories in college football, earning numerous national championships in the first half of the 20th century.  Michigan fans well know the names of Fielding Yost and Fritz Crisler, Bennie Oosterbaan and Tom Harmon — coaches and players who led Michigan to unparalleled success.  After a slight down period following World War II, Michigan again saw great success under the legendary Bo Schembechler, whose tenure stretched from 1969-1989.  To this day, Schembechler has the second highest winning percentage of any major college coach with more than 200 wins (.804), even besting his bitter rival at Ohio State, Woody Hayes.

So there’s the legacy.  But recent history hasn’t been as fortunate for Michigan.  It could be said that, in broad terms, Michigan football experienced a plateau in the 90’s (the 1997 national championship notwithstanding), and a gradual slide toward mediocrity ever since.  A lot of ink has been spilled on reasons for this, and they’re often on target — Michigan’s football program has an insular culture that limits its adaptability; football talent that used to be located in the Midwest is now grown in the South.  But college football’s distribution of scholarships, regulated by the NCAA since 1973, changed the landscape.

Title IX changed everything.  An amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 concluded that there would be gender equality in athletic participation at the college level, and that scholarships was one way to achieve that.

Let’s go back to Michigan’s early successful era.  Prior to 1973, colleges could offer as many football scholarships as they could pay for.  It was not uncommon for football teams to have as many as 150 scholarship student-athletes at Michigan — and at other blueblood programs like Alabama, Nebraska, Notre Dame, USC, Texas and others.  Big programs stockpiled talent.  They counted on having a talent advantage over schools that did not enjoy the same financial and structural advantages, and they dominated the college football landscape for decades.  With the Title IX decision, however, limits were placed on scholarships for each sport.  For football, that meant a limit of 105 in 1973, which was reduced to 95 in 1978 and eventually to 85 in 1992, where it stands today.

Exactly where did those other 20-plus scholarship players go?  Obviously to other schools.  In years past, Michigan might scoop up a talented player who sits on the bench behind an All-American; now that player gets an opportunity at another school.

This led to a leveling of the playing field — a rise of the rest — that impacts college football today.  Need examples?  How about Oregon?  Oregon was pretty much a football bottom-feeder through the 60’s and 70’s, advancing to mediocre by the 80’s.  However, they began to have success precisely at the same time scholarship limits reached their present levels in 1992, and have been national championship contenders for the better part of a decade.  How about Virginia Tech?  The Hokies also languished for years, until they made advances in the early 90’s as well.  Wisconsin is yet another example of a school that flat-lined in football prior to scholarship limits, and excelled afterward.

All that to make this comment about cities.  Cities have traditionally accumulated talent, in the same manner that college football bluebloods have.  But there comes a time when there is a limit on the ability to attract talent.  For college football, it was Title IX.  For cities, it’s been high barriers for business growth and exorbitant housing costs, among others.  Talent — for cities, the well-educated and mobile — is looking for new places to excel, and businesses will follow them.

The experience in college football leads me to believe three things will happen with cities.  First, cities we thought would never recover from their malaise will do so.  Pittsburgh has shown that its wealth of educational institutions can be a catalyst for revitalization.  Cleveland’s unique and burgeoning health care sector is leading toward new prosperity there.  Other cities will likely have a similar revival.

Second, cities that have relied on a talent advantage for their success will have to come to terms with less of it.  What happens to Silicon Valley, for example, if more software engineers and angel investors see more opportunity in Pittsburgh than in Palo Alto?  What happens if high costs in Seattle are leading people to consider Minneapolis?  What happens when talent leaves?

I think most Rust Belt residents have an answer for that.

Lastly, I think mid-size cities will have to push hard to get to major status if they want to play the talent attraction game.  Let’s continue the college football analogy for a moment.  The so-called “mid-major” schools, or smaller schools from less prestigious football conferences, have struggled to keep pace with the big guys.  The successful ones made the shift by going major; upgrading facilities, hiring top coaches, recruiting and developing excellent players, and beating the big guys on the field.  When given the chance, schools like Louisville, Utah and TCU, former football mid-majors, join the ranks of the power conferences and compete at their level.  There are mid-size cities that will have to make a similar judgement call.

One thought on “College Football, And What the "Rise of the Rest" Looks LIke

  1. Another problem that has affected Big Ten schools in general is low and declining birth rates. The Big Ten collapsed as a football powerhouse in the mid-2000s, and the Big East entered terminal decline. These things both happened around the time that people born in the early 1980s were of college age. The early 1980s is when the United States deindustrialized, and people of prime child-bearing age were leaving the “Rust Belt” en masse for areas that had better opportunities at the time. Those ex-Rust Belters all had their children in other regions of the country, especially the South and West. This seems to dovetail with the emergence of the SEC and Pac-12 as the premier conferences in college football. Unfortunately, I don't see this trend reversing anytime soon because the Southern and Western states generally have higher birth rates than the Northeastern and Midwestern states. If I remember correctly, Minnesota and Iowa are the only states in Big Ten territory with birth rates above the national rate. Ohio and Illinois are both slightly below the national rate, and Michigan is significantly below. Pennsylvania has one of the lowest birth rates in the United States. In fact, only the New England states and West Virginia have lower birth rates. This has to make recruitment of elite football talent more difficult, especially compared to the SEC, which is located in states with mostly high birth rates. (Florida has a low birth rate but compensates for it with a very large population.)

    With that said, I agree with the premise of your article. Cities have to invest in their civic and cultural assets if they want to attract the best and brightest. Simply being an inexpensive place to live or do business isn't enough. If it was, then Massachusetts wouldn't have a more robust economy than Alabama. And while it's perfectly reasonable to desire more efficient use of tax dollars, at some point you begin to get what you pay for. Personally, I think the states with the best quality of life are moderate-tax states. If taxes are too high, they hurt businesses and job growth. If they're too low, they hurt the quality of life and place.

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