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Musings from Arledge: The NIL Recruiting Wars

Chris Arledge08/04/22
Article written by:On3 imageChris Arledge

Many USC fans are concerned that USC is being left behind in the new NIL recruiting wars. 

I think they’re right. 

Absent a change in the rules – and who, exactly, would write and enforce the new rules? – or a change in mindset, USC will continue to lose elite recruits to programs that are playing a very different game.

Part of the frustration for USC fans is how long it has taken USC to get its NIL program on track. Texas A&M has been offering huge signing bonuses for some time now; I think since 1963, although the numbers have increased as of late. Yet USC just recently announced its Stay Doubted/BLVD LLC plan and that program still isn’t up and running. Four years into the new NIL period, I suspect USC will have a BLVD ribbon-cutting ceremony. Until then, the Aggies are offering bags of money. USC is offering potential and happy thoughts. 

On this issue of timing, USC is rolling things out too slowly for my taste, but you can understand why. USC is creating something new, something that did not previously exist in college sports. Texas A&M is doing what college football programs have always done and what the SEC long ago perfected: handing big bags of cash to athletes. That requires less planning; it only requires having a lot of rich donors who want to win. The Aggies have that. 

But this is not just a timing issue. USC is offering something fundamentally different than Miami, A&M, Tennessee, and others. USC is offering an organization that will help kids get their full market value, and USC is rightly telling kids that LA is the best place in the country to make the most of your market value. It has a vibrant, diverse economy with a lot of wealth, and USC is a brand in which many businesses are interested.

I understand this pitch. I know in my industry that somebody with the same skill set can obtain a much larger salary in NY, DC or LA than in Scranton, Pennsylvania. And if I have somebody with connections who knows the market, they might help me identify the best job opportunity. 

I get all that. But who wants that? That’s not what other schools are offering. 

Miami did not help Francis Mauigoa get his market value. He barely has any. He is a high school lineman who hasn’t played a down of college football. His name, image, and likeness won’t sell nearly enough tacos, cars, or soft drinks to justify multiple millions. He’s not Tom Brady or Michael Jordan. The consuming public doesn’t care about him. At all.

Mauigoa didn’t get his market value for advertisers. He got his philanthropic value for football lovers. There is an alum in Miami who cares a lot more about the Canes winning football games than he does about holding onto some of the extra, disposable millions in his many bank accounts. He knows that Mauigoa can’t sell millions of hot dogs for a hot dog company he owns. He doesn’t care. He wants Miami to win, and he’s willing to pour a lot of money into recruits to make that happen. 

Texas A&M and Miami are essentially telling kids that there is a supermodel ready to date them right now. USC is telling kids that LA has more supermodels than any other city and that they’re forming an organization to help put players in touch with interested supermodels. But carrying this analogy to its unhappy destination, kids that really value supermodels – and there just might be one or two of those amongst the recruiting targets – will not be excited by USC’s pitch. 

USC has a lot of rich donors. It’s not like USC doesn’t have any money in the ranks. But I don’t know if they have as many rich donors who really want to spend their money to win college football games. And I don’t know how the relationship is with those donors, being that USC has spent the better part of a decade making clear to its sports-loving donors that it doesn’t really give a &%$% what they think. But I suspect there are rich USC football lovers who are willing to write some checks.

It appears USC doesn’t want them to. This is where we talk about “winning the right way,” to borrow a phrase from Pat Haden. And in my experience, winning the right way often means not winning much at all. 

I’m also not sure the position makes moral or logical sense. Universities accept philanthropy all the time. Does giving $50 million to a college make financial sense? Not really. There’s no return on that investment other than the value of believing you did a good thing – and let’s be honest that you can probably accomplish a lot more good giving $50 million elsewhere – and the ego boost of seeing your name on a building and having everybody know you built it. 

Yet schools are eager for this type of giving. Indeed, getting people to write checks might be their most important goal, about six slots above educating students and even a couple slots above enforcing uniformity of thought on students and faculty. So if a rich guy wants to write a big check to build a weight room and help the team win, schools are thrilled. But if rich guy wants to write a check to future first-round offensive tackle, some universities are thrilled … and others are not. 

Some, like Alabama, are probably primarily concerned about inflation. It’s hard to imagine the Tide have suddenly found religion and are disgusted that somebody might buy players. They just long for the good old days when a car from a local dealer and some $100 handshakes would get it done. Others, and Lane Kiffin has expressed this concern, are afraid that they are ceding power to rich donors when donor money buys their players. There’s something to that, and football coaches are notorious control freaks. But the question is whether you desire complete control so much that you want to control the process of trying to coach up a project offensive tackle to block the five-star monster that Miami just bought to play defensive end. I think I’d prefer to have great players and deal with the headaches that come with the loaded roster and impatient donors.

USC is taking what it believes to be the high road right now. They find it seedy when donors effectively buy players with big sacks of money. They prefer that donors only give big sacks of money to them, so they can spend it how they see fit. And that’s fine. Unless you want to compete in this new NIL world. The path to college football mediocrity is paved with good intentions. USC is promising guys that, at some point in the near future, they will help them get their true market value. Miami says forget market value – that’s for suckers. Here’s a Ferrari that is worth a lot more than you are to any business. 

And remind me: which one landed Francis Mauigoa?

ESPN did a poll of 50 NFL experts to find the best player at every position in NFL history. Not surprisingly, Ronnie Lott won the vote for best safety. That recognition is well-deserved. Lott was smart, ferocious, athletic, a leader … really anything you could ever want in a football player. I think he might be the second-best defensive player in NFL history behind Lawrence Taylor.

I did quibble with the running back pick. I know Jim Brown was great. But guys that are big and fast – I’ve seen guys like that. Bo Jackson was big and fast. So was OJ. Hershel Walker. Eric Dickerson. I’ve seen it. And maybe Jim Brown was, relatively speaking, bigger and faster. But he wasn’t a category unto himself. 

Barry Sanders, the second-place finisher in the poll, was. I’ve never seen anybody do what Barry could do. For most of his career, he played in a stupid offensive system where he was expected to do it all. And he did. The defense was never safe. No matter how many guys were there to meet Barry in the backfield, there was always a chance that he’d score. Nobody could change direction like Barry. Nobody could get to full speed in two steps like Barry. He was simply the best that ever lived.

Give Zachariah Branch number 5. Love that kid.

The great Vin Scully died. I’d say he belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Sports Announcers, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. He might deserve his face on a mountain all by himself. He was simply the best. Nobody could combine keen insight, consistent play-by-play, and poetry like Vin could, and very few had his restraint. He didn’t shout the listener into submission. He didn’t feel the need to fill every second of airtime with his voice. He knew when to talk, and when to let the action on the field speak for itself. Brilliant. 

I feel so fortunate enough to have grown up in SoCal watching and listening to the local broadcasters. Hearing hours of Chick Hearn and Vin Scully for all those years was a treat, and I’m not sure I understand just how lucky we all were at the time. RIP Vin. 

In 2009, my dad and I traveled to Columbus to watch the Ohio State-USC game at the Horseshoe. I had been to Columbus twice previously for work. It’s what you’d expect, I suppose. I haven’t booked a vacation there. Outside the stadium, the highlight was a truck selling the best cream puffs I’ve ever had, so we had that going for us. 

But inside the stadium – inside was great. The place was huge, packed; an intimidating venue. 

Sitting right behind us was a horrible shrew of a woman. Every time Ohio State did anything, she had a stupid towel that she would wave just inches from our faces. It’s the sort of behavior you can engage in only because, as Bill Burr puts it, she knew we weren’t going to hit her, and without the threat that you’ll get blasted in the face, you feel secure enough to engage in all kinds of unacceptable behavior. In this case, that meant invading our personal space, assaulting us with that towel, and unleashing in our ears a voice so grating – well, let’s just say it was some hellish combination of Roseanne Barr and a 747 engine. I got toothpicks from the concession stand to stab my own eardrums to make the noise stop.

All this talk about the move to the Big Ten reminded me of that horrible person. I hope that last-second loss really hurt her deeply. 

I realize, by the way, that my story didn’t very effectively sell any future trips to the Horseshoe. That’s unfortunate because make no mistake: it’s a great place to watch a game, and every Trojan fan should make the trip when we get a chance in a few years. It will never replace Notre Dame Stadium, my absolute favorite place to watch a football game. But it was great. I can’t wait to go back again.  

So there are reports that the Big Ten isn’t interested in any other Pac-12 teams. Heart-breaking. It’s too bad Uncle Phil can’t pay out of his pocket to form a new conference so Oregon won’t be left playing in the minor leagues. But, alas, I think that isn’t possible.

I’m going to watch the Mountain West Conference Media Day in 2024 just for the laughs. Maybe I’ll even go. It shouldn’t be too hard to get a press credential to that thrill-fest.