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Buying into big-time college football: the ‘System’ behind the sport

October 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The new book, "The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football," offers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the costly -- and often unprofitable -- practices behind the sport, including extreme salaries for coaches and treating players like commodities. Jeffrey Brown talks to author Armen Keteyian.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a behind-the-scenes look at the high cost of college football.

Jeffrey Brown has a conversation about what’s wrong with one of America’s favorite pastimes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The glory and scandal of big-time college football, there is a lot of both in a sport that generates millions of dollars in fans and huge amounts of excitement and controversy.

That line also serves as the subtitle of a new book that explores numerous case studies and investigations. It’s titled: The System, co-authored by Jeff Benedict and, joining us now, Armen Keteyian, correspondent for CBS News and for 60 Minutes Sports on Showtime.

And welcome to you.

ARMEN KETEYIAN, The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football: Thank you, Jeff.

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JEFFREY BROWN: First of all, the system, not the sport, right, and not the game. Why — explain what college football is. Why is it the system?

ARMEN KETEYIAN: Well, when we were thinking about the book, I always had the vision in my head of a machine, almost like a “Matrix”-like machine made up of all these different component parts, whether it’s a coach or an athletic director, a recruit, a hostess, a tutor.

And what Jeff and I really ended up trying to produce was a book that was smart, was sweeping, took you behind the scenes, but really through the eyes of the people that worked within the system.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the recurrent themes, of course, is money. It is a very, very big-money sport, right? You explain — it’s interesting — that few colleges break even or actually make money.

ARMEN KETEYIAN: It’s one of the great ironies.

You have about — the last set of statistics that came out was 2010 and ’11. Only 22 of the 120 top-tier programs at the time were actually breaking even or making money. Yet, at the same time, more and more schools were buying into big-time college football.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so the obvious question is, why do they do it?

ARMEN KETEYIAN: Because it’s no longer, really, Jeff, about the football program. Football has reached far beyond the field of play. It’s really now become an extension of the school, a brand, a way to market the school.

And schools are willing to, in large measures, you know, fund these programs as loss leaders if, in fact, they can make it to the big stage.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that leads to a kind of, what you document over and over again, a kind of arms race or going up to the line and sometimes over the line of how things are done, for example, the payment of coaches, which is stratospheric for some.


You have two coaches now, Nick Saban and Mack Brown at Texas — Nick is at Alabama — making north of $5 million a year. You have 16 coaches making more than $3 million a year. You have 79 coaches making more than a million dollars a year. And that is really — that is just part of it.

I mean, you have schools now that are anteing up $100 million. Washington State, we talked about in the book making an $80 million investment into football facilities. Alabama has a Ritz-Carlton kind of facility for its football program, but rightly so. Alabama has — is generating north of $90 million now.

So it’s really — they are — they’re not football programs anymore. Nick Saban is in charge of a $10 million business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that — you’re making the case almost that he is worth $5 million-plus.

ARMEN KETEYIAN: He’s worth 20 times that to the University of Alabama.

JEFFREY BROWN: He is an unusual case, right?

ARMEN KETEYIAN: He is, but also Mack Brown at Texas, Urban Meyer, you certainly could say, at Ohio State, Brady Hoke at Michigan, because let’s say, for example, the Nick Saban effect at the University of Alabama. Their football revenue went from about $52 million to $80 million in one season.

They’re now north of $90 million. The donations that come in, the Johnny Manziel effect at Texas A&M is a perfect example.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a lot of case studies here. And many of the recruiting scandals rise out of the — well, many of the scandals rise out of recruiting. Right?


JEFFREY BROWN: One of the ones you’re talking about is called the so-called hostesses. And it’s a case at the University of Tennessee. Now, that’s one that, you know, you don’t see when you are watching Saturday, the day, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: What are hostesses? And tell us…


ARMEN KETEYIAN: Well, hostesses are essentially the first face that a college recruit, a high school recruit will see coming on campus.

They are vivacious. They are flirtatious. They know the program inside and out. They have been trained to act as the — as the — really the out-front face of the program. What Jeff and I document — and on the record through a young woman named Lacey Pearl Earps at Tennessee — was her experience as known as the closer.

She was the top hostess there. And what happens is, is there are sexual relationships that go on between the college girls and the high school athletes coming in, not in Lacey’s case.


ARMEN KETEYIAN: But there is a tremendous amount of flirtation and intimation that the possibility of a relationship exists.

And that’s a powerful allure. Think about it, a high school boy, 17- or 18-year-old, on essentially a weekend date with a 21- or 22-year-old girl. It’s a very powerful — it’s kind of like a secret weapon that these schools have.

JEFFREY BROWN: An it’s under the — under the — well, it’s known by the authorities in this case. Right?

ARMEN KETEYIAN: Oh, absolutely.

The schools — you know, the hostess programs are integral parts of the athletic departments in many ways. And certainly in the media guides, they’re treated as these sort of inert, but outgoing aspects of the program, when, in fact, particularly in conferences that are so competitive like the SEC, they are crucial to getting these recruits to commit.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is striking is that, in so many of these, the people you talk to, everybody you talk to really, coaches, college presidents and so on, knows that something is wrong. And yet it continues.

ARMEN KETEYIAN: You know, I have likened college football to a runaway train.

And I think the fuel right now, and you touched on it, are the athletes themselves. They are the single most valuable commodity in college football right now in these $70 million, $80 million, $90 million, $100 million programs. My question has been is, who is in the engine room, where is the conductor? I haven’t seen…

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t know the answer?

ARMEN KETEYIAN: I don’t know the answer. And I don’t think college football knows the answer right now, because I haven’t seen one college president in the last three or four months stand up, at a time when college football is going through a lot of problems, stand up and say, look, we have to make some changes.

The NCAA gets a lot of blame, but I think it goes back to the college presidents. And right now, the only sound I’m hearing is silence.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet no diminishment in appetite, in ratings, in enthusiasm for the games?

ARMEN KETEYIAN: No, absolutely not.

I mean, you’re — and what’s happening here too, Jeff, is next year this pressure and this money that’s pouring into the sport is only going to get worse, in the sense of the amount of pressure that’s going to be on the coaches and the players because you…

JEFFREY BROWN: The playoffs.

ARMEN KETEYIAN: You have a playoff. ESPN is going to spend $413 million to televise three games, the two semis and the national championship.

And all of that pressure, like an inverted pyramid, is going to fall on the shoulders of these 18-to-22-year-old kids.

JEFFREY BROWN: And having spent a couple years investigating all this, I see — you have said that you can’t watch a game anymore in the same way.


And I think, when you read this book, good and bad, whether you are an avid fan or…


JEFFREY BROWN: You are a fan. Right?

ARMEN KETEYIAN: I’m a total fan of the game, more so now than I ever was, because I totally believe in what these kids are doing.

And I feel their sweat and their sacrifice and their commitment is beyond belief. But the system is a sum of its parts. What you see on Saturday, whether you are in the stadium or you are watching on television, what goes into that spectacle, that’s what the system is really all about.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Armen Keteyian is the co-author with Jeff Benedict of “The System.”

Thanks so much.

ARMEN KETEYIAN: You bet. Thank you.