You say “bye week.” Opposing Views says “hello” to one of the true experts. Chris Dufresne explains what life is like after leaving Los Angeles Times, which of Stanford’s 2015 games he saw live and how great college football is compared to the NFL.
- Your last season as the Los Angeles Times’ national college football writer coincided with a memorable season for Stanford. Share some of your experiences in the Stanford games you saw live. Did last year’s Cardinal show you anything you hadn’t seen before? Did they remind you of any teams you had covered in the past?
Stanford's growth last year as a team was memorable and a bit unfortunate. I think they were a playoff worthy team but were doomed by an opening defeat at Northwestern, a game the Cardinal didn't have to take, and a heartbreaking home loss to Oregon in which two botched center-snaps cost Stanford. A win in either one of those games would have put the Cardinal in the four-team playoff. I attended in person the Stanford games against UCLA in Palo Alto and the Pac 12 championship game in Santa Clara.
I think this may have been the best Stanford team in what I call the "Jim Harbaugh era” despite some big injuries on the defensive line. I had been a critic of David Shaw in the past for being too conservative in key games, always playing too close to the vest in a sport where one wrong decision in the end costs you everything. The emergence of Christian McCaffrey as a superstar, though, demanded that Shaw and OC Mike Bloomgren open up the offense to feature his spectacular talents. To their credit, they did that and it produced a fantastic season that ended with a dominating (and exciting!) win over Iowa in the Rose Bowl.
- The SEC’s perception as America’s Conference is due in large part to producing 13 teams who have reached the BCS title game or College Football Playoff. If the Pac-10/12 is far behind in this regard (just five of its teams have reached the postseason with a chance at the national title since 1998), what concrete evidence can the Pac-12 use to silence its critics and state its case as a premier football conference? Why has it failed to advance its image in this PR battle?
The SEC was clearly the most dominating league of the BCS era, which started in 1998. Remember, though, after Tennessee won the first title the SEC claimed only one other until Florida in 2006. It's clear to me, though, that the BCS system was biased against the Pac-12 just because voters in the AP and USA Today coaches' poll didn't get a real look because of all the late night games. I did some research a couple years ago and found the Pac-12 had almost as many top 6 finishes in the BCS as the SEC but just couldn't quite get to No.1 or No. 2. The Pac finished fourth, fifth and sixth a lot. Part of that is the league played, for the most part, a nine-game league schedule as opposed to only eight for the SEC. This is a distinct advantage as it guaranteed the SEC a free "win" every year against inferior competition. The formation of the CFP committee is a big improvement on the old system. I noted two years ago the first CFP poll had every Pac team ranked higher than they were in the USA Today poll. Why? Because the committee actually watched film of the league. The Pac-12 will get a lot fairer shake in the four-team format as other schools beef up their non-conference schedules as has been demanded.
- Talk about the new stage in your journalism career. Where can folks who normally read you in the Times now find your work? Was it difficult or emotional to leave place you had known for so much of your professional life? How are your weekends different for you and your wife (isn’t she a Stanford grad?), now that you’ve moved on?
Ha, my new stage. It's been very dramatic and emotional. I cried at my keyboard when I Tweeted news last fall that I was taking the buyout from the L.A. Times. Sat there and sobbed as I read a flood of comments from well-wishers I didn't know I had. That's the thing about social media. In the old days I would have had to wait for people to write a letter and stick a stamp on it. With Twitter, though, it was like Tom Sawyer watching his own funeral.
That said I was ready to move on to something new after nearly 40 years as a Times employee. I started on the loading docks two weeks out of high school, June 17, 1976. The new venture at TMGcollegesports.com has been invigorating. My wife, the Stanford grad, Class of '82, has been the brains behind the operation as the web designer and administrator. We are a four-part company with four equal share holders. I say that like we're some big start up, but we're as mom-and-pop as you can get. But being small allowed us to keep start up costs very low and start making money almost instantly. We're not getting rich but that was never the point. All three of us writers have "old media" pensions and were just looking to stay in involved in the sport we love. I'm doing basically what I did for the LA Times, maybe a little looser with more edge. And the absence of a daily print deadline has been a godsend. I can actually wait for the late Saturday night games to end and then write a complete wrap up. In the newspaper world, we had a 9 p.m. deadline on Saturday night, which was frustrating in a sport that kept pushing kickoffs later and later because of TV.
- In an episode of “The Audible” podcast last year with Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman, you shared a story about a weekend in Miami in 2000 that saw you cover two games: a Miami/Florida State tilt before a Dolphins game the next day. Explain why that weekend was memorable and how the two settings perfectly captured the differences between college football and the NFL.
Yes, it encapsulated why I came to enjoy college football. Remember, I covered the NFL for almost 10 years, the Rams and the Raiders. But that weekend in South Florida I got an up-close look at the difference between the sports. On Saturday, I covered one of the "Wide Right" games in which Florida State blew another late field goal to beat Miami. I was standing under the goal post at the Orange Bowl when the FSU kicker missed and was there to absorb the storming of the field, which never happens in the NFL. It was pure joy and emotion from the Miami side, the exact opposite from what I felt on the very same field in 1984. That's right, I was in the end zone in 1984 when Doug Flutie hurled his pass to beat Miami. The Boston College players stormed down field and one of them picked me up and twirled me around. So, the day after the FSU-Miami, I had to stay over to cover a Miami Dolphins game. It was like being in an accounting office. The press box was insulated, cold, professional. I don't even remember who Miami played. The press box announcer would call out ," first-and-10, Dolphins," like a dental assistant calling you in to have your gums scraped. I knew then THAT was the difference between college and the pros.
- College football is as rich, popular and healthy as ever before, right? It’s an example of upward mobility: Stanford, Baylor, Navy, and Duke enjoy historically great runs, while teams like Boise State, Utah, TCU and now Houston have emerged from obscurity in recent years. Yet, there are problems – falling attendance, the heavy hand of TV influence, conference realignment that defies common sense – too big to ignore. What are the biggest threats to the game’s integrity? Has anything – and I mean for better and worse – disappeared from the game since you first started covering it?
Ah yes, the problems. The problem with college football is that it was basically deregulated in the 1980’s by a Supreme Court decision that declared the NCAA was a monopoly and could not restrict television rights. Back then you could only be on TV a certain number of times a year. The Supreme Court decision took the power away from the NCAA and gave it to the conference commissioners, who started gobbling up TV money. Naturally, the networks wanted the biggest marquee conferences and schools – Michigan vs. Ohio – and their records really didn't matter. This created a divide between the power schools and the "have-nots." The most important phrase of the last 30 years has been "you can't legislate tradition." So, as it turns out, FIVE power conferences emerged and now rule the sport at the expense of five "lesser conferences." THIS has created all kinds of inequities in a sport still claiming amateur status under the NCAA, which is more socialist in that it wants the same rules for everybody. Impossible. So you have a mess.
The money has become so ridiculous, with conferences raking in BILLIONS now, instead of millions, it has created more injustice. I used to think the cost of a scholarship was a decent trade off for a collegiate player but I don't think that any more. Not when the Pac-12 commissioner's salary has risen from $500,000 to $4 million annually in less than 10 years. The athletes see this and say, wait a minute! And that's created the present mess. Lawsuits have been filed left and right and it's a losing hand for the NCAA. The power five commissioners, who have all the money, are trying to stay out in front by providing more in-pocket money to student-athletes without actually calling them employees. I think this is the only choice, yet only the rich conferences can do it. Players from the Pac -12 and Big Ten now get as much as five grand per year as a "full cost of attendance" stipend. This is great, but more needs to be done. I am for giving the student-athlete everything short of actual paychecks because there is no way to do this equitably. Only two sports make money--football and basketball--yet colleges have to support up to 20 and 30 "non-revenue" sports. How do you do that? Should FB players make more because they play the most dangerous sport? Does the QB make more than the backup left tackle? THIS is the biggest threat to college football in the next 10 years. It's still a great sport, but the money has changed everything. Look at all the half-empty stadiums for bowl games. ESPN owns almost all the bowls and they don't care about attendance because they still pull strong ratings. So the New Mexico Bowl gets staged in an empty stadium. And no one seems to care. And that's too bad. What a shock, that money is at the root of all, and threatens divide one of America's great sports. It's different than the NFL, which is socialist in that the billions get divided equally among all the teams no matter how many Super Bowls they've won.