College football has become a multi-billion dollar industry.  The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football  goes behind the glitz and glamour to show how the influence of money impacts coaches, players and universities. Authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian joined Bill Littlefield.

Highlights From Bill’s Conversation with Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian.

BL: Let’s begin with a statistic. You found that by July 2013 at least 79 head football coaches made $1 million annually and 52 of them made more than $2 million. Armen, did you find any college presidents or chancellors dismayed by those numbers?

AK: No, I did not. In fact, I think that the curve right now is obviously upward in the salaries. These mega-programs have become the front porch or the welcome mat for many of these universities and a way to promote and extend the brand. So the game has moved far beyond the field and that why Nick Saban, who’s making [$5.3 million] at the University of Alabama —  the chancellor there said its the single best investment its ever made.

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BL: You found that only 22 of the top 120 college football programs break even or make a profit. Jeff, it seems like the other 30 schools with coaches making at least $1 million a year need accounting lessons.

JB: In fact, the story I guess that counters the good one that Armen just told, up at Washington State, where we documented their hiring of Mike Leach, which made him the highest paid public employee in the state of Washington. Their school president Elson Floyd said, “Look we did this because we have to, but it’s not because we think it makes sense or it’s a good idea. It’s just to keep up with the Joneses we have to keep doing this.” I think that’s the position that a lot of these schools have taken that are shelling out this money because they don’t feel like they have much choice.

AK: If you see it as a big poker game, where the ante into the game is not only $2-million salaries, but an expansion of the stadium and an upgrade of the facilities, if you fail at this — and most programs do fail — it comes at a heavy cost to the university. But this is what these schools are willing to risk. And more and more universities are adding football teams because they believe they will bring in more students, it will bring in more donations, and it will increase the prestige of the university, and it doesn’t always work that way, but that’s the game right now.

BL: This week NCAA president Mark Emmert said once again that players should not be paid, declaring that, “if they want to become a professional athlete, then they ought to have the opportunity to become a professional athlete.” Armen, does that seem to you a legitimate contention that addresses the circumstance?

AK: I think its a legitimate contention.  I don’t think it addresses the circumstances. Yes, they get scholarships. Yes, they get room and board. Yes, they get a certain amount of money every month, but it’s not enough. It’s not what an average student can make if they were working. These players can’t work. I’m very much in favor of finding a way to get a stipend into the hands of these players who are responsible for this spectacle that we watch and that ESPN, and CNN, and FOX pay billions of dollars a year, collectively, to televise. So I think Mark Emmert is in la-la land if he thinks that this is going to continue with the stakes ever increasing, with the national football playoff on the horizon, and there isn’t going to be some sort of job action someday by these athletes in order to get what I believe they deserve, which is a small piece of the pie.

JB:  Another piece of that, too, is that more than 99 percent of these players when they finish their four years of eligibility will never play professional football, but almost all of them will live with life-long ramifications from having played it for four years in college. Their bodies take a beating, but when they leave school they are solely responsible for the costs, and the healthcare, and the treatment that some of these guys have to have the rest of their lives. So, it’s not just compensating them for the four years, but I think there’s a responsibility to some degree to do something about the fact that these guys are giving up a lot when they play for four years and then don’t get to play for a career.

Bill’s Thoughts on The System

The scandal of college football has been much in the news lately, thanks in part to various people who’ve written about it, but mostly thanks to the many universities and colleges where players have been unethically recruited, or where the enthusiasm of boosters has been encouraged to run amuck.

One virtue of The System is that it collects a lot of the recent stories in one book.  If you want to be reminded about what has recently gone wrong with any of the football programs that have run afoul of the NCAA and/or various state and federal statutes, this is the book for you.

But co-authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian also celebrate what they think is righteous about college football, including several coaches they admire and a few programs that strive to operate within the rules and the law while still playing well enough to hold the interest of their fans and the television networks.

At the end of my recent conversation with Benedict and Keteyian, I asked them if the “grand spectacle only NCAA football played at its highest level can deliver” could exist without all the excesses and worse they chronicled, they both said no. At that point it felt as if there wasn’t much more to say.