Fear Came for College Football: NCAA's TV Takeover Created Conditions for Conference Re-Alignment
By Mark Schipper
When Texas and Oklahoma desert the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference in pursuit of more money and a bigger stage, they’re going to leave their old league and historical running mates in the sports-business version of a bombed-out, smoking landscape.
The transplanting of the Sooners and Longhorns to the SEC, a possibility first disclosed to the public in a shocking media leak in the summer of 2021, is likely to touch off another nerve-racking round of realignment in the game after almost a decade of relative peace. Whether the national scramble into more lucrative television alliances will spiral into a full-scale revolution of the sport will take longer to tell.
This is a story about the power of fear to run mens' lives, causing them to act unexpectedly, and at times to voluntarily surrender their power to get back what is only a false and fleeting sense of safety. The stampedes we have seen in past conference realignments, from the first, bloody skirmishes of the early and middle-nineties, to the vicious donnybrooks of the early 2010s that mutilated the collegiate-athletics landscape, were driven either by fear or money and almost always by both.
This is the story of the birth of that fear in college football, which has turned on a one-hundred-eighty degree axis from a fear of television, to a more-intense fear of missing out on televisions’ El Dorado-esque payoffs.
Television dollars have been the primary force behind every epoch-making change in modern college football. This loaded relationship with TV, what Keith Dunnavant called The Fifty Year Seduction, goes back to 1951 and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s brazen TV power grab. That successful power play, which ripped the right to sign television deals away from individual schools and put it in the centralized hands of the Association, had been executed at one of the unlikeliest moments in the organization’s history.
The NCAA’s takeover occurred just a year after the grisly failure of its so-called Sanity Code, the first-ever nationalized effort to establish enforceable athletic eligibility rules across the country. The failure and then total collapse of the Code, revealing to the country that the Association was too impotent to enforce its own central tenant, left the organization on what could have been its death bed.
But at that low moment, rather than retiring from the field, the television crisis landed on the desk of the NCAA out of the clear blue sky. The crisis turned into a high-stakes showdown that the Association would win with little more than a steely-eyed bluff, transforming college sport forever and turning the Association from a hands-off advisory body into a behemoth bureaucracy and centralized enforcement structure. The direct hook up of TV to the sport also finished off the transformation of amateur football from a campus pastime into an expensive, coast-to-coast entertainment property, with a financial bottom line foremost in the minds of those who ran the game.
This collision of the sport with national television was modern college football’s birth, creating almost instantly a type of solar system, with television as the sun, and all of the football-playing universities the planets inexorably pulled toward its generous, life-giving glow. College football and TV came together like rum and the proverbial drunkard, where one drink was too many but one million was nowhere near enough.
Knowing what television has become today, there is a sense of the bizarre in discovering that in 1951 a fear of television touched off the first terror. After several years of what turned out to be a temporary dip in game attendance, a widespread panic about television’s role in the lost revenue precipitated the crisis. In a general state of fear and confusion the NCAA member schools would sign away their birthrights to Home Rule and local autonomy that they’d enjoyed since the NCAA was founded in 1905.
By a vote of 161-7 the schools agreed to ban live television in 1951, turning over the power to sign TV contracts to the NCAA in order that the Association could make a study of its effects on ticket sales. The immensity of that sudden sea change cannot be overstated. At its inception forty-six-years earlier the NCAA’s member schools had enshrined the Association as a pure debating and advisory body, with absolutely no legislative or enforcement function in college athletics. After nearly half-a-century on the sideline the NCAA was on the verge of taking over college athletics by way of a football-TV coup.
“There was almost a sense of panic about the process,” said Pittsburgh athletic director Tom Hamilton many years after the fact.
Hamilton had been an All-American halfback and a national star in the 1930s at the Naval Academy. During World War II he was the top aide to Admiral Bull Halsey and commanding officer on the famous USS Enterprise carrier that played a major role in winning the war in the Pacific. Even Hamilton had been spooked by his colleagues’ fear of television. He was talked into using his massive prestige to speak in favor of the ban at the NCAA convention in Dallas prior to that 1951 season.
But there were several serious problems with the TV plan, including the fact that no one had any idea why attendance had dipped or had any real reason to scapegoat television as the primary issue. Two other major obstacles involved the universities of Pennsylvania and Notre Dame, who were comfortable with television and in the process of re-upping contracts they had negotiated with the networks for the 1951 season.
According to Walter Byers, the first executive director of the new and powerful NCAA, and the man who negotiated the TV contracts for thirty years, the colleges were upset that Penn and Notre Dame had their own deals. The fear was that the big schools would profit at the expense of the smaller ones, shouldering them off the map as they grew larger, and that the stadium gate, which at that time paid for everything, would tank.
The fear of major-football schools dominating the smaller ones has proved legitimate, and likely was inevitable under any circumstances, but it is hard to imagine a group of highly-educated people being more wrong than the colleges were about television. What they did not understand was how TV could be made to pay for all those ‘free tickets,’ which is how many schools regarded the broadcasting of their games, far beyond any fifty stadium gates. They also failed to imagine how television, in the way it showcased the beautiful pageantry and exciting atmosphere of the games, would grow the audience for college football by tens of millions of people who had never set foot on a college campus.
Francis Murray was Penn’s athletic director when the crisis came. He had been a star halfback in the Quakers’ Dream Backfield of the 1930s and was a popular administrator in his new position. Murray, who had been stunned by what he heard from his colleagues at the 1951 convention, decided to address the assembly after the TV doomsayers had laid out their dark vision for the future.
Murray accused the Association of being shortsighted about TV and stated his belief that the new broadcast form could be a major ally for the sport. Murray went further, claiming anti-trust issues could be in play with the NCAA, an advisory body without any legislative power, suddenly stepping in to strip away an individual school’s right to show its games on TV. Penn, Murray made clear, was not on board with the so-called TV experiment.
The Quakers in 1951 were a strong football program. They not only sold out the 60,000 seat Franklin Field in Philadelphia, they had televised their home schedule for almost a decade on DuMont and then ABC. Penn was dominating Ivy League competition at a time when the rest of its membership was stepping back from major football, running up a 45-6-3 record against their traditional rivals and winning three conference championships in the 1940s. The Quakers were openly resented for their success and accused of being middle-class and football obsessed by their big brothers at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.
“Yale considered Penn part of the great unwashed. They thought they were too good for us,” said Jerry Ford, who served as athletic director after Murray.
Penn had split TV money with their opponents and used the rest to cover capital projects. The school owed money on the Palestra, their basketball arena, and had many other bills, both athletic and academic, that the football program had been tapped to cover. Penn was all-in on television and ignored the NCAA’s ban both for practical reasons and even more so on principle.
“They were seizing our property rights,” Murray said at the time. “It was un-American what they were trying to do, and I wasn’t about to take it lying down.”
Harold Stassen was Penn’s President. He had been one of the youngest governors in the history of the country in Minnesota and openly aspired to be president of the country. He had hired Murray to run the athletic department and fully backed him in his television stand.
“Central control is a kind of disease which slips into the minds of men around the world. But it is not the American approach to problems,” Stassen told media.
But when Penn refused to cancel their TV contract with ABC, the NCAA and its membership, led by the Ivy League and backed by powerful football schools from the Midwest to the Deep South, decided to get tough. Penn was formally designated a ‘Member in Bad Standing’ and barred from competing in NCAA championship events.
The NCAA’s power play, which was possible only because of the abject fear of television that had spread like a virus through its membership, was based on a claim that Penn was exploiting a vacuum within the association. The NCAA said its TV experiment had been decided by a majority vote and that the Quakers were defying the plan for personal financial gain.
The Association took advantage of a push from several heavy hitters, including two national champion coaches in Army’s Red Blaik and Fritz Crisler of Michigan, to convince Penn’s football opponents to cancel their games. If Penn continued to hold their ground they would lose not just the TV revenue, but an entire season’s worth of tickets sales as well.
Quietly watching this unfold between Penn and the NCAA was Notre Dame. The Irish were the other big-time program with a strong working relationship with TV. Notre Dame had overcome their ambivalence about commercializing their football team in 1949 when they sold their home slate to the DuMont Network. Under their new, incoming president, a 34-year-old work horse named Father Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame was open about their plans to use athletic revenue, including TV money, to cover ambitious plans to build up their university and advertise its educational mission to the country.
The Fighting Irish were comfortable with mass broadcast technology, and had used national radio better than any other program going back to Knute Rockne in the 1920s. Notre Dame knew the ‘free tickets’ offered by TV and radio would not hurt their in-person gate at Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish also believed that within the Home-Rule principles enshrined in the NCAA, the place of TV on their campus was entirely their decision. It was no different than setting the schedule, or ticket prices, and picking the kind of athletes they were willing to take on in South Bend. Behind that philosophy the Irish signed an exclusive contract with DuMont to broadcast their home games for a third-straight season.
While the Quakers were the target of resentment and jealousy within the Ivy League, Notre Dame felt it from schools across the country as a by-product of their massive success and quasi-mythical brand. Notre Dame’s administrators were aware of the malice they generated, which at times included a heavy dose of anti-Catholic prejudice, and did what they could to play fair while never sacrificing their own potential.
When Penn’s president Stassen made it clear the Quakers and Notre Dame were fighting the same fight against the NCAA, he received a letter from a Penn alumnus who accused him of advancing his political ambitions and “courting the Roman Catholics.” It was meant to be an insult.
As this storm built within the Association, fomenting terror amongst its membership, Father Hesburgh remained sanguine and philosophical about the place of television. At the 1951 meetings where the fear was palpable, Hesburgh had said to the assembly regarding television that: “If it is from God, we can’t stop it; if it is not, it will die of its own accord.”
Notre Dame’s outgoing president, Father John Cavanaugh, had called the NCAA’s TV plan “socialistic” and did not want to involve his school. In place of the Association’s concept, and in an effort to calm the waters, Cavanaugh suggested forming a “Super Conference” for the big football schools. His simple idea was to combine everyone’s drawing power into a group in order to sell it to the television networks, who could then recommend the most-profitable matchups over the course of the season. The schools would draw up rules to govern the new organization, and split revenue at a percentage every member found agreeable.
This concept, which would inform not only the NCAA’s negotiating practice for the next three decades, but every conferences’ policy after the Supreme Court deregulated college-football TV in 1984, found no traction in the panicky atmosphere of 1951 and was dropped almost immediately. Notre Dame had forecast the future, but at the wrong moment.
But Notre Dame was not prepared to surrender its autonomy to what they regarded as a hands-off advisory body in the NCAA. To that end the Irish retained an anti-trust lawyer to look into the television plan and to make contact with the Department of Justice. While Notre Dame did its best not to stir up resentment, the university quietly continued to fight for Home Rule alongside Penn.
It did not take long for Notre Dame’s lawyers to determine there was an anti-trust case to be made. Penn’s people agreed with the assessment. The schools’ shared position was that a violation occurred when an outside organization attempted to take control over the inherent right of a university to manage its property, in this case the television broadcast of its teams’ Saturday football games.
Penn took the legalese to the NCAA and asked the Association to submit their TV plan to the United States Department of Justice and wait for an opinion before proceeding. The Association flatly refused to wait for the DOJ to weigh in, stating that any decision would take years to get back and that they were proceeding apace. The Penn ultimatums were left on the table as the football season approached.
While Notre Dame was playing it cool, waiting for the cards to be dealt, Penn had been dumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. With its reputation smeared as a profiteer and enemy of collegiality, its entire slate of football opponents having canceled their games, and its remaining sports unable to compete in NCAA championships, the Quakers folded. They informed ABC they would have to cancel their football contract for 1951 and would be joining the NCAA’s TV experiment.
When Penn bowed out Notre Dame knew the game was lost and folded its hand as well, informing DuMont their two-year TV relationship was finished, at least for the moment. Notre Dame would not sign another exclusive-TV deal until 1990, thirty-eight years down the line.
Amazingly, the NCAA had managed to surf a wave of intense fear and dominate a high-stakes face-off just as their authority seemed to be bottoming out. Without any traditional, statutory, or legal rights to strip schools of their autonomy to sign commercial contracts, the NCAA took over sole control of television for the entire Association. The NCAA central office would jealously guard that power for more than three decades, losing it only after the Supreme Court ripped it from their hands in 1984 on—you might have guessed it—an anti-trust ruling.
Byers, who was serving his first year as the NCAA’s first full-time executive director, sold the initial TV contract to Westinghouse Electric for almost $680,000 dollars. Westinghouse took the package to NBC, where a slate of carefully chosen games was broadcast in patterns to test viewership against gate attendance for the duration of the '51 season.
Despite highly inconclusive results and dubious testing models, and the continued objections of Penn and Notre Dame, the NCAA schools voted again in 1952, this time 171-8, to leave TV controls with the NCAA. Byers sold the second contract directly to NBC for $1.144 million. It was the beginning of a thirty-two-year run of steeply-escalating TV deals negotiated by the NCAA—and doled out through its TV Committee—on behalf of the member institutions.
While Notre Dame and Penn tried to figure out a way to get the television controls away from the NCAA, the NCAA and its good friends, like Crisler at Michigan, were dreaming up their Game of the Week plan. It was a bitter loss for Notre Dame, who had been dropped as an opponent by multiple Big Ten schools, including Michigan, and denied membership to the league on multiple occasions. The Fighting Irish now found its TV policy was being dictated by a cliquey cabal that did not have Notre Dame’s interests at heart.
In his memoir/biography of his time leading the NCAA, Byers relates a story about a hotel suite, cocktails, and good cheer amongst friends after an NCAA TV Committee meeting in 1952. This was shortly after the Association’s by-laws had been changed to grant the NCAA power to negotiate TV deals on behalf of its members into perpetuity.
Byers said it was Crisler, in conversation with Utah State head coach E.L. Romney, who had invented the NCAA’s tightly restricted Game of the Week format. It was all very chummy. With the ice clinking on whatever round of highballs they’d reached, Romney had said to Crisler: ‘Fritz, why not make sure all eight NCAA districts get at least one national game each season?’
Crisler, seeing the logic and feeling generous on behalf of his superpower school in Ann Arbor, had met Romney in hearty fellowship. Sure, said Crisler, it’s important to protect this national game of ours. Let’s get everyone a shot. It was toasted on and decided right there.
It was Crisler’s pledge that set the Association’s precedent: Limit television exposure for the strongest while making sure each region got a fair showing to the rest of the country. Frank Leahy and Notre Dame had not been invited up to the suite for drinks.
The NCAA during the almost four decades of Byers’ leadership, and Notre Dame under the powerful joint leadership of president Hesburgh and athletic director Ned Joyce, never did get along. They were cordial but classic frenemies, full of toothy smiles and tepid well wishes to paper over a deep mistrust.
For many years college football was covered in exclusive fashion by the American Broadcasting Company under the leadership of its legendary executive, Roone Arledge. Arledge had a strange, combative, but working relationship with Byers, who turned out to be one of the most eccentric power players in the history of American sport.
Because Byers treated television negotiations like a rolling war, Arledge kept his enemy close. In his own autobiography, Arledge described how Byers had developed a method for ostracizing Notre Dame:
"Walter organized his favorite athletic directors (meaning everybody except Notre Dame, it sometimes seemed) into committees. And the committees got to go off on junkets to decide the important things, like the next season’s schedule, and television paid handsomely for all of it.”
While Notre Dame submitted to the new order in 1952 and became the all-time leader in television appearances over the course of the program, Penn did not. Cutting off its nose to spite its face, the Quakers refused to participate in the NCAA’s TV program, calling it a walking anti-trust violation.
“The NCAA television control program is regarded by the University of Pennsylvania as illegal and unwise; hence we have not participated in it, and have opposed it,” president Stassen said in a written statement in 1953. “Our opposition has thus far been unsuccessful, but it is believed only a question of time before the centralized control scheme sponsored by the NCAA will be abrogated and all universities and colleges will enjoy the same rights and freedom in this respect that they do in other matters.”
Stassen’s summation would make the heart of the case between the NCAA and the College Football Association in the early 1980s when representatives of the Universities of Georgia and Oklahoma sued the NCAA. Acting on behalf of the CFA, a consortium of the major-football schools outside of the Big Ten and Pac-10, the so-called Board of Regents vs the NCAA case would go all the way to the Supreme Court.
To the astonishment of almost everyone, the NCAA would argue its case almost exactly as it had in 1951 when it coaxed away the TV rights from its member schools. Channeling the spirit of the great Crisler, the NCAA claimed its interference in, and domination of, the college-football TV marketplace was necessary to maintain a competitive balance in college sports. The CFA and its lawyers argued simply that their broadcast property rights belonged to the schools, period.
The Supreme Court sided with schools and took a flamethrower to the NCAA, describing the organization as a classic cartel that had been illegally interfering in the operation of the free marketplace for decades. The NCAA’s current television contracts, by far the most lucrative and expansive in the history of the Association, were immediately made null and void, and the schools were back on their own.
Thirty-two years after the fact Penn’s president Stassen and Notre Dame’s administration had been proved right. The NCAA had not had the right to take TV from the schools no matter how many frightened members of an association said they did. In the intervening decades Penn had stepped back from major football and joined their Ivy League brothers in a smaller-scale athletics realm. Notre Dame had continued to be Notre Dame and thrived in every era, preserving its status as one of the elite and wealthy brands in college athletics.
But there had been a ruthless selfishness to Penn and Notre Dame that was before its time as well, a self-interest that pointed toward the revolutionary atmosphere in college football today. The unleashing of television, regardless of the merits, created a new kind of fear. From a long period of autocratic, centralized control the college-football world transformed into a Thunderdome, a landscape where the strongest brands would begin scrambling into the strongest possible television alliances, and ruthlessly destroying programs, conferences, and decades of tradition if it meant fattening their own bottom line.
While in 1951 it was fear of television, in 2021 it is fear of missing out, but the panicked stampedes remain much the same. Can college football survive far beyond its 152nd season when everything that made it special is for sale? We are about to find out.