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Don’t blame Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly. Blame USC, LSU and a corrupt, broken system | David Murphy

In paying two coaches to abandon their student-athletes on the eve of the postseason, two universities have further degraded their academic mission.

Brian Kelly abruptly left Notre Dame for the head coach job at LSU earlier this week.
Brian Kelly abruptly left Notre Dame for the head coach job at LSU earlier this week.Read morePaul Sancya / AP

They are sowing the seeds of their own destruction. This is the only thing you can hope for. It is the one fleck of silver that sparkles from within the dark underbelly of the beast, this violent, thrashing storm cloud that has swallowed amateur athletics with its shadow of idolatry and greed. At some point, there will be no more straight faces to keep, no more propaganda to produce. The cabal of robber-baron university presidents and their four-letter lobbying group will have little choice but to shrug their shoulders step out from behind the Wizard of Oz screen and explicitly acknowledge a fact that they can no longer even tacitly deny. They are in the business of national athletics, and there is nothing collegiate nor amateur about it.

Already, they are barely bothering to tie the curtain shut. In a span of five days, on the eve of finals week, with school still in session and fall sports still in season, two of this country’s most prestigious public academic institutions agreed to make another football coach a state-sponsored millionaire. Lincoln Riley, Brian Kelly — some will accuse them of greed, hypocrisy, disloyalty, but opportunism is the only correct charge. They might have chosen a dirty career, but it is theirs to navigate, and, like most of us, that navigation is where their foremost loyalty lies. The blame lies solely with a system that encourages coaches to spend the month of December with one eye out the door. Coaching football is their business, and this is the way that business works.

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The presidents? This is now their business, too. They are willing participants in an athletic arms race that left hundreds of alleged student-athletes at two different institutions without a head coach on the eve of the postseason (Notre Dame named defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman as Kelly’s successor Friday morning) and has left little doubt about the validity of the priorities the system claims. In convincing Kelly and Riley to step down from programs that both ranked in the Top 15 of college football’s playoffs rankings, Louisiana State and Southern California both further delegitimized their sport’s showcase event.

A few weeks from now, they’ll show us television commercials that highlight the thousands of NCAA athletes who go pro in something other than sports. They’ll tell us that the game we are watching isn’t about the money..

Really, though, this isn’t about money. Make no mistake — the money is obscene. An annual salary of $9.5 million. Incentives worth additional millions. A $1.2 million housing loan. That was the price LSU paid Kelly to leave the No. 6 team in the nation as it waits to learn its playoff fate. This, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate. As of Friday, we had yet to learn the details of Riley’s package from USC, which is probably as good an indication as any of the dollar figure that prompted him to walk away from No. 14 Oklahoma. An embarrassment of riches, indeed.

Yet the money can be justified, and no doubt will be by the presidents responsible for doling it out. Within the context of a system that richly rewards the athletic departments of winning programs and builds invaluable brand recognition for the sponsoring school, an eight-figure salary for a football coach is both a capital investment and a marketing expense. The blame rests squarely with the system, and the university presidents who have chosen football as their brand.

It was a choice. It continues to be. That is the point. The system can operate however the university presidents choose. They are the NCAA. If they wanted to, they could create a world where coaching salaries were capped, or where athletic profits were funneled back into academics. If they wanted to, they could create a world where football programs were functioning members of the academic communities they exist to entertain, rather than self-contained fiefdoms of mercenaries serving out three- and four-year stints of a singular purpose. If they wanted to, they could create a world where coaches would not spend the second half of their seasons holding their schools hostage for contract extensions, where their signatures would be worth more than the ink. If they wanted to, they could create a world where coaches did not skip town before their schedules were complete.

As it stands now, there is a looming Great Irony that, within a decade, will almost surely engulf the majority of the enablers of this corrupt, broken system. The monster they’ve made will eat them whole. This ongoing game of musical coaches and conferences is a prelude to the sort of consolidation we always see in billion-dollar industries as the big fish eat their way to a less-crowded pond. Like the economic system that engenders it, big-time college football will eventually be composed solely of the haves, the profit motive resulting in a world where only 30 or 40 schools share in the spoils. That is where we are heading. Mark it down. The only reason we are not there yet is that it will require the presidents of those schools to shed their collegiate veneer and acknowledge their real motivation.

At this point, though, there is no turning back. USC and LSU are well aware of what is coming. In Riley and Kelly, they’ve hired two of the sport’s brighter offensive minds and proven program builders. In doing so, they have positioned themselves to thrive in college football’s coming professional era. In one sense of the word, a decision like this is academic. In another, more unfortunate sense, there is nothing academic about it.