Lakshman: The college football arms race

April 18, 2016, 11:13 p.m.

Last week, we praised Stanford’s decision to move the Cardinal and White spring game into Cagan Stadium, home of the soccer and lacrosse teams, as an innovative way to fill the stands, create a more vibrant tailgating atmosphere and inject more excitement into the program through a refreshing change of scenery.

That was Stanford’s response to a perceived Spring Game attendance problem. Lined up against a formation they didn’t quite like, the Cardinal audibled to a smaller, leaner package and achieved favorable results.

The University of Georgia also had a problem filling in seats at its Spring Game in the eyes of new head coach Kirby Smart. Last season, the Bulldogs set a program record with approximately 46,000 fans in attendance, an order of magnitude greater than what Stanford attracts for its April game.

This was nowhere close to satisfactory for Smart, however, not when his former employer and SEC gold standard, Alabama, brought in over 76,000 people to Bryant-Denny this year and set the SEC record with 92,000 back in 2011. Smart knows the intimate details of building a college football juggernaut and the UGA athletics department has gone all-in implementing Smart’s vision by reportedly ramping up spending. As a result, when it came to the spring game there was no choice but to one up their counterparts in Tuscaloosa. Unlike the Cardinal, the Dawgs stayed in their tried-and-true spring game base formation, launched an aggressive social media campaign and brought in Ludacris for good measure.

Ultimately, Smart got his #93k to set the new SEC record (though short of Ohio State’s 2016 total, which broke the Buckeyes’ previous national record).

In his comments to the media following G-Day, Smart underscored the importance of total fan buy-in for a program to achieve elite results. It’s a sentiment echoing a frequent mantra of his mentor Nick Saban, who previously scolded ‘Bama fraternity members for showing up late to games and leaving their reserved seats empty for even a microsecond of football action. Fan commitment, Smart emphasized, is an essential component in selling a program to recruits.

Since taking over in Athens for Mark Richt at the beginning of the year, Smart has been fighting for every inch of competitive advantage that he can get. He revised Richt’s old policy of allowing players to transfer to any school of their choice to one more in line with just about every other school in the country, including Stanford, by prohibiting moves to a certain subset of schools, mostly in-state and in-conference.

However, changing a transfer policy is only the beginning of the story. Smart also helped successfully lobby the Georgia legislature to change the state’s open records laws, which now as a consequence permit UGA’s athletic department to wait 90 days to acknowledge receipt of a public records request. It’s a move again driven by a desire to gain a competitive edge and emulate Alabama, which maintains a similar law on the books. In particular, the change in law is again driven by recruiting: Smart’s staff can keep information on players they covet and visit under wraps for a longer period of time.

Smart’s effort to turn Georgia into Bama 2.0 is a fascinating story in its own right, one that provides a lens into an institution’s furious push towards winning a national championship. But this trend of a head coach utilizing social media to sell a program and squeezing every last advantage out of the rulebook is a much broader trend. Before Ludacris ever made his way to Athens, there was the presence of Tom Brady, Derek Jeter and other Michigan luminaries at Jim Harbaugh’s “Signing with the Stars” extravaganza on National Signing Day.

While other coaches look to push the competitive envelope, Harbaugh fired said envelope out of a cannon. And it hasn’t gone without notice. Schools felt so threatened by Harbaugh’s full-court press on satellite camps, they got the NCAA to ban the practice altogether, to the detriment of recruits who now have to incur greater financial burdens to been seen by coaching staffs.

Harbaugh has also become a master of selling his program through his Twitter account, another sign of the shifting tides in college football. We’ll never know if John McKay or Woody Hayes would have ever tweeted at Judge Judy, but we can say that Harbaugh is crushing many of his peers in the social media game, and the results speak for themselves. The Wolverines secured the top high school player in the class of 2016 in Rashan Gary and are in prime position to haul in the best crop of recruits in 2017.

In my mind, there’s no doubt that this model of head coaches becoming increasingly front-and-center symbols of their schools will be successful. Georgia already brought in more talent than just about anyone under Richt. With Smart and his hypercompetitiveness, they should be downright frightening. Ditto for Harbaugh with maybe a stronger adjective in place of ‘hypercompetitive.’

The real question, in my mind, is whether this is all worth it — whether it’s worth schools getting into excessive, social media-fueled theatrics for the sole purpose of attracting recruits.

As Jim Gordon says in “Batman Begins,” there’s always the threat of escalation: “We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar…they buy armor-piercing rounds.”

We shouldn’t maintain any pretense that college football is really about facilitating a way for student-athletes to get an education. That ship sailed long ago. But it’s nonetheless concerning when you see how far removed the game has come from representing the players who suit up every Saturday. We’re entering a time where it’s becoming easier than ever for this game to be all about the coaches, with athletes rendered mere pawns in this new form of chess.

In line with the words of Jim Gordon, we await for the next Joker to emerge, someone who will raise the stakes even more and turn the old guard mob bosses on their heads. This new college football arms race is just getting started.


Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ with any ideas for increasing Stanford spring game attendance. Current ideas include a dedicated puppy section, a halftime O-line pie-eating contest, and a dance show by the Daily’s own Vihan Lakshman (presently only endorsed by Vihan Lakshman). 

Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at'

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