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Tennessee v Mississippi
Photo by Matthew Sharpe/Getty Images

Bless Mike Vrabel and his super broseph self. This isn’t the part anyone’s supposed to say out loud, but he said it, because he has worked both sides of it and knows. Urban Meyer and Nick Saban are brokers for pro teams looking for talent in that farm system, the greatest in the world because the NFL does not pay a dime for it—like, not one red cent for it.

That’s covered. The thing we keep thinking about is how fragile this arrangement is. Coaches have immense power in college athletics in general, but in football it can get especially dictatorial: Tons of moving, interchangeable parts, definite processes needed to manage them, and a general emphasis on “The team” means a massive valuation on “the person and/or people managing that team.”

That would be the coach. Coaches are powerful, but at large programs they are in an awkward bind from the start. They need to convince potential college players that they could, if they wanted to, come to that school and then play well enough and often enough in the NFL. College coaches have to plausibly argue this despite an average of only 1.6% of all college football seniors even getting drafted, much less making a team or hanging on for more than a nanosecond.

At the same time, the coach has to have something like a credible relationship with scouts about the gameworthiness of their players. It helps if they have some NFL experience, true, but amassing enough talent over a consistent span of time will do. Urban Meyer doesn’t have a steady line to Bill Belichick because he was the head coach of the Chargers in 2003, though we can’t disprove that. Remember: It is impossible to prove or disprove that every coach in the world has not, for a randomly selected year, coached the Chargers. Say a name, and all of them seem believable.

The real bind comes when figuring out just how much to use the talent they have while trying not to dent the goods too much. We doubt any coach would come right out and say “We’re trying to ensure no one draft-eligible gets beat up too much.”

That would be too transparent, and at odds with the contingent of coaches who clearly don’t care about wear and tear on their players. It’s easy enough to see which ones don’t, though. Add up the snaps, figure out which teams run the most number of hard, full-contact practices between top prospects, or easier still talk to scouts about which players show up at the combine with the most dramatic medical profiles. There is an answer to this question! We won’t tell it to you, but it would not surprise anyone at all, and is probably your first guess anyway!

The point is that coaches are, under the current system, in a very powerful but fragile position in terms of talent management. This is where we want you to imagine the hilarity of a football Calipari: someone all too happy to do whatever they had to do in order to get a recruit, but then turn around and openly use the university as a way station to the pros. Imagine someone who would openly limit snaps of obviously brilliant talent simple because they were honest about—in the words of another dodgy market—not stepping on the base commodity too much before getting it in the hands of the buyer.

Imagine someone who could happily watch talent blow through their system and just reload, winning enough games to keep the locals happy, but also passing talent up with the minimum wear and tear on the players. Does this look something like Houston Nutt in 2009? Holy shit, Houston Nutt might have been an accidental pioneer. Not like a Vasco de Gama pioneer, but someone who “invented Uber” by being “ a cabbie without a license who you just called for stuff.”*

*There are two big things standing in the way of that. The first is the NFL’s three year rule for getting drafted—the one requiring a player to be at least three years out of high school to be eligible. That won’t budge because the NFL has no interest in training anyone to do anything, developing anyone for the game, or assuming any more financial liability than they absolutely have to under the law. The second is one we’re not sure anything can change given the game and how it’s played in 2018: Prospects simply aren’t big enough or skilled enough to make the leap from high school to the pros.**

**That is a market distortion on its own to think about re: how messed up the sport is, isn’t it? That a 19 year old can play almost any other professional sport in the world, but has to go through a BULKING AND STRENGTHENING PROCESS to withstand 16 games a year for football?