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As Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart grumble about new rules, they don't admit this | Opinion

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

To hear college football coaches tell it, the sport is in dire straits.

Nick Saban says the game’s direction is unsustainable. Dabo Swinney bemoaned the lack of rules and guidance regarding player endorsements, telling ESPN that the situation surrounding name, image and likeness dollars is “out of control.” Kirby Smart worries fans will be turned off by athletes making decisions based on NIL deals.

I’ll buy that some of this handwringing is rooted in genuine concern for the future of the sport, but here’s the part coaches leave out amid their airing of grievances: Coaches are the people most negatively affected by evolutions that occurred within college football in the past year. But coaches aren’t admitting that. 

From left to right: Georgia's Kirby Smart, Alabama's Nick Saban and Clemson's Dabo Swinney

Rule revisions last year allow athletes to profit off endorsements and also transfer without penalty. On the whole, these changes empower athletes, afford them more freedom, elevate their status, and allow them to turn their fame into dollars.

Fans seem to be adapting. Some have purchased T-shirts that incorporate athletes’ NIL, knowing athletes reap some financial benefit from those apparel sales. You’ll find fans attending autograph sessions at stores and restaurants where they can receive a signature and a photograph with athletes who are earning NIL money. Some fans have even paid for athletes to record personalized happy birthday or encouragement videos through apps like Cameo.

While the transfer rate makes it harder to keep track of who is playing for what team, it also affords a new avenue to accelerate a program. Surely, South Carolina fans appreciated the arrival of transfer quarterback Spencer Rattler, who elevated the Gamecocks’ 2022 outlook.

Plus, fans and boosters now can directly influence their favorite team’s roster by donating to NIL collectives or offering endorsements that will help attract and retain talented players.

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So, despite coaches' warnings, sure seems like there’s never been a better time to be a college athlete or a college sports fan.

There’s also never been a more challenging time to be a college coach.

Allowing athletes to freely transfer makes building a sturdy depth chart a chore. A player can be here today, gone tomorrow. Athletes may hunt for a destination they believe will yield the most lucrative endorsement deals. Meanwhile, although NIL changes were designed to allow college athletes to profit off their fame and not to influence recruiting decisions, endorsements undeniably are affecting recruiting, although to what degree remains unclear.

These changes erode coaches’ ability to control everything and everyone around them, and if you’ve ever spent much time around college football coaches, you know many of them are control freaks.

Being a college football coach in 2022 presents more hurdles and frustrations than the job carried a decade ago.

If coaches admitted that evolution was at the heart of their grumblings, I’d have a firmer stomach for their gripes.

Instead, they present their complaints as looking out for the best interests of athletes and fans – both of whom are faring fine – and guarding the integrity of the game. Never mind that many coaches would cheat their own mother if doing so offered an inside track toward success.

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said earlier this offseason that the unregulated and uneven flow of endorsement dollars creates an unbalanced playing field. News flash: College football has long featured the most lopsided playing field in all of college sports. When conference commissioners had an opportunity this year to vote to expand the playoff – a move that might crack open the door to a smidge more parity – they failed to do so. Plus, Kiffin, the self-proclaimed “Portal King,” pounced on the opportunity to add plug-and-play transfers in an attempt to balance the scales.

Swinney says he’s a champion of education and protecting “the college experience.” Well, nothing about Division I football’s almost year-round calendar of practice, training, conditioning and competition lends itself to the educational model. Also, NIL earnings are not turning college athletes into sham students any more than your 20-year-old barista’s part-time wages turn her into a sham student. If colleges want to uphold education, then eliminate joke degrees and coursework and crack down on academic fraud.

Smart, during a recent interview on “The Paul Finebaum Show,” pondered whether athletes are “making decisions based on the wrong things.” He was alluding to NIL deals.

If athletes are making decisions based on money, maybe they’re following the example coaches set.

Let’s not forget Brian Kelly jilted Notre Dame for a 10-year, $100 million contract from LSU despite the Irish being in College Football Playoff contention at the time of his exit. So, can you really fault a college athlete testing the transfer market to shop for a better endorsement deal?

Smart said a coach can only do so much to keep a player from transferring.

“Kids make decisions based on what they feel like is best for them. There’s not a lot you can control,” the Georgia coach told Atlanta’s 680 The Fan.

And there you have it.

That’s the No. 1 issue facing college football coaches after last year’s rule revisions.

Athletes have more control than ever, and college coaches have less control – and I suspect that's the college football evolution that irks coaches the most.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.