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November 7, 2006

On Media: American Idols: Cards’ rising profile is envy of many

Louisville didn’t just win on the scoreboard last Thursday when it beat West Virginia. The game attracted a record-setting ESPN television audience, the highest-ever Thursday night rating and the second-highest rated college football game in the cable network’s history. Nearly 5 million American households tuned in to what was billed as college football’s game of the year. This week it’s off to Rutgers for another game of the year — in the same time slot on the same network — that could make the Cards into genuine American idols. They’re almost a prime time series in the making, and a win would clear the path to a shot at the national title. No doubt there are folks around the country wondering how the Cards got from the sport’s gutter (1-10 in 1997) to its mountaintop. The story of Tom Jurich’s brilliant hires and Bobby Petrino’s genius at crafting an offense will be analyzed and scrutinized for another two months on a national stage. That’s a lot of media exposure, exactly the sort of situation imagined when Louisville moved into the Big East Conference (and a long-term, lucrative TV contract with ESPN). TV money is the driver in the business of college football. It’s what pays for exorbitant contracts for coaches, for luxurious facilities, for no-holds-barred recruiting, for all the trappings of a nationally ranked football team. It’s what drives schools like Western Kentucky to invest in a move to the next level. Last week, by a 7-2 vote, the school’s Board of Regents approved taking Hilltopper football to Division 1-A. At Rutgers, some have criticized the football program’s $13 million budget and Coach Greg Schiano’s million-dollar contract, at a time when the university is experiencing an $80 million shortfall in state aid. It’s one of the most expensive places to go to school in the United States ($20,000 annually), and it recently cut 600 jobs, 800 courses, the tennis team and five other sports. Complaints from professors about the costs of athletics haven’t gotten far in New Jersey, or at Western Kentucky. Despite the odds against cracking football’s upper tier, there are more schools moving up to Division 1-A every year. Our own Howard Schnellenberger’s Florida Atlantic Owls, relative rookies at the Division 1-A level, are in Western’s Sun Belt Conference. “If you’re a school that has a history — a University of Michigan, a University of Texas — there are some built-in advantages,” said a prominent accounting professor from Cornell who studied revenue potential in college football. “For somebody coming in from the outside hoping to crack that circle, it’s almost certainly a losing proposition.” I went to Homecoming a few weeks ago at Western, and ran into Gary Ransdell, the school president, at a tailgating party. He spoke like a man running for office who knew the outcome of the race. He talked about bowl games and television revenue, an expanded stadium and new facilities. Big Red, the huge, furry mascot already a darling of ESPN, will likely get more air time. One professor’s vocal objection to the plan was quashed, with the Board treating him like an uninvited guest crashing a frat party, proceeding with a vote it had already assured. Western will finance a $37 million addition to its football complex. The school estimates the football budget will cost an extra $2.5 million a year, primarily for increased scholarships. Coach David Elson gets a raise, too. Students will pay an extra $70 per semester in fees. Ticket prices will go up, but so will a fancy new scoreboard. “I think that the greatest benefit is going to be the prestige and the perception, the value of the WKU brand,” athletics director Wood Selig said. At Rutgers, athletic director Robert Mulcahy has taken some flack about spending on football. But he knows the axiom that’s as true in the football business as it is in any other enterprise — you’ve got to spend money to make money. “If you’re not going to do things in a first-class fashion, then you’re not going to attract the kinds of recruiting classes that we’ve been able to attract in the last few years,” he told a local reporter. That’s what big-time football is all about. Louisville has the nation asking how this Cardinal juggernaut got from nowhere to No. 3 in the country, traveling that famed collision course to the national title. Here’s what collegiate athletic directors think when they see third-ranked Louisville and No. 13 Rutgers line up on ESPN this week: How can I get there? It’s all driven by TV money. Good or bad, the stakes are high, and they drive everything in the game. Contact the writer at rick.redding@insightbb.com