Several months ago, coach Bill O'Brien told his boss what mattered most to him as he prepared to lead Penn State football into a new, difficult era in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal. This was before NCAA chief Mark Emmert accused the university of cultural failures, before Louis Freeh stood on a stage in Philadelphia, detailing the e-mails that, he concluded, illustrated a cover-up.
O'Brien and president Rodney Erickson were discussing a hypothetical situation: If the NCAA punished Penn State -- as it later would -- what did the new coach think his program could not live without?
O'Brien said he wanted to play football. And he wanted to play on television.
Since the sanctions were imposed in July, the coach has constantly stressed the second part. In his first interview after announcement of the sanctions, which include a four-year ban on bowl appearances, O'Brien mentioned television's importance for his program's exposure and has not ceased saying so.
These days, big-time college football without TV is nearly unthinkable. If a game is played in State College, or Tuscaloosa or Los Angeles, and only 108,000 people watch it, do the bands make a sound?
Had a television ban been imposed by the NCAA, Penn State could have lost $20 million in TV rights revenue, not to mention immeasurable recruiting damage.
Television provides the monetary bricks that has built college football into a business. As television contracts have swelled to upward of $5 billion for just one conference, concepts of amateurism and education have loosened, and the sport treads on a prosperous but dangerous path.
"It's clearly the most powerful entity," said Ellen Staurowsky, a Drexel University sports management professor and co-author of "College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth." "The pressure that schools are under to maintain a competitive edge hinges on their ability to have exposure on television."
Representatives from the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia approached Andy Coats with a difficult task in 1982. They wanted to challenge the NCAA's ability to regulate member schools' television deals on antitrust grounds, and they wanted Coats to act as their legal counsel.
The NCAA did not lose cases like this at that time. That was especially true when it came to the TV plan, from which the NCAA earned the majority of its profits. Citing the need to protect game attendance, the NCAA had formed the plan in '51, and its member schools obliged. At the time, the organization was weak; overnight, it earned economic power, which quickly became ruling power.
"You have to understand that the NCAA just took over football," said Coats, now dean emeritus of the University of Oklahoma School of Law.
So it was for three decades. The NCAA showed one national game each Saturday and a handful of regional games.
The plan, in its early '80s version, limited schools to no more than six TV appearances in two years, with those appearances paying the respective schools a little more than $200,000 for a regional appearance and a little more than $250,000 for a national appearance, no matter the teams, no matter the ratings. In 1981, USC and Oklahoma drew the same paycheck for their televised game as did Appalachian State and The Citadel.
The NCAA had made one mistake. In'61, the organization decided against applying for federal antitrust exemption, believing its educational ties would protect it should antitrust issues arise.
In '82, a collection of major universities called the College Football Association negotiated a TV contract on its own that the NCAA forbade. Other schools withdrew after NCAA threats, but Oklahoma and Georgia continued the fight. They sued the NCAA on antitrust grounds in Oklahoma City.
By the end, the NCAA was beaten. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld lower court opinions, ruling that the NCAA had been restraining trade, artificially limiting the supply of televised football to maximize price. Institutions of higher education now had unbridled freedom to seek any TV dollar for their football teams that they could scrounge.
"We turned the tiger loose," Coats said.
College football entered the free market, and the market liked what it saw. After a few years of difficulty securing lucrative TV rights deals, teams better learned to brand themselves, rode the cable TV boom and enhanced attendance because casual fans had seen them on TV.
The latest round of contracts brings upward of $15 million annually for football teams in the major conferences. Schools in the Big Ten, for instance, make about $20 million annually for deals with the Big Ten Network, ABC and ESPN. The Pac-12 inked a new $4.3 billion contract this year that will allow its games to be televised on seven different networks and could pay member schools $30 million a year, according to a report by USA Today.
Turn on your TV next Saturday to see what this example of sports capitalism looks like. Twenty games will be televised on network, basic and digital cable channels in Pittsburgh. The Big Ten Network will feature four games, The Pac-12 Network two and the Longhorn Network may televise Texas' game with Wyoming. That doesn't include the televised games Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday of the opening week of college football season.
If it seems schools are bending every which way for TV and the money it brings, that's because they are. Last year, the University of Utah canceled afternoon and evening classes for all students to accommodate parking for a Thursday game so it could be televised.
"The professionalization of college sports has increased," says Brian Porto, Vermont Law School professor and author of a book about the 1984 decision called "The Supreme Court and the NCAA." "It's become harder and harder for the NCAA to say we're an educational organization."
It's one example of many: Porto and sports economist Andrew Zimbalist listed several ways college football has evolved because of TV: realignment, coaches' salaries, the formation of the Bowl Championship Series, the facilities boom, the gap between haves and have-nots, the creation of league and individual school TV networks.
Although a study by the Knight Commission on Athletics illustrates that TV revenues only make up about 17 percent of an athletic department's revenue, television has enhanced other revenue streams. Rather than stifle live attendance -- as the NCAA had feared -- increased TV exposure has boosted it, enlarging fan bases by adding casual fans who enjoyed watching teams on TV on a regular basis. Ticket sales, which make up 28 percent of an athletic department's revenue, have skyrocketed since '84.
One only needs to examine the growth of stadiums. Penn State's Beaver Stadium, for instance, seated 83,000 in '84. Now it seats more than 107,000. Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium, which had a capacity of 60,000 then, now accommodates more than 90,000. Luxury boxes, unheard of 30 years ago, line the upper concourses and club levels at most stadiums.
The power of television also is apparent in the NCAA's reticence to take it away. O'Brien likely didn't need to sweat a TV ban because no college football team has received one since '94, even though the NCAA expressed a desire to bring back the penalty in '08.
A TV ban wouldn't quite be a death penalty, but it would be close. USC coach Lane Kiffin, who has successfully dealt with NCAA sanctions the past two seasons, said of a TV ban: "I think we could overcome a lot. I don't think we could do that."
Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville was the last NCAA football coach hampered by a TV ban -- for the '95 season at Mississippi. Ole Miss lost out on less than $2 million. Tuberville remembers small sacrifices, like a bus trip to Baton Rouge instead of a flight. He said it hurt recruiting. The ban did little to affect his program in the long run. Today, though, he would expect devastation.
"That's probably the ultimate penalty," Tuberville said. "There are teams that have been penalized and, heck, they're right back in the national championship picture. You hit them in the pocketbook, and they can't come back. That's a true restriction."
When Ramogi Huma played football at UCLA in the mid-'90s, he couldn't tell precisely how much wealthier his school had become, but signs of the rapid influx of TV wealth abounded. He looked around and saw assistant coaches driving Cadillacs. The team stayed at a Ritz-Carlton hotel the night before home games.
UCLA and other major football programs were like nouveau riche oil nations. In a short period of time, they had all kinds of money. They purchased the athletic-facility equivalent of towering skyscrapers. They lured top coaches with increasingly lucrative contracts.
Since TV turned college football into an industry, money has floated in every direction, except to the players. Huma, now the president of the advocacy group the National College Players Association, remembers how players who wanted to live off UCLA's campus had to reside several miles away just to find an affordable place. They would then have to pay out of their pocket for parking and transportation.
In '11, his organization and Drexel University studied how much a scholarship failed to cover. On average, an athlete must pay an extra $3,222 annually to cover living expenses. Their solution: Instead of further enlarging pockets of coaches and building yet another indoor practice facility, use the millions made from TV revenue to fill in the costs not covered by traditional scholarships.
Doing so for each Division I-A athlete in revenue-producing football and men's basketball would cost $47 million annually. If Title IX issues arose, the total would double.
According to the study, annual TV revenues from '11 from the Big Six conferences' TV deals equaled more than $1 billion annually. Throw in the NCAA's contract with CBS for March Madness and another $775 million exists that could be used for the benefit of athletes, who would need just $94 million under the NCPA's proposal.
Last year, football and basketball players from UCLA, Purdue, Arizona, Georgia Tech and Kentucky signed and sent a petition to the NCAA asking for the organization to use TV revenues to bridge the gap between the value of a scholarship and an athlete's actual cost of living. Huma acknowledges the petition as a first step for a conservative reform. The day will come when athletes, disgusted with not receiving any of the revenue they generate, walk off the court or field in protest. Or, they will walk into a courtroom.
"In terms of major change," Huma says, "that will happen with a lawsuit."
As players increasingly grow aware of their worth and TV dollars continue to rise, reform is likely.
In his book, Porto proposed a solution that would counteract some of the effects of the '84 court case. Although he is skeptical of an NCAA that would prioritize the well-being of athletes over revenue, he would like Congress to give the organization an antitrust exemption that would "extend to NCAA actions having commercial consequences, as long as at least one principal purpose of any such action is educational."
Such an exemption would give the NCAA power to limit coaches' salaries and eliminate the Thursday night games that hurt players academically. He also would be in favor of using TV revenues to help players make ends meet.
"The biggest difficulty isn't the Congress, oddly enough," Porto said. "I think it's the unholy alliance between the athletic departments and the television networks. That's a force to be reckoned with."
Any sort of meaningful action that reduces a school's current TV revenue likely would splinter the college football landscape. The power conferences might band together, as many have theorized, and smaller Division I-A schools might give up football or de-emphasize it.
Reform by the NCAA could lead to unrest. The power universities could decide that their contracts are worth more than their continued membership in the organization.
Gary Roberts, dean of Indiana University's Robert H. McKinney School of Law who has served on NCAA committees, sees this as a possibility but not for many years because of the NCAA's importance in governing non-revenue sports.
"The bottom line is the NCAA is the glue that holds this juggernaut of an industry together," he said. "It will be a long ways away before you see them as a liability to the commercial gains of member schools."
Even without legislation, change could be on the horizon. When college football escaped the NCAA's economic control in '84, it quickly benefitted and has since. But it is susceptible to free-market forces.
Zimbalist warns that universities are living in a TV bubble right now. He said contracts for TV rights have risen because of DVR technology. Consumers use it to record and fast forward through sitcoms and dramas but not through sports. Sporting events provide a rare avenue for advertisers, but the audience likely has been maximized.
One day in the near future, Zimbalist says everyone will wake up and realize what is obvious: There is an excess of college football on TV, a surfeit of networks to show it and even more obscure networks launching.
The market could become oversaturated and the multitude of games would attract smaller, niche audiences that won't command as much in advertising dollars. Rights fees would either plateau or peak and fall.
"College athletics would have to adjust to that reality," Zimbalist said.
They would have to scale back, not to pre-'84 levels, a drastic and likely impossible turn away from commercialism.
Coats loves watching the Oklahoma Sooners. In the past 15 years working at the university, though, he has seen the business of college athletics extend beyond what he considers positive for educational institutions.
"It's always been an exciting part of our lives, and millions feel that way," he said. "But, if you look at it objectively, college sports have grown out of control."
Mark Dent: email@example.com, Twitter @mdent05.