Monday, January 08, 2024

My tribe

College football tribalism is something I ponder from time to time. I haven't been to a South Dakota State game since I was graduated from there in 1978, but this season I was hanging on every game as they have marched through their schedule undefeated, including yesterday's FCS national championship win over Montana 23-3. I am a current resident of Montana, and in comparison to SDSU, I've been to more Montana games in the past 35 years (two, including one this year), I have more Griz swag, and I know more Griz fans. But my loyalty yesterday was not in doubt. My tribe won.

With the FBS championship today, I recalled that I have been to more Michigan games in the past 35 years than SDSU games: Michigan 35, Boston College 13, September 7, 1991. Desmond Howard scored four touchdowns that day and won the Heisman Trophy that year. I had just moved to the Boston area and BC had an impressive home schedule, so I was a season ticket holder for that one year. (And got fundraising letters for the next 15 years.) In addition to #2 Michigan, BC also played #1/AP national champion Miami and #17 Georgia Tech at home.

I also have been to games coached by current Washington Coach Kalen DeBoer, back in 2007-09 when I had just moved back to Sioux Falls. The University of Sioux Falls stadium was a short bike ride from my house, and DeBoer won three NAIA national championships there before starting his climb to the FBS national championship game. The tribe I rooted for Monday night was Washington due to this tenuous connection, but that didn't work out too well, 34-13 Michigan.

College football schools, or should I say college football programs, rely on this tribalism for financial support. These days, everything illegal Reggie Bush and his family did when he was in college is now legal (so they may as well give him back his Heisman). It is hard to believe that South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski (FCS All-American, Walter Payton Offensive Player of the Year, Most Outstanding Player of the FCS championship game twice) will not attract attention from FBS boosters who want to give him NIL money. One rumor is Northwestern because his offensive coordinator at SDSU, Zach Lujan, is (according to another rumor) heading there to be OC for David Braun, who was elevated to head coach after an early-season scandal. Gronwski grew up in Chicago's west suburbs and Northwestern is in Evanston just north of Chicago. Braun was defensive coordinator for North Dakota State last year, so Braun went head-to-head with (and lost to) Lujan and Gronowski just last year. Twice! Suck it Bizon! (That's my tribalism leaking through.)

I don't know what the dollars would be for Gronowski. Jeff Kolpack of the Fargo Forum said $800,000, but I don't know if he has some basis for that estimate or just pulled a number out of the air. From everything I have heard, it would be six digits. I would be sorry to see him leave my tribe, but I understand that sort of money would be hard to pass up for a college student who may or may not be drafted by the NFL. And Gronowski, unlike the many Exercise Science majors in the SEC, is an engineering major. Northwestern has an engineering school.

If all this comes to pass, Lujan and Gronowski may discover that Northwestern is a step down in player talent from this year's South Dakota State team. Bill Connelly of ESPN wrote that SDSU could have won the Big Ten West this year. Sagarin ratings support this claim, indicating SDSU would be eight-point favorites over both Wisconsin and Iowa, and 11 points over Northwestern. Sagarin's final ratings put SDSU at #18 in all of Division 1, ahead of every G5 team and most P5/P4 teams. But Lujan and Gronowski will make a lot more money by leaving South Dakota State, and as a member of a powerful but minor tribe I have to accept that.

It makes me wonder. The schools cannot play the players directly, so (for example) Texas A&M's player NIL "payroll" of $10 million is all privately raised. Many more millions are donated in support of facilities and staff. What sense of satisfaction does someone get from donating large sums of money to a football program, particulary one like A&M that went 7-6 this year? If SDSU called me up and said, "Donate $100 and we can keep Mark Gronowski," I might do it. But $1,000, probably not. I'm not THAT tribal. The beneficiaries for my IRA are my spouse and the Gary Sinise Foundation, a highly-rated charity that supports veterans and first responders. The protectors of all of the tribes that make up the USA need our support more than football players.

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