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Defining College Football Economics

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Texas A&M will be the definitive test of college football economic theory

NCAA Football: Texas A&M-Jimbo Fisher Press Conference C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

For at least a decade the agreed wisdom was that programs with resources win games. Resources come in different forms, classic callouts like coaching, facilities, boosters, and the like. With the exception of a few - recruiting territory and fan base enthusiasm come to mind - they all boil down to one thing: money. He who has the most toys wins, and he who spends the most on college football wins.

This understood wisdom has always been of the correlative variety - point at the big name programs that consistently float around the top 10 and say “See, they all spend big money on college football, and they all succeed.” But in this case does correlation imply causation? Do we know that big spending has led to big results for these teams, or is it the other way around? Do these teams have big money to spend because some other inherent advantage has led to their continued success?

Enter Texas A&M University. Since at least 2012, the Aggies have had all of the non-monetary intangibles. Fan base enthusiasm? Check. Recruiting territory? Fertile. Conference affiliation? Nothing but the best, my friend.

Success? Still elusive.

For all of my anti-BIG-BZNS bluster, my general disgust towards this insane wealth spending in the face of greater societal problems is tempered by the fact that I actually do find what A&M is doing this off-season fascinating. Not necessarily because I’m excited about the money we’re shelling out, but the timing of it, the ripeness of the program, and the completeness of the overhaul is possibly unique in college football history.

2018 Texas A&M is the perfect test specimen for the economics of modern college football. All of the non-monetary pieces are in place, and in one Scrooge McDuckian bowl season the Aggies have pooled all of their west Texas oil money into one big piggy bank and bludgeoned the college football coaching world with it. Head Coach Jimbo Fisher landed the richest contract in the history of college football. Defensive Coordinator Mike Elko is now paid more as an assistant coach than 80 current FBS head coaches. The entire Aggie coaching staff will make enough money to warrant the UN recognizing them as a sovereign state.

Of course the standard caveats apply. 2018 will not be The Season Of Results And Big Winning Finally. First-year coaches brought in after disappointing seasons who miraculously turn things around in 8 months are the exception, not the rule (and the ones who do that probably don’t start the season against both Clemson and Alabama). He needs to “install his system”, “get his recruits in place”, “get the team to buy in”, and other cliches.

Year Three seems like an agreed upon time frame in which to see positive results. Maybe not a natty, but consistent upward trending and hopefully double-digit wins. By Year Three the Aggies should know the ROI of this venture. By Year Three the college football world will have a very strong, discrete data point on the graph of money spent vs. wins generated.

Beyond Year Three, well, the goal always has been and always will be championships. Aggie fans wouldn’t settle for mediocrity at $5MM a year, and they certainly won’t at 50% more. Make no mistake, if A&M is not at least flirting with the SEC championship in Year Five, that contract will have the natives restless. So by Year Five the college football world will have another strong data point on the graph of money spent vs. championships won.

Aggie fans have every reason to be excited about the future. Texas A&M has spent big money and expects nothing less than big results. If the Aggies fail, we will look like drunks who put their car keys on the roulette table. If the Aggies win, we will be the ones who determined the exact dollar cost of a championship.