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Gruden Returns, UCF Campaigns, CFP Championship Kicks Off Tonight

The biggest story in sports right now—with apologies to tonight’s college football championship game—is the Raiders’ re-hiring of Jon Gruden. The former Oakland and Tampa Bay head coach, most recently an analyst for ESPN, will be returning to the Silver and Black with a reported 10-year contract worth approximately $10 million per year. A press conference is scheduled for tomorrow.

Several thoughts:

The Raiders have taken some heat for apparently deciding to re-hire Gruden before interviewing any minority candidates, as required by the NFL’s “Rooney Rule.” There’s no doubt that, along with Bill Walsh’s under-publicized and highly-successful efforts to train and promote minority coaches, the Rooney Rule has had an impact on opening up opportunities. Even if the interviews haven’t always resulted in jobs, they’ve at least identified candidates and advanced the careers of the coaches who’ve participated. So this is a legitimate concern.

But frankly, it’s hard to criticize the Raiders. The Raiders are the team that made Art Shell the first black coach of the modern era and Tom Flores the second Latino head coach in NFL history. Their record in this area is the best in professional football.

In terms of Gruden, and how he will do, we have mixed feelings. We’ve never been an advocate of re-cycling old coaches, particularly those who’ve been to the top of the mountain (the Super Bowl) and then moved on to broadcasting. Usually, they simply don’t have enough fire left in their belly to compete with younger coaches still trying to make their marks. That’s one of the risks involved in hiring Gruden.

However, as anyone knows who’s watched his ESPN broadcasts or his “QB Camp,” Gruden is a special case. Unlike a lot of the ex-coaches who go into broadcasting—cheerleaders who mouth a lot of platitudes, are reluctant to criticize, seem somewhat out of touch, and generally focus on motivation and locker room dynamics—Gruden is a master of strategy who still seems excited about coaching and on top of his game.

There’s also the question of whether he'll be able to re-adapt to the long hours and demands of coaching after having a cushy TV job. On the other hand, the maturity and perspective gained from being out of coaching for awhile might actually help Gruden—a man who used to wake up at 3:17 and work around the clock—become a better delegator and manager.

Whatever happens, it will be fascinating to watch. Of particular interest will be how Gruden’s arrival will affect quarterback Derek Carr, seen as a superstar last year but a major disappointment this season.

Salary insanity: According to our NFL sources, Gruden will become the fifth NFL coach making $10 million or more, joining New England’s Bill Belichick, Seattle’s Pete Carroll, Kansas City’s Andy Reid and New Orleans’ Sean Payton. This may seem crazy to anyone outside of sports and entertainment, but in our mind, the real insanity is taking place in college football. As noted earlier, according to the annual USA Today survey, 39 college head coaches made $3 million or more this year.

In the latest, perhaps most insane development yet, last week LSU signed defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to a four-year deal for $10 million. That's not a typo. $2.5 million per year for an assistant coach.

Is it any wonder that many college athletes think they should be paid?

UCF national champions? After completing a 13-0 season and becoming the only undefeated team in college football, the University of Central Florida has staked its claim to the national championship, complete with a parade and bonuses to the coaching staff.

The Knights won't be the recognized champ...that designation belongs to the winner of tonight’s College Football Playoff Championship game. But their claim isn't as frivolous as it might seem.

Consider the fact that UCF beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl last week. Auburn, you might recall, beat both of the teams in the CFP championship game, destroying Georgia 40-17 and dumping Alabama 26-14 in a game that wasn't as close as the score might indicate. With their 34-27 win over Auburn, the Knights established themselves as a team that should've been in a playoff.

Speaking of which, the combination of UCF's win over Auburn, the absence of Big Ten and Pac-12 teams from the playoff, and the presence of two SEC teams in the CFP Championship Game will hasten the arrival of an eight-team playoff, something we've believed has been inevitable since day one. The change will most likely take place when the current agreement expires in 2026, but some may push for the expansion as soon as the second rotation of the semi-finals through all six New Year's Day Bowls has been completed, in 2020.

Crystal Ball: But we’re not there yet, and tonight we have the culmination of this year’s four-team playoff. One of the reasons we all love college football is because of its unpredictability. Games played by 20-year olds—whose performances in a given game might be affected by a fight with their girlfriend, a bad grade on a test (for those who actually attend class) or a missed curfew.

So it’s never easy to predict the outcome of any college game, much less the national championship. With that caveat, we’ll take a shot.

Over the years Alabama coach Nick Saban has done very well against his former assistants, but we like Georgia’s Kirby Smart to beat his mentor in tonight’s game. The Bulldogs have one of the best running back duos in the history of college football in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Between them, Chubb and Michel have rushed for over 8,000 yards and 77 touchdowns at Georgia. The Bulldogs also have a stout defense and a freshman quarterback, Jake Fromm, who is mature beyond his years. Call it Georgia 24, Alabama 20.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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