KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The mercurial state of college football could be summed up by listening to Big 12 coaches respond to questions Monday as spring practices draw to a close.
What was once an opportunity to discuss X's and O's, the hotshot freshman or a new starting quarterback instead became a discussion of whether players are employees, the perils and merits of transfers, and the money associated with the new format for college football's playoff.
Perhaps nobody in the Big 12 is better able to characterize the changes to the game than Bill Snyder, who took over at Kansas State in 1988 and has been witness to the shifting landscape.
Take the issue of whether players are university employees, a hot-button issue after players at Northwestern sought to form a union. A regional director for the National Labor Relations Board has said that they meet the definition of employees under federal law. The university has filed an appeal, saying it provided "overwhelming evidence" that players are "students first."
Players are set to vote by secret ballot Friday on whether to form a union.
"I haven't thought about it that way," Snyder said. "I consider them to be young men going through a stage in their life where they're trying to formulate a foundation to be successful in life. I don't see it any other way right now."
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoop was even more succinct: "If they're employees," he argued, "I guess you get to fire them, and I never want to do that to a young man."
"I look at them as part of our family in a way," Stoops said, "and that we're here to support them and help them in every way possible, and help guide them and help them get their education and develop them to be as good of athletes as they want to be."
One of the arguments made by players in support of becoming employees, and thus getting paid for playing, is the significant time demands of big-time college football. It is no longer enough to put in practice time and film study during the season. Rather, the game has become a year-round endeavor, and players often put in longer hours during spring and summer workouts.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy recalls his offseason in the 1980s, when he was a quarterback for the Cowboys. There were still offseason workouts, but mostly "we hung out at the pool."
"We didn't have near the time commitment these guys have. They put in tremendous work," Gundy said. "It's a choice they make. They go out on their own in the summer, they put their time in. I think it's a great teaching tool for them in life. You're only going to get out what you put into something, and these guys learn about discipline, structure and accountability."
Naturally, when players are investing most of their free time, they want to see results. And that has led to an increase in the number of transfers in recent years.
Kansas coach Charlie Weis, who has accepted several high-profile transfers since his arrival in Lawrence, said it is not enough for players to engage in a "fire drill" simply because of their place on the depth chart. But he believes the NCAA should give players the freedom to move between schools when there's been a change in coaching staff or philosophy.
"I think that every situation is unique," Weis said.
As for the new playoff format, which has replaced the long-derided Bowl Championship Series, most coaches said they don't believe it will change the way they operate. The Big 12 is generally among the toughest conferences in the country, and Gundy and others believe that winning it will usually be enough to land among the four teams chosen for the new semifinals.
Asked whether his non-conference scheduling will change, Gundy replied: "That debate could go on forever, based on what you please preseason-wise or whatnot."
Gundy did say he believes the four-team arrangement will be short-lived once its stakeholders realize how much money could be made by expanding the playoff to eight teams.
"I think the stock market in college football is going through the roof," he said. "Four teams is going to draw more interest, and eventually it will go to eight because of the benefits and revenue that comes from the market for college football."