Mac Engel

Dallas Cowboys legend: NCAA is not minor league football. But should it be?

Among the approximately 4.5 trillion complaints and accusations against the hypocrites who run the NCAA is that college football is a de facto minor league for the NFL.

Unlike the other three major sports, NCAA football essentially allows the NFL to avoid incurring typical player developmental costs.

A former Dallas Cowboy, who won Super Bowls after a four-year career at Syracuse and earned his degree, does not buy this at all.

“I’ve heard that the NCAA is the ‘minor league feeder’ program to the NFL. I completely disagree with that,” former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl “Moose” Johnston recently told me in an interview. “The guys who are going to the NFL are not ready to play at the NFL level at all. When these guys are in college they do not have the time. They have not come close to perfecting their craft.

“There are critical positions where they need more time. They need more snaps. They need more practice.”

Moose, who has served as a football NFL color analyst on Fox for years, recently accepted a gig as director of player personnel for the XFL franchise in Dallas, which will begin play in 2020 and play its home games at Globe Life Park in Arlington.

The college football season begins in approximately two months, which gives us ample time to prepare for the moral outrage at a system that “exploits free labor in return for universities to make billions.” #AngryFaceEmoji #ImSoMad #LoudNoises

The system is flawed, and it is the closest thing that exists to an actual minor leagues for pro football. But Moose’s larger point is correct: The NCAA is not a true minor league, and the sport’s developmental system is well behind hockey, football and basketball.


In season, per NCAA rules, a college football player can spend no more than 20 hours a week on athletic activities.

Now, if you ask any coach, player or administrator, they will all tell you that the kid is spending well over 20 hours a week on athletic activities; the intention is to keep the hours spent on ball at a reasonable number.

Then there is the silly little issue of attending class and homework as well as those trivial matters such as sleeping, eating and, God forbid, socializing.

That is not a minor league.

A minor league is a player whose entire focus is the game. A player who spends well over 40 hours a week on nothing but ball. College football ain’t that.

Baseball has had such a system in place for decades, the same for hockey. The NBA has actually made traction with the G League, as every franchise now has its own minor league developmental team.

The NFL, however ...

“The jump from college football to the NFL is massive. The jump from high school to college is big; it was for me because I came from a small town but the jump from college to the NFL ... it’s just that everybody is so good,” Johnston said. “We were a good college team, and we could watch film and see, ‘Here are two areas where they cannot stop us,’ and we could exploit them because you’re just better.

“You get to the NFL, and you are not ‘just better.’ It comes down to technique, fundamentals and execution. The guys coming out of college have not perfected their game. They are so restricted in practice time and from being around coaches. Now in the NFL, they are even more restricted from time around coaches (because of the collective bargaining agreement); they are taking the situation at the college level and duplicating it at the pro level.”


Johnston’s hope is that the XFL morphs into a de facto minor leagues for players, and not an alternative to college ball. He was involved in the failed American Alliance of Football that crashed this spring; pro spring ball has done nothing but fail.

Outside of the NCAA, any type of developmental football, or “minor league football” has failed.

XFL commissioner Oliver Luck said that had the USFL, which existed from 1983 to 1985, maintained its model as a spring league that today it would be a viable business with stable franchises. Once the USFL, at the behest of Donald J. Trump, sued the NFL in court and challenged it with a fall schedule, it suffered an embarrassing death.

The NFL tried NFL Europe, and parts of it worked to development players, coaches, broadcasters, officials and front office people. It had flaws, and after 16 years NFL owners were tired of losing tens of millions on the ambitious plan so it died, too.

Johnston’s hope is that XFL simply acts as a potential bridge to the NFL. With the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement expiring after the 2020 season, there is a good chance NFL players will use the XFL in the spring of 2021 to play, and to earn a check.

He does not want to see it as an option to college ball; Luck told me that only in select cases would the XFL be willing to accept players who are not three years out of high school.

“I don’t want this to be an alternative to college football,” Johnston said. “I want this to be complimentary. It can function as a minor league, and a bridge. It’s an opportunity for more practice. It’s an opportunity for game reps.”

Maybe this model will work, and until it does the most popular sport in America is without a true minor league.

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