The season begins in earnest this weekend, but most of the big players won’t be wearing helmets or shoulder pads. They are the coaches on the sideline, the commissioners and executives in their private luxury boxes.
College football is run by the men who control the money and make the most of it. Here are The Post’s 20 most influential people in the sport:
1. Greg Sankey
The SEC commissioner and chairman of the NCAA infractions committee has been in charge of college football’s most powerful conference for the past five years. He began building a massive network of relationships upon joining the league in 2002 and is one of the sport’s most well-liked and respected officials. The SEC is still king in college football, and Sankey is its most important voice.
2. Jimmy Pitaro
Becoming ESPN’s president in March 2018 — following John Skipper’s resignation — Pitaro holds the sport’s most important games in his hands. With seven years remaining on the $7.2 billion deal the network signed for the rights to the first 12 years of the College Football Playoff, the four-team field won’t be altered before 2026, unless ESPN benefits.
3. Nick Saban
The architect of the greatest dynasty in college football history — an unprecedented five national championships in a nine-year span at Alabama — Saban is tied with Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most national championships all time (six). He creates a staggering number of headlines with his thoughts on the state and future of the game, and is considered by many to already be the greatest coach of all time.
4. Mark Emmert
The NCAA president since 2010, Emmert has withstood several scandals — from the Penn State and Baylor sexual assault cases to FBI investigation into college basketball — and held off the push so far to financially compensate student-athletes. The move to a playoff doesn’t happen without his blessing, and expanding it won’t, either.
5. Bill Hancock
The former head of the BCS remains the only executive director the College Football Playoff has had since being introduced five years ago. Though Hancock largely takes his cues from conference commissioners and school presidents, he successfully oversaw the transition and implementation of the long-awaited playoff and has already been part of discussions for potential expansion.
6. Bob Bowlsby
Entering his seventh year as Big 12 commissioner, Bowlsby created a conference championship last year to help the league earn greater playoff consideration. Like many higher-ups in the sport, Bowlsby isn’t fond of all the player movement, believing all transfers should have to sit out a year.
7. John Swofford
The ACC’s longest-tenured commissioner, Swofford formed the mega-conference through realignment, adding the likes of Syracuse, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech, as well as Notre Dame in basketball. He launched the ACC Network this year and was integral in the creation of the playoff, saying that expanding the playoff to eight teams would be “ideal.”
8. Larry Scott
Scott has been feeling heat, as the Pac-12 Network struggles and the beaten-down conference hasn’t sent a team into the playoff three of the past four years.
9. Mark Parker
Nike remains the behemoth in college football among apparel companies, outfitting virtually all the powers, from Alabama and Clemson to Georgia and Oklahoma. Parker — Phil Knight’s replacement — is the head of Nike, giving him ample clout.
10. Kevin Plank
Nike still sets the pace, but Plank — the founder of Under Armour — has the once-unchallenged king of athletic apparel constantly looking over its shoulder. A former Maryland football player now worth more than $2 billion, Plank has built one of the most popular brands among college-age athletes, and it is worn by dozens of schools, including Notre Dame.
11. Jimmy Sexton
The most powerful agent in college football represents head coaches such as Saban, Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher, Gus Malzahn, Dan Mullen, Willie Taggart and Lane Kiffin. Sexton also has numerous NFL clients and relationships and has the ability to shake up the college and professional game every offseason.
12. Dabo Swinney
The loose, aw-shucks native Alabamian has changed everything about Clemson, turning a program known for collapsing — or “Clemsoning” — into a national power on equal footing with Alabama, claiming two national titles in the past three years.
13. Tom Mars
The lawyer who represented Justin Fields in his successful waiver case now has a new calling. He’s now part of the NCAA’s newly formed Complex Case Unit, a group of outside investigators teaming with NCAA enforcement staff to look into potential violations.
14. Trevor Lawrence
Currently, student-athletes have little to no power. But Lawrence is already the biggest name in the sport and the biggest prospect in years, winning the national championship as a true freshman quarterback. Lawrence likely will be the focus of the nation for the next two years, with the power to voice student-athlete and amateurism issues louder than anyone.
15. Jim Delany
Once the most influential in the sport, Delany’s reign as Big Ten commissioner comes to an end after this year, following three decades. Don’t think he won’t be heard from as he walks out the door, especially if his conference is left out of the playoff for the third straight season.
16. Paul Finebaum
The authority on the sport’s most important region — the Southeast — has become one of ESPN’s most recognizable faces. The former sports reporter and columnist built his following by syndicating The Paul Finebaum Radio Network across the region, and is now acknowledged as one of the most popular and respected voices in the game.
17. Kirk Herbstreit
The former Ohio State quarterback’s greatest contribution to college football came long after he took off his pads. Herbstreit, 50, spends Saturday mornings as a staple on the most popular college football pregame show in the nation — ESPN’s “College GameDay,” alongside Lee Corso, Rece Davis and Desmond Howard — and spends Saturday nights working as an analyst for the week’s biggest game, alongside Chris Fowler, with whom Herbstreit also calls the national championship game.
18. Jeffrey Kessler
The famed sports labor attorney is taking on the NCAA in an ongoing class-action antitrust case on behalf of college football — and basketball — players seeking to eliminate restrictions on compensating college athletes.
19. Jack Swarbrick
The longtime lawyer who serves as director of athletics at Notre Dame nearly became NCAA president in 2002 after playing a major role in the organization relocating to Indianapolis. Now, working at his alma mater since 2008, Swarbrick, 65, leads one of the most valuable brands in college football.
20. Gavin Newsom
The governor of California could soon play a huge role in allowing student-athletes to make money without losing their eligibility. In May, the California State Senate approved a bill known as “The Fair Pay to Play Act,” which would allow college players attending California schools to profit from the use of their name and likeness, without losing their scholarships, while also allowing the athletes to hire an agent or attorney in business dealings. If the bill passes the California legislature, Newsom will simply need to sign it into law, putting it into effect beginning Jan. 1, 2023.
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