Playing football at Michigan got Joe Holland more than an education.
It got him a job. Two, in fact.
The linebacker on the Wolverines' 1988 Big Ten championship team was hired out of college by a fellow Michigan alum, with his football connections landing him the initial interview. That he'd worn the famed winged helmet caught the eye of his second employer, too.
"The president of this startup was a huge Michigan fan and lived in Ann Arbor and was a good friend of Bo Schembechler. I'm going to potentially go work for these guys and he's a Michigan fan? That didn't hurt me," said Holland, now the co-owner of an Internet software company.
"So yes, it's absolutely been helpful."
The debate over paying college athletes has clouded this entire football season, beginning with allegations in August that 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel received money for signing autographs. Johnny Football was eventually cleared, but the NCAA is still fighting an antitrust lawsuit by former players who believe they're owed billions of dollars in compensation.
At the NCAA's annual convention later this month, restructuring proposals driven, in part, by larger schools wanting more autonomy — including the ability to give athletes stipends — will top the agenda.
"We're not talking about pay for play," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said. "We are talking about the cost of education."
But what, exactly, is a college education worth?
Using public and telephone records and social media, The Associated Press traced 90 players who were listed as seniors on the 1988 teams at four schools — Michigan, SEC co-champion Auburn, Akron and Wake Forest. The 23 — enough for a starting offense and defense — who could be reached by phone were asked if they got their degrees, what role their educations have played in their lives and, looking back 25 years later, whether they think the tradeoff was worth it.
(One player is dead, and another five had names too common to be traced.)
The AP's findings:
— Each of the 23 had earned his diploma.
— All said their educations have played pivotal roles in their lives.
— Though almost all said players should receive increased stipends — enough to get a pizza with friends or take their girlfriend out to dinner, not buy a new Escalade — only two questioned whether the scholarship they got for playing football was a fair tradeoff.
— Only one would make a different choice if given the chance to do it over or would advise his child to take a different path.
"You've got a unique experience that millions of people would die to have. To put on the uniform, to go into the largest stadium in the country and to get a free education," said J.J. Grant, one of Michigan's starting linebackers in 1988 and now a shipping team leader for MillerCoors.
"It's a huge opportunity to put your foot into a door and open a conversation into just about anything you want to do."
For some players, an athletic scholarship was their only means of going to college. Tuition, even at a state school, was too expensive, and that scholarship meant the difference between higher education and a blue-collar job or a career in the military.
More than that, however, were the experiences and contacts their education provided — opportunities that helped shape their adult lives.
For some, college was their first time away from home; one player said he wasn't sure if he'd ever have ventured beyond the state where he grew up otherwise. For others, their status as a college football player gave them entree to a future employer, be it through a direct connection or the affection the large network of alumni and fans have for anyone who wore their favorite team's jersey.
"The first couple years, I knew people who were interested in what I did," said Jim Thompson, an offensive lineman at Auburn. "I write big-truck insurance. It's not like car insurance. It's a specialized market. I don't think playing college football hurt me."
When Tennessee Titans defensive line coach Tracy Rocker got into coaching, he already had a long list of contacts from his days at Auburn, where he was a two-time All-American and the SEC player of the year in 1988. Grant's former Michigan teammates are now a "Who's Who" of athletic administrators, business executives and coaches, San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh among them.
While his friends don't play a pivotal role in his career, they might for his son Derek, a college junior who ultimately wants to get into sports management.
"I've got unique connections that can help him," Grant said. "You've got to use those connections. It comes back to not what you know, it's who you know, and I'm using the hell out of them."
A number of players also said the goal-oriented nature of a football team made them attractive candidates for potential employers, some of whom told them they figured that if a man had enough focus and drive to earn a football scholarship, that work ethic would translate to his next job.
"Certain characteristics that I developed during football ... were lifelong skills," said Alvin Mitchell, who started at outside linebacker for Auburn and is now a minister and a sergeant in the Polk County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. "I still use them every day. Every. Day."
But Shan Morris, who played safety at Auburn, said he's done the math on his scholarship, and it doesn't quite add up.
Yes, athletes get a free education, along with room and board. That's no small thing considering tuition and room and board averaged $17,860 for in-state students at public universities in 2012-13, and $39,518 for students at private schools, according to the College Board.
But even with limits on practice that were imposed in 1991, playing a college sport is the equivalent of having a full-time job. And then some.
"My scholarship was not worth the amount of hours," said Morris, now the principal at his own commercial real estate firm in Atlanta. "We were probably working for somewhere between $3 and $5 when you work it out.
"I could have worked at McDonald's and paid my tuition with the money I got."
Even those who think the tradeoff is fair believe players should be getting more than they do.
When clothing, transportation and other "miscellaneous" expenses are tallied, the difference between the value of a scholarship and the total cost of an education can be as much as $6,000. Athletes already miss out on part of the college experience because of the time commitments their sports demand.
Not having the spending money to take part in the kinds of activities that make college college — parties, dances, the occasional meal off-campus — only deepens the divide.
"I knew several people that were from poverty level families, coming to college. It was almost worse for them," said Shawn Fagan, who was an offensive lineman at Akron. "They got a free education and meals, but they had no money to basically live.
"Back then, I'd get maybe $20 from my parents now and then," Fagan continued. "That's food. But it's not much when you're a young adult trying to have some fun."
Particularly with what the universities are getting in return.
College sports generate about $6.1 billion in revenue each year, according to the latest NCAA research. The broadcast deal for the NCAA basketball tournament alone is worth $10.8 billion over 14 years; the combined deals for the new college football playoff system and other top bowls will bring in another $7 billion over 12 years.
"They're creating the revenue, I definitely think they should be able to reap a little bit the benefit of the rewards," said Brent White, who started at defensive tackle for the Wolverines. "I'm not saying they should be getting paid off like boosters, getting new Mercedes-Benzes to drive around. But it would be nice for them to have enough money to go out and get groceries without having to get it from the training table and bring it home."
A little money in their pockets might help some players avoid the temptation of unscrupulous agents and boosters, too.
"You come from a family that doesn't have anything, someone puts something out there and you can think, 'It'd be easy. Nobody will find out. I'll take this money,'" Fagan said. "That's the reality of life."
The NCAA's Division I Board of Directors approved a rules change in October 2011 that would have given athletes a $2,000 stipend for expenses not covered by their scholarships, only to have it tabled after smaller schools objected.
That irritated the larger schools of the BCS conferences, who are now the driving force in efforts to restructure the NCAA's governance. The big schools — and their conferences — want the power to make decisions on matters that directly affect them, particularly financial issues.
"If we think things are stuck in 1975 for the student-athletes, we'd like to get to the 21st century," Delany said. "And we think connecting the structuring to the needs of the 21st century, consistent with the resources we have, is the right thing to do."