Few people have as diverse a resume and sustained a level of such long-term excellence as Fairfield’s Armen Keteyian. Currently the lead correspondent for Showtime’s 60 Minutes Sports and a contributing correspondent for 60 Minutes, this past fall saw the release of The System, subtitled “The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football,” which he co-authored with Jeff Benedict.
It is a revelatory book about the inner-workings of the sport, taking a look at college football from every imaginable angle, many unseen by the general public.
He was granted unique access to Alabama coach Nick Saban, delved deep into the Ohio State “tattoo-gate” scandal, and gets a former hostess, Lacey Pearl Earps, dubbed “The Closer” by Tennessee coaches, to take readers behind the seedier aspects of the recruiting process.
The book has garnered rave reviews and reached No. 12 on the New York Times’ best-seller list.
Keteyian recently came off a stint as CBS News’ chief investigative correspondent. He has written or co-written nine books and won 11 Emmy Awards.
The Ruden Report recently caught up with Keteyian at his Fairfield home to discuss The System, an obvious source of pride.
The Ruden Report: You have to be pleased by the response to The System.
Armen Keteyian: To me it’s the most gratifying book I’ve ever done because the reviews across the board have been great. It’s selling very well. What’s happening is what we hoped would happen, the word of mouth has been really good. That’s all you can really hope for.
TRR: What was the impetus for writing the book?
AK: College football is clearly in this chaotic, tumultuous period, and we knew there was so much going on. We were in a hotel room in Los Angeles looking at each other and we said we have to do a book about this. This was in October of 2012, and it took us three months to write a proposal. The proposal was the most difficult I had ever done. There was a tremendous amount of reporting just for the proposal.
TRR: The format of the book is unique. How did you decide to break up the many different components the way you did?
AK: Jeff and I were talking and we said who can we get to be the stars in every chapter. We kept thinking of The System as a machine. So we had all these component parts to it. We wanted a head coach, a college recruiter, a school president, a hostess, a tutor, a director of football operations. We cashed in a lot of credibility chips with people to get the access, especially with Nick (Saban) at Alabama. It’s by far the most ambitious — and I’ve done some ambitious work — work I’ve done so far because it had so much reach to it.
TRR: Did you learn anything from the entire process about college football that you didn’t know before?
AK: I have an even greater amount of respect for the student-athletes — and I hate to call them student-athletes because they are athletes-students. I knew they worked, and I knew they worked hard, but my eyes were opened to just how much of a job it really is at the top. For a Division I program, it is 11 months out of a year without question. The pressure they’re under because they’re the commodities. Without them there is no Alabama, Ohio State. Plus they are supposed to be going to school. It was all eye opening. And then the directors of football operations and how valuable they are. Those are the unsung guys of college football.
And the money and the power of television. ESPN has an absolute stranglehold on the playoffs now. One of my favorite chapters is being around those guys. I understand live TV. Chris Fowler, working without a prompter, working without a net and he’s got a circus around him. He’s terrific.
TRR: In many of the interviews promoting the book, you referred to college football as a runaway train. What did you mean?
AK: It’s fueled by money and I’m not sure if the people running college football know where it’s headed. There’s definitely this block of conferences, the big five, that want to operate under their own rules, so to speak, and then there are the have-nots from conferences wanting to get a piece of the playoff action and wanting to have a voice in where college football is headed. There’s so much money powering it and I don’t really know who is in charge, who is in the conductor’s seat. The silence to me is from the college presidents. I haven’t heard one say we have to slow things down.
TRR: College football seems to be at a crossroads. Which direction do you think it is headed?
AK: I’m not sure where it’s headed. I do know it’s headed toward this playoff system and more money pouring into the sport. At this point in time I’m not confident the leaders of college football know where this is going.
TRR: You said you are a proponent of changing the current system in terms of the players having a way to get more spending money without getting, for lack of a better term, a paycheck.
AK: I don’t want to use the word paid, but there has to be a way so they are not searching for spending money. The big programs can afford it because they are making a profit, but the problem is that further separates those that can and those that can’t. Kids who are the heart of the success of top 20 programs deserve everything and more. They should not be paid but get a stipend. If I’m a cellist and I get paid for it, I’m not ineligible to be a cellist anymore. If I am an artist and I sell my painting, that’s OK. If I’m a player on a Saturday afternoon performing for 100,000 people and at the end of that night I can’t afford to act like a normal college student because I don’t have enough money, that’s crazy.
To the credit of the people in the middle of it, they see this wave coming and know it won’t last that much longer until there is an explosion of unrest that will destroy The System because without the players, what have you got? A lot of empty stadiums. I wouldn’t be surprised at some time before one of the playoff games where there’s a job action where the players refuse to take the field. There has to be a way where kids are not searching for spending money.
TRR: The timing of the release of The System, with all that is happening in college football, could not have worked out better for you.
AK: Every week it was ‘Holy cow, I’m glad I’m not writing a book about this season.’ There’s so much stuff going on. I’m fascinated by Penn State, Texas, Bill O’Brien leaving after two years.
TRR: The book is very illuminating to all the many pieces, behind the scenes and in front of the cameras, to what goes into the finished product, the games.
AK: That’s one thing I really learned. I wanted to call the book The System because in the reporting I could see this matrix-like machine happening behind the curtain was so interesting, and if we’ve done anything in this book — and I think we’ve done a lot to open people’s eyes — it’s to what actually goes on to see this product on Saturday afternoon or Saturday night. This is a public service for people to understand you’re part of something much bigger than you thought it was. The players are 18- to 20-years old and they have this big system on their backs, and it can be very beautiful and very ugly at times.
TRR: After all the work that went into this project in a relatively short period of time, you seem like you are ready to relax a little bit and concentrate primarily on your television work with Showtime and CBS.
AK: When the book was finished I felt like I had come out of a crypt, that’s how far down I was. But I couldn’t be happier. I’m doing what I want to be doing. The treadmill has slowed down. I liken it to it being kept turning up, 5.5 to 5.8 to 6.1 to 6.4, and people would just fly off. I have some special projects I’m mulling over that I’m really excited about. I guess if you work hard enough, long enough, you get what you want. Right now I’m in a really good place. Actually I’m just trying to be grateful for what I have and enjoying what I have right now. I used every last bit of gas in my tank to do that book. I’m really proud of the book but I don’t want to do it again anytime soon. I’m as high as I can be right now and I’m going to enjoy the view.