AP National Writers
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.