College postseason future still cloudy


Published: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

New York Times

LOS ANGELES — College football's bowl system has existed for more than a century, and its inability to consistently determine a definitive national champion has created controversy for almost as long.

The Bowl Championship Series is only the latest attempt to guarantee a true national champion. It grew from the bowl alliance when the Big Ten and Pacific 10 Conferences, along with the Rose Bowl, agreed to take part in 1998. Yet this season there is a debate about Florida, which improbably leaped past Michigan into the No. 2 spot in the BCS rankings to secure a meeting with No. 1 Ohio State in the title game on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.

Despite pleas from fans, coaches and the news media, Division I-A football is nowhere near instituting a postseason like the NCAA basketball tournament or the NFL playoffs. The idea is rarely the subject of formal discussions by those who essentially make the decisions: the 11 Division I-A conference commissioners and Kevin White, Notre Dame's athletic director. They all see a need to protect the interests of the conferences, bowl organizations, college administrators and athletic directors, and the integrity of the regular season.

The New York Times surveyed those 12 men, as well as several university presidents and athletic directors, to get a sense of where college football's postseason is headed. Here is what the survey found.

· The likely next step is the so-called Plus One model. It is similar to the current system except that it would determine the participants in the national championship game after the five major bowls were played. The Plus One will be scrutinized in the next 18 to 24 months, which would allow enough time for it to take effect when the current BCS television deal with Fox ends in 2010.

· College presidents and chancellors, who present the biggest opposition to any type of playoff, have not embraced the Plus One concept. Most of the commissioners and White are open to discussing it; the Big Ten and the Pac-10 are the only staunch opponents.

· Another big obstacle is the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten and the Pac-10 are unwilling to jeopardize their longstanding relationship with the Rose Bowl, which has a separate television deal with ABC through 2014.

· Some leaders in college football are concerned that individual and conference interests have taken precedence over the big picture, as their sport competes with the NFL, the N.B.A. and NASCAR for entertainment dollars. "What's the long-term plan to grow college football — the five-year, 10-year, 20-year plan?" said Britton Banowsky, the commissioner of Conference USA. "What's the plan that thinks above the provincial view?"

· The bowl system is not a financial boon, compared with the potential yield of a playoff. Although the bowls have poured hundreds of millions into college coffers, teams have turned down multibillion-dollar offers for a tournament-style postseason. In the most recent television negotiation, the Plus One model would have been worth an extra $40 million.

Jim Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, considers the Plus One the first step toward a playoff system. But he said he worried that emphasizing the postseason would devalue the regular season and hurt established and successful leagues like his. Likewise, the Big Ten presidents are "almost unanimously" against a playoff, said Graham Spanier, the president of Penn State.

Delany and Dave Frohnmayer, Oregon's president and chairman of the BCS presidential oversight committee, said that the Big Ten and the Pac-10 would prefer to return to the old bowl system — which had no mechanism for matching No. 1 vs. No. 2 — rather than have a playoff.

The BCS matches the top two teams in a title game that rotates among the Sugar, Orange, Fiesta and Rose bowls. This season, the so-called double-hosting model makes its debut, with the Fiesta Bowl encompassing two games, including the national championship.

"We were very reluctant to go to the current structure," said Tom Hansen, the Pac-10 commissioner, adding that there was still resistance to the fact that a Big Ten team does not play a Pac-10 team in the Rose Bowl every year. "But we did because it was in the best interest of college football."

Delany said the Big Ten's reluctance to change was so strong, there was only a 5 percent chance that Plus One would be part of the next iteration of the BCS, beginning in 2011. Bill Martin, the Michigan athletic director, said he thought the chances were better than 50 percent.

Southern California's Pete Carroll and Michigan's Lloyd Carr, the coaches in Monday's Rose Bowl, are vocal advocates of a playoff. Carroll said: "We love the Rose Bowl, but we would love to have a playoff. So I don't know how you do that. I have no idea."

Differing opinions underscore the absence of central leadership in college football. Nick Carparelli Jr., the Big East's associate commissioner, said: "Everyone is protecting their place in the college football world. There's no person or entity looking over college football. It's every conference's job to look out for their own best interest."

About the only point the 11 BCS commissioners and Notre Dame's White agreed upon was that bowl games were here to stay.

"We would never do anything to destroy the bowl system," said Mike Tranghese, the Big East commissioner and former BCS coordinator.

But the system does have problems, beginning with weeks of worry about whether the right teams will be matched in the championship game. Mike Slive, the SEC commissioner and BCS coordinator, referred to it as "an annual nervousness." Jim Livengood, the Arizona athletic director, called it a "rainy cloud hanging over November."

Tranghese said: "The controversy is debilitating and wearing. You get tired of it all."

Ultimately, the officials said, the best chance for change will have to come from an effort among the college presidents.

J. Bernard Machen, Florida's president, and his Florida State counterpart, T.K. Wetherell, met at halftime of their game this year to discuss movement toward a playoff system. Machen, who said he would like to see it run by the NCAA and have the BCS cease to exist, said that a playoff was inevitable. University presidents who consider the current system competent are in denial, he said. He especially did not agree with the argument that a playoff would be detrimental to education.

"If you're really serious about that argument, look at baseball," Machen said. "The graduation rates are some of the most tenuous of all sports, and we're not doing anything about that. There's a whole host of examples we're ignoring on the academic side."

When Machen went public with his thoughts this month, he said, he received more than a thousand e-mail messages of support. When asked if any other university presidents were among them, he chuckled and said no.

Machen said he was going to push the issue when the SEC presidents meet in March, and he said Slive had added a playoff item to the agenda. That in itself is a big step.

"First and foremost is even allowing it to be talked about," said Arizona's Livengood, who is part of the BCS athletic directors advisory group. "Something has to be out there for a chance to go forward so we can have meaningful discussion."

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