Mainstream media outlets offer recapitulations of the year's major achievements and events, with particular emphasis on the disappointing, scandalous, disastrous, curious, and lethal. Laments rise over the commercialization of Christmas, set against a backdrop of sometimes rational debate over the proper separation of church and state. But these concerns pale in comparison to the tragic flaw that fascinates and frustrates coaches and sports commentators, who endlessly carry on at this time of year over the lack of a playoff to determine a champion at the highest level of college football.
A key culprit in this breakdown of civilization is the proliferating series of bowl games that bedeck December and early January. There were only eight bowls in 1953, when the Atlantic Coast Conference began play. There were 18 bowls by 1990. Now there are 28 commercial interludes certified as bowl games. "Simply stated, bowl games are college football," said Keith R. Tribble, chief executive officer of the Orange Bowl Committee, which runs Miami's FedEx Orange Bowl game.
The present plethora of possibilities assures most of the 117 Division I-A teams with a winning record can enjoy a coveted visit to a holiday hotspot such as Boise (MPC Computers Bowl), Charlotte (Continental Tire Bowl), El Paso (Vitalis Sun Bowl), Fort Worth (Plains Capital Fort Worth Bowl), or Mobile (GMAC Bowl). Half a century ago, Virginia turned down a bowl bid because the game interfered with exams. Now options are so numerous, the Cavaliers can take exams and still have time for a winter romp in Idaho.
Bowls are not always the financial bonanza one might think. Given the size of the entourage usually accompanying a competing team (players, coaches, support staff, band, cheerleaders, administrators, and assorted spouses), schools may lose money when receiving a pittance like the $750,000 going to both Wyoming and UCLA for their participation in the Pioneer PureVision Las Vegas Bowl. But the payoff for a bowl appearance isn't strictly monetary. Every game is televised, yielding free advertising that translates into enhanced recruiting and greater booster satisfaction for the programs involved. The extra practices allowed preparatory to bowl play also augment coaching sessions held between early August and Thanksgiving, and then again for a few weeks in the spring for this most glorified of extracurricular activities.
Critics view bowls as vestiges of another era, impediments to a saner method of determining a national champion. Certainly bowls, and the lust for bowl exposure, have long shadowed college football. The Southern Conference once suspended Clemson and Maryland for a year for participating in bowls in defiance of league regulations. The rectitude was short-lived. A few years later, many of the Southern's most censorious members bolted with the transgressors to form the new ACC.
Back then, as now, college presidents worried about the corrupting influence of big-time athletics. Bygone presidents ultimately capitulated. The media horde, and the college athletic establishment, now anxiously lobby for another collapse.
Trends certainly favor further extension of football's reach, if not the reformation of the bowl system. Until the mid-'60s, college teams played 10 games during a regular season. Now they play 11, with some teams allowed a 12th appearance in early, made-for-TV matchups. A recent wrinkle is the conference championship contest, a driving force behind ACC expansion. This additional game for two league schools creates a new source of athletic revenue and exposure for the entire ACC.
The next step in this insatiable progression is a national playoff system. Depending on the format, one or two more games would be required to determine a champion, making the season almost the same length as a professional schedule. College presidents are portrayed as the major impediment to implementing such a system, a fact rarely mentioned in flattering terms.
While waiting for university CEOs to come to their senses, observers are left to work themselves into a frenzy over the formula that determines the standings in the Bowl Championship Series. The BCS is a virtually closed-shop arrangement, masterminded by the ACC, whereby the same conferences that dominate college basketball retain most berths in major bowls and the preponderance of postseason TV revenue.
Beset by complaints of exclusion and collusion, the BCS wriggled off the hook when Utah went undefeated during the 2004 regular season. That gave the Mountain West Conference champion a good excuse to crash the BCS party; the Utes will split an eight-figure payout with Pittsburgh of the Big East, their opponent in the Jan. 1 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
The BCS formula was tweaked this season after complaints that the University of Southern California was unfairly treated last year. The revised formula yielded a title game at the Orange Bowl on Jan. 4 that pits Southern Cal against Oklahoma, last January's championship loser to Louisiana State. The injured party this go-round is Auburn, left out of the title picture despite a 12-0 record in the formidable Southeastern Conference.
Arguments about the formula--launched with far greater fervor than debates over, say, the merits of the underappreciated Electoral College--have lately focused on self-interested voting by coaches participating in the USA Today/ESPN poll. Talk about old news.
Sadly, the terms of BCS discussion rarely venture beyond polls and playing field. Why not link financial incentives to piously repeated claims that college athletics is on the road to reform and devoted to players and their education? Award a bump in the bowl standings to schools that graduate the majority of their players within six years, and another bump to those that have only a minor difference in graduation rates between black and white student-athletes.
Such an emphasis would most benefit Boston College, Notre Dame and Southern Mississippi among this year's bowlers, with ACC members Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech close behind. Conversely, ground would be lost by the 27 bowl participants (of 56) with football graduation rates under 50 percent. Among that group are ACC members Florida State and Georgia Tech, along with Oklahoma and Auburn.
Incorporating an academic component in the BCS formula may sound reasonable, but it will never happen. Talk notwithstanding, those who promote, police and cover college sports infrequently credit the importance of academics in measuring achievement and allocating rewards.
Notre Dame's recent firing of football coach Tyrone Willingham is a case in point. Willingham fielded competitive teams and ran a program in which players comported themselves well in the classroom and on campus. But the coach was canned three years into a five-year contract because the Fighting Irish were not sufficiently competitive, having fallen from the BCS gravy train and the upper echelon of the polls.
Operating in such an environment, if college presidents can collectively stand firm against a football playoff system that lengthens the season and increases the sway of athletics for its own sake, they are to be applauded. Better applaud quickly, however. If history is any guide, steadfast leadership from university administrators is transitory. So savor while you can the caterwauling and hand-wringing that is as much a part of the holidays as Christmas lights, New Year's resolutions and reports on the size of the latest crowd at the mall.