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It's a Playoff

June 27, 2012

WASHINGTON -- A dozen university presidents whose approval was the final major barrier to a college football playoff gave their endorsement here Tuesday night, after a quicker-than-expected three-hour meeting, months of preparations by conference commissioners, and years of anticipation among many fans of the sport. The approval was, in effect, the last step in the melting away of longstanding presidential opposition to a playoff.

The playoff replaces the old Bowl Championship Series beginning with the 2014-15 season, although under the new, 12-year structure, six of those ever-so-lucrative bowl games -- which used to be tied to individual conferences -- will remain intact. The two semifinal teams will rotate among them, and the other four will be lucrative opportunities for strong teams that didn't make the semifinals. The semifinal winners will move on to compete in a national championship game, whose location will go to the highest bidding city, the same way the NFL determines the Super Bowl site.

"It's a best-of-both-worlds result," said Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger, who heads the presidential committee that approved the playoff. The new system preserves the bowl games and importance of regular season performance, while improving the integrity of the postseason with a more reliable selection tool. My fellow presidents here -- there's not a shrinking violet on this platform. There was a lot of really good discussion, there were differences of views, there were very well-articulated positions that were thought through thoroughly. And I think it would be a pretty serious mistake to say it was a rubber stamp."

Details of the playoff structure had already been widely reported, and the presidents were expected to approve the plan. But after reporters were told the meeting could run a full seven hours, well into the night, a conclusion after just three hours was surprising.

But not everyone found the result ideal. University of Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman has opposed a four-team structure from the beginning, preferring a "plus-one" model, in which the championship game competitors would be selected from the winners of the bowl games. "I'm proof that we had a good conversation in the room," Perlman told reporters after the meeting. "The Big Ten presidents had three possible formats.... We got our third priority, but there were a lot of smart people in the room, and this is the package that's put together, and we will strongly support it."

"Where we've arrived, I think," Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John D. Swofford said, "is a consensus built on compromise."

Another major news item to come out of the meeting is the creation of a selection committee to replace the controversial BCS system in determining who will go to the national championship. The latter was a complicated mathematical formula combined with polls of coaches and sportswriters. The selection committee will rank the teams to compete in the playoff, "giving all the teams an equal opportunity to participate," and consider win-loss record, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, and whether a team is a conference champion. The committee's membership has yet to be determined.

While the 12 commissioners of Football Bowl Series conferences developed the plan over six official meetings in as many months, and then presented their recommendation to the presidents Tuesday, the final say was always left to those men who make up the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee: Scott Cowen of Tulane University, Rev. John Jenkins of the University of Notre Dame, Bernie Machen of the University of Florida, Max Nikias of the University of Southern California, Duane Nellis of the University of Idaho, Perlman of Nebraska, John G. Peters of Northern Illinois University, William Powers Jr. of the University of Texas at Austin, James Ramsey of the University of Louisville, Gary Ransdell of Western Kentucky University, Steger of Virginia Tech, and John Welty of California State University at Fresno.

The presidents still have to nail down a slew of other details, including who can play in those non-playoff bowl games and how the revenue is distributed -- the latter of which is, for some university presidents, the key question.

Thanks to multimillion-dollar television contracts, the BCS is, as the playoff will be, extremely lucrative for the conferences and football programs that make it to the postseason. (Revenue estimates run from $600 million to $1.5 billion.) But some presidents, as well as the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, have urged the committee to use the transition to a playoff to make a statement.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and co-chair of the Knight Commission, has argued that rather than postseason revenue going to the institutions and conferences with the strongest football programs, it should be directed to those with the highest graduation rates.

"This really is a moment of opportunity for moving back in the direction of the priorities we all claim to hold when it comes to intercollegiate athletics," Kirwan told Inside Higher Ed last month. "It's really going to push us further toward the precipice if we just do business as usual."

The presidents said in a statement Tuesday that revenue distribution "remains under discussion. Generally speaking," they said, "the concept would (1) reward conferences for success on the field, (2) accommodate teams' expenses, (3) acknowledge marketplace factors, and (4) reward academic performance of student-athletes."

Other presidents and commissioners leading up to the decision had worried about how a playoff could affect students' health and academic well-being. More games might mean a longer calendar and less time to focus on exams, not to mention more opportunities for head trauma at a time when concern about its effects are at an all-time high. The season now runs from August through January.

It became clear Tuesday that a playoff will mean a slightly extended season. While the semifinal games will be played New Year's Eve or New Year's Day, the championship will be played the first Monday in January that is at least six days after the last semifinal game. That means the first championship under the playoff will fall on Jan. 12 in 2015 -- five days later than it falls in the next two years.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed last month, Perlman warned that a four-team setup could be "the start of a slippery slope." The National Collegiate Athletic Association's postseason tournament in men's basketball, dubbed March Madness, bloated from eight teams at its 1938 inception to 68 today.

"I don't think anybody is naïve enough to think that if we go to a four-team playoff that there's no pressure to go to a broader set of playoff games," Perlman said.

However, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive said Tuesday that the committee's decision to eliminate the 16- and 8-team formats it had initially considered indicated the presidents' belief that four teams and four teams alone is enough. "We have thought a lot about this," he said.

Still others have lamented the lack of leadership from the NCAA because they'd hoped it would prioritize things other than money. But because the BCS is independent from the NCAA, the association's president, Mark Emmert, has declined to comment beyond saying that if NCAA institutions decided they wanted a playoff, the association would be there to assist. (There is no formal role for the NCAA under the new system.)

The National College Players Association, an athletes' advocacy group, issued a statement before the meeting supporting the four-team playoff, calling it "by far the most fair and sporting way to determine a champion." But the advocacy group urged the oversight committee and the NCAA not to overlook the athletes as the playoff structure takes shape.

"No one cherishes the game more than the athletes themselves, which is why we are working diligently to provide a voice for their education, wellness and careers in order to protect the game's essence," NCPA President Ramogi Huma said in the statement. "This proposed move to a playoff means growth.... From right-sizing scholarships, degree completion, injury prevention and adequate care for sports-related injuries, the opportunities for collaboration between the NCAA and the NCPA are manifold. The sport cannot continue to leave the players on the sidelines of these issues."

The 2012 season starts in 65 days.

 

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