Michael F. Adams, who for years has joined most of his presidential colleagues in opposing a national championship playoff in big-time college football, changed course Tuesday, urging the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its major football-playing powers to tack a four-team playoff on to the end of traditional football bowl season to crown a clearcut title winner.
Interspersing biting criticism of ESPN and commissioners of major sports conferences amid his comments, the University of Georgia president said that the current Bowl Championship System "has lost public confidence and simply does not work." Adams played down a major reason why many college presidents have traditionally opposed such a season-extending playoff -- further intrusion into players' academic work -- by saying that the playoff would "involve only four schools," but said that under his plan, the Division I-A regular season should shrink back to 11 games from the current maximum of 12.
Adams is in a position of significant influence; in addition to presiding over one of the sport's longtime powers, Georgia, he heads the NCAA's executive committee, the association's highest governance body, and is a member of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a sports reform group that has historically opposed the idea of a playoff.
Adams's newfound position came on the day after the conclusion of a football season that was marked by what has become pretty much annual controversy over how a national champion in the NCAA's highest-profile football division is crowned -- and this time, the controversy involved Adams's own institution. Georgia, rated among the nation's top football programs for much of the fall, was left out of the championship game despite finishing the season ranked second. The timing of Adams's change of heart, as Georgia's Southeastern Conference-mate Louisiana State University was basking in the glow of its victory in the BCS Championship Game Monday, drew snickers in some quarters and snipes from others.
"I was disappointed with the timing -- the fact that this story would break today," the SEC's commissioner, Mike Slive (who technically works for Adams and the other SEC presidents), said at a news conference to give the BCS trophy to LSU officials. "This is LSU's day."
An Associated Press football writer, Ralph Russo, wrote: "All of sudden, University of Georgia president Michael Adams wants to blow up the Bowl Championship Series and have the NCAA sponsor an eight-team playoff. Amazing how some people can only see the light after they've been poked in the eye."
For his part, Adams, at a news conference about his plan, acknowledged how the timing looked. “It’d be pretty hard for the president of the University of Georgia to divorce himself from what happens at UGA, to that extent I may plead some level of guilt,” he said. “I think one could make a case for us having been in the national championship game. I think you could make an equally strong case this year for us not having been. That is not what is driving me.”
Rather, in a statement and in a letter to the NCAA's president, Myles Brand, he focused on his accumulating concerns, over a period of years, that "the television networks -- particularly the one that controls the majority of regular season and postseason games" (ESPN) -- "have grown too powerful in deciding who plays and when they play and, indeed, whom they hire to coach. The Bowl Championship Series has become a beauty contest largely stage-managed by the networks, which in turn protect the interests of their own partner conferences."
Adams acknowledged in his statement that he had opposed a playoff for 20 years, largely for academic reasons. But "I believe the time has come for the NCAA to take control of the college football postseason, and in so doing to create a system that our players, coaches, friends and fans can support and appreciate," he said in his letter to Brand. Adams urged the NCAA to appoint a committee of the Division I Board of Directors to consider creating a system in which the winners of the four major bowl games would play two semifinal games and a championship contest over two weekends to determine a champion.
"Like most academic leaders, I regret extending the football season into the second semester," Adams wrote in his letter, which was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which first reported on his playoff plan. "However, only four teams would be involved, and the games would be played before many colleges have reopened. I would favor reducing the permissible number of regular-season games from 12 to 11 to mitigate the physical stress on the athletes involved."
Brand, the NCAA president, told USA Today Tuesday that "[i]t may be an exaggeration of considerable degree to say there’s a groundswell, but I think there is a willingness to discuss [a playoff] now that wasn’t there until recently. I think it will be a difficult discussion – there are commissioners and presidents who feel strongly on both sides of the issue. Maybe the NCAA can be Switzerland here. Maybe we can be the place in which some objectivity and neutrality takes place so the discussions can be had."
Some recent comments by others suggest that the NCAA may be more likely to turn into the Balkans than Switzerland. Conference leaders and many sports officials will be loathe to let the BCS -- which is essentially run by the conference -- cede control of the football championship because they take in many millions of dollars from television deals. Adams's plan would have that money flow to the NCAA instead. Opposition will almost certainly be strongest from the Big Ten and Pacific-10 Conferences, which have long cherished their relationship with the Rose Bowl and fear it will be undermined, and from some college presidents.
"As far as a playoff system, there will not be one," E. Gordon Gee, president of the national runner-up Ohio State University, told reporters last week. "They will wrench a playoff system out of my cold, dead hands. It's too much like moving toward having universities being farm clubs for the pros."
But even within his own conference, peers took shots. "Clearly, President Adams's position is influenced by the success of the UGA football team this past season," John White, president of the University of Arkansas at Fayettevill, wrote in an e-mail to The Morning News, a local newspaper. "I do not believe how one's team performs in a given season should influence the individual's position on this issue."
"I'm disappointed that Dr. Adams appears to be using his position as the SEC representative on the NCAA board of directors to advance a proposal that was discussed by the SEC presidents and chancellors in 2007 and unanimously rejected," White wrote. "To a person, we expressed our support for the current BCS system."