Division I-AA Shows Argument For Playoffs Isn't All Academic

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008

Either Ohio State or Louisiana State will claim the Bowl Championship Series title tonight, a designation drenched in ambiguity no matter who wins. For years, division I-A football officials have opposed the kind of playoff format that would avoid such murkiness, using final exams as part of the reason for favoring the current bowl structure. Players shouldn't have to balance football and academics when both become most demanding, the argument goes.

In December 2005, a handful of spokesmen for the BCS testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce with respect to college football's postseason, and each argued that exams made the bowls a better alternative to a playoff.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany wrote in a prepared statement: "If, as some of our critics have charged, college football has strayed too far from the original model envisioned for amateur athletics in the academic tradition, then we hardly hasten a return to that model by expanding the Division I-A post-season to a multi-game, NFL-style playoff format."

And yet, division I-AA players do it every season. Kenneth Peacock, the chancellor at three-time defending I-AA champion Appalachian State, meets annually with the presidents from his league, the Southern Conference. The topic of football distracting from academics -- or vice versa -- has never been brought up. "It's never been an issue," he said.

Division I-AA finalists Delaware and Appalachian State played 15 games last season -- 11 regular season and four playoff games. Moreover, the postseason in other sports forces athletes to balance class and games. The NCAA men's basketball tournament, the most lucrative event conducted by the NCAA, runs throughout March and keeps players out of classrooms for weeks in some cases because of games and travel. The NCAA baseball tournament forces a similar amount of classes to be missed.

"It's doable," said Charlie Cobb, the athletic director at Appalachian State, which defeated division I-A Michigan this season. "People always ask me which system I would choose because of my experience [as the North Carolina State athletic director for seven years]. I prefer the playoff system. There are good arguments for the bowls, but [the academic] argument is sort of nonsense."

Those who voice it often feel otherwise.

"How much do you affect an academic schedule by changing a system into a complete playoff system?" LSU Coach Les Miles said. "That's the issue. When you play at this level, you cannot play 16, 18 games and feel like you can prepare a college student."

Road Tests

Appalachian State has attempted to strike an academic-athletic balance though a combination of time management by players and campus-wide cooperation among faculty. That has forced a few arrangements that would make some purists uneasy.

Two days before they beat Delaware for their third straight title, Corey Lynch and 30 of his Mountaineers teammates ambled into a ballroom on the first floor of a Chattanooga Sheraton, still bleary-eyed from the previous night's late bus ride from Boone, N.C.

For the next two hours, the Bessie Smith Room would serve as an academic testing site. A white sheet of paper, affixed to both entrances with Scotch tape, read "QUIET PLEASE EXAMS."

At the front of the room, Alan J. Hauser, a biblical studies professor and faculty representative, and Kim Sherrill, a member of Appalachian State's academic services for athletes, sat behind a table covered with manila envelopes, pencils, calculators and green slips of paper with the heading: "Integrity Agreement for the accommodation of Alternate Testing through the Office of Academic Services for Athletes."

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