By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
If you're an ordinary college football fan and your team gets passed over for a national championship game, you probably hurl a few choice words at the Bowl Championship Series, the group that sets the bowl pairings.
But Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah is no ordinary college football fan. When his University of Utah Utes were denied a chance to play in last season's championship game, despite an undefeated record, Hatch, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, ordered up a congressional hearing.
"The University of Utah finished the season by routing a team that had been ranked number one for much of the season," Hatch informed the hearing room, packed with young male staffers, in his opening statement. "It's hard to imagine what more Utah could have done with its season in search of a national championship, yet under the BCS system, they were eliminated from such consideration before the season even started."
The senator turned his indignation on one of his witnesses, University of Nebraska at Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman, a fan of the BCS system. "Let's take last year's Utah team," Hatch said. "What more could they have done to play their way into a national championship game?"
"Senator," Perlman replied, "it's hard to respond to this without appearing to be disrespectful of Utah."
"And you don't want to be, in this room," Hatch told the witness.
Perlman offered his haughty answer: "They could've played the schedule Nebraska played last year."
"Well," Hatch argued, "they played a lot of big-time teams."
Perlman offered pity for the spurned Utes. "That's the way the world is, I'm afraid," he said.
Hatch, denied a championship shot for his team, instead created a matchup of his own in the Judiciary Committee hearing room: a grudge match between the leaders of the University of Nebraska (who supports the BCS) and the University of Utah (who opposes it). Hatch, from his prime seat on the 50-yard line, cheered on his team and badgered the opposition.
In theory, an antitrust case could be made that the six athletic conferences that dominate the BCS have an unfair advantage over the five other conferences, which are not traditional football powerhouses. But the argument has been largely confined to bars and sports pages, because nobody seems terribly eager to fight it out in court.
Few in the Senate shared Hatch's enthusiasm for taking on the BCS. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y) took his seat 47 minutes into the hearing, then left three minutes later without saying a word. The only other senator to participate, antitrust subcommittee Chairman Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), left after the opening statements and allowed the Republican Hatch to chair the hearing.
"I, myself, of course, am a Badger fan and a fan of the Big 10," Kohl said at the start, associating himself with the University of Wisconsin at Madison and dissociating himself, for the record, with Hatch's anti-BCS sentiments. "Today's hearing was called at the request of Senator Orrin Hatch . . . who will chair and conduct this hearing."
And so Hatch did, for nearly two hours, enjoying the rare chance for a member of the minority party to lead a hearing. For good measure, he had the panelists -- the university chiefs and a pair of antitrust lawyers -- stand to take an oath.
Hatch portrayed the BCS spat as a civil rights issue, describing the big conferences as "preferred" and "privileged" and the others as "non-privileged." Michael Young, of the University of Utah, picked up the theme, calling the second-tier conferences a "permanent underclass" on the gridiron. "In 2008, Mountain West champion Utah was ranked far ahead of the ACC and Big East champions," he testified, yet the conference received less BCS money.
Nebraska's Perlman was dismissive of the lowly Utes. "You would not predict that the University of Nebraska would've enjoyed the success we have had on the football field," he said. "We labored long in the obscurity of losing seasons. But we sustained a loyal fan base, we hired and retained gifted coaches who were skilled at recruiting student athletes."
Hatch spoke up for his beloved squad. "The team that finished at the bottom of the Pac-10, which didn't win a single game last year, was guaranteed, before the season even started, to receive more BCS revenues than the University of Utah, I think the one school which finished the season as the only undefeated team in college football," the senator said. "Now, tell me how that result can be justified."
"These relationships reflect not only the strength of the team," Perlman explained, "but the depth of strength in a conference."
Back and forth they went, Hatch complaining that the BCS "eliminates most teams from consideration before the season even begins" and Perlman insisting that it weighs conferences "by the ratings of all of its teams, from top to bottom."
Finally, Utah's Young floated a proposal. "I do appreciate the tremendous football team that Nebraska fields, and wish that they were willing to play us," he said.
"There -- you have the challenge!" Hatch broke in.
"I'll report to Athletic Director Osborne when I get back," Perlman offered.
Hatch liked this idea. "You tell Osborne I want a University of Utah game here," he instructed the witness.
They can call it the Orrin Bowl.