By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, December 10, 2009
The powers-that-be in college sports cannot seem to get it right. Few things in sports are as perfect as the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
As is, March Madness is sublime. Arguably, nothing in sports is better. Yet, this week it's reported that the NCAA and broadcast partners are talking about increasing the tournament field from 65 teams to 96. They want to mess with perfection.
On the other hand, few things are as egregiously flawed as the Bowl Championship Series. Yet on Sunday the BCS announced its bowl pairings, which included one game that will feature the only two non-BCS teams -- meaning the bottom line is the schools in what I call The Cartel can avoid the smaller schools both in the regular season and now the bowl season as well. The BCS is a plague, yet we've been stuck with it for 11 years now.
There is reason to believe, though, that the tide has turned in college football. Ten years ago it seemed a majority of people who follow the sport -- maybe as high as 75 percent -- favored sticking with the traditional bowl system. Anecdotal evidence now suggests 75 percent of people who identify themselves as football fans now favor some kind of college football playoff.
And on Wednesday a House subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection passed a bill aimed at bringing down the BCS.
If the bill becomes law it would prevent the BCS from calling its game a "national championship game" unless it was the result of a playoff system.
Okay, you're asking what good that does?
Plenty. One, it's symbolic. It puts The Cartel on notice that somebody its size is watching. Two, it says people in general are fed up with the BCS's arrogance and sense of entitlement. No, the matching of TCU and Boise State was not part of The Cartel's plan. There was a draft order of the BCS bowls and the Fiesta made its selections.
The Fiesta, mind you, was the biggest rebel in modern college football history, having elbowed its way into a New Year's Day slot when the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Cotton didn't want any piece of the Fiesta. The Fiesta is the last entity to beat The Cartel at its own game, back in the late 1980s when it matched Penn State and Miami and was the first game to go prime time on a separate night from the others.
Still, if there's a presumption out there that the fix was in to keep TCU or Boise State away from Florida in the Sugar Bowl or away from Georgia Tech in the Orange, it's merited because the BCS has done everything possible to actively and intentionally exclude the Mountain West and the WAC and MAC and others from the party.
If restraint of trade is involved -- and there are those who make the case that it is, what with millions of dollars being paid out for reaching these games -- then Congress ought to be involved. We're talking about American higher education here, or at least the front porch of those institutions.
Did you see where Mack Brown, the coach of the University of Texas, has been bumped up approximately $2 million a year for getting to the BCS title game against Alabama on Jan. 7? Suppose that one second that was put back on the clock had been allowed to tick off the clock and Nebraska had won the game? Do you really want to tell me there's no climate out there that created, by expectations, the notion that The Cartel wanted the BCS championship game to include Alabama or Florida and Texas? Is it coincidence to you that Alabama and Florida each got the benefit of at least three calls that could have changed the outcomes of games -- all in their favor?
Am I suggesting a conspiracy? No, not at all. But I think a climate was produced in which all the momentum (and benefit of the doubt) was put behind these schools, especially deep into the season. A playoff would largely eliminate that, which is what The Cartel doesn't want and the small schools always want, and now need in order to get a fair shake.
Remember, Boise State embarrassed Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl three years ago and Utah brought Alabama to its knees in a beat down in last year's Sugar Bowl. How do you keep the have-nots from greater rewards?
Don't play them. Avoid them. Tighten the circle and lie about why. Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.) said, "What our friends and fans need to know about the Bowl Championship Series is that it is not about choosing the champion or competition on the gridiron. . . . It is about revenue sharing for the schools that are in the BCS Conferences . . ."
An amendment would also ensure that in a playoff system, all schools -- regardless of conference affiliation -- would have an equal shot at participating. What's worse than the House taking time to consider forcing a college football playoff is the necessity to do so in the first place.
Without getting overconfident, it seems now there is considerable momentum to bring down the BCS, although the gutless college presidents who front The Cartel and prop up the current system will have to be taken down in an over-our-dead-bodies last stand to do so, which would be fine with me.
Just think for a moment how great a playoff would be this season. The quarterfinal should be this weekend. Done by seeding, No. 1 Alabama would play No. 8 Ohio State; No. 2 Texas would play No. 7 Oregon; No. 3 Cincinnati would play No. 6 Boise State and No. 4 TCU would play No. 5 Florida. I could see a national semifinal next weekend of Alabama vs. Oregon and Boise State vs. Florida. And after skipping the Christmas weekend, New Year's weekend would deliver Alabama vs. Boise State in a legit championship game, with unaffiliated referees from anywhere but the SEC.
Of course, as Barton acknowledged this issue is entirely about money, which is why the NCAA men's basketball committee would consider for one moment changing anything substantive. In the spirit of being more inclusive, have four "play-in" games in which the final at-large teams play each other, or play the lowest-rated automatic conference champs on Tuesday for the right to make into the field of 64.
I can't think of any times where there were 70 deserving teams, much less 96. It seems obvious to most rational people that March Madness isn't broken and a college football playoff is necessary -- obvious to everybody except the people making the decisions.