Not long after Friday's Fiesta Bowl, in which Miami or Ohio State will be crowned the best college football team in the land, the architects of the Bowl Championship Series plan to retreat behind closed doors and begin taking stock of how well their system for anointing a national champion is working.
The dialogue, which is expected to last 12 to 18 months, is a critical step in preparing for negotiations as the current TV contracts come due after the 2005 season. Simply put, the six conference commissioners who run the BCS want to make sure they have a compelling postseason package to sell when they return to the bargaining table with ABC Sports, and possibly the marketplace of networks, sometime in 2004.
In reviewing and possibly reshaping the landscape of postseason football, the BCS founders will confer with college presidents and athletic directors from the conferences they represent. But notably missing from the conversation will be NCAA President Myles Brand, as well as nearly 50 football-playing I-A schools -- such as Brigham Young, Colorado State and Marshall -- that don't belong to the BCS conferences.
Football is the biggest revenue producer in college sports. But the NCAA has no role in crowning its champion, having been booted to the sidelines in the 1980s after Georgia and Oklahoma won a lawsuit claiming the NCAA was an illegal cartel, restraining their right to broker TV contracts.
In recent years, commissioners of the major conferences have taken charge, forming the BCS -- a mind-bending, computer-based system for picking the two teams that will contend for the national title.
As founders of the BCS, the major conference commissioners form arguably the most exclusive and powerful club in sports, with just six members who share a common interest: Locking up berths for football's major bowls and, in turn, keeping the lion's share of revenue for themselves.
At stake in their upcoming review is the future of postseason college football. And all ideas will be on the table, according to BCS coordinator and Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese -- including a playoff. But the potentially heated debate over a playoff won't be aired publicly despite widespread interest among football coaches, fans, players, academics and journalists.
"Once we start the process, my read is it'll be done underground," Tranghese said. "We just don't want to talk publicly. We think it's going to be a hard task; a challenging one. And I don't think this kind of process can be conducted in full view."
Another possibility is adding a fifth BCS bowl to allow more schools a chance to compete in a major postseason game. The drawback to that is having to share the wealth. This year's BCS revenue is projected at $86.8 million.
A far less likely option -- one favored by William C. Friday, the University of North Carolina's reform-minded former president -- is turning over control of postseason football to the NCAA, which runs all other college sports' championships. Insiders say that's simply unthinkable to BCS founders because it would mean surrendering the purse strings altogether.
"The dollars have become too big," Vanderbilt Athletics Director Todd Turner said. "If there are any risks at all that [the BCS money] would be further divided, they're not going to give that up."
Chuck Neinas, former executive director of the College Football Association, agrees.
"What a lot of people are thinking is, 'If there is a football playoff, the money will get distributed like the basketball tournament [shared among all Division I schools rather than an elite subset],' " Neinas said. "Well, disabuse yourself of that notion! You would see a major food fight!"
Under the BCS system, football's championship game rotates among the Orange, Rose, Sugar and Fiesta bowls. Slots are reserved for the six conference champions, leaving two "at-large" berths for other teams. But to clinch an at-large spot, a team must finish among the top six in the final BCS standings. That hasn't been accomplished to date under a formula that penalizes teams from weaker conferences because of their "strength of schedule."
In essence, the BCS review will determine which teams get to compete for college football's championship beginning with the 2006 season. Will college football's biggest bowls -- and the financial windfalls that accompany them -- remain the exclusive purview of the 63 schools that belong to BCS (members of the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC, plus Notre Dame), as they have since the BCS was created in 1998? Or will access to the championship be expanded, making it possible for underfunded underdogs to blossom into gridiron Cinderellas and challenge for a national title in the way the NCAA basketball tournament allows?
Few believe a playoff is in store, given the deep-seated fears that it would siphon attendance and interest from regular season games. BCS powerbrokers also might not recommend anything more than fine-tuning the current system, which guarantees six of the eight slots in the four major bowls to their own conference champions -- whether worthy or not.
Qualifying for a BCS bowl means millions: This year, roughly $16.5 million to a conference that sends one team to a BCS bowl and roughly $21 million for a conference that sends two. Each conference shares its windfall among its member schools.
Teams that miss the cut and don't belong to a BCS conference -- such as Notre Dame and Air Force -- vie for a spot among the burgeoning crop of lesser bowls, which offer comparatively modest payouts of $750,000 to $3 million.
The BCS donates a portion of its revenue to I-AA conferences ($180,000 each this year) and I-A conferences that aren't in the BCS ($960,000 each). Over an eight-year span (1998-2006), those donations will total $43 million. "That's $43 million in revenue-sharing that wasn't there before," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany notes.
Nonetheless, resentment is growing among schools on the outside looking in.
Southern Methodist Athletics Director Jim Copeland, whose university belongs to the Western Athletic Conference, estimates the revenue gap between BCS schools and those in smaller conferences at about $8 million a year.
"A lot of that is attributable to the BCS," Copeland said. "From a perception standpoint, it's widening the gap."
Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry is more troubled by the fact that his Falcons, who compete in the Mountain West, are virtually blocked from the championship under the system. "It really is not totally fair because it does not give every team an opportunity to compete for the number one position in the country," said DeBerry, whose team bolted to a 6-0 start this season.
Added Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill: "Nobody likes a whiner, but it's hard for us to say to our kids, 'You're in Division I-A, competing at the highest level of football, but you'll have a very hard chance of competing in the national title game.' "
Tranghese is well aware of the growing resentment. But he blames the free market -- rather than the BCS founders -- for preventing teams in less competitive conferences from landing in the top bowls.
"The issue of access is a political hot potato, and it has got to be part of the discussion," Tranghese said. "But the thing that has been lost in all this is that they believe the six of us came together and crafted this to keep everybody else out. The marketplace has dictated who is at the table: It's who the bowls have wanted, who the networks have wanted, and who sells the tickets."
Still, given the millions at stake, he doubts the criticism will stop.
"The people who are firing the shots simply want our money," Tranghese said. "It's as simple as that. If we were to write them a check and give them access and money, the criticism would stop. It has nothing to do with liking us. It's all about money. It's all about access and money."