Banish the BCS. Fans want the ultimate postseason
It's coming thick and fast these days, the torrent of self-congratulation from the friends of the BCS. "We have delivered on our promise," they proclaim. "We have matched the top two teams in the country in a championship game!"
Splendid. We can't thank you enough, just as we can't wait for Jan. 4, if for no other reason than it will bring resolution, and an end to more than a month of hype; of breaking down every matchup, from Texas quarterback Vince Young vs. the USC secondary, to Bevo vs. Traveler, to O.J. vs. the Texas tower sniper.
The BCS folks proudly point out that there's only been one single occasion -- in 2003, when LSU and USC split the title -- that their obtuse formula hasn't worked. That's disingenuous: It was a mess last year, with Auburn undefeated and uninvited. In '01, an undeserving Nebraska squad backed into the title game (the Huskers didn't even make the Big 12 championship game) and was spanked by Miami. I could go on. Worthy teams are regularly screwed out of a $14 million-plus payday because the BCS insists on offering automatic bowl berths to teams that win their conferences -- even when those "championships" are as contrived and as fake as Carmen Electra's front porch.
There was Brent Musburger thumping the tub for the status quo during the fourth quarter of Florida State's first win in a month, a 27-22 upset of Virginia Tech in the inaugural ACC championship game: "How 'bout Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden," burbled Musburger, "that would be some matchup!" That's the angle the TV folks will be selling hard: Tune in for this clash of loveable septuagenarian sages! What the BCS and its apologists would like you to overlook is that the presence of the Seminoles in the BCS bowl mix is, to borrow from Woody Allen, a travesty of a mockery of a sham.
I don't blame Florida State. If someone was going to throw money at me, I'd try to catch it, too. But the truth is, the Seminoles, who finished 22nd in the BCS rankings, have no business in a showcase bowl. Not while 10-1, fifth-ranked Oregon is headed for Sea World and the Holiday Bowl.
BCS proponents who argue against a playoff invariably bring up the sanctity of the regular season. But their every-game-is-a-playoff argument has been fatally diluted by this abomination known as the conference championship.
I spoke to Texas coach Mack Brown about this last week and he pointed out that when the Big 12 introduced the idea of a conference title game, the league's coaches voted 12-0 against it, while the athletic directors were unanimous in favor. "What I would like to see," says Brown, "is for us to make progress from where we are."
Speaking several days before his Longhorns opened that industrial-sized drum of whoop-ass on Colorado, Brown pointed out, "We've got the possibility of Colorado being in the BCS at 8-4, Florida State being in the BCS at 8-4." What he would like to see -- and what a revolutionary concept this is -- is the best eight teams selected for BCS bowls, "Even if we're not ready to play 'em off. If someone wins their conference championship, fine, but don't give 'em an automatic bid."
That's right, even though the BCS was his ally this year, Brown is a playoff proponent. "Whether we like it or not, our sport is money driven, and therefore it's fan driven," he says. "I don't want to lose our fans, and right now I see more excitement in the Final Four than I see in the BCS."
But coach, what about the hardships that a playoff would impose on student-athletes? What about the travel, the difficulty of remaining abreast of one's class work on the road, unless one happens to be a fifth-year senior whose only class is ballroom dancing?
"Well," Brown says, "we're adding a 12th game next year, and we're adding it for money. Period. And we're taking away an open date [that players might otherwise use to rest and heal and catch up on schoolwork]. And we have championship games in half our leagues, and then a bowl game. Next year, if we're successful, we'll play 14 games. So I don't think we'd be extending the schedule all that much."
After getting Wally Pipped by Alex Smith at Utah, Brett Elliott transferred to Linfield College, a Division III powerhouse in Oregon. Last season he threw 61 touchdown passes while leading the Wildcats to the D-III national title, a journey that added five weeks to their season. "I went to bowls when I was at Utah," Elliott told me, "and they're fun. It's definitely a good time. But nothing can beat the excitement of preparing for a different team, then beating them, then preparing for another team, week after week after week. It was exhilarating."
I thought Elliott might be exaggerating, so I called my buddy Tom Linnemann, who quarterbacked St. John's of Minnesota to the 2000 Stagg Bowl. The Johnnies ended the season with five straight playoff games on the road. They went from Wisconsin to Tacoma to Pella, Iowa, to Abilene to Salem, Va. Did anyone flunk out? How did they handle homework?
"First of all," says Linnemann, "look at Division I basketball. Those guys travel a couple times a week. Does Coach K have a bunch of guys flunking out at Duke? You bring work with you. That's why we're called student-athletes."
But wasn't the travel grueling? "It was like a five-week vacation, paid for by the NCAA," he says. "Every time you won, you found out where you were going next."
Linnemann and the Johnnies saw fishmongers throw salmon to one another at the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. They drank deeply of the cultural offerings available in Abilene; Linnemann returned to Minnesota with a vast belt buckle. His most indelible memory from the trip, he says, "was playing a game of six-on-six football in the hotel pool in Pella, Iowa." The game came to a temporary halt when legendary head coach John Gagliardi happened upon the scene.
"For Crissakes," he implored his players, "take your helmets off!"
It wouldn't do to take on the Central Dutch with waterlogged headgear.
"Talk about coming together as a team," says Linnemann. "That's an experience everyone who plays college football should be able to have."