Too good to go
After working for almost two years on a championship plan for college football only to have it brushed aside in a matter of hours – essentially because it might be, of all things, too successful – Mike Slive returned to work as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference tired, frustrated and apparently showing it.
“Everyone kept coming up to me saying, ‘Hey, at least you fought the fight.’ ” Slive said Friday.
What else can you say to Slive? He fought what proved to be an unwinnable fight against the entrenched interests of the status quo.
His proposal for a plus-one model was a small step – essentially a four-team playoff contained within the current bowl structure. It wasn’t as much as most fans, players and coaches want, but it was a fine compromise to take to the BCS meetings for 10 of his fellow commissioners and the athletic director of Notre Dame to consider for further discussion.
So fine, actually, that his opposition took one look at it and concluded it would likely be so thrilling, profitable and successful it would catapult the sport’s popularity into the stratosphere. Everyone would love the mini-tournament so much they’d demand more of it.
The plan would be so appealing the commissioners immediately determined that not only should it not be adopted, but no one should even discuss it. No one should take this, the first real proposal ever submitted, and gauge the interest of their schools. In fact, they would prefer if no one talks about it ever again.
Imagine having your plan fail because of that logic.
“I know this is not what a lot of fans want to hear,” said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. “But they’re not responsible for crafting what we have in college football.”
Ignore that man behind the curtain, if you will.
But Slive isn’t willing to be ignored. This isn’t to say that in the wake of defeat he was pounding his fist in rage, cursing anyone out or even decrying the fact that only the ACC was willing to even further debate things.
“I was disappointed but we’re all in this together,” he said in a hopeful way.
“This is a marathon and not a sprint.”
Slive was mindful of the minefield he was walking into. Yes the sport’s annual conclusion is illogical, controversial and often unsatisfying; the result of a convoluted political decision-making process built mostly on power and money.
But there was no interest in a full-blown playoff and even minor change would require work. That was fine with him. Like most commissioners he’s a conservative in the midst of a sea of fans and media wailing for a revolution.
Slive, however, understood something few others apparently do. Fans are interested in a plus one, or any playoff, not because it would end the annual controversy and confusion. It won’t. No system will. That isn’t the point, although the debate is often framed that way to create the impression of hopelessness.
But what people want isn’t so much a tidy process as an exciting one. Even a meager four-team plus one would increase that.
The BCS, after all, is in a state of constant complaint, but it has helped fuel the sport’s explosion. A better system would continue that.
Slive thought he could balance fan interest and competitive fairness with traditional concerns, including expansion into a larger playoff. His proposal called for no games in December and no games during the second academic semester (which begins in early January), making the calendar so small only a two-week, three-game system could have operated.
“It wasn’t a negative with regard to three things that I always felt were incredibly important to protect,” Slive said. “One was the academic calendar, two was the bowl system and three was the regular season. It didn’t offend those three principles.
“I thought this (was) a modest proposal. I thought it contained enough concrete barriers.”
It was and it did. For most of us it wasn’t ambitious enough, but at least it was some kind of progress.
In the end it was too much. The commissioners believed that just the taste of something that exciting would lead to demands to rewrite the rules and create more.
“Even though we could construct barriers at this time, we felt like there could be easily an erosion of that; more pressure to add more teams with an ability to get to the national championship game as we went over time,” Dan Beebe of the Big 12 said.
Fear of success was enough for some to scream for silence.
In the end, according to interviews with people in the room, the decision to proceed or not probably came down to the Big East and Big 12.
The Big Ten and Pac-10, thanks to an economically advantageous relationship with the Rose Bowl until at least 2014, were going to oppose just about anything put on the table. The smaller conferences and Notre Dame were likely to support whatever the majority did as long as their access and revenue weren’t cut. The ACC was in favor of the SEC’s proposal.
That left two swing votes, the Big East and Big 12, who had they pushed for further discussion could have weakened the Big Ten and Pac-10’s silly obstruction talk – “they’ll have to pry a playoff system out of my cold dead hands,” the Ohio State president barked last year.
But they both went with protectionism over progress. And that was that.
At least for now.
College football will embrace progress eventually. The cries of consumers, the continued demand for revenue by universities and the slow push of time will force it. The issue will certainly be brought up again within four years.
Change just won’t happen before 2014, at the earliest. It might take years after that. But eventually there will be a time when things are different and everyone will look back and mock the opponents like the flat earth folks.
Tranghese, Beebe and the others are smart and well-meaning men. But their problem is credibility; no one can trust their reason for opposition.
Including Slive himself, the suits most oft-repeated excuses against a playoff – not wanting to extend the season, protecting academics, player safety and so on – run in stark contrast to so many of their other decisions.
They’ve extended the regular season, slowed the game clock to expose players to more injury-possible plays, relentlessly expanded their leagues, forced non-revenue sports into senseless, class missing travel, profited from championship games, scheduled midweek games for all sports and even, on the same day they shot down the plus one, added two more low-level bowl games owned by private businesses.
They’ll say anything, even trying last week to bring up the logistical difficulties of getting a team that won a semifinal game in Arizona to a title game a week later in Miami.
Ah, have you guys heard about the airplane?
Even if their rationales were honest; at this point they’ve told so many lies no one can believe the truth.
But there has to be a reason.
Why would a commissioner listen to a respected peer’s detailed plan, acknowledge that it would probably be extremely successful and then immediately refuse to even give it to their schools, which have never seen a real proposal, and say, “Here, tell me what you think?”
What in the world scares them that much?
Best I can tell, after years of discussions with the people in power by me and my colleague Josh Peter, is that while there isn’t a single reason, the oft-cited “protection of the regular season” is a critical one.
But not in the way it is usually claimed – each game is a playoff (which isn’t really true). It’s not to retain interest in the top teams or late-season games – a four- team playoff would increase both of those. It is actually to protect mediocre games.
The current system allows for perennial 6-6 teams to sell a “bowl season” as false hope for next year when fans renew their season tickets and local advertisers consider where to allocate their dollars. There are far more programs who consider themselves “big time” than actually are. The commissioners represent those teams as well.
A plus one wouldn’t affect that, but the eventual expansion of a playoff might raise expectations and the definition of success, the way in basketball there is a stark difference between reaching the NCAA tournament and the NIT.
If that happened in football, middling programs might no longer sell out.
“It’s a migratory dollar,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told Yahoo! Sports in 2007. “And the dollar tends to follow those areas of those elements of a competitive season that are most attractive.
“And right now what I would say is that we’re at some sort of equilibrium of a bowl system and a championship game on the one hand. There’s some gravitas from an economic perspective, from a public interest perspective in the regular season.”
In essence, commissioners will trade the possibility of the thrilling for the protection of the boring.
They won’t trade a “Football Final Four” of, say, Florida-USC, Oklahoma-Ohio State with the winners meeting a week later, if it meant the chance one day 75,000 fans won’t pony up for Florida Atlantic-Michigan State.
That’s a financial and philosophical position that works now, but it probably isn’t sustainable long-term.
Slive isn’t willing to say why he thinks the plan stalled this time. He says it doesn’t matter.
“I think this is where the ‘this is a marathon and not a sprint’ comes into play,” Slive said, laughing a bit. He figures continued controversies will change the political landscape by next time.
After this entire battle, he actually sounded no worse for wear, in no need of condolences. He notes that last year his own plan would have been disadvantageous for the SEC, which has won three of the last five titles and has little reason to seek change. It’s proof self-interest can be overcome.
“If you love the game, the goal is to help the game, not hurt the game,” he said.
Eventually enough of his peers will agree.