ATLANTA – A gray-haired 62-year-old with a master's degree in pediatric dentistry and a doctorate in educational psychology normally wouldn't come off as the most powerful person on a football field.
But here was Bernie Machen, president of the University of Florida, moments after his Gators won the SEC championship Saturday at the Georgia Dome, throwing out the most important bit of news of the college football weekend – he is going to fight for a new championship season.
"We need a playoff," Machen said.
Yeah, not exactly a groundbreaking conclusion – coaches, players and fans have been screaming the same for decades. But Machen perhaps is the most powerful person ever to make that statement, let alone promise to champion its cause.
It is the university presidents of the six BCS conferences – ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC – that are standing in the way of the long-needed elimination of the bowl-based championship system.
It is that system that created another season of discontent and controversy as Florida was selected to play Ohio State in the Bowl Championship Series title game on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz. The one-loss Gators were selected over fellow one-loss contenders Michigan and Louisville as well as unbeaten Boise State. Florida's last-week jump over Michigan in the standings unleashed a torrent of debate as frustrated fans tried to apply logic to an illogical system.
About the only thing agreed on by everyone except the people who make money running bowl games – and the conference commissioners they seem to have in their pockets – is that a playoff system is preferred. A nice 16-team playoff – the same one Division I-AA uses – would be more exciting, more accessible and more profitable.
But until the university presidents challenge the wisdom of the conference commissioners and stop leaning on absurd and contradictory excuses such as a concern for missed class time, nothing ever will change, no matter the near-annual selection controversy.
The biggest roadblock to common sense always has been the presidents. BCS defenders – mostly suits who have profited richly – claim the presidents won't go for a playoff.
Machen swears he is going to change that.
"It's something that's going to take several years to make this kind of change," Machen told a crowd of reporters here Saturday. "But it needs to change.
"In the end, it's about money. There are a lot of people who would be nervous about being at risk for [less] money in a change to a playoff model."
Playoffs need a proponent, and it can't come from the coaching ranks or the media. It can't be a simple fan or even a television executive waving billions in broadcast rights. This thing has to be changed from within, and that means president to president, Ph.D. to Ph.D.
Machen isn't the first university president to promise to fight for a new system. But he is the first at a school with the power and cache of Florida. This isn't the president of Tulane, which has a weak football program. This isn't a commissioner from the Mountain West, a league with its nose pressed against the window.
Florida has not only one of the most successful athletic departments in America but also a sterling academic reputation. It is an anchor in the big-time SEC. When Machen talks, he'll do so with credibility at that level of the academia. He told The Gainesville Sun he already has discussed playoff ideas with Florida State president T.K. Wetherell, who has also recently pledged support.
And he keeps promising to talk to many others, even after his Gators navigated the BCS water to get into the title game. That, he swears, isn't the point. The problem remains.
He has vowed to take the issue up with his fellow SEC presidents at their annual spring meeting. Machen holds more cards than perhaps even he knows. He thinks this will take a long time, and perhaps it will because there still is a lot of status-quo money that will push back.
But if Machen can convince his fellow SEC presidents, if he can present viable revenue options, if he can convince them to send the championship system back under central NCAA control (and out of the hands of conference commissioners), if he can get the SEC to say it will opt out of the BCS when the current television contracts expire after the 2009 season, then the system immediately will crumble.
It's that simple. College football can't have a viable championship system without the SEC.
Yes, it's a lot of "ifs," but not if this guy is for real, not if Dr. James Bernard Machen really is ready to become the most powerful force in college athletics. Then the revolution finally would have its leader.
"This BCS system has to change," he said.
This BCS is a house of cards. It's just waiting for someone to blow it down. With any luck, college football has, at last, found its hero.
- Bernie Machen