The BCS finally has a stake driven through its heart, but the bowls and the big bucks still reign
Deep down, part of the appeal, or at least part of the deal, of being a college football fan is the corruption.
You have to employ a situational moral sliding scale to fully embrace a sport where everyone gets paid but the players, and even a lot of those who eventually make NFL riches wind up broke because they didn't get much of an education.
You have to ignore the concussions and depressions. You have to pretend that the star tailback's aunt really could afford that tricked-out car he drives, the one conveniently registered in her name. You have to believe that your school, and probably your school alone, and certainly not your archrival, does it the "right way" even if the right way was probably the University of Chicago, which gave up on the entire charade 70 years ago.
You do it because there's really nothing like those perfect Saturday afternoons of pomp and circumstance, tailgates and touchdowns.
Give us the game and, well, we'll forget all the ugly stuff for a while. We'll forget it for a lifetime, actually. We might even want our kids to sneak in our ashes and sprinkle them near the 50-yard line so the game can't forget us, either.
That, perhaps more than anything else, was what drove the anger against the BCS, which was killed off (or will be in two seasons) Tuesday, when college football's powers-that-be agreed to stage a four-team playoff.
The BCS was all the corruption and none of the joy. It was all the lies and none of the action. It was all the greed and under-the-table deals and cronyism gone nuts, without giving us the thrill of a playoff.
It was a bunch of suits stuffing hundreds in each other's pockets in the Grille Room of the Arizona Biltmore. It caused PR people to say stupid things, such as how they could never accept an "NFL-style playoff" because, you know, the biggest entertainment property in the country somehow was a bad thing.
So they wouldn't even give us a high school-style playoff. They pretended it would ruin the regular season (it won't), that it would curb bowl-game charitable donations (they actually give extremely little), that it would be an impediment to student-athletes' academic progress (everyone always laughed at that one).
[Related: Don't expect system to expand anytime soon]
They said a lot of things. Almost none of it was true.
In 2010, Rick Baker, president of the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic, said, "A playoff system would ruin the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic."
Tuesday, Rick Baker, president of the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic, said, "It's a great day for college football. We congratulate the conference commissioners and presidents for their diligent work to enhance the postseason."
It was all the ridiculousness, all the dishonesty, all the worst parts of college sports. And none of the good stuff, just one measly championship game, often with a disputed matchup, 40-something days after the season ended.
That always was the problem. It is one thing to lie. It is one thing to insult our intelligence with claims that a playoff would cause Ohio State to tank a game against Michigan (never). It is one thing to say those computers, the ones you didn't understand or even know the formula they used, were about "math" when actual mathematicians called them nonsense.
If you're going to do that, you better give us a playoff. You better keep us entertained.
Fittingly, they held the meeting that killed off the BCS in Washington, D.C., at the Dupont Circle Hotel, right in the heart of a city built on graft, special interests and absolutely terrible ideas.
And, fittingly, college football did the most college football thing ever: It managed to create a playoff with something for everyone, including all the dirt that makes the game run.
Competition? Sure, we get a four-team playoff. It isn't much, it isn't perfect and it's going to be replaced by a bigger model as soon as possible (2025 at the latest), but at least it's something. At least it's something that should be really good.
Fans can imagine the surge of excitement in November and early December as teams scramble for one of the four playoff spots rather than play out the string toward a mostly meaningless bowl game. Yes, the regular season just improved. More games will matter. TV ratings will soar.
And then they can envision New Year's Day returning to its rightful importance, only better than ever.
After the 2014 season, when we sit around and watch semifinals with title game spots on the line, absolutely no one will spend a moment considering whether this has failed to preserve the integrity of the Great Idaho Potato Bowl.
Not even Bill Hancock.
The aforementioned games would be more enjoyable, more magnificent, hold greater historical significance and be easier on the players and their parents if they were staged in Tuscaloosa or Austin or the L.A. Coliseum or the Big House.
Part of college football's appeal, after all, is its grand on-campus stadiums and the unmatched atmosphere. It's a sport that comes from rural roots, humble and simple and uniquely wonderful.
No one ever has looked around Bryant-Denny Stadium in the moment before kickoff and said, "If only this could be played in the beauty and energy of the Alamodome."
Except, apparently, the people who created this playoff.
And, really, that's part of it. That has to be part of it. Of course they couldn't do the right thing. This is college athletics. It never does the right thing. These are the exact same people who wrote the NCAA rulebook, after all. Of course they couldn't do the sensible thing for the students, the players, the players' families and, of course, the taxpayers.
Hell, no. Not these guys. For years, they turned down billions of dollars in playoff money in part because, when did a playoff concept dole out his-and-her Caribbean cruises, or spend $95,000 so they could tee it up with Jack Nicklaus, or pick up the tab at clubs where, ahem, gentlemen assemble?
They just couldn't cut out their bowl cronies completely. You ever hear about the guy that runs the NCAA East Regional in the men's basketball tournament springing for golf?
It wouldn't be college football without some backroom dealing, without a monumental payout to a bunch of bowl directors whose usefulness has been in question since about 1972. Or at least since ESPN made the game explode in popularity.
Oh, the SEC, Big 12 and Conference USA reportedly tried to push a plan that would stage the game outside of the bowl system, but the others wouldn't have it. The Big Ten once expressed interest in on-campus games, but soon decided it would rather play in Florida or California, not Madison or Columbus, and certainly not at neutral sites such as Detroit or Indianapolis, two cities that apparently don't need any positive economic impact.
Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, whose dedication to the ugly blazer set is so supreme he deserves a lifetime supply of free Orange Bowl Coco Loco rum drinks even though no one else takes him seriously, actually argued for a system that would enrich these third-party groups even more.
Yes, third-party groups. That's what bowls are. They're just a different kind of "third-party group" than AAU coaches, which the suits want to eradicate because since when has anyone from DC Assault ever bought them an aged single malt?
So, in the end, the bowls survived. Heck, they will thrive. They get to run the semifinals, which will be even more profitable than the current title game. They get to print their millions (tax-free, of course). They get to maintain a lifestyle that pays the CEOs at least $700K, their assistants $350K, and offers perks like those of John Junker, the former Fiesta Bowl chief who had a $2,250-a-month car allowance. Seriously, that's how much he got just for his car.
This will remain the most illogical deal in sports (and, yes, I know Hasheem Thabeet was paid $5.1 million last year). It's akin to a promoter walking into Roger Goodell's office and telling him that rather than the NFL fully owning and operating the NFC and AFC championship games, the league should instead outsource them, allowing the promoter to take half the money and stick the league with the travel expenses while inconveniencing fans who have to travel to some far-off antiseptic stadium.
Jonathan Vilma would get a warmer reception.
In college athletics, this is called "tradition." A tradition of fleecing, but a tradition nonetheless and, darn it, don't we value tradition?
In many ways, it wouldn't feel quite right if this playoff was done on the up and up.
One day, perhaps in front of the lawyers for the Ed O'Bannon-led lawsuit or the smart leaders of the National College Players Association or even some self-serving Congressional hearing, they'll have to explain how they wanted to assure their buddies kept becoming millionaires but the players can't get a $2,000 yearly stipend.
In the end, most of us are no better than the commissioners and presidents. We watch anyway. We buy tickets anyway. We rationalize willingly. We're thrilled with the progress. Tantalized by the future. This is a worthy trade after all.
And that's what the BCS never got. Sure, the playoff features the same old faces cashing the same old checks and laughing at the unpaid players as the sun slowly sets over the same old golf course verandas, the ice smoothing out the complimentary bourbon.
The business of college football still is about the absurdity of the rich getting richer, of the hypocrisy getting compartmentalized, of the bosses accepting the kind of kickbacks they'd suspend a player 100 years for even considering.
Hey, at least we finally got a little playoff, though. At least they stopped lying that this was impossible. At least the foolishness didn't stand in the way of the games. For the most part, it's all the fans wanted. Go count your money, boys. Of course it's obscene, but the games are fun. We don't ask for much. So just keep remembering to throw us a bone sometimes, would ya?
They finally did Tuesday. That is why college football, right there in that D.C. hotel, in its own one-of-a-kind culture, was oddly and perfectly in full.
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