Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Making it up as they go along | by Jay

So the lodge meeting of the International Order of Friendly Sons of the Raccoons -- aka, the BCS -- just let out last week, emerging from a Phoenix resort in a haze of cigar smoke and the charred remains of C-notes wafting through the air. After the the hangover wore off, Cramden and Norton had some announcements for us.

We noted the new ND "arrangement" with the BCS last week, but there were (at least) four other noteworthy schemes dreamed up by the good 'ol boys over Cohibas and blue-label scotch out in the desert that are worth discussing. So what polished turds did the Grand Poobahs of college football bestow upon us this year?

A 12th game added to everyone's schedule. Now on its face, this one isn't so bad. I like the possibility of a 12th game, as it carries with it some natural advantages for a team like Notre Dame that has a fairly dispersed fan base. As previously mentioned here, ND's been working on this possibility for the last half-year or so, trying to set up some neutral-site games (in Chicago, Orlando, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Dallas, or at the Meadowlands in NYC) against regional opponents. Not only will this enable our far-flung fans to catch the Irish in action, it will naturally boost our recruiting profile in those areas. (Of course, not every team will use its 12th game for such munificent purposes, as we shall soon see.)

As nice as a 12th game is for Notre Dame, its fans, and the rest of college football, giving the fans some more action and filling the coffers with some extra loot, there's a lingering note of skepticism amid the hoopla. Way back in February, when the 12th game idea was first floated, we opined that expanding the schedule undercuts one of the chief arguments by the BCS against a true college playoff. Last week a number of commentators picked up that ball and ran with it:

An extra game, huh? It makes sense to add one to the bowl schedule, but not the regular season. A "plus-one game" might have ensured a juicy Auburn-USC matchup. College presidents, including some on the NCAA board of directors, continually dismiss a playoff system on the premise that it would lengthen the season, ignoring the fact that Divisions I-AA, II and III determine their champions well before New Year's Day. If those "student-athletes" aren't adversely affected by such a format, then their Division I counterparts should play in a similar system.
And we agree. If you're going to argue that a playoff structure -- or even just one more lousy game to determine a champion -- is going to so severely disrupt the studies of our student-athletes, maybe you shouldn't be extending the schedule for all of college football.

Lou Holtz chimed in about the 12th game, and his words are equally applicable to the possibility of a playoff.
"Everybody talks about, well, players don't want to play any more games. Well, that's nonsense. They just don't want to practice. They might say, 'I don't want a 12th game,' then they go play in three all-star games."
Okay, so minor annoyances aside, the first proclamation from poolside at the Royal Palms Resort and Spa wasn't so ill-conceived.

a 5th BCS bowl game. Now things start to unravel. The BCS also added a 5th Bowl game, ostensibly a National Championship bowl, to be played a week after the regular bowls (so, January 8th, for instance) starting in 2007. They complain about extending the season...then go ahead with a 5th BCS bowl that is played a week after the normal 4 BCS bowls...which have already been pushed back from Jan. 1 to Jan 2-5. Make sense?

So did they use the opportunity to invite another bowl with some clout and tradition -- the Cotton Bowl, for instance -- to join the BCS? No. Instead of enjoining an already-established name brand, they just recycled their own and tacked it onto the already-bloated bowl landscape. And amazingly enough, they didn't even incorporate a new venue -- this "Super BCS Bowl" will be played at one of the stadiums that already hosts a BCS bowl game. For 2007, it's at the Fiesta Bowl.

Yes, that's right: two games, a week apart, played at the same venue. The first one is still called "The Fiesta Bowl", but now it's second-fiddle to the bigger (as-yet-untitled) Title game. Sound awkward? You bet. This transforms the original Fiesta Bowl into the equivalent of a kid's Mass downstairs in the parish rec room. (When you're getting your Fiesta Bowl tickets, read the fine print carefully and make sure they're to the right one.)

Is this new game is going to be a playoff game between the top 2 teams emerging from the other bowl games? Of course not -- that would make too much sense. The new bowl game is really just a shiny new wrapper for the #1 vs #2 matchup that already takes place. Basically, the BCS just gets to invite two more teams to a BCS game and reap the rewards of exploitative branding. Not that any game other than the (as-yet-untitled) Title game really matters, but that's beside the point: each game the BCS adds means more revenue for the BCS schools. Heck, they could add a dozen more "BCS Bowls" and co-opt the entire status quo if they wanted to. It wouldn't make a lick of difference.

Two Fiesta Bowls. Two Rose Bowls. Two Orange Bowls. I'm seeing double. Still with me? It just gets better from here.

Games against Division 1-AA schools now count towards your win total for bowl eligibility. Yes, you heard correctly: now you can schedule a lower-division creampuff every year (if you weren't already), and your wins against Nicholls State and Georgia Southern and Tennessee Tech go in the books (and into the computers) the same as any other win. Previously, the Sagarin ratings (for one) didn't even look at non-Division 1 teams.

This is like the Lakers playing the Washington Generals and treating it like a legitimate matchup, or maybe in baseball, if wins against the Devil Rays would actually count in the standings. (Wait a they?)

Now, this is great for the pocketbooks of the D1-AA schools. But these games shouldn't count towards bowl eligibility. I can't figure out the justification for it. Gutless programs have traditionally opened their seasons with glorified scrimmages against "directional" schools, yet now the polls are going to reward them for their racketeering.

And here's something to ponder: is 'strength of schedule' going to be an ingredient in the new BCS soup? If so, Jeff Sagarin and company are going to have to whip up some serious cookery.

As Jason Kelly of the South Bend Trib put it, "Now it's feeding time -- as long as Kansas State leaves enough for everybody else."


Replacing the AP poll...with an old coaches' braintrust? Due to the controversy that has surrounded the BCS selection process in three of the past four seasons, the AP announced in December that the BCS would no longer be allowed to use its poll in compiling the weekly standings. (For the backstory on why the AP dropped out, click here.) So that leaves the USA Today/Coaches Poll, plus the various computer rankings. But emanating from the desert last week was the possibility of a replacement poll, made up of...well, the Chicago Trib has the scoop:
Barring a late reversal, the BCS plans simply to replace the Associated Press poll with a panel of perhaps 40 to 60 former coaches and administrators.

"Clearly that's where our focus is," BCS coordinator Kevin Weiberg said Tuesday.

Weiberg, the commissioner of the Big 12, said he and the other league bosses assembled here need to identify who would serve on the panel and whether they would be willing to disclose at least their final rankings to the public.

BCS officials also would like the first poll of the season to be no sooner than October. Auburn officials believe part of the reason they were excluded from the national championship Orange Bowl last season was that the Tigers began the season ranked no higher than 17th in the two major polls and were never able to overtake fellow undefeated schools USC or Oklahoma.

"It's important for voters to see the results of those early-season games," Weiberg said.

But even if the replacement poll has transparency and delay, as BCS officials put it, questions will loom about its credibility. The panel's membership, which also might include former players and reporters, will invariably have ties to certain schools or conferences.
This is delicious. As if the current coaches' poll isn't already fraught with conflict of interest, partisanship and gaming the system, now we're about to multiply that by who knows how many old grudges, biases, and in some cases, outright cheerleading. As you might expect, all the old guys are ready and rarin' to go:
"I've heard some talk about this thing, and I think it's something that would be attractive to a lot of coaches," former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum said.

Former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes said: "I think there are certainly people who would love to do that. They want to stay in the loop or they want to have a little ink, which is fine. They would be great at it."

Steve Hatchell, the former Big 12 commissioner, is president of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame Inc. Hatchell told BCS officials last Monday that his group would create a poll using 30 coaches and administrators from five regions of the country.

"We probably gave them 50 to 60 names," Hatchell said. "We showed them on our PowerPoint presentation that these people had to be above reproach and have unquestioned reputations."

Hatchell suggested former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne or Michigan's Bo Schembechler as potential voters. Former Georgia coaches Vince Dooley and Jim Donnan told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week they'd be happy to vote.

Former Texas coach Darrell Royal was the first name Hatchell mentioned when asked who he'd consider from Texas.

"I don't have anything to comment on, because this is the first I've heard of it," Royal said. "Nobody's contacted me."

Hatchell said he'd love to have former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer vote.

"Tell him I definitely would be interested," Switzer said. "I would be honored to be a part of a group like that.

"We see there's such a saturation of football on television on Saturdays. You're just throwing darts once you get past the first five teams anyway. You're influenced by won-loss record. The ones that know the game, those people are going to recognize talent levels."
I don't know about you, but when I think of guys who are "beyond reproach" and who have "unquestioned reputations", the first guy that comes to mind is Barry Switzer. But hey, Hatchell's got it all worked out on Powerpoint. Who am I to question?

Even better: how would you like to see ABC analyst Terry Bowden pulling the lever?
"I would love to do it," Bowden said. "For a guy like me, that's what I do for a living."

Bowden acknowledged that he might not be asked to vote in a BCS poll because his father, Bobby, is the Florida State coach and his brother, Tommy, the coach at Clemson.

"Some might think there's a conflict there," Bowden said.
Oh, you think?

As you can guess, this wouldn't be good for Notre Dame, notwithstanding the possibility of Lou Holtz on such an august panel. There are just too many old ball coaches out there with an axe to grind against the Irish.

One of the first names to pop up on the radar for this thing was Bo Schembechler. Bo loves Notre Dame. You can bet he'll be unbiased when it comes to voting. After all, Bo was the guy who said this when Big 10 talks were heating up:
Q: Do you see a suitable team for the Big Ten?

A (Schembechler): If they want a 12th team, they'll find one suitable.

Q: What would you think of Notre Dame's being that team?

A: I don't think it will happen.

Q: Would Notre Dame be a strong addition for the conference?

A: Why? What would they contribute than any other 12th team can't contribute?

Q: The name, the tradition, the Notre Dame history, perhaps?

A: They may find out what (Penn State Coach) Joe Paterno found out, which is, it was a lot easier when they were playing Syracuse and Rutgers and Temple. When they went into the Big Ten, they found out they couldn't go to the Rose Bowl every year.
More blech from 'bechler:
Former Michigan coach and athletic director Bo Schembechler is decidedly less diplomatic on the issue.

"I have absolutely no interest in Notre Dame. Zero," Schembechler said. "There really isn't a logical expansion, because, frankly, I don't want Notre Dame."
Thanks for the consideration, Bo. You're sure to be "fair and balanced".

There are a couple of aspects of the new polling proposal that if I squint my eyes real hard I can see as positive developments. First off, the regular USA Today Coaches Poll will no longer be confidential (and I'd assume the Old Timers' poll would be the same). It's going to be much harder to rig the vote to help yourself or your conference-mate out. There have been stories going around college football over the last few years that coaches don't even fill out the poll themselves, farming it out to their grad assistants. So there's hope that the coaches might actually get more involved and take this responsibility a little bit more seriously. Plus, for us fans, it'll be interesting to see where Lloyd sticks ND, for example, or where Urban puts Spurrier (and vice-versa).

The second aspect I like is that they're apparently going to delay the publishing of the polls until sometime midway through the season, possibly into mid-October. The way it stands now, as I'm sure you realize, the preseason polling unfairly slots teams as either too high or too low, and as a result some teams have a much shorter (or longer) ladder to climb to reach the BCS. Ask any Auburn or Cal fan what I'm talking about, and you'll get an earful.

I don't know exactly what the correct solution is in regards to polls, but I will say that a playoff -- even a small one -- would diminish the necessity of the polls in the first place, and mitigate a lot of poll-related angst.

In conclusion, one thing's increasingly clear: the BCS is a power-hungry, money-hungry, self-sustaining and self-interested beast, with no clear accountability to anything but the almighty dollar. Student-athletes? Nowhere to be found at the Royal Palms. The fans? Nobody cares what they think -- as long as they keep buying tickets and watching TV. The one truly interesting thing they could have discussed in Arizona, and the one thing that the average college football fan probably has an opinion about -- the idea of a true college playoff -- was tabled yet again.

Meanwhile, what did our Raccoon lodge brothers spend their time on, between snifters of brandy and cracking wise? Let's see: 1) Making it easier for the big boys to win (see: Division 1-AA games); 2) making more cash (see: adding a 12th game another BCS bowl game), and 3) half-assing their way to a new poll (which they only addressed because the AP hung them out to dry).

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle sums it up nicely:
All that having been disclaimed, the plain truth remains -- the BCS remains an absurd, borderline dishonest way of dealing with the football postseason conundrum...

It is clear that there won't be a playoff system. We know that because the NCAA is now pushing for a 12th regular-season game. It is also clear that the coaches poll is by its very existence an exercise in Soviet-era democracy, and should be either drastically diminished in importance or discontinued altogether. It is finally clear that a new poll would essentially make television an even bigger player in the national championship picture than it already is.

In short, this is a system that is headed straight for this scenario:

"By vote of the BCS committee -- the ESPN College GameDay crew, plus Dick Enberg, plus Tom Hammonds, plus Brent Musburger, plus six athletic directors, who have to balance their own budgets every year and need all the BCS money they can glom onto, the championship game will again pit either USC, or the SEC champion, or the Big 12 champ, or whatever can be verified to get the largest national TV audience, because that's all we're after anyway and we may as well stop making any pretense about it."
Really the only saving grace here is that the BCS is about as consistent as weather in the midwest, and no doubt by this time next year we'll have a whole new raft of patches and fixes to mull over. Heck, even they know a lot of this stuff is short-lived, and one day it all might come crashing down:
It's possible that Division I-A commissioners will dismantle the oft-derided BCS and revert to the old bowl tie-ins.

"There was some sentiment along those lines when we were going through our television negotiations," Weiberg said. "I certainly had some of that from my own conference - from presidents, chancellors, a few athletic directors.

"We've committed to a new four-year contract, so we're moving forward - but if we decided that it just doesn't work, I think we would more likely go down the path of returning to the old structure, the old bowl system as it existed prior to a BCS."

Orange Bowl Chief Executive Officer Keith Tribble said: "No option is closed at this point, even if it means returning to the old bowl arrangements. Nothing is guaranteed in terms of the bowl system."
So, we might tear it all up and start again? The final option is one great, big "do-over"? Those are gradeschool, playground rules, if I'm not mistaken.

Yet considering the behavior of the gentlemen running college football these days, maybe "gradeschool" is the right description after all.