For two years, we pored over thousands of pages of tax filings, university contracts, and congressional testimony. We criss-crossed the country interviewing the pertinent power players in college football, on and off the record. We filed dozens of Freedom of Information requests. We wanted to answer one question: Why is college football really saddled with the brain-dead Bowl Championship Series? We sought the truth because tens of millions of fans deserve it.
We discovered an ocean of corruption: sophisticated scams, mind-numbing waste, and naked political deals — enough to prove that the confused excuses spat out by the suits in charge and regurgitated by their well-paid public relations people are empty drivel. While the sleaze should be enough to cause the death of the BCS, it’s simply emblematic of a long battle best represented by two men. One stands for common sense and the possibilities the great game can offer. The other is about protecting the one-sided system that enriches and empowers the very few who led college football into this morass, even as it runs counter to their teams’ competitive interests.
You’ve heard of the first. His name is Joe Paterno. He’s the eighty-three-year-old icon who, after sixty-one seasons coaching at Penn State, the last forty-five as head coach, is as steadfast a proponent of a playoff as ever. He is us. He is you. He is everyone whose gag reflex engages upon the mere thought of how college football crowns its national champion.
You might not have heard of the other. His name is Jim Delany. He’s the balding, sixty-two-year-old former assistant district attorney who is the commissioner of Penn State’s conference, the Big Ten. He is one of the most powerful people in college athletics. His influence far outweighs that of even the NCAA president, because Delany belongs to the group that hijacked college football and refuses to let go.
Paterno may be the king of the sport, but Delany is the ayatollah, speaking the word of God.
And that word is no.
No to a playoff . No to an extra championship game following the bowl season. No to any semblance of sanity in America’s greatest spectator sport. No to anything but the loathsome, odious, reviled BCS.
For twelve years, the BCS has decided the national champion at the highest level of college football, Division I-A. Two human polls and one computer ranking combine to determine the two teams that play in the BCS National Championship Game. Other top-ranked teams go to the BCS-supported Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, and Fiesta Bowl. Delany helped run the BCS amid widespread skepticism. It’s been a bigger disaster than anyone could have imagined. Its approval rating hovers around 10 percent. And yet Delany draws the following conclusion: “It’s been incredibly successful.”
For him and his cronies, sure. The BCS is a group of similar businesses that bands together in search of money and power, harming the public along the way. It gives off a wretched smell—that of a cartel. While a labor lawyer might disagree on the word’s usage, it fits for the BCS power brokers: Rather than jack up gas prices or cut off the oil supply like OPEC can, the college football Cartel controls the postseason and the revenue it generates while pretending a playoff would put at risk something as sacred as the history and tradition of the Papajohns.com Bowl.
Officially, the BCS is run by twelve men: the commissioners of major college football’s eleven conferences and the athletic director of Notre Dame. Realistically, six men control college football: the commissioners of the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and Southeastern conferences. They squirrel away the sport’s revenues, crush any challenge to their supremacy, and make decision after ill-fated decision that takes college football eons further from what its fans want. Alongside Delany, Mike Slive (SEC), Dan Beebe (Big 12), John Swofford (ACC), Larry Scott (Pac-10), and John Marinatto (Big East) guide the BCS to a place where their conferences receive automatic bids to the BCS games with massive payouts. This is college football’s Cartel.
While the big six conferences hogged 82.3 percent of the $155.2 million paid out by BCS games last year, the Mountain West Conference, Western Athletic Conference, Mid-American Conference, Conference USA, and Sun Belt Conference scraped along with the leftovers. The Cartel and the BCS exist to consolidate control among the power conferences and position themselves to never let go. Suggesting a playoff to the Cartel is futile because it doesn’t care how big the postseason revenue pie gets or even if its slice would grow. It simply wants to ensure that no one else holds the knife.
The six Cartel members work with a legion of henchmen — the executive directors of a couple dozen bowl games and a few high-powered athletic directors and school presidents — to dictate how the sport operates. Formally, the Cartel doesn’t exist. Neither, for that matter, does the BCS. It’s not a legal construct, just a series of contracts among various entities, which makes it hard for opponents to trace it, sue it, or pin it down. As much as some government officials would love to bust it using the Sherman Antitrust Act before the current BCS television deals run out in 2014 — the Justice Department announced in January that it might open an investigation — the case is not a certain winner, even if the BCS seems so patently wrong.
Five teams finished the 2009 regular season with perfect records. Since the BCS exists to provide a title game between the two teams it deems best — and, more often than not, the results are controversial thanks to flawed ranking systems — the other three undefeated teams were left with consolation matchups. This is not the best way to determine a national champion as much as a get-rich, stay-rich scheme carried out at the expense of fairness, taxpayers, and college football fans. “It has given the commissioners power and significance,” said Gene Bleymaier, the athletic director at Boise State University. “Prior to this, conference commissioners had very little power. No one knew them. They had very little significance outside of their conference.”
Paterno is too old to care about perceived power. He wants what’s fair, and that is a playoff. Four times he led Penn State to undefeated seasons and didn’t win a national championship. Perhaps no other person has been so wronged by the lack of a proper postseason. It may be the only issue where Paterno is considered a forward-thinking revolutionary. Paterno translated The Aeneid from Latin to English in high school and said the epic poem guides his coaching style. He claimed he has neither sent nor read an e-mail in his life. When the NCAA imposed legislation that limited coaches sending text messages to recruits, he was baffled.
“I thought it was tech messaging — T-E-C-H,” Paterno told The New York Times.
Paterno knew how to use the phone, and one particular day the lack of a playoff so aggrieved him that he called Delany. Paterno didn’t hold back. The Cartel can make anything happen in college football, and even Paterno, a man who loathes change, understood college football needed it. Delany told Paterno the university presidents with the power to change the system were pro-BCS. Paterno insisted the presidents would follow wherever Delany led. Delany didn’t budge. The call ended without resolution. Nothing would change.
The Cartel doesn’t just laugh at Joe Paterno. It laughs at you, too. The joke is on fans who dream of college football finding a postseason worthy of its pageantry. Even the leader of the free world is beyond its reach. In November 2008, President-elect Barack Obama declared the sport needed a playoff . Delany treated the president of the United States the same way he does every challenger to his monopoly: He dismissed him. “I think it’s that time of year,” he told Pete Thamel of The New York Times.
The Cartel entrenched itself through a campaign that spreads misinformation and perpetuates falsehoods. Debate about how to fix college football is ill-informed and often dizzies the participants. This is exactly how the powers that be want it. By shrouding the most important part of their sport in confusion and mystery, and by tossing out phony arguments and distracting canards, and even by having spokesmen obfuscate not just to the public but to Congress, the Cartel has so waylaid college football that even a do-anything spirit like Joe Paterno throws his hands up in defeat.
Fortunately, we know a few things Paterno doesn’t.
We know how the BCS really works, or, more accurately, doesn’t work. It’s every bit as troubling as the old coach can imagine. Because of the BCS, universities have blown nearly $2 million paying for empty seats at a single game. Because of the BCS, athletic directors cash $30,000-plus bonus checks, even for sending teams to the lowliest of bowl games. Because of the BCS, teams are rewarded for waltzing through cupcake schedules every fall. Because of the BCS, Division I-A college football is the only sport in which the NCAA declines to crown an official national champion.
There is no smoking gun with the BCS. The BCS is the smoking gun.
The bowl system, the foundation of the BCS, is a mess, which is a shame. We love bowl games. The major ones and the little ones, the unusual matchups, the crazy comebacks, the nothing-to-lose finishes. How the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, still mean something to their communities. While critics cry about too many bowls, we disagree. More football is never a bad thing.
Except that disease has infiltrated the bowl’s circulatory system, pumping from the heart all the way to the tiniest veins. The power-conference commissioners scheme to protect their dominant position in the postseason. The bowl executives rake in huge salaries while serving as middlemen. Nearly 60 percent of schools spend more money to participate in bowls than the games offer in payouts.
The outdated bowl system blocks progress with its white-knuckle grip on the sport. Forget the month of football nirvana a playoff would provide. Today, the schools lose, the fans lose, and the sport itself loses. Doesn’t matter, because the suits win, quite handsomely, and to defend the indefensible they resort to bad arguments, anything to quiet the constant din for a playoff.
“How would band members, cheerleaders, and other students make holiday plans knowing their team might play one, two, or three games on campus during the time they are normally home with their families?” BCS executive director Bill Hancock asked.
Apparently, inconvenienced cheerleaders are a prime defense for the BCS. Such rationale comes as much from hubris as foolhardiness. The BCS treats college football fans like they’re stupid. It takes credit for the rise in the sport’s popularity, comparing today’s title game to the mess of split championships that preceded it. It’s like trying to say a busted calculator is good because it’s newer than an abacus.
The system isn’t merely broken, either. It is smashed, crushed, twisted, and mangled, totaled beyond belief, and there is no fixing it. College football needs to start over. Only, the Cartel won’t budge, not when it has the power, which, in this case, it deems more valuable than the additional cash a playoff would create.
And it’s a lot of money. An awful lot. Experts estimate a college football playoff could approach $750 million in annual revenue, more than $600 million ahead of the current system. The old bowls would survive mostly as is, no matter what dire predictions the Cartel repeats. Run in concert with the playoff , they would generate another $100 million-plus in gross revenues. As tuition rises to obscene levels, endowments dry up, donations plummet, and schools look for taxpayer subsidies, the BCS bosses continue to sit on a diamond mine because they so relish their position.
Without NCAA oversight and no impartial official looking out for the welfare of all 120 schools, the BCS honchos act like the worst of our politicians, more concerned with spending riders and petty pork projects than what’s best for the nation. Among the Cartel there is a lack of comity and commonality, a stark contrast to its sport, which every Saturday beams with tens of thousands of people at historic on-campus stadiums sharing passion and memories and beer and the dream of a playoff .
There is a grassroots groundswell that threatens the establishment. Already Boise State and the University of Utah, upstart programs from smaller conferences, have penetrated the BCS and won major bowl games over big-name opponents. The victories only steeled the Cartel. While Utah gained an invitation to the Pac-10 beginning in 2011, the system didn’t change. Championship access means money, and money could turn the Boise States and TCUs of the world into annual powerhouses. Soon enough people might start asking why the six major conferences get to call the shots. The control of money, then, is sacrosanct, far more than the promise of underdogs slaying historic programs, of games in December and January climaxing with a real championship, of March Madness–level excitement in a football playoff.
So for now the BCS survives, a roach amid a typhoon of Raid, emanating coldness, ignoring the measured consideration of old coaching icons, and dismissing fans’ bellows. Even the unyielding push of common sense is held off with mistruths and misdirection that turn the entire issue into a river of red herrings.
Facts have power, though. The truth has might. The rational presentation of both can upend even the longest-held conventional wisdom and expose the Cartel for what it is: a not-half-as-smart-as-it-wants-you-to-believe group of leaders that history will one day mock for its obstinacy.
To properly dismantle the BCS, we need to start by defining a suitable alternative. An argument against something is hollow without a superior substitute. So before we get to the goriest details of everything wrong with the BCS, we’ll take you through all that’s right with our playoff plan, something that would stand on its own even without the BCS serving as a sham of a solution.
“The single most frustrating notion is, ‘We understand it’s not perfect, but it’s the best we can do,’ ” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said. “That’s just irritating. There are a lot of smart people, creative people.”
In seeking the optimal playoff plan, we did something the Cartel would never dare: We talked with those smart, creative people — conference commissioners, marketing professionals, athletic directors, television executives, economists, professors, bowl representatives, NFL executives, and more. They brainstormed, hypothesized, planned, and ruminated, and together it came, an impermeable idea whose lone impediment is six men and the control they refuse to cede.
What follows is no fantasy, no wild theory, no pipe dream that’s alive only in some heavenly place where Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant are coaching against each other. It’s tangible and feasible, and it benefits every TV entity, every university, every player, every coach, and especially every fan. This is what a real playoff looks like.