BENNER: Sanders in the past, college playoffs in the future

September 18, 2010

Of this, that and the other while wondering what to do with my No. 21 Indianapolis Colts jersey:

And speaking of safety Bob Sanders, it appears we may have seen the end of his career with yet another injury, another torn bicep suffered in the season-opening loss at Houston. As of this writing, he was being evaluated by a specialist.

We’ll hope for the best and be prepared for the worst, given Sanders’ history.

That said, the level of personal vitriol directed in public forums at the former defensive player of the year is unfair.

I’m guessing there is no one anywhere who wants to be able to play—and earn his sizable paycheck—more than Bob Sanders. But he plays all-out in a violent sport, and the result has been a series of injuries—foot, ankle, knee, arm, torn biceps—that have kept him more off the field than on it.

Can it be anything more than bad luck? Certainly, it’s not inadequate physical preparation or conditioning. It’s not that he plays recklessly. Fact is, the NFL does not allow for Sanders or anyone to play at 80 percent in order to avoid injury. And he’s a defender—a hitter, not a hittee—unlike a quarterback who can slide to avoid contact or a running back or receiver who can duck out of bounds.

Colts President Bill Polian is being criticized for signing Sanders to a contract extension that brought with it $20 million in guaranteed money. Certainly, anyone as savvy as Polian did so with the best information that could be had at the time with regard to Sanders’ health. Remember, too, that when Polian did that deal, Sanders was coming off a pivotal role in the Colts’ Super Bowl run, followed by his defensive player of the year effort in 2007.

In short, Polian looked at the now and bet on the future … and lost.

I don’t have sympathy for Sanders. If this is, indeed, the end of his playing career, he will—or should—walk away with enough money to allow for a comfortable lifestyle and, we hope, the health to live normally.

But those who imply that he was somehow too soft or too happy spending extended time on the injured list are just wrong-headed.

Moving on. As a traditionalist, I have long advocated leaving major college football the way it is—without an NFL-style playoff to determine a national champion. But with the continued shuffling in alignment among the so-called “power” conferences, I concede that a playoff is inevitable within the next four to five years.

Within that time frame, I could see five, 16-team conferences for a total of 80 teams in a new Football Championship Division. Four of them would be the Big Ten, the Southeastern, the Atlantic Coast and the Pac-10. The fifth would be either a reconstituted Big East or Big 12, depending upon who gets gobbled up as the others expand. Independent University of Notre Dame and (soon-to-be) independent Brigham Young University would have to find a conference home for football. Leagues such as the Mountain West and the Western Athletic, if still viable after losing some of their members to the power conferences, would be left on the outside looking in at automatic access to the playoff.

The five conference champions and three at-large teams—thus opening a slot for a Boise State University-type team from outside the power conferences—would compose an eight-team playoff. Quarterfinals could be played before Christmas, semifinals on New Year’s Day, and the championship game a week to 10 days later. Traditional bowls (Rose, Orange, Sugar, Fiesta) could rotate as hosts for the semifinals and the championship.

The four quarterfinals losers and all others not in the playoff could still fill non-championship bowls such as the Sun, Cotton, Peach, Liberty, Gator, etc.

Of course, the television money would be enormous and, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. For better or worse.

As I said, I’m old school. So while I understand that flashy LED ribbon boards are among the must-have amenities in today’s arenas and stadiums and that Conseco Fieldhouse is one of only two NBA arenas that lacks the ribbon board and the advertising revenue it can generate, the fieldhouse will certainly lose a measure of its retro charm with the decision to spend $1.6 million to install a ribbon board in advance of the Indiana Pacers season.

Just please don’t put one in Hinkle Fieldhouse.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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