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BENNER: New football playoff will create more problems than it solves

July 7, 2012

So many thoughts, so few words …

Everyone who thinks major college football’s new four-team playoff will quiet the controversies that have dogged the Bowl Championship Series needs a reality check.

Bottom line is, if anything, it will only create more problems than it solves.

Yes, beginning in 2014, we will have a four-team national championship playoff, with semifinals integrated into the current bowl system and the championship game to be bid out to a neutral site.

National sports media have eagerly embraced the playoff even though it will encourage more of the behaviors they decry.

With literally hundreds of millions of dollars on the line—the playoff reportedly will fetch $5 billion over 10 years—and the incumbent pressures that will be brought to bear, does anyone think for a moment that any institution, save your occasional Vanderbilt, Northwestern or Stanford, will believe recruiting young men who are more “student” than “athlete” is the way to go?

Furthermore, contracts for coaches (as we have witnessed in men’s basketball) will be more and more tied to big bonuses for playoff access, with disproportionate incentives placed on such piddling things as academic progress and graduation rates.

Oh, and if you think there are howls of protest now being sounded by proponents of the 69th, 70th or 71st team left out of a berth in the NCAA’s Division I basketball tournament, you will need earplugs when we hear from teams just on the outside looking in at football’s new “final four.”

Next will come the criteria to determine the four playoff teams and, just as important, the people who will make the determination. Look for the selection committee to be stacked with representatives from the power conferences.

Then there will be the inevitable diffusion of the importance of the regular season, which always has been one of major college football’s greatest strengths. Again, you have to look no further than college basketball to see that most of what happens before March Madness is irrelevant.

Then there are the simple logistics for fans who will be asked to make one trip to a distant bowl for a semifinal, then turn around within days to make another trip.

And in the entire discussion, I have not seen anyone raise the issue of what might be best for the student-athletes.

• On the local front, we present the Indianapolis Indians, our Triple-A baseball franchise that has long sold fans on the experience of going to Victory Field for a game more so than going to see a win.

Only the Tribe has been on a tear, compiling the best record in the International League and a commanding lead in its division. Hats off to CEO Max Schumacher, General Manager Cal Burleson, Manager Dean Treanor and their team.

• Finally, the Indiana Pacers. Let it be said that center Roy Hibbert is not worth the $58 million, four-year contract he is being offered by the Portland Trailblazers. But, in the NBA, dollars rarely make sense.

Thus, the Pacers have almost no choice but to pony up and match the offer. No. 1, good big men are difficult to come by. No. 2, losing him would leave a huge hole in a team on the rise. No. 3, Hibbert is a good person in the community and his Area 55 fanatics in Bankers Life Fieldhouse bring a much-needed atmosphere to games.

In the meantime, it was good to see the Pacers lock up local-kid-makes-good George Hill, though you do have to wonder how it will affect Darren Collison’s future.

Finally, welcome back, Donnie Walsh. Yes, he whiffed on some decisions late in his first go-around with the Pacers, but his long-term impact on the franchise and the teams he assembled over a 10-year stretch provided this city its first presence in the national pro sports limelight. It’s also good to see a Bloomington kid, Kevin Pritchard, become the Pacers’ new GM.

That said, I don’t pretend to know the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to the exit of previous GM David Morway. But he also deserves a major measure of credit for his role in the franchise’s turnaround.•

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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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