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SPORTS: College football playoff is, suddenly, on the table

January 14, 2008

In the aftermath of the Bowl Championship Series' "championship" game, University of Georgia President Michael Adams didn't just lob a grenade.

He dropped a bombshell.

Like many of his presidential colleagues, Adams has long been an opponent of the continued calls for major college football to go to some kind of national championship playoff.

But on Jan. 8, just hours after two-loss LSU claimed the title with a one-sided victory over Ohio State, Adams unveiled a plan calling for an eight-team playoff that would involve the four major bowl games (Rose, Fiesta, Orange, Sugar) in the first round, followed by semifinals and a championship game in succeeding weeks in January.

This playoff plan came from the man who is chairman of the NCAA's powerful executive committee, which has considerable input in setting policy and direction for the association.

Adams detailed his plan in a strongly worded letter to NCAA President Myles Brand in which he said the BCS "is undercutting the sportsmanship and integrity of the game."

He said the networks "have grown too powerful in deciding who plays and when they play and, indeed, whom they hire to coach. The [BCS] has become a beauty contest largely stage-managed by the networks, which in turn protect the interests of their own partner conferences.

"Colleges need to regain ownership of their football teams ... the fact is that the networks and conferences exercise much more control over the football teams at this level than the institutions that sponsor them."

Truer words have rarely been spoken. Around here, we need look no further for an example than the Big Ten Network, the subject of past and future columns.

But to Adams' point, I've always been mystified why the NCAA-and, especially, the presidents-ceded control of Division IA's postseason to the conference commissioners and allowed them to cut their own deals.

I mean, who works for whom?

Beyond the issue of a playoff, shouldn't there be only one entity-the NCAA-negotiating championship rights on behalf of all Division I-A members? As it is now, the BCS has cut one deal with Fox while the Big Ten and Pac 10 are aligned with ABC/ESPN.

I haven't been a proponent of a playoff, but I was big-time disappointed by the BCS matchups. Illinois did not belong in the Rose Bowl, Hawaii was sadly overmatched in the Sugar Bowl, and Missouri was unfairly shuffled off to the non-BCS Cotton Bowl. And, in hindsight, that was a flawed Ohio State team that made it to the title game.

To be fair, Adams'sudden push for a playoff smacks of sour grapes. After all, his Georgia Bulldogs believed they belonged in this year's national championship game despite two defeats and failure to win the Southeastern Conference championship.

Still, there's ample reason to believe Adams at least can force some kind of playoff arrangement to move beyond idle chatter. But don't think it will come easily. The Big Ten and Pac 10, whose ABC Rose Bowl contract runs through 2014, have let it be known they are adamantly against any arrangement that would threaten their Rose Bowl tradition.

Indeed, Ohio State President Gordon Gee has declared, "They will wrench a playoff out of my cold, dead hands."

It's conceivable that if the Big Ten and Pac 10 insisted on protecting their Rose Bowl arrangement, a playoff could proceed without them. Conceivable, but highly unlikely.

For his part, the NCAA's Brand has said he's happy to allow the Division I board of directors to at least initiate a committee review. Allowing the conferences to control football's postseason is "not bad if it works well," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The question is, if it works well."

Again, I'm not crazy about a playoff. I believe no matter where you draw the line-four teams, eight teams, 16 teams-there still will be controversy. I believe extending the season is simply too much. I believe there are practical, logistical and economic hurdles that would hurt the fans. And, yes, I believe there comes a point at which too much is being asked of athletes who are also students at a time when academic accountability should be a greater priority and not a diminishing afterthought.

But I do agree there needs to be a discussion. And the presidents, not conference commissioners or network executives, should lead it.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. To comment on this column, send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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