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John Underwood
January 19, 1976
In St. Louis this week, NCAA schools will vote on a proposal setting up a tournament to select a national champion. Advocates say it would not affect the bowls, but the author claims it would kill them
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January 19, 1976

Football's Dilemma: Bowls Or Playoffs

In St. Louis this week, NCAA schools will vote on a proposal setting up a tournament to select a national champion. Advocates say it would not affect the bowls, but the author claims it would kill them

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What are they doing there in St. Louis this week, those delegates to the NCAA convention? Why, they are going to see if they can change college football—"for the better," of course. The device under consideration is a playoff system designed to produce each year a national collegiate football champion bearing the official stamp. And to accomplish this they are going to see once more if they can make five or so major conferences and a number of prominent independents bow to the whim of the McNeese States and Lamar Universities. They are talking about instituting a process that would inexorably devalue the bowl games, and at the same time risk diminishing fat revenues from two major television networks. And, not to exclude those who make it all possible, they are going to see if they can give our young athletes a chance to work even harder for less reward, less being what has been legislated for them regularly in recent years.

They are going to do this, if the vote goes that way, by transcending "meaningless" bowl games with a meaningless playoff series that will provide ABC, as the likely recipient of the package, a ratings windfall. The schools that never go to a bowl or contend for the national championship—and don't much care, but do vote—will receive perhaps a few extra bucks, unguaranteed. The offices of the NCAA, which do not make a penny off the bowl games but reap 50% of the net from the NCAA-run basketball playoffs, will get a financial boost. And the fans of college football will have the illusion of recognizing a single winner (or "national champion") and, quid pro quo, 133 losers. It's surefire stuff in the National Football League, where they do it every year. Of course, the NFL only has to crown 25 losers.

A group of college administrators (coaches, athletic directors, conference representatives, but no bowl people) known as the NCAA Playoffs Feasibility Study Committee, headed up by a former baseball coach named Ernie Casale, athletic director at Temple, has passed on to the NCAA Council and the Executive Committee this beguiling prospect. The group's proposal is to be voted on at the meeting in St. Louis. To become NCAA law it needs only a simple majority of the 134 football-playing members of Division I.

On the surface the plan of Casale's group seems reasonable enough. It offers a post-bowl playoff. It recommends that either two of the bowl contestants or four be selected by a committee on Jan. 2, 1977 to play for the championship. Once the playoffs get rolling, Casale says, a more comprehensive format can be created. Casale admits it would be simpler if there were no bowls, though he insists "nobody wants to hurt the bowl games." Jim Armstrong, president of the Orange Bowl, says that the plan would not hurt the bowls—it would be their death knell. Armstrong's is the majority opinion of bowl people. This does not faze Casale. He says if the bowls should go under, the playoffs would then expand easily into a full-fledged tournament, with quarterfinals, semifinals, the works. But not to worry, says Casale. The bowls, he says, really will be enhanced by the playoffs.

Well, if that's the case, why are the bowl committees screaming? Why does William H. Nicholas, chairman of the Rose Bowl football committee, say he is "opposed," and that so are the Big Ten and Pacific Eight Conferences, which supply the Rose teams? Why did faculty representatives of those two leagues vote against the playoff plan? Why does Boyd McWhorter of the SEC say his league is "categorically opposed"? Why is Wayne Duke of the Big Ten "definitely opposed"? And why does Chuck Neinas of the Big Eight call the plan a "pig in a poke?" Why, indeed, has every major bowl and conference except the ACC expressed opposition?

Some very knowledgeable people are for playoffs. Bud Wilkinson, the ex-Oklahoma coach and resident ABC-TV football analyst, is one. Wilkinson agrees with Casale that since the colleges play to championships in every other major sport it would be "philosophically sound" for them to play through to a football championship, and thus stop relying on the bad mechanism of wire service polls. Wilkinson argues accurately that the colleges give December away to the pros, and that some format incorporating the minor bowls should be adopted to take advantage of that month.

"The bowls as they are," says Wilkinson (though professing to be a "bowl man from way back"), "do not prove a thing." And The New York Times columnist Dave Anderson said recently that the bowl games in their present makeup are a drag. The fact that the Rose Bowl game consistently ranks higher in the Nielsen TV ratings than all the pro football playoffs save the Super Bowl does not alter these opinions. Neither, it would seem, does the fact that bowl results have had a direct bearing on the final polls every year since 1969, when the Associated Press switched to a post-bowl ballot. Nor the fact that the polls are weekly stimuli to nationwide interest in the college game.

The question to be answered, however, is not what the bowls prove but what the playoffs would prove. Most college football playoff schemes are no more than extensions of the season, with an arbitrary selection process that would be no less controversial or objectionable than the polls. Anderson says that the playoff plan of Casale's group is "similar to the NFL's." It could not be more dissimilar. With only 26 teams, the NFL is geared for the purpose of exalting one winner. In the NCAA, even if another in-house proposal to group the major conferences and leading independents in an upper bracket of 81 schools is enacted, the dilemma of choosing among the contenders would continue to be staggering.

Had a committee been required to choose two teams from the bowl results of the season past, how much noise would have come out of Alabama if Oklahoma and Arizona State, ranked 1-2 in the final polls, were selected? Alabama won its last 11 in a row. If, in a four-team showdown, Oklahoma, Arizona State, Alabama and Ohio State were chosen, how could one justify excluding Arkansas, the Cotton Bowl winner, or UCLA, which routed Ohio State in the Rose Bowl? If an eight-team playoff—not among present recommendations—were drawn up to match the Big Ten, Big Eight, Pac-8, SEC and SWC champions with three at-large teams in the bowls, would Arizona State have been included? Or would the selection committee throw up its hands and go to 16 teams? To 32?

Casale is flushed with the success of the NCAA basketball tournament, having helped put it together for five years, and can envision the same thing for football. The comparison breaks down quickly because the basketball tournament begins with 32 teams, each having played 25 games or more. In basketball a 32-team tournament can be consummated easily within three weeks. A 32-team football playoff would require five weeks, and the winner would wind up having played half as many games in the tournament as it played to get there.

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