It all started the night before Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States.
While the Volunteer State was still coming to grips with Phillip Fulmer’s dismissal as the University of Tennessee football coach earlier that Nov. 3 day, Obama made the following observation on ESPN during its “Monday Night Football” telecast:
“I think it’s about time that we had playoffs in college football. I’m fed up with these computer rankings and this and that and the other. Get eight teams — the top eight teams right at the end. You’ve got a playoff. Decide on a national champion.”
It sounded like pure politics then, a last-second attempt to woo the anti-Bowl Championship Series crowd, of which there are millions.
But Obama hasn’t backed off that sentiment a single time in the 76 days since. Shortly after the election he told “60 Minutes” that he intended to “throw my weight around a little bit” concerning a playoff.
“Eight teams,” he added. “That would be three rounds to determine a national champion. It would add three extra weeks to the season. You could trim back the regular season. I don’t know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this.”
Never mind that Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive and Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner — and current BCS coordinator — John Swafford strongly disagree, as well as the vast majority of college presidents.
“For now, our constituencies — and I know (Obama) understands constituencies — have settled on the current BCS system,” Swafford responded. “The majority believe this is the best system yet to determine a national champion while also maintaining the college football regular season as the best and most meaningful in sports.”
The president-elect fired back on Jan. 9, the day after Florida knocked off Oklahoma in the BCS title game.
“If I’m Utah, or if I’m USC, or if I’m Texas, I might still have some quibbles,” Obama said. “That’s why we need a playoff.”
So will this become the great crusade of Obama’s first 100 days in office once he’s sworn in Tuesday? Especially with all that spare time he’ll have between dealing with war, an economy in ruins, a health care crisis and global warning, arguably the most fearsome foursome at the moment.
“Listen, after the circus atmosphere that surrounded the investigation into steroids and baseball, my first advice to Congress and the White House is to stay out of sports completely,” said U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee’s 3rd District.
“I certainly think a playoff system is meritorious, and I sit around every bowl season waiting for the BCS to self-destruct,” Wamp added. “But I also believe the president-elect is far better served focusing on national security, health care reform and an economic stimulus package before he thinks about a college football playoff.”
At least a handful of Wamp’s colleagues and the Utah attorney general apparently believe otherwise, beginning with California congressman Gary Miller, who Friday introduced the Miller Plan (H.R. 599). It would prohibit the receipt of federal funds from schools with a football team unless the national championship game is the culmination of a playoff.
The bill is based on Title IX, which forced the NCAA to give equal money to women’s sports.
“There is no reason the NCAA should continue to disadvantage certain schools when every other major college sport’s championship is settled through a playoff,” Miller said in a prepared statement.
Under Miller’s plan, all NCAA schools participating in the Football Bowl Subdivision would be required to stage a playoff within three years of the bill’s passage. Current bowls could be a part of that system. Miller did not designate how many teams should make the playoff.
But this political frustration with the BCS has been going on for years, almost since Tennessee won the first BCS title game over Florida State after the 1998 season.
As far back as 2003, Joe Biden — the vice president-elect — referred to the BCS as “un-American” and said it looked “like a rigged deal” in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
In 2005, Texas state senator Jeff Wentworth introduced a bill that would have prohibited all Texas schools from playing in the BCS unless a playoff was begun. Had the bill not died, Texas could not have won that year’s BCS title.
Later that same year, Texas congressman Joe Barton began a hearing on the BCS, though he wished no legislation be passed at that time. However, in December 2008 — just after the Texas Longhorns were denied a spot in the BCS title game — Barton introduced a bill to eliminate the BCS.
If passed, it would prohibit the BCS title game being promoted as a national championship game unless a playoff was in place.
Another resolution proposed by congressmen Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah) calls for the Department of Justice to “investigate and bring appropriate actions against the parties of the BCS.”
Then there is Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff, who says he is investigating the BCS for possible antitrust violations after undefeated Utah was left out of the national championship game for the second time in five years. Shurtleff has held firm even as the Salt Lake Tribune criticized him in a recent editorial: “Our economy is exploding. Utahns are losing their jobs and homes. Budget cuts will be required. And our state’s top lawyer is preoccupied with scoring a political touchdown with Utah football fans.”
Wrote the attorney general on his blog last weekend: “The University of Utah and some other NCAA Division I-A schools in Utah are taxpayer funded institutions, and I have a duty to protect and defend them against violations of the law.”
A U.S. president getting involved in sports is nothing new.
Distraught by 18 college football-related deaths in 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt summoned presidents from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House to find a remedy for those tragedies. The NCAA was formed a year later.
Long before George W. Bush weighed in on baseball and steroids, Richard Nixon was drawing up plays for Washington Redskins coach George Allen to run. Nixon also declared Texas the 1969 college football national champ after its regular-season win at Arkansas, despite Penn State finishing 11-0.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno later quipped, “I don’t know how Richard Nixon could know so much about football in 1969 and so little about Watergate in 1973.”
Having done his undergraduate work at Columbia and earned his law degree from Harvard, Obama perhaps shouldn’t appear to know so much about the BCS, since the Ivy League doesn’t play postseason football.
But even the coaching lords of BCS football have often attacked.
“I think it stinks,” Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll has said more than once.
“You’ve got to blow it up,” noted Florida coach Urban Meyer, presumably on a year he didn’t win it, as he has two of the last three seasons. But he was also coach of the undefeated Utah team in 2004.
“Send the best eight teams and let them play it off,” Texas coach Mack Brown told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “whether we do it now or three or four years from now. In most years, there are going to be six to 10 teams better than the others, and it’s tough to say who is best without a playoff.”
No easy answers
Slive attempted to find a compromise last summer by introducing a “plus one” format to the current system, which would make two of the current bowls semifinals with the winning teams playing an extra game.
It was swiftly voted down. Even if it had been in place, it wouldn’t have helped Utah this season, despite the Utes being the lone undefeated team in a BCS bowl.
A widely respected attorney, Slive has been reluctant to say much about the Obama factor. However, he did e-mail this newspaper the following statement:
“The comments of president-elect Obama reinforce the popularity and importance of college football in this country. While I’m against a formal playoff, I would enjoy the opportunity to speak with him at any time about the positives of Plus One.”
Of course, for all the criticism of the BCS, one of its contributors noted an interesting positive in an article he wrote for the Weekly Standard.
“In the 30 seasons prior to the BCS’s inception, what we now call ‘non-BCS-conference teams’ didn’t play in a single major bowl game — not one,” penned Jeffrey H. Anderson, who along with Chris Hester created one of the six computer rankings used in the BCS formula. “Since the 2005 bowl season they have played in four — and won three.”
What any of this will mean a year or two or five from now, when the current BCS agreement expires, is unknown.
But at least two viewpoints deserve a final mention.
The first comes from Obama press secretary and Auburn grad Robert Gibbs, who probably is still bitter that the Tigers were undefeated in 2004 but were denied a spot in that year’s title game.
Said Gibbs to Politico.com: “I think the role (Obama) thinks he can play is as a high profile (figure) who will continue to speak out until college football has the playoff it deserves.”
The second is from Tennessee junior defensive back Eric Berry, who said Friday: “I think a playoff would be great, but I think President Obama has bigger fish to fry right now.”
Is it too early to vote Berry the 2009 Heisman Trophy on brains alone?
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...