By Keith Dunnavant
Highlights from college football, season of 2003: Oklahoma racks up one lopsided victory after another, ending its regular season by stomping Texas Tech 56-25. Michigan snuffs out Ohio State's hopes of a second consecutive national title by winning 35-21 in the 100th enactment of their archrivalry. And in Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings on the latest threat to the American way of life, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The senators listen gravely on Oct. 29 as Tulane University President Scott S. Cowen speaks for many other critics: "From our point of view, the BCS is unjust and unjustifiable."
Huh? Unjustifiable? The Bowl Championship Series, created five years ago to end the perennial catfights over which football power deserves to call itself the nation's best? Alas, yes. The BCS, by demarcating football's haves from its have-nots, has created a catfight of its own, complete with threats from the outsider conferences about antitrust lawsuits.
On Nov. 16, the parties met in New Orleans and emerged singing sweet songs of compromise: "Everybody acknowledged that the system has to change," says Cowen. "Now, it's just a question of how dramatically it will change." But the proof will be in the pigskin, and failure to close a deal could challenge the entire series and the megabucks it delivers.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Because college football long proved politically incapable of implementing a real playoff system, the BCS -- created by the major conferences and bowl games -- was billed as the next best thing. And indeed, it has infused the race for the mythical national championship with greater drama and credibility while generating a financial bonanza. This year, the six BCS conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and Southeastern) and independent powerhouse Notre Dame will share an estimated $90 million from the system.
It works by guaranteeing the winner of each conference a seat in one of the four BCS bowls. The teams ranked No. 1 and 2 by a mathematical formula meet in the title game, which rotates each year among the four bowls. "The BCS has served college football very well," says Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford. "It has created a true national championship game while cleaning up the bowl invitation process."
The BCS is no longer just a way to crown a champ, however. Within the 117-school Division 1-A football tier, the BCS conferences have evolved into a superdivision, a 62-college club that lavishes legitimacy and riches upon members while relegating the 55 excluded programs to irrelevance and relative poverty. The outsider schools will divide a mere $6 million from the BCS this year, unless one gets into a BCS bowl. To qualify, a non-BCS school must be ranked among the top six teams, according to the BCS formula. In such a case, the team also gets the fee for that game.
Ever since the BCS was launched, members of less prominent leagues, such as the Mid-American Conference and Conference USA, have complained that they're left out. They contend that the system not only makes them second-class citizens but also hurts them in recruiting, TV contracts, and the ability to compete financially against BCS schools. Twice this season, anti-BCS forces have testified before Congress, and before the latest hearing, Tulane's Cowen told BusinessWeek: "There are significant antitrust issues."
Of course, a financial and competitive gulf has always existed between giants such as Michigan, Texas, and Oklahoma, and lesser lights such as Bowling Green, Southern Miss, and San Jose State. For decades, the major bowls and the team unofficially anointed No. 1 have been dominated by the programs that now make up the six BCS conferences.
BCS school officials have insisted that their coalition merely reflects reality. "The BCS inherited a system," says Michael A. Tranghese, Big East commissioner. "The only difference is how the schools are chosen" for the bowls. Yet the BCS has become even more stratifying than the system it replaced. While the definition of a major program has varied through the years, allowing for at least the possibility of upward mobility, the BCS consortium seems to be fast assembling a permanent wall between major programs and wannabes. By Keith Dunnavant
Even inside the superdivision, ambition and fear have led to corporate-raider-style conflicts in the past six months. When the Atlantic Coast Conference this summer and fall lured Miami, Virginia Tech, and finally Boston College away from the Big East, the conference was effectively declaring war on one of its BCS partners. The move strengthened the ACC's ability to win fat TV contracts.
Another wild card is Notre Dame, currently an independent in football and a member of the Big East in other sports. Both the Big East and the ACC have lobbied the football Irish, which could infuse either conference with an unmatched jolt of charisma. The Big East on Nov. 4 raided Conference USA for five teams, including three football schools, a defensive measure intended to protect its BCS status.
"Everybody is trying to position themselves for the future, but that's difficult when you don't know what the future is going to be," says Loren Matthews, senior vice-president for programming at ABC Sports, which is paying $930 million over eight years for the rights to televise the four BCS games.
It would be much easier to dismiss the anti-BCS forces' party-crashing efforts if not for the effects of rule changes beginning in the 1970s that have slowly brought some parity to the game, partly by limiting the number of scholarships that schools can offer, which means the available talent is spread further around. Teams from the lowly Mid-American Conference (MAC) have upset four BCS programs so far this year, something that never would have happened 20 years ago.
Yet it's unlikely that any MAC team will earn a BCS berth. "I don't believe this was some sort of conspiracy," says Tulane's Cowen. "But the fact is, five years later there have been a lot of unintended consequences."
With the next round of BCS TV negotiations expected to begin in mid-2004, the issue of what form the series will take after the 2006 games has assumed greater urgency. The outsider conferences know they have a narrow window to alter the system, so they have been running their hurry-up offense in recent months. The Nov. 16 meeting brought together a committee of BCS school presidents, Cowen and other non-BCS chiefs, and Myles Brand, head of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Afterwards, the two sides announced that they would hire consultants to propose different models for change following the 2005 season. They expect to meet again in late January or early February. "We just want fairer access," says Rick Chryst, MAC commissioner.
Agreeing on what constitutes a fairer system will be no easy task. Short of a 16-team playoff, every other possible option remains on the table. The outsider conferences are pushing for automatic bids to the BCS, which would give them true parity with the major powers. That would require adding two more bowl games, which seems unlikely. A more plausible approach would be to add one new bowl game to the BCS while lowering the threshold necessary for outsiders to qualify.
While the presidents try to hammer out a compromise, some athletic officials continue to argue that any expansion of the system would run the risk of weakening it. "The question is: What does the marketplace want?" says the Big East's Tranghese. And TV, of course, will cast a large shadow: ABC Sports has been assured that it will be consulted about any changes. "But at the end of the day, it's the BCS's game, and they set the rules," says ABC's Matthews.
The problem is that college football doesn't exactly have a winning record when it comes to agreeing on how to divide the spoils.
Dunnavant is the author of Coach: The Life of Paul Bear Bryant