A College Super Bowl Inches Closer To The Goal

Come New Year's, at least one college football team will be crying foul. That seems the surest bet of the holiday season, as the antiquated bowls-and-polls system once again leaves players, coaches, and fans clamoring for a better way to determine the national champion of the campus gridiron. The organizers of the Federal Express Orange Bowl are hyping their game between unbeaten Nebraska and once-beaten Florida State as the battle for No.1. But what about undefeated West Virginia, which could deck the University of Florida in the USF&G Sugar Bowl and be relegated to runner-up without getting a shot at the title? And if FSU beats Nebraska and Notre Dame knocks off Texas A&M in the Mobil Cotton Bowl, fans of the Fighting Irish are sure to claim the title, because their team beat FSU in November. For the third time in four years, a split decision in the polls is a distinct possibility.

One antidote to this confusion would be a playoff system culminating in a college Super Bowl. Besides deciding the national title on the field, such a tournament would infuse college football's postseason with a structured drama that the lineup of minor bowls featuring also-rans lacks. "A playoff would make all the games meaningful," says Charles M. Neinas, executive director of the College Football Assn., which represents two-thirds of the major schools.

For years, the colleges have argued that a playoff would sound the death knell for the bowls and increase the time demands placed on student-athletes. Now, the CFA and the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s Presidents Commission are considering playoff proposals that could be voted on by the 106 Division I-A members--the top football schools--in January, 1995.

Even opponents of a playoff system concede that financial considerations have given the debate new urgency. "Money's tight, and we have to look at all possible sources of new income," says University of California at Los Angeles Chancellor Charles E. Young, whose research group will present its recommendations to the NCAA's Presidents Commission in March.

Despite generating millions from football, more than half of all I-A athletic departments ran deficits in 1990, according to the NCAA, a problem sure to be exacerbated by recent court decisions ordering the colleges to spend more money on female sports. Their appetites whetted by megabuck proposals from Nike Inc. and Walt Disney Co., college officials believe that a 16-team tourney could generate as much as $150 million, which would sure help alleviate the cash crunch.

"ON THE TABLE." In his annual address to the membership in January, 1993, NCAA Executive Director Richard D. Schultz placed the weight of his office behind a one-game playoff, which he predicted would fetch $65 million. "Dick put [the issue] on the table, which made us have to deal with it," says UCLA's Young. The idea lost a strong voice when Schultz was forced to resign earlier this year. His successor, former University of Arizona Athletic Director Cedric Dempsey, has vowed not to take sides. But Schultz predicts: "Ultimately, the playoff issue will be decided on its financial merits."

With 18 bowl games now fighting the National Football League playoffs for dates amid splintered ratings, "there's a certain cannibalization taking place" among the bowls, says Bruce Skinner, former executive director of the Fiesta Bowl. Any short-term solution is likely to include the bowls, which will drop some $72 million into the colleges' pockets this year.

Three years ago, the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, and Sugar bowls formed a coalition to produce better matchups and reduce the clamor for a playoff. But despite creating a second straight No.1 vs. No.2 matchup, the system is flawed because it will leave at least one team with a legitimate gripe. Once-reticent bowl officials are now cooperating with the CFA's playoff committee, whose plan will be unveiled next May. "The bowls realize that the coalition is just an intermediate step," says the CFA's Neinas. With TV contracts with ESPN and ABC expiring in 1995, the CFA sees a playoff of its own as a way to increase its value to television. One proposal calls for a 16-game tourney building to a championship game the Saturday before the Super Bowl. NFL officials downplay any impact on their game, but such a scenario clearly could cut into the big league's January monopoly and compete for precious ad dollars.

THE DEFENSE. Replacing the bowls with a 16-team playoff would give every contender a fair shot at the big prize and would neutralize the "strength of schedule" debate that dominates so many controversial finishes. But such a plan also would eliminate more than half of the teams that now qualify for postseason play--and likely extend the year for a battle-weary few. "We have to remember that we're dealing with students, who shouldn't be asked to do much more," notes University of Notre Dame Executive Vice-President E. William Beauchamp.

Even if Neinas can produce a plan that his 64 teams will support on the convention floor, the CFA faces a major roadblock. The members of the Big Ten and Pacific-10, who enjoy a combined $13.5 million annual payoff from the Rose Bowl and aren't members of the CFA, refuse to consider participating in a playoff. "Just because the fans want [a playoff] doesn't make it right for our institutions," says Pac-10 Commissioner Tom Hansen.

While CFA presidents come down on all sides of the playoff debate, most of their counterparts in the Pac-10 and the 11-team Big Ten believe that adding

an extra layer of games would be contrary to their reform movement and lead to greater commercialism. Not having 21 of the game's most important teams would hurt the playoff plan, but it probably wouldn't sideline it. With the NFL taking heat lately for the monotony of the league, and with the big-buck playoff payoff luring cash-strapped institutions of higher learning, a college Super Bowl looks more and more inevitable.