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College Football: Change You Can(‘t) Believe In!

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Historians agree that the first ever college football season took place in 1869. It included two games, two teams, and rules that now only minutely resemble what we've come to know as football. Historians also tell us that in spite of there being only two games played between two teams, the 1869 college football season nonetheless had a National Championship game and a declared National Champion.

The first college football game was between Rutgers and Princeton. The New Jersey universities are a mere 20 miles apart and proximity had fueled a ferocious rivalry between the two schools almost from their inception. Earlier in 1869 Rutgers had been soundly beaten by Princeton in a baseball game, by a score of 40-2. In an effort to square things up Rutgers issued Princeton a new challenge, this time in "football."

The agreement was that three games were to be played. In the first game played on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, Rutgers won a close fought battle. Princeton won the second game fairly handily at their home campus. Unfortunately, a third game would be prevented from ever occurring. Concerns by faculties of both institutions of "over-emphasis" on sport rather than student studies ensured that the challenge would end at two games. A few years later the Billingsley Report and the National Championship Foundation deemed the second contest the de facto National Championship Game, and just like that Princeton became the official champions of college football's first ever season. Now, if you visit Princeton's website you will see they list 1869 as one of their 28 National Championships. To the naked eye, awarding the College Football National Championship to Princeton based on winning one of two games with Rutgers seems unmerited if not arbitrary. But, that was college football in the nascent years and, besides, there would be ample time to clear any murkiness in the system of its impurities.

Flash forward to college football's most recent season. LSU and Alabama were unbeaten in every game they played last year, but one --- with the two teams each having beaten the other. Yet Alabama, who was unable to defeat LSU on their home turf (a loss that prevented Alabama from winning the SEC Championship or even their division within the conference), was awarded the 2012 National Championship because their victory over LSU to end the season was perceived to be the more definitive victory. After 143 years one would think the manner in which a true and credible champion is determined would be refined to near harmonious perfection, but last year's result appears to have shown that college football is still not convinced they've got it right.

On Tuesday of this week the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee provided the final ratifying vote that will, for the first time in the history of major college football, pave the way for a playoff system to once and for all determine an indisputable national champion. It is a moment many have been waiting for their whole lives, but I encourage you to check your pom-poms at the door. Because while it took college football 143 years to get to a point where they would even seriously consider a playoff and given that amount of time one could expect one hell of a well brewed solution, what we have arrived at is something that might not be all that it should be (and it would not be the first time---by a long shot---that college football dipped its toe in the water and announced that it's swimming). Here's what we know so far. There will be:

  • A four team seeded playoff. (That BCS internal documents revealingly referred to this so-called playoff as the "Four Team Event" should provide a modicum of insight into the mindset in play here).
  • A rotation of two semifinal games played among six bowl sites and rotation of the championship game among neutral sites.
  • A championship game managed by the conferences and not branded as a bowl game. (The semifinals, however, will be managed by the various bowls who are awarded these games).
  • The creation of a selection committee that will rank the teams to play in the playoff, "giving all the teams an equal opportunity to participate." (My emphasis added via italics.)
  • Selection criteria that is to be considered is win-loss record, strength of schedule, head-to-head results and whether a team is a conference champion. (The exact formula that will calculate these criteria is yet to be determined, if ever. And, as long as Notre Dame is not affiliate with a conference they will be outside of the bounds of how every other team is evaluated.)

So, after years of clamoring for a playoff from fans, players, coaches and members of congress even, is this the watershed moment when major college football joins the rest of NCAA intercollegiate sports with a rigorous comprehensive examination that pits the best against the best?

I'm not so sure.

Jim Delany is convinced that college football has become the second biggest sport in America.

"College football has separated itself," Delany told the media in August of last year. "The NFL is the most popular sport in America by a long shot. But college football, for a variety of reasons over the last decade, has separated itself from college basketball, pro baseball, pro basketball and hockey."

Okay, so there's research that suggests that, in fact, Major League Baseball might be a bit more important to sports fans. Nevertheless Jim Delany's point is compelling: college football is a growing monster of a spectator sport that has only scratched the surface of its potential as an entertainment cash cow. National television access to college football games is at an all-time high. News coverage of college football has evolved into a year ‘round media endeavor. Even high school recruiting has become widespread entertainment with 17-year olds broadcasting dramatically (replete with hat and jersey swapping denouements) where they plan to take their talents on live statewide newscasts or in some cases nationally on ESPN. Time will tell, but a playoff event could be the definitive change that finally elevates college football's importance to American sports fans, well beyond every other sport with the exception of the National Football League.

It's worth asking though, is college football really embracing a playoff because the public outcry over the manner in which champions are decided has become just too unruly, or are the commissioners merely seeing the light on the financial windfall that likely awaits such a change? It's likely a smooth Scotch blend of both. But when you consider that every other sport in the NCAA has been decided by a fairly, if not onerously, rigorous playoff or tournament of some sort or another, with the one exception of major college football, it begs reflection on how---within the typically high-minded context of higher learning and with the tacit approval of professed learned people---this has been able to be the case for so long.

The Ever-Changing Definition Of Merit

To understand how major college football for nearly 150 years was able to avoid an objective and transparent process in determining a National Champion one need look no further than another integral feature of collegiate life, the college admissions process.

In the early 1900s Ivy League colleges were thriving thanks primarily to an increased interest among Americans in higher education. At the time the Ivy League determined that to find the hardest working, most capable, and deserving students they needed a tool that could single these folks out with great accuracy and reliability. They settled on the College Entrance Examination Board tests, and to the delight of the Ivy League institutions they worked. The best students were being identified and getting admitted. However, shortly thereafter a problem began to emerge. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in an article he wrote in 2005 for The New Yorker,

In 1905, Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination Board tests as the principal basis for admission, which meant that virtually any academically gifted high-school senior who could afford a private college had a straightforward shot at attending. By 1908, the freshman class was seven per cent Jewish, nine per cent Catholic, and forty-five per cent from public schools, an astonishing transformation for a school that historically had been the preserve of the New England boarding-school complex known in the admissions world as St. Grottlesex.

Gladwell went on to note, Jews were perceived by the college presidents to not be good for business and for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, by 1922, Jews made up more than a fifth of Harvard's freshman class. Something had to be done.

The difficult part, however, was coming up with a way of keeping Jews out, because as a group they were academically superior to everyone else. [A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard's president in the nineteen-twenties,] first idea---a quota limiting Jews to fifteen per cent of the student body---was roundly criticized. Lowell tried restricting the number of scholarships given to Jewish students, and made an effort to bring in students from public schools in the West, where there were fewer Jews. Neither strategy worked. Finally, Lowell---and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton---realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit.

Malcolm Gladwell, "Getting In" (2005)

The admissions office at Harvard soon after became much more interested in the details of an applicant's "character" and admissions mandated that "persons who know the applicants well" provide a letter of reference. Harvard even began asking applicants to include a photograph, write personal essays, and list their extracurricular activities. Eventually applicants would be asked to provide information on their race, religion, mother's maiden name, and birthplace of the father. Ultimately the original determinant for admission, the College Entrance Examination became merely one part of a student's portfolio. It should also be noted that while concerns were triggered by the growing number of Jews being admitted to Harvard, it soon led to broader anxieties about "others" who might soon overwhelm the process too if it continued to rely exclusively on the merit of a student as measured by a test. In other words, if Jews could excel on the exams what would stop Spaniards, Poles and Asians from eventually excelling too?

Colleges needed something completely subjective and arbitrary and they needed to have complete control over the outcomes. Which meant they needed to obliterate transparency from the process so only the admissions office could know exactly why a student was to be admitted.

Sound familiar? It should.

For years in college football the National Champion was determined by several, and then fewer and fewer, polls conducted at year's end. College football teams would start their season without a clue as to what might determine the National Champion. They of course knew precisely what was needed to win a conference championship, but the National Championship was a riddle. In some years teams were awarded a National Championship before their season even concluded. Alabama, for example, was awarded a National Championship by the coaches poll before playing in their bowl game in 1964 and 1973. They would go on to lose their bowl games in both years, but the program still proclaims the championships from those years all the same. Eventually, as the popularity and the profit potential of college football grew there was a realization that the preexisting bowl contracts that conferences signed were preventing the perceived best teams in the country from meeting at the end of the year. College football's credibility was under assault, and so it was decided a new system was needed, one that would maintain the essential framework of the bowl system but one that would allow the perceived two best teams to square off. It was this concern that gave birth to the Bowl Championship Series.

The year was 1998 and after much negotiation the Tournament of Roses agreed to release the Big Ten and Pac-10 champion if either or both were needed to determine a National Champion. A selection process built around various rankings determined who was needed for the National Championship game. Of course, it is no surprise that selection continued to be at the root of controversy. Ultimately the BCS devised (and often revised) its own rankings to select who should be allowed to play in the National Championship game. Nevertheless each match-up would leave a deserving team on the outside looking in, and each year's slight breathed new life into concerns about fairness, culminating in last year's selection of Alabama as the National Champion---a team that failed to win anything other than a rematch with a foe they'd lost to at home earlier in the year. In the BCS era Alabama would be the first ever National Champion to not win a conference title.

Much like the college admissions process outlined above, the "formula" for the BCS standings lacked basic transparency and to many (especially non-AQ schools) appeared arbitrary and slanted egregiously toward the big boys. In the years prior to the BCS when polls identified champions there was no question that the various rankings were all biased---some regionally, others in more complex ways (most obviously the rankings were slanted toward historically winning programs and in some years toward celebrity coaches). In every year there were multiple polls and most awarded a National Championship Trophy. One of the promises of the BCS was that their rankings formula would draw from all credible rankings and produce a unified ranking that would produce the best, most deserving, most indisputable championship participants. BCS rankings were determined as follows:

I. Harris Interactive Poll (1/3rd)

II. Coaches Poll (1/3rd)

III. Computer rankings (1/3rd)

(Six different computer rankings were used)

The percentage totals of the Harris Interactive Poll, USA Today Poll, and the computer rankings are then averaged. The teams' averages are ranked to produce the BCS Standings.

One look at the formula reveals an enormous amount of subjectivity. Two-thirds of the formula has relied upon polling (better known as human opinion) and the final third has relied on computer rankings, that are each idiosyncratic and programmed emphasizing values near and dear to the biased whim of a so-called computer rankings expert.

Merit, in other words, has been a consistently moving target in major college football. The cynic will tell you it has been this way to protect the moneyed conferences and the power elite within those conferences, and of course, Notre Dame; while the supporter will tell you change has been a natural outgrowth of progression and maturity. In either case, the influence of rankings and polling over college football fans everywhere has been nothing short of fascinating.

The Postmodern Politics of Bowling

Most college football fans want their team to win, a lot. The casual fan may be a bit more indifferent, but most fans care a great deal about winning. And dating back to that first ever Rutgers game against Princeton, knowing whether or not your team has won has been a simple matter of score. But, knowing whether your team is a "winner" or not is an entirely different and much more complex question, and one that has for years been richly debated among and between fans.

This is where things get tricky too. Major college football has long made the argument that their unique organization of the post season through the bowl system has provided for something that no other college sport can claim, multiple winners! Consider the recently played College World Series won by Arizona. One winner, everyone else goes into the offseason having lost---everyone else. College football coaches have for years argued the merits of this unique feature of college football. It's a compelling argument too. I'm sure every team that won a BCS bowl game last year is left with the feeling their season was a smashing success. Even Oklahoma State, who made overtures to being screwed out of the National Championship game, likely feels much more contented than LSU. But what did Oklahoma State win exactly? Didn't they no more than win what is tantamount to an exhibition football game? At least LSU played for the National Championship! Sure Oklahoma State won the Big 12 Championship and that is a banner for their stadium and they will proclaim themselves winners of the prestigious Tostitos Fiesta Bowl but beyond that, what did Oklahoma State win that Houston didn't win? Houston won a conference title and their own exhibition game. So did West Virginia and TCU. There were several winners just like Oklahoma State in college football last year---teams that won a conference championship and won an exhibition bowl game. Ironically, Alabama did not.

Here is where we find the postmodern paradox of college football, we are told that just as in year's past there were many champions in college football but there was, unlike in year's past, also a national champion, one team that proved itself clearly above the rest and that team was the Alabama Crimson Tide. They were given the crystal (which, in an ominous sign from the football heavens, was shattered shortly after taking possession, but later replaced) and no one else does. Postmodernism embraces rankings and systems such as the BCS, because it's highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be objective and valid for all groups and instead focuses on the relative truths. See, in the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through your interpretation of what the world means to the individual. When I think of the impact of years and years of polling and rankings in college football I'm reminded of Chuck Klosterman's observation about MTV's "The Real World" in his 2003 book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs:

Technically, these people were completely different every year, but they were also exactly the same. And pretty soon it became clear that the producers of "The Real World" weren't sampling the youth of America - they were unintentionally creating it. By now, everyone I know is one of the seven defined strangers, inevitably hoping to represent a predefined demographic and always failing horribly. "The Real World" is the real world is "The Real World" is the real world. It's the same true story, even when it isn't (Klosterman, 28).

College football has never sought out to find the best team in the land; it has instead endeavored to create it. This is the fundamental grievance I take up with college football, and with this supposedly groundbreaking moment of a four team playoff right around the corner, I don't see things changing all that much. The system, despite now having a playoff dimension to it is still woefully rigged (perhaps inadvertently, but rigged nevertheless) thanks to the degree to which selection continues to dominate the thing. Notre Dame is already lobbying for strength of schedule (surprise!) to play the largest role in the selection process, because they lack the portfolio building block of winning a conference title. Earlier in the process of considering the playoff model, SEC chief Mike Slive also tamped down the importance of winning a conference title:

From the beginning of the talks, Slive (and by extension Bowlsby) wanted the nation's top four teams to be selected for the playoff, whether those teams won their conference championships or not. And why wouldn't he? The SEC has won six straight BCS titles and has had two teams ranked in the top four in three of the past six seasons. "This is not a tournament," Slive says. "This is trying to figure out who the best teams are and let them play for the national championship."


And you can be sure there will not be complete transparency when it comes time to "figuring out" who to select either---in other words, don't hold your breath waiting for the televised meeting of selected officials hashing out who plays in the thing and who doesn't and why.

I know in my heart of hearts and head of heads there are only a few teams at the start of each season that will be included in college football's real world competition and that those teams overwhelmingly tend to be the same teams over and over again. Because I am a fan on the outside looking in, because I am a fan of the Iowa Hawkeyes, I must idealistically engage the start of each new season with the open ended question, "What if...?" Yet, because I know my team is an interloper I know all too well what the likely answer to that open ended question will be, because I know how college football stubbornly impedes and excludes. Without a game having ever been played I think we all know precisely which 80+ teams next year, and the year after (and the year after that), will not be considered for even a nanosecond to play in the coveted playoff/event; it's been this way since time immemorial.

So while most of the college football community gets all keyed up about a four team event steered by a carefully selected selection committee of former coaches or players or monkeys or R2D2 or all of the above for all I know, I'll focus my energies on something that, in comparison, has far less predictability and infinitely more credibility... the Big Ten Championship.