Skip to main content
Original Issue


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

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.

Most college coaches (Alabama's Bear Bryant and Oklahoma's Barry Switzer, for two) are outspoken in their belief that playoffs are unworkable and unwarranted. John McKay is now an ex-college coach, having defected to the pros, and he remains adamantly against playoffs. McKay was invited to be on Casale's Feasibility Committee but did not serve. "I'm against it," he said. "I'm staying home."

"Why do we need playoffs?" McKay said the other day after his last USC team beat Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl. "Because the pros have them? We have something better. We have eight or 10 teams who win their conferences, win bowl games, have great seasons. Ten winners instead of one. Everybody's happy. The alumni are happy. Recruiters are happy. They all say, 'We're No. 1.' The coach gets a raise. The players have a good time and get a new watch. Has anybody stopped to ask the players what they think? They're the ones who do all the work.

"The thing that kills me about the NCAA the past few years is that every piece of legislation that came along wound up being against the athlete. 'We're going to save money,' they said. So no more $15-a-month laundry money. No more money for supplies, which is a big item in engineering and architecture. Now they've taken away some of the tickets the player gets. And his letter jacket. Now they want that. They cut the number of scholarships last year and told us we couldn't dress a boy for a home game, even just to sit on the bench, if he was lower than the 60th player on the roster. When we went on the road we could only take 48. So we took 48 players to Notre Dame—and a 250-piece band. You tell me how that saves money.

"Now they're saying, 'Let's have a playoff. Let's let the players work an extra two or three weeks and make us some more money.' And how much fun is a boy going to have in Miami if the next week he might be playing somewhere else for the national championship? I'll tell you how much fun—none. The coach'll fly him in the night before and out the next day. Phweet-phweet. Hello, goodby."

Wilbur Evans of the Cotton Bowl says he cannot imagine the bowls existing to be "stepping stones." Bowl people think of them as ends in themselves, a unique and traditional part of college football that once lost could never be duplicated. Tom Hansen of the NCAA shares that feeling. "All these years when college football wasn't getting $18 million a year out of network television contracts," he says, "the bowls were giving it exposure and a lot of financial help. Most of us genuinely appreciate the energy and money they have put into their games."

All the major bowls are the love objects of a handful of paid personnel and an army of volunteers, often men of high standing in the community. Presidents of banks run errands; newspaper publishers usher at bowl parades; trial lawyers serve on entertainment committees. One of Marshall McDonald's jobs for the Orange Bowl was to make sure Michigan coaches had access to formal wear for the coronation ball, and to make available flowers and corsages. McDonald is chairman of the board of Florida Power and Light. A vice-president of Southern Bell saw to it that all the players got daily papers. Would these men be anxious to serve college football if their game was relegated to secondary status? Not likely, says Armstrong. Take away the illusion of being No. 1 from any bowl and it will probably shrivel up. The fans would stop following their teams long distances, in large numbers. There would be less reason for pageantry—for parades, for auxiliary sporting events—and less reason to perpetuate tradition.

And if it is presumptuous to think the bowl committees would participate in their own demotion, it is downright dangerous to believe the networks would. A figure of $2.5 to $3 million was bandied about by the Feasibility Committee as the worth of a championship game to, say, ABC, which has first refusal rights because it carries the weekly college games and will do so through 1977. The proposal calls for the money to be added on to the season's package, in a renegotiated contract, and to provide additionally for expenses of teams and individuals participating in other NCAA championship events.

It sounds fine until you consider this: NBC pays more than $3 million for Rose Bowl rights and pays the Orange Bowl a bundle as well. CBS pays the Cotton Bowl enough for each team to take home $900,000. Orange Bowl teams get about that, and each Rose Bowl team gets $1.4 million to share with its respective conference schools. Networks are willing to shell out these enormous amounts because in their present status bowl games are prestige items. But would NBC and CBS be so generous if their games were reduced to preliminaries? For that matter, would ABC—which chafes at not being able to land a Rose or Orange Bowl game—be willing to pay as much as it does now for the Sugar, Bluebonnet, Liberty and Gator if it had a lock on both the regular season and a championship playoff? ABC is mum, but it is not hard to figure the answer: not likely. Indeed, why should it?

Casale believes the playoff plan has enough votes to carry in St. Louis, "though it'll be very close." Support will come from predictable places. Listed after Alabama in Division I of the Collegiate Football Guide is Appalachian State. Alabama's stadium capacity is 69,000; Appalachian State's is 10,000. Behind Florida, with 63,000, is Fresno State, with 13,000; ahead of Illinois, with 71,000, is Idaho, with 18,000. This is not to say how these schools will vote, only to suggest how the great disparity among them often influences their decisions. McKay says he has seen it happen many times: "They'll be sitting in the back of the room, nodding, and somebody will say, 'O.K., here's a plan to spread some of this big money around.' Up go the hands. Then they go back to sleep."

The proposal to subdivide Division I precedes the playoff vote on the NCAA agenda. Subdivision is likely, as well as necessary, to keep schools with modest athletic programs and no desire to go big-time from inflicting their ideology on schools that want to be big-time, and vice versa. Some of the football powers have threatened to pull out of the NCAA if decisions damaging their operations continue to be made, but this is interpreted as smoke.

If the split is adopted, the 81 schools which would then make up Division I would most certainly vote heavily against the playoff plan. Present NCAA parliamentary order does not give them a separate vote at this meeting, however. They still have to vote with the present 134-member Division I. The Big Eight's Neinas has indicated that he will be at the forefront of a move to challenge that ruling.

Meanwhile, there is something the NCAA could do to put instant color back into the cheeks of the bowl people. It could change the selection date for bowl teams from the third Saturday in November back to the fourth Saturday, which would be a step toward assuring more meaningful matchups. The only thing better than that would be to defer the selection date to the last Saturday of the season. The bowls suffer, and so does college football, at that showcase time of year when top teams like Nebraska get jerked around, excellent teams like California are left home and matchups that might have been made (Oklahoma vs. Alabama, for example) are not.


Their eyes on fresh dollars, smaller schools may push the reluctant giants into playoffs.