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Original Issue

Who Needs It?

A national playoff would squeeze the life out of the college football season

So another college football season commences, destined to end without the official, NCAA-sanctioned coronation of a national champion. Without Selection Sunday, without office tournament pools, without the televised presentation of an oversized trophy to a Gatorade-splashed coach and a platform full of players wearing fresh 1994 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS caps. Without the Road to Pasadena. This autumn and the next six.

Of this we are certain because the old bowl coalition lives for another season and because a new coalition—which may produce a national champion but, because it doesn't include the Rose Bowl, cannot guarantee it—has been forged to run through the year 2000. An NCAA committee studying the feasibility of a playoff tournament sank in bureaucratic quicksand. Even Cedric Dempsey, the 62-year-old executive director of the NCAA and a supporter of a playoff, now says, "I said in 1979 that a playoff was inevitable. I still believe that. But I no longer believe that it's inevitable in my lifetime."

So there remains the persistent buzz that college football is lacking some essential element. That without a moneymaking, champion-producing tournament, the sport is lost in a time warp, destined to fade from interest because it failed to reach the cutting edge of instant gratification: Playoffs, man, playoffs. All the world's a wild card. Tune in come December.

But first, think back one season. Not to the muddy poll war of last winter, but to Notre Dame Stadium in the late afternoon of Nov. 20, seconds after Boston College kicker David Gordon knuckled a field goal through the approaching darkness to beat the Irish 41-39, one week after Notre Dame had beaten Florida State in a classic matchup. Recall the image of Notre Dame players strewn about the hallowed grass, dumbstruck, weeping. The politicking of the ensuing weeks notwithstanding, they knew then what they had lost.

Such is the impact of a single game on a single weekend. Had a playoff system been in place, Notre Dame's loss to BC would have been nothing more than a hiccup on the Road.

There is much about college football that needs repair. You know the list: cheating, players receiving lousy educations, players treated as chattel, Paleolithic coaches, imperious university presidents, egomaniacal alums.... But what does work is a meaningful regular season, filled with weekends in the warmth of September that affect the polls in the chill of January. This year, when Michigan and Notre Dame play on the second Saturday of September, the loser's chances of winning the national title will be severely compromised. Ditto for Wisconsin and Colorado a week later. High stakes, these. If there were an eight- or 16-team national tournament awaiting in December, these games would take on the feel of the Big East basketball tournament—televised scrimmages in preparation for the Big Dance. The NHL on grass.

What could be right about a playoff? There is the notion that it would cure the financial ills that plague many athletic departments. Well, a playoff would make piles of money, which, in theory, would be spread throughout the NCAA membership to serve all manner of good. Maybe these dollars could save some crew or wrestling programs now being sacrificed in the name of gender equity.

But this spread-the-wealth theory is flawed. A struggle is going on in the NCAA between the schools that play I-A football and those that don't, precisely because the big schools won't agree to share potential playoff money. (That's a key reason a playoff proposal won't soon make it as far as the floor of the NCAA Convention.) The I-A schools regard their smaller counterparts, the Muhlenbergs and the Trenton States, as parasites that feed off their full stadiums.

So forget the dream of passing all the money around, and accept the fact that the rich will get richer. It's not as if the bowl coalition is offering chump change, with more than $300 million over six years for participating teams and conferences. Would it be too much to suggest that these schools find a way to use this money to 1) better educate players and 2) give athletes the damnable "pocket money" they say they need—and without which they are vulnerable to any interloper with a gold card?

The coalition is guaranteed money. A playoff is a tease. A playoff is pressure for everybody: Make the tournament or get fired. This is good? This is progress?

Now to the big question: Without a playoff, how do you determine who's No. 1? The answer is, Often, it's obvious. Alabama trashes Miami in the '93 Sugar Bowl. Done deal. Sometimes there are ties: Colorado and Georgia Tech in '90. Washington and Miami in '91. Sometimes there are arguments, like last year's Bobby Bowden-Lou Holtz-Don Nehlen spitting match. Fine. Nobody got hurt.

There's not much romance left in college football, or in sport itself. Autumn Saturdays are an exception. Three months of them, not three weeks.