November Letter for Executive Director Tom Starr

I am often asked, mainly by sportswriters, what I think of a playoff system as opposed to the current bowl format. Everyone has his or her thoughts on the subject, including our President-Elect, who recently stated on the television show, 60 Minutes, that he favors a playoff. That has brought the subject back into the headlines.

You can make a case for the merits of both systems (playoff vs. bowls), but I would ask anyone pondering the question to consider the importance of maintaining the system that for over 100 years has helped make college football the sport it is today – post-season bowl games. Following are some items to take into account:

A bowl game is a week-long festival. Participating teams are treated like royalty by the citizens and merchants of the bowl’s city. The players have a rare opportunity to experience the unique aspects and entertainment of the respective bowl city, whether it’s “Cowboys and Culture” in Fort Worth; Bourbon Street in New Orleans; Disney World in Orlando; or the beautiful beaches in Honolulu. Several events and activities are scheduled for those student-athletes making it a very special time for them. With a single-elimination playoff system, games would be treated much the same as regular season contests, with the teams going to the game-site the day before and leaving immediately following the game, without the players receiving any type of rest, relaxation, or reward.

College football is unique, thanks to the bowl format. EVERY pro sport and virtually all other college sports have so-called playoff systems. In college football, 68 teams can boast that they played in the post-season, with 34 of those taking home team trophies and entering the crucial recruiting season telling prospective players that they WON a bowl game. With a single-elimination playoff, there is only one supposed “winner.” Nobody recalls who finished third, fourth, fifth, etc. Everyone simply remembers the team that just happened to win a game on that particular day.

The constant argument of who is number one reverberates throughout the year in college football, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing….the debate allows the sport to stay in the news. Even after all of the bowl games – including the BCS Championship game – have been played, fans of Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Southern Cal, Ohio State, Penn State, LSU, Texas Tech, etc. can still believe that their team was really “Number One!” If a single elimination tournament is created, will a true champion really be determined if – let’s say Colt McKoy at Texas, Graham Harrell at Texas Tech, or Sam Bradford at Oklahoma – had to sit out an early-round playoff game due to illness and that player’s team was knocked out by losing that game? Under the current BCS system, a team can still lose a contest during the regular season (if such an incident occurs) and still make the championship game.

And that brings us to the next point….there is a feeling that the college football regular season has far more meaning than sports which have a single-elimination playoff. In college football, every Saturday contest is a playoff game of sorts, as every team aims for the Bowl Championship Series. Under the majority of playoff systems proposed, the regular season would be shortened by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). For the 100 or more Bowl Sub-Division (formerly termed Division 1A) schools that were not selected for the bank of teams picked to participate in the playoff – there would be extensive lost revenue from ticket sales, parking income; merchandise sales; and concession revenue because of the elimination of regular season games. Likewise, the merchants in those university-based cities would lose extensive game-day revenue. It could lead to a case of the “rich getting richer and poor getting poorer.”

Survey after survey of intercollegiate presidents, athletic directors, football coaches, and players indicate that they favor the bowl system by a wide margin over a playoff system. They believe that they already have the best “playoff” system possible with the BCS. It’s hard to argue that the BCS games (Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl, BCS Championship) do not encompass the top 10 teams in the country year-after-year. And although there will always be basis for disagreement no matter what system is used, by and large the top two teams are selected to participate in the Championship game. Both will be either undefeated or have just one – with an outside chance of two – losses. Under a single elimination playoff format, a scenario could take place where a team happened to get on a roll for two or three games and be crowned the so-called “National Champion” with three or four losses! For example, this year’s ACC champion, yet to be determined, will have at least three losses. Is a team with three losses really worthy of being named college football’s best team? That cannot happen under the present system. Again, that points out the importance of EVERY game played during the season.

Some individuals make the mistake of trying to compare a football playoff with the current NCAA Basketball Tournament. Because of the physical nature of football, that comparison cannot be made. A fan traveling to an NCAA Basketball Regional understands that he or she is going to witness several games during one weekend, including his or her favorite team playing twice if it keeps winning. In football, one game would be played one Saturday and if a team advances, it would move on to the next Saturday, in a playoff format. Thus, fan travel would likely be limited in the first couple of rounds, with fans not wanting to have the expense of traveling to far-off destinations three or four weeks in a row. They would probably wait until their teams made it to the semi-finals and finals before making that trek.

I have been involved with college football for over four decades, and I want what is best for this wonderful sport. I understand the feelings of those who favor a playoff format and those who don’t, but to me, it’s simply a matter of why try to fix something that isn’t broken? The collegiate game’s popularity is at it’s zenith as record attendance figures prove.