Commentary

BCS is losing the public relations battle

Originally Published: April 23, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

PASADENA, Calif. -- John Swofford is a picture of serenity. The ACC commissioner does not raise his voice. He keeps a crinkly eyed smile close by and uses it often. His public persona is the essence of the Southern gentleman. He deflects criticism with an oral cocktail of reason, politesse and bureaucratese.

All of which is why Swofford is ill-equipped to be an effective representative for the BCS. Swofford is in the last year of his two-year rotation as BCS coordinator, boss and spokesman.

[+] EnlargeJohn Swofford
AP Photo/Stanley LearyACC commissioner John Swofford has one more year left as BCS coordinator.

The position of BCS coordinator is rotated among the commissioners of the six conferences that receive automatic bids. To a man, they consider the job a two-year colonoscopy. Their enjoyment is stricken all over their faces.

In Swofford's defense, he hasn't performed any worse than the other commissioners. None of them has been an effective spokesman for the BCS. And that is the problem.

The BCS has taken a beatdown in the public arena almost from the time it arrived 11 years ago. A lot of it -- and in the view of plenty of its critics, all of it -- has been deserved for reasons we won't reiterate here.

But in the past four months, as Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has felt compelled to set aside the nation's many crises to schedule a hearing on the BCS, and as the First Fan weighed in with his presidential desire for an eight-team playoff, what has struck me has been the one-sidedness of the debate.

It's not even a debate, a word that connotes verbal fisticuffs in which two competitors engage. In the public arena, there is no effective voice for the BCS. The commissioners need one.

At the BCS spring meeting on Tuesday in Pasadena, Calif., the membership discussed hiring a Washington lobbyist to make its case in Congress. Given that the BCS has allowed the debate to reach Washington, that's a good idea. But it never should have come to this.

The BCS should have learned the lesson that James Carville and George Stephanopoulos taught during the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. No charge should go unanswered. What the BCS needs is a war room.

Ironically, Carville, a devout LSU fan, has shredded the BCS for the past two seasons on "60/20 Sports," the satellite radio show he co-hosts with Luke Russert. That doesn't make Carville different. Everyone rips the BCS.

Being BCS spokesman wouldn't be a day at the beach. It's not easy to sell Goliath when David is out there snapping his slingshot. As Boise State in 2006, Hawaii in 2007 and Utah in 2008 illustrated, the public loves to get behind an underdog. It is Bootstrap America.

Politicians understand that. They make their living by putting an ear to the ground. Advocating for a playoff or to do right by the wronged Utes is the purest form of pigskin populism. Cry injustice! Rail at the powers that be! Defend the little guy!

That's why the Mountain West Conference's five-part plan to revamp the postseason has gained public traction. MWC commissioner Craig Thompson discussed it with his fellow commissioners behind closed doors Tuesday, and then with the media. Rather than swat it down, the commissioners did the collegial thing and agreed to discuss it at their respective conference meetings.

Maybe they are sympathetic to Thompson, one of their own. He works for nine college presidents, five of whom are new to the MWC.

Craig Thompson
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesCraig Thompson proposed a plan to revamp the postseason.

The commissioners are populists, too. What none of them did, or has done with any effectiveness, is mount a vigorous defense of the BCS.

None of them has pointed out the correlation between "fixing" the BCS and whose ox is being gored. University of Georgia president Michael Adams complained in January 2008 when the Bulldogs didn't play for the national championship. Adams demanded a playoff. You would think that Adams would leap to the defense of the MWC and join its crusade. Adams, who rarely misses a chance to promote Adams, has been quiet.

It is not news that criticism of the BCS is self-serving. Nor is it news that Congress, even if it were to have nothing else to do, knows less about the issues facing college football than it does about fixing the economy. But the commissioners haven't suggested that, either. I have to admit, I can't wait to hear what Sen. Hatch will suggest to fix the BCS. It is a normal impulse to slow down and look when you pass a car crash.

Supporting the BCS is like rooting for the IRS. No one roots for The Man. The BCS' public image is somewhere between Big Tobacco and root canals. The BCS has allowed others -- the media, the fans, the president -- to define it in the public arena, which defies the lesson taught on the first day of Public Relations 101.

The BCS is far from perfect. But it is what college football has for the next five seasons. The support for a plus-one game to arrive in 2014 continues to percolate. In the meantime, the BCS needs to speak up.

To put it in football terms, the BCS plays too much defense. It needs to get the defense off the field and start moving the chains.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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