Commentary

BCS more mature at 10, but reputation still suffers

Updated: May 19, 2008, 12:49 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

In 2004, the year after USC finished No. 1 in the final regular-season polls yet was excluded from playing in the championship game by the BCS formula, Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart wore a T-shirt on a national television interview that said, "F--- the BCS." Immature, yes, and given Leinart's appearances to this day on celebrity gossip Web sites, not out of character.

But the response to the T-shirt is the point. Half the responses that USC received wanted Leinart's head on a platter.

[+] EnlargeMatt Leinart
Jason Chan/US PresswireUSC's Matt Leinart definitely didn't lead the BCS bandwagon in 2003.
The other half wanted to know where they could buy Leinart's T-shirt.

The Bowl Championship Series is 10 years old, and if you listen to its legion of critics, it is so screwed up that the only thing it's missing is a congressional birthright. The BCS is a symbol of tradition over efficiency, a triumph of the needs of the powerful over the wishes of the masses, a mockery of common sense and simplicity.

But here's the thing: since college football adopted the BCS as a convoluted, inexplicable method of staging a national championship game, the sport has never been more successful.

"Even the most cynical person," Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive said, "has got to admit it has contributed to the excitement and popularity of college football."

Over the past decade, TV ratings overall have been in free fall, yet college football attracted significantly more viewers on the ESPN networks. Average attendance increased in five of the six major conferences. Payouts for the BCS bowls have increased by millions of dollars.

In essence, the BCS is a symbol of a spectator sport that ignores the wishes of the spectators, a business that succeeds by giving its customers what they don't want. The BCS might be tolerated by the public, but it will never be embraced for the simple reason that it's not a playoff.

[+] EnlargeMike Tranghese
AP Photo/Henny Ray AbramsBig East commissioner Mike Tranghese helped create the BCS system, which began in 1998.

"My gut instinct is that the vast majority of people would want a playoff," said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. And what he said soon after came with an air of apology. "… But this isn't about giving people what they want. I just don't believe that. This is about creating a model that works and is in the best interest, hopefully, of student-athletes."

Four bowls -- Fiesta, Sugar, Orange and Rose -- rotate as host of the BCS National Championship Game. The BCS added a fifth game in 2006 to host the championship. Skeptics claim that the BCS title game has rendered every other bowl meaningless. Yet the bidding among the networks for the next BCS contract for the 2010-2013 seasons is expected to be spirited, even though BCS officials turned down the "plus-one" model that would seed four teams and have them -- gasp -- play off for the national championship.

"Apparently it's working," said Loren Matthews, the retired president of ABC Sports (like ESPN.com, owned by Disney). "You got TV networks writing checks. You got fans filling the stadiums. Even with the old BCS, you were buying the championship game and the Rose Bowl and the other games really didn't matter. And they added a third game that really didn't matter."

Tranghese and the other commissioners of the six major conferences created the BCS in 1998 as a vehicle for the top two ranked teams to play for the national championship. Up to that point, conference champions played in different bowls, and only serendipity could provide a match of the top two. From the creation of the Associated Press poll in 1936 through the 1997 season, No. 1 had played No. 2 in a bowl game only 11 times.

The coaches, administrators and executives interviewed for this story didn't agree on the efficacy of the BCS or the best path for the future. But they did reach a historical consensus: The BCS is better than what college football used to have.

"It's much better than where we started," Texas coach Mack Brown said, "and we still have some work to do." Referring to his 10-1 North Carolina team in 1997, the last season before the BCS, Brown said, "We were the team that was ranked fourth and went to the Gator Bowl."

Actually, the Tar Heels finished the regular season seventh in the AP rankings and moved up to sixth after the Gator Bowl, a snubbing that paled in comparison to the 2004 Auburn Tigers. And even their coach, Tommy Tuberville, concurred with Brown.

[+] EnlargeTommy Tuberville
AP Photo/Ron FrehmTommy Tuberville and Auburn celebrated an undefeated season in 2004, but they were left out of the BCS title game.
"When I was at the University of Miami," Tuberville said, "we won the national championship and we didn't play the second-best team. We just played in a game."

He referred to the 1989 and 1991 Hurricanes, teams on which he was an assistant coach. To be fair, however, what Tuberville said is this: "It's the best scenario we've had since I've been in coaching. But there's a better way we could do it."

If nothing else, the BCS can make a football coach sound Churchillian. It was Sir Winston who described democracy as the worst form of government "except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Few people profess to like the BCS. But given the pressures exerted on college football by university presidents, history and the marketplace, it is the system that the sport developed. The BCS at age 10 has grown and matured from its infancy. It made its mistakes -- big, juicy mistakes -- in public and suffered an early loss in credibility from which its reputation might never recover.

A system created to do one thing -- match the top two teams -- failed to do so three times in four years. In 2003, the end of that span, AP and ESPN/USA Today coaches poll No. 1 USC didn't even make the championship game. The year after, five teams finished the 2004 regular season undefeated. The BCS system selected No. 1 USC and No. 2 Oklahoma while No. 3 Auburn fumed (No. 6 Utah and No. 9 Boise State didn't have a chance). When the Trojans won, 55-19, they embarrassed more than the Sooners. The BCS took one more hit.

"It's obvious that we have not had the best teams play at the end of the year," Tuberville said.

[+] EnlargeMack Brown
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillThe BCS system worked for Mack Brown and Texas in 2004 and 2005.

Given the enormity of its mistakes, the BCS has been forced to make changes. Over the course of 10 years, the BCS has streamlined its formula (quality wins, anyone?). The BCS' battle to win the public trust forced the American Football Coaches Association to make public the final ballots of the coaches poll. That occurred after the 2004 season, when Brown's Longhorns overtook California in the final BCS standings. That turmoil led to the memorable quote from the Big 12 Commissioner at the time, Kevin Weiberg: "Up until last year, there hasn't been a real focus on integrity. That seemed to be a new element."

Integrity has infiltrated the BCS in other ways. In the past decade, the BCS became -- attention, Mr. Churchill -- more democratic. The BCS opened its doors and its wallet to more than just the most powerful conferences. That it did so at the threat of congressional intervention is an inconvenient truth. In 2003, Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman rattled the sabers of the "BCS schools." Perlman told the Chronicle of Higher Education that if the non-BCS schools insisted on a larger slice of the financial pie than the BCS schools were willing to give, there might not be any bowls at all.

But the non-BCS presidents, led by Scott Cowen of Tulane, hired bigger sabers. When the U.S. Senate threatened to intervene in college football, the presidents of schools in the major conferences found a way to add a fifth BCS bowl game and loosen the standards to qualify to play in the games.

"One thing about presidents," Pacific-10 Conference commissioner Tom Hansen said in 2005, when asked about possible congressional testimony, "they don't like to do that too much."

Without those changes, however, college football would not have had Boise State's 43-42 upset of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, a game hailed as one of the greatest in the history of the sport. Throughout the 10 years of the BCS, serendipity has stepped in to save the game.

Take the system itself. At the time of its creation, no one understood how the BCS would galvanize the regular season. If anyone had, don't you think it would have been used as a selling point?

"You go to the opening game of the season, even the announcer is saying, 'Well, if this team loses the game, it jeopardizes its chances in the BCS,'" Tranghese said. "… For example, Pitt played West Virginia in the last [Big East regular-season] game of the year [2007]. Everybody in the country watched the game. It did an incredible television rating. If we were in a full-blown playoff, who would have watched the game? West Virginia would have already won our league. What the BCS has done is, people who used to watch football in isolation -- the conference of their interest, the team of their interest -- are now watching it across the board because all those games have an effect [on the national championship]."

[+] EnlargeVictor Clore
William Branlund Jr./Getty ImagesA big TV audience stayed up late to see if Hawaii would stay in BCS contention last season.

On the final weekend of the season, Washington at Hawaii received a 2.0 TV rating. An estimated 1.96 million households saw the game, even though it ended a 3:14 a.m., ET because the Warriors' victory all but assured them of an at-large berth in one of the five BCS games.

The dramatic game, which Hawaii won 35-28 by scoring with 44 seconds to play, concluded a regular season in which AP top-five teams lost 13 times to unranked opponents.

And the impact of all those upsets increased because of their meaning to the BCS. Overall, an average of 2.01 million households watched a game on ESPN in 2007, an amount nearly 25 percent higher than the average of 1.64 million in 1998, the first year of the BCS.

In 2006, the decision to add a 12th game to the regular-season schedule had nothing to do with the BCS and everything to do with balancing budgets. Yet it might be more than coincidence that the past two seasons had much less controversy over the two teams that played for the national championship. The more that teams play, the more the better teams will prove themselves.

Of course, that is the argument made by proponents of a playoff. Their belief and hope shows no sign of abating as the BCS approaches its second decade. No matter how successful the BCS becomes, it will never be what the public wants. That is the paradox in which college football exists.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com