Money, power plays and the Rose Bowl: The many times we almost had a playoff, and why the attempts failed

Sports

Michigan State head coach Duffy Daugherty was for it. Tennessee athletic director Bob Woodruff was against it. Ohio State’s Woody Hayes was for it, then against it and Notre Dame’s (and CBS’) Ara Parseghian was against it, then for it. Penn State’s Joe Paterno, whose Nittany Lions went unbeaten four times without a shot at the title, was forever virulently for it. Steve Spurrier was baffled by it all, saying, “How can we be right and everybody else be wrong?” So many administrators knew it would come one day but felt it was best for everyone (everyone in power, at least) to fend it off for as long as possible.

It took more than 50 years of arguing for college football to actually install a playoff structure at the top of the sport — and even then, we basically just added one extra game. In 2024, 10 years into the College Football Playoff era, comes a genuine, tournament-style playoff, one with 12 teams and autobids. Granted, the greediest and most powerful figures in the sport are already using the potential for further expansion as a shameless excuse to grab even more power, but I want to pause reality for a moment and focus on the positives of the present. For the first time in the history of major college football, the 2024 season will (mostly) guarantee inclusion. If you field the best team in the history of your program and go unbeaten in the regular season, you will get a shot at the national title no matter who you are*.

(*Unless you’re one of multiple unbeatens at the Group of Five level and have a particularly poor strength of schedule. In that case, you could still get left out. But I’m going to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good here.)

You now get to play until you lose. That’s been a near-guarantee for every other sport — and for every other level of football, from high school to lower-level college to pro — but major college football’s insufferable insistence on being different at all times, even when a majority of both fans and players are pushing for change, held this process back. Granted, this new inclusiveness could go away soon for all we know; with the increasing “give us what we want or suffer the consequences” attitude emanating from the SEC and Big Ten, it’s possible that future playoffs get rid of a certain number of autobids, or that these two power conferences decide to start their own, new division and wreck the entire ecosystem. But for two years, at least, we get an actual, inclusive playoff atop the strange and wild frontier of college football. That’s worth celebrating while we can.

It’s also worth a retrospective of sorts. How on Earth did it take so long to break down defenses and get a real playoff in place? What were the main arguments against a playoff? Were those arguments legit? Let’s start addressing these questions by looking at what I view as the four times we came the closest to a playoff before the CFP’s introduction in 2014.

1967: Duffy Daugherty’s eight-team playoff

Preferred format: Six conference champions and the top two independents in an eight-team field.

How it came about: Considering how stubborn the Big Ten was in its loyalty to the Rose Bowl and its resistance to any and all change, it’s interesting that the first big playoff push came from within the conference’s walls. In March 1960, Northwestern athletic director (and former Purdue head football coach) Stu Holcomb proposed an eight-team playoff in an Associated Press report. He thought of it as a World Series of sorts for the sport, and it could feature the champions of the six major conferences of the day — the AAWU (the Pac-8’s predecessor), ACC, Big 8, Big Ten, SEC and SWC — plus two indies from a powerful pool of teams like Notre Dame, Syracuse, Penn State and the service academies. NCAA president Walter Byers called the idea “novel and interesting,” and it earned a round of headlines. But by the summer, the playoff had basically vanished from the agenda.

A few years later, Daugherty, Michigan State’s head coach, picked up the mantle. His Spartans had gone 10-1 the season before, narrowly missing out on a national title after a gut-wrenching upset loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl, and because of the Big Ten’s “no repeats” rule — you couldn’t play in the Rose Bowl for two straight seasons — he already knew heading into 1966 that, despite fielding an absurdly talented team (the Spartans would produce four of the top 8 picks in the 1967 NFL draft), MSU had no postseason to play for. That pretty justifiably made him dream of something bigger, and he became one of the sport’s bigger playoff proponents over the coming years, even after his program had slipped from prominence. He got plenty of support, too, especially with college football having to compete with two different and ambitious pro leagues. At the end of the 1966 season, the Cotton Bowl (a 24-9 Georgia win over SMU) and NFL championship (a 34-27 Green Bay win over Dallas, which sent the Packers to the first Super Bowl) both took place in Dallas within a day of each other. Needless to say, the latter attracted far more attention than the former. As Jack Gallagher wrote in the NCAA News, “One wonders the impact the pro game might have had at Dallas if it had been competing with, say, Texas A&M vs. Notre Dame in the semifinals of the national championship. […] This was for the NFL championship. The winner would go on to the Super Bowl. It was a playoff, an elimination, a meaningful contest rather than an exhibition. Matched against it, the SMU-Georgia contest was a drab affair with scant appeal.” The NCAA was intrigued enough to attempt a feasibility study. (The NCAA’s response was always forming either a feasibility study or a subcommittee.)

Why it failed: “This plan is so logical that I know it won’t be accepted by the NCAA,” Daugherty joked at a Football Writers Association of America meeting. He was right, of course. The sport was in no way ready for this — coaches worried about students’ ability to study for finals, and the bowls fretted over diminished influence (even though Daugherty insisted his three-week event could be done before bowl season, suggesting the same powerful teams could still bowl, too). The Big Ten predictably showed no interest, Notre Dame was hesitant and the SEC, beyond happy with its bowl lineup (and revenue) refused too. You can’t have a playoff without those entities, and the eight-teamer died on the vine.


1976: The post-bowl four-teamer

Preferred format: The top four teams in the polls following bowl season are pitted against each other, potentially with the national title game happening the week before the Super Bowl.

How it came about: After a whole decade of debate (can you imagine??), the NCAA’s executive committee approved of a playoff plan — called a “college ‘Super Bowl’ plan” in a January 1976 AP report — that would tack a quick playoff onto the end of bowl season. This seemed to be an intriguing workaround to the biggest playoff obstacle of the days: the bowls. A 1971 issue of the NCAA News had featured a pro-con debate of sorts, pitting North Texas professor Bill Miller, a prominent playoff proponent, against anti-playoff Tennessee athletic director Woodruff. Miller proposed a huge, basketball-style 16-team playoff featuring all top-division conference champions (even those from conferences like the Ivy League and Southern Conference). He noted rather accurately, “Football is the only major intercollegiate sport that does not produce a true national champion. There is no way to settle the dilemma of who is champion with our present set up in the NCAA. A national play-off system, similar to the one utilized in basketball, is needed in order to crown a legitimate champion.”

Woodruff, meanwhile, laid out all the talking points that would define the anti-playoff position for years to come. It would take kids out of classes, he said, even though NAIA schools had been playing in a December playoff since 1958 and even though the NCAA would decide it was fine for Division II and Division III to start their own playoffs in 1973. He suggested it would be impossible to decide who should be in the playoff (“With so many good football teams around, it would be very difficult for anyone to say just who should qualify for the play-offs and who shouldn’t,” he said before noting strength-of-schedule dilemmas, too), even though most proposals of the time filled most of a bracket with conference champions. Incredibly, he also suggested that fans would rather argue about their team being No. 1 than actually watching their team prove it (“Alumni and friends of College Team A will argue and believe with great pride and devotion that their team which had a great record was just as good as, if not superior to, another great College Team B in another conference.”).

Most of all, however, Woodruff said, “There seems to me to be no doubt that [a playoff] would work a hardship on our old friends, the bowls. A national championship series would undoubtedly take the edge off these traditional games, to the extent that many of them would die from lack of interest. The bowls have done too much for college football to be repaid in that manner.” The 1976 proposal seemed to solve the bowls issue to some degree, still lending them importance to the process.

Why it failed: Timing. The 1976 NCAA convention became a major pivot point for the battle between the NCAA and top football schools, which wanted a breakaway division and increased decision-making power. (That’s right: We’ve been arguing about playoffs since the 1960s and about breakaway superleagues since the 1970s.) Within a couple of years, schools had agreed to split Division I into subdivisions called 1-A and 1-AA (now FBS and FCS), but it’s hard to talk about a potential playoff when you don’t know what teams and conferences might be involved. The topic was pushed to a future date … which gave bowls time to effectively lobby against it. They were very, very good at that.


1987: We need the money

Preferred format: Take your pick. A post-bowl “plus one” title game between the top two teams was discussed — this one was long a preference of Indiana coach-turned-ESPN personality Lee Corso, who once described it as, “Usually at the end of the bowl games, there are two great football teams. They play.” — as were four- and eight-team playoffs that included the bowls. A 16-teamer was at least briefly on the board, too. In a time of budget problems, it was all hands on deck.

How it came about: In 1984’s landmark NCAA v. Board of Regents case, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA could no longer unilaterally control schools’ television deals, and it opened up the floodgates in terms of a fan’s access to televised college football. But in the ensuing years, it actually resulted in less television money. Byers, a fierce negotiator, had used exclusivity to the NCAA’s great advantage, and the deals produced huge per-game payments and lofty ad rates. Without this exclusivity, those rates plummeted, and while exposure for schools outside of the sport’s ruling class increased significantly, schools actually made less money from media rights. The costs of fielding a major college football team rose, too, and it caused budget issues.

What happens when you’re having money problems? The idea of a postseason money cannon becomes a bit more appealing. “The NCAA is talking about it now,” said Louisville head coach Howard Schnellenberger, winner of the 1983 national title at Miami, in the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Before, they used foul language to discuss it.” And after a run of bowl seasons that featured minimal huge matchups — from 1980 to 1985, there were only six bowl matchups between top-five teams and nine pitting top-five teams against teams ranked either in double digits or not at all — the classic 1986 season finale, a 14-10 upset win for No. 2 Penn State over No. 1 Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, had shown everyone just how epic a big-time title game could be. Why wouldn’t we want one of those every year?

Why it failed: As Texas’ DeLoss Dodds so succinctly put it at the time, “The bowls have done a good job of lobbying against it.” The Big Ten and Pac-10 made it very clear that, with their lucrative Rose Bowl agreement (and the concrete money it provided, instead of hypothetical playoff money), they would not participate in a playoff. That alone all but killed its chances, but overall, bowls were so influential — and so willing to appeal to naked emotion (Sugar Bowl executive director Mickey Holmes a few years earlier: “The bowls have been a great friend to college football for a long time,” he said, “and how unfair it would be to do something which could destroy us.” Destroy! — that, despite the aforementioned money problems, 88% of Division I schools voted against a playoff at the 1988 NCAA Convention.

In retrospect, you could make a case that saying no to this money cannon ended up having an impact on the desire behind the conference realignment boom that was right around the corner. By December 1989, the Big Ten had invited Penn State to become its 11th member (forever breaking the “If you have a number in your conference name, it should reflect the actual number of teams you have in your conference” standard), and the SEC would announce it was expanding to 12 teams and adding a conference title game in the months that followed. And once Notre Dame and the SEC had left the College Football Association (a lobbying group for the major football powers that had handled media rights in the days following Board of Regents) to secure their own large TV contracts, the race was on.


1993: Yeah, we really need the money

Preferred format: Again, there were a number of options on the table, but a grand 16-teamer began to pick up steam at this point.

How it came about: By 1993, money problems lingered, and other factors were converging. Further unimpressive bowl slates, and the sometimes gross bowl politics behind them, had produced back-to-back split national titles in 1990 and 1991. Both frustration and apathy had grown to the point that the ratings for college basketball’s national title game were surpassing that of the highest-rated Jan. 1 bowl game on an annual basis.

A different issue was emerging, too: the belated push for gender equity in college athletics, nearly two decades after the passage of Title IX, and the way it was breaking some administrators’ brains. At a CFA convention in 1993, Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, one of the CFA’s architects and a former executive vice president at Notre Dame, unleashed an unprompted rant. “Frankly, I have been dismayed at the publicity and apparent support the militant women have received by their irrational attack on football as their bugaboo,” he said. “They seem to be saying that football is the villain, depriving them of support which they should have, and they will prosper only by football being brought to its knees. As far as I am concerned, this is an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ scenario. Yet we men have been extraordinarily ineffective in checkmating the campaign of the militant ladies.” Yikes.

“The bowls have done a good job of lobbying against [a college football playoff event].”

Former Texas AD DeLoss Dodds

So yeah, militant ladies aside, there was some stress. And the public wanted more meaningful postseason matchups. The early days of the Bowl Coalition — put together in 1992 in an attempt to create better bowl matchups (but, naturally, lacking participation from the Rose Bowl, Big Ten and Pac-10) — had not produced massive improvement, and even though bowls were taking on corporate sponsorship to increase payouts and fend off a playoff, the thought of bigger money was still attractive. According to presentations by Nike and others, administrators were told that a 16-team playoff could potentially generate $200 million per year, while an eight-teamer would bring in about $100 million, a post-bowl four-teamer about $60 million and a Plus One about $30 million. As San Diego State athletic director Fred Miller put it at the time, “I think a playoff is football’s best ally. If we leave $100 million on the table, people are going to think we’re nuts.” Well…

Why it failed: No Rose Bowl, no Big Ten, no Pac-10, no playoff. And certain power brokers were uninterested in brokering less power. In 2010’s seminal “Death to the BCS,” authors Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan tell the story of Georgia athletic director (and legendary coach) Vince Dooley giving a presentation to other SEC ADs on the merits of the proposed playoff and getting immediately brushed aside by SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, who simply said, “I think we’ll have another option.” That would eventually become the BCS, a system that in no way quelled the desire for a playoff but at least produced guaranteed No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup at the end of each season — even if sussing out who should be No. 1 and No. 2 proved awfully difficult in some years — and, much more importantly, kept the power in the bowls’ (and power conference commissioners’) hands. My father, a retired political science professor, has long noted that politicians would typically rather hold power within a weak and powerless party than merely serve as cogs in an actually efficient machine, and, well, commissioners and bowl execs are nothing if not politicians. So we got 15 years of the BCS before a playoff finally broke through all defenses.


Main takeaways

Dissatisfaction with the BCS — namely, that it wasn’t a playoff — eventually reached such a point that a playoff became inevitable. And after a fiercely argued and minimally watched 2011 BCS championship between LSU and Alabama, the dam finally broke. The four-team College Football Playoff was established in 2012 and debuted two years later.

Resistance from the bowls was epic. Because the NCAA was terrified of the power of television during its early days and deployed an extremely limited TV package because of it, bowl games became extremely important and influential in part because of their ability to actually show viewers the teams they had been reading about in the papers all year. Then, when enough influential people began to publicly declare a playoff a good idea — at least in part because it would be able to compete with professional playoffs on television — bowls guilt-tripped other important people into nixing the idea repeatedly. They didn’t want any development that would decrease their influence, even pushing to nix a post-bowl playoff.

The Rose Bowl, of course, stands alone in this regard. Its hypnotic draw locked the Big Ten and Pac-10 in place and served as an incredibly effective playoff deterrent through the 1990s. And when it finally bowed to pressure and joined what became the BCS, (a) the BCS still wasn’t a playoff, and (b) they still made the selection process odd by insisting on remaining with the Big Ten and Pac-10 whenever possible.

The format we initially got wasn’t one of the more frequently discussed formats. When the CFP finally arrived, it was indeed a variation of the supposed Plus One system — it added just one game to the proceedings and used the bowl structure already in place for the two semifinals and a set of other big games. (An actual Plus One would have used existing bowl ties and selected finals opponents only after the regular bowl lineup had taken place.) Whereas the most discussed playoff systems typically involved eight or 16 teams, or a four-teamer after the bowls, this was the smallest official add-on to the existing system. Which makes sense, of course: They were looking to cause the smallest possible disruption to the existing power structure. They even hired the BCS’ executive director (Bill Hancock, who shared plenty of anti-playoff talking points when his job was defending the BCS) as the CFP’s executive director.

A 12-team playoff never came up. At one point or another, there was talk of a two-, four-, eight- and 16-team playoff. We get 24- and 32-teamers at the lower levels of the sport. Instead, once the CFP finally expanded into something more tournament-style, we got 12. Again, top-division college football always insists on being different even when it really doesn’t need to be.

Most of the anti-playoff arguments were nonsense. By my count, there were about seven typical talking points someone shared when someone was attempting to defend the status quo.

1. Athlete welfare (academics edition). There is definitely extra demand on students when they have extra games to play, but these arguments always felt a bit hypocritical when smaller-school playoffs not only existed but soon came to include three or more rounds at the exact same time of the year, and when the same people expressing these concerns were also at the same time expanding the NCAA men’s basketball tournament from 25 teams in 1974 to 64 in 1985.

2. Athlete welfare (physical edition). Granted, it’s amusing to look back through the archives and read people fretting about athletes maybe playing as many 13 games in a season, but this one has felt like the most legitimate issue. Before athletes were allowed to make money from their name, image and likeness, it was difficult to make moral sense of (a) increasing the number of games athletes play, (b) receiving hundreds of millions of dollars for doing so and (c) still refusing to share any of it with the athletes.

3. Logistical challenges. At one point late in the BCS days, Hancock himself said, as quoted in “Death to the BCS,” “How would band members, cheerleaders, and other students make holiday plans knowing their team might play one, two, or three games on campus during the time they are normally home with their families?” On a scale of 1 to 10, I give this one a 0.5.

4. No one can agree on a format! This was a specialty of Ari Fleischer, the George W. Bush press secretary-turned-BCS public relations guy. “Playoff advocates have had an easy ride where they have never been called on to explain exactly how they would create an alternative,” he was quoted in “Death to the BCS.” (Hancock delivered a similar line in the book.) Over the previous 50 years before Fleischer said this, countless people explained their exact plans in exacting detail. This one doesn’t even get a 0.5.

5. We prefer arguing to actually deciding it on the field! I referenced this one, from Woodruff, above. It wasn’t widespread, but it truly is incredible that someone attempted it with a straight face.

6. It would dilute the regular season. This has been a common refrain in recent times as the playoff expansion debate grew louder. We’re all going to see what we want here — I could note all the new games (and new conference races) that suddenly matter and just how many games will have solid playoff stakes late in the season, and if you’re so inclined, you could just respond that Bama will sit its starters in the Iron Bowl, and I will have no recourse but to roll my eyes and say “Nuh-uh” — so let’s just move on.

7. It would add pressure for both players and coaches. Shockingly, this one was delivered by Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer in a 1978 Chicago Tribune piece: “A playoff would place tremendous pressure on the coaches of the [most prominent] programs and would exploit the athletes,” he said. He wasn’t wrong, but he also admitted in the same piece that “I’m opposed for selfish reasons — I feel Oklahoma can win more mythical championships than it ever could win through a playoff system,” and beyond that … just think of how much “exploiting” coaches would do in the 1980s and 1990s even without a playoff.

8. We just can’t do that to those poor bowls. I watch part or all of every single bowl that is played every single year, and if we added 20-something more bowls to the docket to get everyone in FBS involved, I would watch them too. And to that, I say, yes, we can absolutely do that to those poor bowls.

Take it away, Grant Teaff. In 1994, the Baylor head coach — and executive director for the American Football Coaches Association from 1993-2016 — said, “I think there’s a perception with the public that perhaps college football doesn’t have its act together because there are so many different entities pulling in different directions.” Truer words: never spoken. The sport has always been a mess and has always required a commissioner figure that has never existed. And what we might learn in the coming years is that the only worse thing than not having centralized leadership is having centralized leadership that represents only the most powerful conferences in the sport.

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