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Should NCAA alter title game requirements? Look at the rule's origin

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The origin of the rule that allows some leagues, like the SEC, to stage exempt title games is surprising.

The NCAA manual often notes when a rule was adopted and when it was changed. That way, a coach, athletic director or conference commissioner seeking to understand why a rule exists or why it was written a particular way can check the archives. The official can examine the circumstances under which it was enacted. This proves especially helpful if a school wants to challenge a rule that has either outlived its usefulness or become unenforceable due to changes in technology or society.

In the current NCAA manual, bylaw 17.5.9.2(c) includes no such notation. The page describing which FBS and FCS conferences can stage an exempt championship game does not offer any indication of when or why the NCAA made a rule that requires a league to have at least 12 football teams -- split into two divisions -- in order to play such a game. The origin of the rule matters now because the ACC and Big 12 have submitted legislation that would loosen the requirements for a title game. That legislation will be discussed at the NCAA level in August. The 14-school ACC wants the option to play without divisions and place its best two teams in its championship game each year. The league might choose not to do this, but would prefer the flexibility. Meanwhile, the 10-member Big 12 would like the option to stage a championship game even though it has fewer than 12 schools and even though its teams play a full round-robin schedule. The league might never actually vote to stage another title game -- no conference got burned by its championship game more than the Big 12 when the league was accurately named -- but Big 12 leaders would also appreciate the flexibility. Before the debate over potential changes begins, someone should probably explain why the rule exists and why it requires 12 teams and two divisions. The reasoning and research behind the requirements should be examined to determine whether they still apply today.

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The NCAA manual offers no help in this task, but a phone call to a former suburban Philadelphia mayor provides total enlightenment. It also provides a lesson: The prolonged existence of a rule doesn't necessarily make that rule sacred. In this case, the people who wrote the rule that helped dictate the terms of conference realignment for more than 20 years weren't thinking beyond a four-state area.

Before Dick Yoder ran the borough of West Chester, Pa., for two terms, he ran the athletic department at West Chester University. West Chester is a founding member of the Pennsylvania State Athletics Conference (PSAC), an NCAA Division II league that began as a conglomerate of small state schools -- mostly teachers colleges -- in the Keystone State. In 1986, the league had a problem. It had 14 members that were split into east and west divisions for decades. For a while, the schools played their schedules and the sportswriters of Pennsylvania determined a league champion. In other years, PSAC staged a championship game between the division champs at the end of the regular season. But to do that, every school in the league had to leave the final date of the season open. The two division winners would play, and everyone else would sit and miss out on a game opportunity. "Every team had to count that, and only two of the 14 teams got in," said Tod Eberle, the league's commissioner at the time. "It was just a wasted date for some of those teams. That wasn't fair."

Eberle asked Yoder, a member of the NCAA's Division II council, to draft legislation that would allow the league to stage a championship game that would be exempt from the regular-season limit. This would eliminate the wasted date, and it would also provide a special atmosphere for two teams in an era when the PSAC champ couldn't always crack the eight-team Division II playoff.

Yoder wrote a draft of the rule that required 14 schools -- to match the PSAC's membership -- split into two divisions, playing a round-robin schedule within their divisions. After learning from friends with more NCAA legislative experience that he had worded the legislation incorrectly, he rewrote it. But while Yoder was rewriting, some friends from the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) -- a 12-member league of historically black schools then spread throughout North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland -- asked him if their league could co-sponsor the legislation. They liked the idea, and they also used divisions. So, Yoder revised his legislation to require 12 teams and not 14. That was it. There was no research. No debate. The CIAA had 12 members at the time, so Yoder wrote the number 12 into the legislation. "We were Division II," Yoder said. "Nobody really cared."

There was no research. No debate. The CIAA had 12 members at the time, so Dick Yoder wrote the number 12 into the legislation.
 

The proposal went up for a vote at the NCAA convention in January 1987. At the time, all members in every division voted on such rules. Once enacted, they affected all three divisions. The Jan. 15, 1987 issue of The NCAA News examined the more newsworthy rules changes. And there were some big ones that year. Until '87, boosters were allowed to play a role in recruiting. The practice was banned at the convention. School officials also voted to reduce the maximum number of new scholarship players in football from 30 to 25 per team and reduce the total amount of men's basketball scholarships from 15 to 13 per team. These were huge stories in NCAA-land. The opportunity for two Division II leagues on the East Coast to stage conference championship games? Not so much. On page three of that issue of The NCAA News, under the headline "Summary of all actions on legislation at 81st convention," this was written about the championship game rule: "No. 125 -- Approved by all divisions." Steve Murray, the current PSAC commissioner, surmises the abstentions for that particular vote numbered in the hundreds. Just as Yoder said, hardly anyone cared.

Even though the PSAC won the vote, it didn't institute a championship game at the time. The league originally planned to play the first exempt title game after the 1988 season, but when the Division II playoffs expanded to 16 teams in '88, league officials worried their title game might knock one or both division champs out of playoff contention. The rule sat dormant until another conference commissioner thought to use it.

Vanderbilt athletic director Roy Kramer knew about the rule when it was passed. "It passed without a great deal of discussion as I recall," Kramer said this week. "Because nobody at that time had more than 10 teams in a conference at the I-A level." The rule became particularly useful when Kramer was named the commissioner of the SEC in 1990. Because the region was so football-crazy, Kramer and his advisors thought a conference title game could provide a financial windfall for the league. The SEC was considering expansion anyway. The deal between Notre Dame and NBC in '90 awoken leagues to the possibility that the College Football Association might not survive long-term, and football independents such as Penn State, Florida State and Miami were seeking conference homes. The possibility of several million additional dollars from a championship game only added incentive for the SEC to grow. "It was a part of a discussion," Kramer said. "Was it the absolute driving force? I don't think it was. Now, if you'd asked me three years later, I'd say it probably was because it was very successful."

At the conference's spring meeting in May 1990, SEC presidents authorized Kramer to pursue expansion targets. The first to join was Arkansas, which left behind the troubled Southwest Conference. At that point, after discussions with South Carolina, Florida State, Miami, Texas, Texas A&M and possibly others, SEC leaders weren't sure how many more schools they would take. But they intended to arrive at an even number. "Very shortly we'll have to decide on the number, whether it be 12 or 14 or 16," Kramer told The Associated Press after the Arkansas move was officially announced on Aug. 1, 1990.

What would have happened if Yoder had left the number in his legislation at 14 instead of doing a solid for his friends in the CIAA? "It would have changed everything," Yoder said this week.

Would Kramer have pushed to add two more members after South Carolina joined? "I doubt it at that time," Kramer said. "It's hard to say whether we would have done it or not. I can't say what the mindset would have been. But I do know we were well aware of [the championship game concept] at the time." Remember, the SEC in 1990 wasn't the behemoth the SEC is now. Schools weren't necessarily aching to join. Florida State turned down the league in favor of the ACC, and Texas and Texas A&M were more interested in pursuing the SWC-Big 8 mash-up that ultimately became the Big 12 than joining the SEC. Another question: Had Kramer stopped at 12 and had the rule required 14, would anyone play a championship game now? We know leagues probably would have grown anyway, because larger leagues fetch better television rights deals. But would leaders have remembered what former PSAC commissioner Eberle calls "that little rule in the back of the rulebook" and recognized its moneymaking potential? Spinning out the potential outcomes of such a scenario would make this exercise from two years ago seem tame.

One thing is certain: No one should stand in the way of the ACC and Big 12 as they try to tweak a rule that was completely arbitrary in the first place. Yoder, Eberle and the rest gave no thought to how the rule might affect the more moneyed sectors of the NCAA membership. All they wanted was an opportunity to stage a title game for their league and their friends in the CIAA. As power-conference schools seek autonomy and -- in the process -- attempt to slim the rulebook, they would do well to seek the origins of most rules and consider how they fit into today's landscape. The conference title game rule is a prime example. "That approach is consistent with the deregulation efforts that are going on," ACC commissioner John Swofford said of the quest by his league and the Big 12. "It fits very nicely."

Even though it initially abstained, the PSAC did finally use the rule it created. Murray, the current commissioner, said the league now pays $5,000 a year to have its conference title game televised in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, for its 2011 title game -- the last one for which the league released a revenue figure -- the SEC took in $15.3 million. That number has only grown since. "We're still looking for our one percent finder's fee," Murray joked.

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