Sunday December 7th, 2008

More than likely, you had already changed the channel. More than likely, you missed the moment -- 4:58 remaining in the fourth quarter of Saturday's Big 12 championship -- that the BCS plunged a dagger into the back of sportsmanship and twisted it.

At that moment, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops sent Heisman Trophy frontrunner Sam Bradford onto the field to lead a mixture of starters and backups. The Sooners led by 34 points. The Sooners called two passes. They might have called more had No. 3 tailback Mossis Madu not bolted to the outside, hurdled a defender and glided 37 yards for a touchdown meaningless in the scope of the game being contested -- but oh-so-important in the race for the BCS title.

Proponents of the BCS will argue that everything they do, they do for the "student-athlete," a term originally coined so schools wouldn't have to pay worker's compensation to injured athletes. Well, this is the lesson the BCS teaches the impressionable youngsters who hope to someday become a student-athlete: Grind your opponent into dust. If he's down, kick him. If he's still twitching, kick him some more.

Stoops deserves no criticism for a single point of Oklahoma's 62-21 win against Missouri. Neither does Texas coach Mack Brown for running up the score on Thanksgiving night against rival Texas A&M to impress a panel of voters and computers. What choice did they have? They are paid handsomely to get their teams to the BCS title game. If they fail to get their teams into the game enough years in a row, they'll be fired.

And they have no reason to be confident in the panel of voters helping decide who plays for the title. Last week, Florida State's Bobby Bowden had already submitted his ballot when he asked a group of reporters Sunday morning who had won the previous night's Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game. And among the esteemed Harris Interactive Poll panel is a man, who, until last week, thought Penn State remained undefeated.

We can't blame Stoops or Brown for what they've done in the past 10 days. Stoops had little choice but to pour on the points Saturday lest some voter or computer drop his Sooners in the rankings because they didn't win impressively enough. Likewise, Brown had little choice but to go on every television and radio show that would have him and argue that his team deserved to play in the BCS title game over Oklahoma because the Longhorns beat the Sooners, 45-35, at the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 11. At times, Brown sounded more like a County Commission candidate sweating out a runoff election than a coach who has presided over eight consecutive 10-win seasons.

Stoops and Brown, men who have managed to reach the pinnacle of their profession while still carrying themselves with class and dignity, were reduced th this level by a system that values political capital, style points and exposure. Don't blame them. Blame the BCS and the boneheads who keep endorsing it.

"We're in what we're in," said Stoops, who, when he should have been celebrating, had to explain why he risked injury to his star quarterback in order to run up the score on a fallen opponent. "I can't change it tonight."

No, Stoops and the Sooners had to make a statement. They did, becoming the first team to score at least 60 points in five consecutive games. For the third consecutive game, Oklahoma hung half-a-hundred-plus-10 on a ranked opponent.

They had to make a statement because of the banner trailing a plane that flew over Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday afternoon. It read "Enjoy the BeatByTexas.com Bowl." Certainly, no one can deny the Longhorns have a legitimate gripe. They did beat the Sooners on a neutral field. Even if they didn't have a chance to compete for their conference title -- they were denied by virtue of their lower BCS ranking -- they certainly had earned the right to play for the national title in a sensible "plus-one" four-team playoff or as part of an even-more-logical eight- or 16-team playoff. But what if the Longhorns had gotten their wish and Missouri had beaten Oklahoma? After a week of hearing Brown tout the importance of head-to-head matchups, what if voters had taken his words to heart and elevated Texas Tech -- which beat Texas on the field -- above the Longhorns? Then USC would be in line to go to the title game, and Brown would be considered a fool.

Brown sounded awfully prescient this week while discussing philosophical changes he must explore during an appearance on ESPN Radio's The Scott Van Pelt Show. "What we have to do now is start looking at the polls. They seem very emotional now," Brown said. "They're looking at how many points are scored. So we have to go back and revisit sportsmanship. Do you need to keep piling points on?"

Yes.

It shouldn't be that way, but it is, because a bunch of bowl officials and university presidents don't have enough imagination to do what's best for the game. It isn't about money, because an NCAA football tournament would command far more than the $125 million a year ESPN will pay to televise BCS games from 2011-13. It's about the fear of a lot of complacent people unwilling to take a risk.

Their stubbornness could eventually ruin the game. If the Sooners and Longhorns already had punched their tickets to the playoffs before Saturday, Oklahoma's backups would have played the entire fourth quarter. Heck, the Tigers quit with 15 seconds remaining in the first half when they neglected to use their final timeout and jogged into the locker room.

But instead of watching second-stringers and walk-ons revel in their chance to take the field in a conference title game, we watched one of the three best players in America risk injury, so the Sooners could score one more touchdown and turn a 34-point rout into a 41-point thrashing.

The saddest part is this. Even after he was forced to lower himself to humiliating a respected opponent, Stoops still had no idea if he'd done enough.

"Who knows?" Stoops said, shaking his head. "You guys' guess is as good as mine."

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