The BCS as we know it seemed doomed on Dec. 4, the moment the system spat out an Alabama-LSU rematch for the national title game. Supporters of a playoff, long members of a quiet minority within the machine that runs college football, began to make noise. Before long, athletic directors and conference commissioners who had never offered any support for even a limited playoff publicly discussed the idea, even if they used code -- calling a four-team playoff a "plus-one" so as not to spook the hardliners who embrace the status quo. It seemed, at least from the public comments, that the minority had become the majority.
Those athletic directors and conference commissioners, powerful though they may be, do not officially make any of the final decisions regarding how college football's postseason will be played in the future. That responsibility belongs to their bosses, the university presidents. So what do the presidents think about the postseason? In interviews with SI.com, nine university CEOs from various points on the Football Bowl Subdivision food chain discussed their wishes for the postseason system that will take effect when the current BCS deal expires after the 2013 season.
This group, which includes three members of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, will ultimately help decide whether college football gets a playoff. Of the nine presidents interviewed, seven expressed a desire to decide the national champion using some type of bracketed tournament. One, Kansas State president Kirk Schulz, favors a true plus-one: a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game in which the participants are chosen after the traditional bowls are played. One, Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, favors keeping the current system of deciding a national champion but suggested other tweaks to the BCS. This poll is not scientific, nor should anyone believe that this means an overwhelming majority of presidents prefer a playoff. Remember, most university presidents have far more pressing concerns than college athletics -- though athletics can take on outsize importance at a time like this. "Frankly, as a president at a BCS-level athletics program, you'd better stay on top of it," Schulz said. "Because if you don't, it can come back and bite you in the rear end really fast."
The CEOs who consented to interviews are, for the most part, presidents and chancellors who have been heavily involved in NCAA matters over the course of their careers. Two are former NCAA athletes. All will take part in one of the most important decisions in college football history.
"This one is going to be driven by the presidents -- and it's going to be driven through the commissioners," said Florida president Bernie Machen, who serves as chairman of the SEC's board of directors. "But the commissioners are not going to make this decision. The presidents are going to make it."
So as the commissioners meet periodically to hammer out the structure of the next postseason system, bear in mind that they are only creating ideas to bring to the presidents for approval. The next step is creating a system upon which most of the presidents agree. That could be tricky, considering that even the presidents who favor a playoff don't necessarily agree on a format.
Machen said the wind has shifted in recent years because of consolidation from conference realignment, the erosion of support for the bowls and pure public demand. The idea of a playoff, he said, is now tolerable to more of the people in charge of the sport. Machen, who attempted unsuccessfully in 2007 to pitch a playoff to his fellow SEC presidents, believes a four-team arrangement is the most likely outcome. That would disappoint Georgia president Michael Adams, who since 2008 -- immediately after the 10-2 Bulldogs were passed over for the BCS title game in favor of 10-2 LSU -- has advocated for an eight-team playoff run by the NCAA.
"I'd like the four principal bowls to be matched without regard for geography," Adams said. "If the coaches want to seed it or whatever, that's OK by me. Then I'd like the final four and then two to play.
"There is growing sentiment to do something. Now, whether the commissioners will land on a four-team or an eight-team sort of depends on which one of them you ask, but I just don't think you can continue to ignore the fans who pay the bill for all of this."
Adams might find an ally in Arizona State president Michael Crow, a former Iowa State javelin thrower who would like to see the FBS football title decided the same way titles are decided in every other team sport in the NCAA. "What I like more than the number of teams or whatever," Crow said, "is the notion of an NCAA tournament that produces one of the crummy little trophies that they give." (Crow adopted the most affectionate tone possible for the phrase "crummy little trophies.") Crow also added one condition for his playoff. "It would be best," he said, "if it was built around conference champions."
Perlman, one of the members of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, disagrees. He sees no benefit in a playoff, and he worries any additional television revenue gained might be lost again in the next round of media rights negotiations if the playoff causes interest in the regular season to wane. "I've given all the arguments why I don't want to see a playoff even if it's a plus-one," Perlman said. "More recently, I've just been asking the question, 'What benefit does it have?' I can't find one. This notion that now we'll have an undisputed national champion is a pipe dream. We're not going to have an undisputed national champion. We'll have an undisputed winner of a playoff."
Schulz, who took over at Kansas State in 2009, doesn't fall far from Perlman on the issue. "My comment on that always is, if we have an eight-team playoff, the ninth-place team goes, 'I got screwed.' There's always going to be some sense in college football of somebody not quite getting a fair deal," Schulz said. "I like the bowl system. I'm not sure it's as broken as everybody likes to think it is. Personally, I'm happy to have us tweak it a little bit."
Tulane president Scott Cowen, a BCS Presidential Oversight Committee member whose activism helped create access to BCS bowls for Utah, Boise State, Hawaii and TCU, believes change is coming, but he isn't sure exactly what form that change will take. "They have a set of goals, and they may not be able to achieve all those goals," Cowen said. "We want to maintain the integrity of the regular season. We want to have a conference championship. We want to maintain the integrity of the bowl game. We want to maybe have a playoff to determine a national champion, but we don't want to screw up the academic calendar in any particular way. I think it's going to be hard to meet all of those goals. Something is going to have to give. The question is what will give."
One factor on which all nine presidents agreed is that the Automatic Qualifier designation likely will not survive this round of negotiations. The AQ designation, which guarantees access to one of four major bowls for the champions of the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, has been a sore spot for the five FBS leagues not guaranteed spots since the system began in 1998. Members of Conference USA and the Mountain West, which plan to merge in 2013, believe their leagues lost members because those schools chased the AQ designation. Meanwhile, members of the Big Ten and SEC also are more than happy to ditch the AQ designation because it would mean an end to the rule that only two schools from each league can play in big-money bowls. One of the BCS bowls probably would have taken 11-1 Michigan State in 2010, just as one of those bowls probably would have taken 10-2 Arkansas in 2011. Instead, those teams went to lesser bowls after they were barred from the BCS because their conference's two slots had been filled.
This is the one change Nebraska's Perlman would make to the system. "I know there's great concern among the non-automatic qualifying conferences about this automatic qualifying/non-automatic qualifying and the branding issues and whether that is driving conference expansion that doesn't comport with common sense," Perlman said. "If that's true, I do think that could be addressed without radically changing the postseason."
Cowen, Perlman's frequent adversary in BCS matters, agrees wholeheartedly.
"The AQ status clearly has some impact, especially on those leaving conferences and going to the Big East," Cowen said. "It's primarily -- if not exclusively -- about AQ status for a year or two."
Said Florida's Machen: "I talked to [Mountain West commissioner] Craig Thompson. They don't want any automatic qualifiers. They want it completely open and have a seeding kind of a deal. ... I saw Craig [in San Francisco] and he asked me about it, and I looked at him and said 'Where do we sign?' We would love to open it wide."
While it isn't surprising to learn that the Big Ten and the SEC -- typically portrayed as philosophical rivals -- agree on a concept that would make each conference more powerful, it's downright shocking to learn that the leagues may be working together on a new plan for the postseason. Machen said the SEC has worked more with the Big Ten than with any other league on potential options for the system. "What's happening is there is a lot of back-channeling," Machen said. "We've been talking to the Big Ten. We haven't really talked to the ACC or the Big 12. Certainly, the Big Ten and the SEC are likely to have the same proposal. That doesn't mean it'll be the final solution, but I think it would be the dominant one."
Considering the Big Ten has traditionally moved in lockstep with the Pac-12, a plan that satisfied the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC probably would dominate any others. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told the New York Times last month that he would like to see a four-team playoff with semifinals at home sites and a championship game bid out to different cities like the NFL's Super Bowl. Earlier in February, a Chicago Tribune story attributed a similar plan to Big Ten officials. So does this mean this is the plan to beat? Washington president Michael Young warned against making any assumptions. "[Scott's] saying that this is what he thinks helps move the dialogue forward. It doesn't lock the conference in, and he knows that," Young said. "He's very sensitive to that. On the other hand, we have tremendous respect for his views and his perspective. I don't think that by virtue of having speculated in the New York Times about what his views are that the conference is therefore locked into a position."
Perlman echoed that sentiment on the Big Ten side. "Both on the oversight committee and within the conferences, I think we've tended to let the commissioners work hard on the details and work hard on the options," Perlman said. "We certainly value their advice as they bring it forward to us. But the Big Ten presidents have not had any significant discussion about what our ultimate views are of a playoff."
So what is the timeframe for a decision? The presidents need to approve the next system by summer's end, when the exclusive negotiating window with current television partner ESPN opens. Commissioners have met twice, and they have another meeting scheduled in late April. (Many times, commissioners also will meet informally at the Final Four to discuss issues simply because so many attend the event.) Presidents probably will discuss proposals at their various conference spring meetings in late May and early June. As early as those meetings, presidents could approve proposals to forward to the BCS committee. A final vote would come sometime this summer.
Aside from the major philosophical questions, presidents have other concerns. Some want to ensure the bowl system is protected. Nearly all want to compress the calendar so that the season ends earlier and major bowl games are played closer to Jan. 1. On the flip side, they also don't want minor bowl games being played when players have fall-semester final exams. "Student-athletes ought to be preparing for finals," East Carolina chancellor Steve Ballard said, "and they ought to be back for classes on Jan. 10." (Ballard speaks from experience. He played shortstop at Arizona, and his Wildcats reached the College World Series in 1970.)
Opinions varied on the value of the bowl system, but one thing is certain: The bowls' power has eroded significantly. While the Big Ten and the Pac-12 still will fight to protect their relationship with the Rose Bowl, presidents in other conferences seem open to changing the relationships between schools and bowls. "I think you probably need to incorporate the bowl situation [into the postseason] -- if we could develop some rationality to it," Ballard said. "Most of the bowls we've been to in my eight years, nobody goes to the bowls. Not many fans at the PapaJohns.com Bowl. I think there were more players than fans."
Still, even the staunchest pro-playoff president sees value in the bowl system. "I think the people who have predicted the demise of the bowls are probably overstating the case," Georgia's Adams said. "There are a few of them that are very much at the margins, but there are a lot of them that still engender a lot of local and community support. ... Two years ago, we were at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. We hadn't had a great year. We lost to Central Florida, which was probably the low point of Mark Richt's time at UGA. But that entire week, the kids, the administration, the coaches, they had a terrific experience. Memphis did everything they could do to make us feel happy and welcome."
Two other critical issues are the administration of the system and the distribution of revenue. These are related because if the presidents choose a playoff, they'll next have to choose whether the conferences want to run the system -- as they do now -- or whether the NCAA will administer the tournament. If the NCAA runs the tournament, it almost guarantees a more equal revenue distribution. If the conferences run it, the more powerful leagues might still keep more of the money. Adams and Idaho president Duane Nellis, another member of the BCS Presidential Advisory Committee, would like to see the NCAA run the tournament. "One of the things I've liked about the NCAA basketball tournament is that there is a broader benefit to the entire group of NCAA schools that participate," Nellis said. "The BCS process, there is much more limited revenue distribution."
But the NCAA takes a chunk of the nearly $771 million a year it receives in revenue from its basketball tournament to fund its own operations. Some leaders worry the same would happen in the case of a football tournament, which might produce similarly gaudy revenue numbers. Adams believes the presidents could cut a deal with the NCAA to keep that from happening. "I don't know exactly what [NCAA] president [Mark] Emmert's position is on the money, but [former NCAA president] Myles Brand had said before he died that he would be willing to run it for nothing more than the cost of doing it and then the money could be distributed back to the institutions. It's been a fear of some of the conference commissioners that the NCAA would siphon off some of the money."
Before they can start dividing the money, the presidents must agree on a system. Given the disparity of opinions in this small sample alone, that will be quite a task. Still, the sentiments of the presidents suggest change is coming to college football's postseason. How drastic a change? We'll find out in a few months.
"Everyone is coming to realize that some change is needed," Tulane's Cowen said. "I'm less concerned whether it's a plus-one or four teams or eight teams, but what I really believe and hope will happen is that AQ status will disappear and the BCS as we know it will disappear and be replaced by some other structure to crown a postseason champion."