WASHINGTON -- As 12 university CEOs, 11 conference commissioners and one athletic director waited Tuesday to exit the room where they had made history minutes earlier, public relations guru Ari Fleischer looked back at the group. "Now," Fleischer said, pointing to the room where a stage and cameras waited, "comes the hard part."
Fleischer, accustomed to contentious press conferences during his time here as President George W. Bush's press secretary, didn't grasp the love fest into which his clients were about to walk. The hard part took place the past few months as commissioners haggled over details. It will continue during the next few months as they decide how to split the money their decision will generate. Tuesday, they all took a victory lap.
Major college football finally has a playoff.
It doesn't have a proposal for a playoff, as it did in April. It doesn't have a recommendation for a playoff, as it did last week. It has an honest-to-goodness, four-team tournament that will begin either Dec. 31, 2014 or Jan. 1, 2015.
"The worst thing about the playoff," Georgia offensive lineman Chris Burnette tweeted, "is that it doesn't start until I leave college football."
Four teams won't be enough to satisfy every playoff proponent. Those flat-earth believers who wanted to keep the BCS or go back to the stone age of the old bowl system will certainly protest that bracket creep will eventually ruin their beloved sport. But for the forward thinkers who truly love the game, Tuesday was more than 40 years in the making. College football leaders have been suggesting that the uppermost subdivision of the sport needs a playoff since at least 1966. They began as lone voices in the wilderness, but as the years passed, more of the people in charge joined the majority of fans in asking why major college football couldn't end its season with a tournament like every other collegiate sport. The idea went completely mainstream in 2008, when SEC commissioner Mike Slive and ACC commissioner John Swofford presented a doomed proposal to their fellow commissioners. The tipping point among the decision-makers came this past December, when the announcement of an all-SEC BCS title game convinced Big 12 leaders they needed to throw their support behind a playoff.
Tuesday, because most actually supported it and because the others were sick of fighting it, the presidents pulled the trigger. The details were exactly as SI.com reported Friday: a 12-year deal with six bowls rotating as semifinal hosts and a championship game that -- like the NFL's Super Bowl -- will be hosted by cities that submit the most favorable bids. The presidents also approved the formation of a selection committee, though commissioners will have to hash out the details.
With the exception of Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, whose proposal for a plus-one postseason format fell on deaf ears Tuesday, everyone seemed thrilled with the outcome. How thrilled? Try to guess who said the following:
"We've got a great regular season. I think it'll be more exciting than it has been. It's hard to believe that, but I don't think it hurts that one bit."
So which playoff lover made that statement? Slive? Swofford? Tulane president Scott Cowen? Nope. It was Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who as recently as December said he wasn't sure if his league would participate in a playoff. Though Delany was painted by some in my field as an obstructionist during this process, his thinking was actually quite progressive -- once he accepted the fact that a playoff was inevitable.
"We weren't asking for the BCS to be replaced," Delany said. "But we understood the public was, and a lot of other people wanted to change. Once we realized that's what people wanted, we agreed to listen, participate and explore. And we did that."
Delany said including the bowls might help eliminate the slippery slope of playoff expansion. Had the bowls been cut out completely and the semifinals played on campuses, it would have been easy to expand the bracket. Now, it's quite complicated, and 12 years worth of legally binding contracts should ensure the number stays at four until after most of the current commissioners have retired. But didn't the Rose Bowl, the pride of the Big Ten and Pac-12, lose some of its luster? The playoff knocks the game down another peg in terms of prestige, but the Rose will be one of the six semifinal bowls. (The SEC-Big 12 Champions Bowl and the ACC-affiliated Orange Bowl will be among the others. The remaining three spots are up for bids.) In years that it doesn't host a semifinal, the Rose Bowl will match the best Big Ten and Pac-12 teams that didn't make the playoff. "The Rose Bowl," Oregon State president Ed Ray said, "recognized that the world is changing."
If other bowls don't like the new arrangement, tough. The Big 12 and SEC fired a shot across the bow of the bowl system last month when they announced the formation of the Champions Bowl. If the leagues get their wish, they'll keep every penny of revenue from the game in years in which it doesn't host a semifinal. Essentially, they have eliminated the need for a middleman in postseason football, and bowls that don't like the new world could find themselves replaced by Champions Bowl clones. "We have a different business model, that's for sure," outgoing Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas said. "I'm sure that would be attractive to others."
Tuesday was especially sweet for those inside the machine who fought for a playoff long before their colleagues came around to the idea. Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, whose league suffered a defeat Tuesday when the presidents denied a waiver that would have made the MWC a BCS automatic-qualifying conference for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, couldn't hide his pride in the formation of a playoff. He just wished it had come earlier. Under this system, TCU -- then a Mountain West member -- would have made the playoff in 2009 and 2010, and Utah -- then a Mountain West member -- might have made it in 2008. "I've testified in front of Congress [in 2009]," Thompson said. "I wanted an eight-team playoff and a selection committee. I'm half right."
Thompson hasn't given up on a bigger bracket, and he won't be alone. Still, he understands this is an evolutionary process. The Alliance was a step. The Coalition was another. The BCS was another. "Eight-team, 16-team. I still believe in that," Thompson said. "I think that would be ultimately better, but this is a tremendous step."
This step covered more ground than all the others combined. It took major college football across the Rubicon, and the sport will never be the same.