When it comes to post-season college football, former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer remains one of the sport’s greatest visionaries.
It was Kramer who discovered a little-known codicil in the NCAA by-laws that would allow conferences to split into divisions in order to play a league championship game.
So shortly after he took over as SEC Commissioner in 1990, the 10-team conference added South Carolina and Arkansas. On Dec. 5, 1992 the first SEC championship football game was played at Legion Field in Birmingham. Today all 10 FBS conferences have a championship game.
It was Kramer who thought that there was a better way to determine college football’s national title than a series of polls that would crown multiple champions. Thus the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which would use a formula of human polls and computer polls to determine the nation’s two top teams, was born. After the 1998 season Tennessee beat Florida State 23-16 for the first BCS national championship in Tempe, Ariz.
In some seasons the controversy over the top two teams was enormous. Controversy, Kramer said at the time, was not a bad thing.
“The idea is to have people talking about college football, even if they aren’t happy,” Kramer said.
Fans fussed and cussed about the BCS for 16 seasons (1998-2013). But the reality is that it took college football, which had always been a regional sport, and turned it into a national sport. Fans in the South began staying up late and watching West Coast games because the outcome could impact the BCS standings and ultimately their team’s ability to get into the national championship game.
Kramer retired as SEC commissioner in 2002 and was replaced by Mike Slive, who served until 2015. Today Greg Sankey serves as commissioner.
Despite his retirement, Kramer has remained a strong voice in college football. He expressed some concern when college football went to a four-team playoff for the 2014 season. In an interview with the Tennessean newspaper of Nashville, Kramer was afraid that a four-team playoff would negatively impact college football regular season.
“The regular season is so important; that’s the backbone of what it’s (college football) about,” Kramer told the newspaper.
Today Kramer, now 91, lives in the tiny East Tennessee town of Vonore, in a home overlooking Tellico Lake. His beloved wife, Sara Jo, passed away in 2013.
Last week Kramer watched with interest when a four-person working group of the College Football Playoff presented a recommendation to expand its field from four to 12 teams.
So I called the former athletics director at Vanderbilt (1978-90) and Division II national championship coach at Central Michigan (1974) to get his take on the 12-team playoff, which could go into effect as early as 2023.
Let’s just say that Commissioner Kramer is not a fan.
“Why in the world are we going to 12 teams?” asked Kramer, who is a member of both the Tennessee and the Alabama Halls of Fame. “You certainly don’t need 12 teams. The purpose of any kind of playoff is to determine a champion. You don’t need 12 teams to do that.”
Kramer said he was concerned about the additional games that the 12-team playoff could require of the players. The top four seeds in the playoff get a bye in the first round. But if a team seeded 5 through 12 wins the national championship it could play as many as 17 games. That’s two more games than the champion currently plays.
“What you’re doing is just adding games,” said Kramer. “We’ve got enough issues now with player participation.”
Kramer said he understands the pressure created by the fact that there are five power conferences and only four playoff slots available. A power five conference is going to get left out every season.
In fact, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said last week that he did not fully appreciate the stigma of a conference being left out of the playoffs, which his conference has been three times in seven years.
“Nobody ever said automatic qualifying should be part of the playoff process,” said Kramer. “All you’re saying (with the 12-team playoff) is that if we don’t have access, we’re not any good.”
Ultimately, said Kramer, he is concerned about the impact a 12-team playoff will have on college football’s regular season, which is best in all of sports.
Others argue that the 12-team playoff will actually make more games meaningful at the end of the regular season because more teams will be competing for one of the six at-large berths.
Color Kramer skeptical.
“We’ll still have a great game,” said Kramer. “But we need to realize that this is college sports.”