When the NCAA posted its list of proposed new legislation earlier this month, proposal 2011-78 got most of the attention. It involved the legality of cream cheese and other assorted bagel spreads. Everyone ignored proposal 2011-87, which might be the best idea of the bunch.
Proposal 2011-87 suggests that the NCAA should allow four teams from leagues that don't play conference championship games to play a pair of invitational games. It's not a playoff. It's not an alternative to the BCS. It's only a chance for teams to play a 13th regular-season game that could make for excellent December viewing.
Using the conference alignments from last season and the final regular-season BCS rankings, the invitational games could have matched Stanford and Ohio State or Michigan State and Boise State. Using the current conference alignments and last year's final BCS rankings, one invitational game could have given us a rematch of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl between Oklahoma and Boise State, except this time in Norman.
The proposal might have received more attention had it revealed the identity of the man behind it: Mark Cuban. The billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks made headlines in December and January with a series of blog posts (see them here, here and here) that solicited opinions for a way to replace the BCS with a playoff. Between then and now, that idea morphed into a concept that would require the passage of proposal 2011-87.
Cuban wants to stage two games, either on Championship Saturday or Army-Navy/Heisman Saturday. The games would match the top four teams in the BCS standings from among the independents and conferences without championship games. If one of those teams -- Oklahoma, for example -- was in contention for the BCS title game, it could opt out and be replaced by another highly ranked team from that group. Last year, TCU almost certainly would have opted out after locking down a BCS at-large berth. In some cases, a non-AQ school such as Boise State or Nevada could be playing to bolster its case for a BCS at-large berth. In some cases, an AQ-conference runner-up might try to do the same thing. The dream scenario is that a team with an uncertain shot at the BCS title game might agree to a game against a quality opponent to strengthen its résumé. It sounds a little like Bracket Busters for football, but with the possibility of more name brand schools.
After the initial blog posts, the playoff wackos -- not me, but other ones -- e-mailed and called. First, Cuban and Brett Morris, the man charged with building Cuban's foray into college football, had to sift through every imaginable bracket structure. Later, the serious inquiries came from conference officials and athletic directors. That's when Cuban and Morris turned away from the idea of a playoff and toward something that might work within the current structure. "We realized really soon that taking the side in the playoff debate was not just something we wanted to do," Morris said. "There weren't really any opportunities there. Once you get down to the nitty-gritty and the politics of it, there is just a lot that needs to be done among the schools and the conferences to get something like that done."
Cuban may be a firebrand. He may be the guy who gives life to his protest about NBA officiating by working a shift at Dairy Queen. But he is first and foremost a man who built an empire. He didn't build that empire by forcing business models down the throats of people who didn't want them.
So Cuban and Morris set out to create a concept that might seem palatable to a majority of the members of the FBS. They discussed brokering early season games like the ones that will match Oregon and LSU in Arlington, Texas, and Georgia and Boise State in Atlanta next week. They also discussed buying a bowl game, but the idea of forcing schools into ticket guarantees disgusted Cuban. "He said to me there is no way -- obviously, with a few expletives -- no way we're going to ask a university to guarantee a minimum amount of tickets," Morris said.
In their discussions, they identified a group that might want to play an extra game: independents and schools from conferences that don't play championship games. The logic is simple. The two best teams in the SEC, ACC, Conference USA, MAC and -- beginning this year -- the Big Ten and Pac-12, get to play a 13th game during the regular season window and 14 for the entire season. Why don't independents and teams from other leagues? This is because of an NCAA rule that allows for a title game for leagues with 12 teams or more. The SEC, the first league to launch a championship game, has turned the concept into a financial windfall. According to the conference, the 2010 SEC title game netted $15.3 million for the league's 12 members. Twelve is an arbitrary number, though, and it isn't necessarily fair that independents and teams from less populated leagues have no opportunity for an extra game and extra revenue. But playing those extra games would require a change in NCAA legislation.
Enter John Infante and Wright Waters.
Infante is the assistant director of compliance at Colorado State and the author of the Bylaw Blog, which should be required reading for anyone who follows college sports. Infante helped craft the proposed legislation. "It really came down to that 14-game barrier," Infante said. "The crux of the proposal is that more teams would be able to play 14 games." Waters is the commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference and one of the most refreshingly honest people in college sports. "We were sitting around saying, 'We've got to look at ways to make a few bucks for our schools,'" Waters said. "And if we ever had one of our schools on the cusp of the BCS late [in the season], how would we do it?"
Cuban and Morris did not reveal any financial projections, but Morris said the payout to participating conferences would be "significant." That, of course, depends on which conferences and independents are willing to participate. Coalition building may be the greatest challenge for Team Cuban between now and the NCAA convention in January. Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe wrote in an e-mail to SI.com on Wednesday that he has met with Cuban about the concept. Beebe wrote that he hasn't had a chance to discuss the concept in detail with his members. (He can be excused. He's been a little busy of late.) But Beebe did mention something interesting. "It is worth noting that our Board of Directors has indicated in the past that it would not support legislation that would expand the number of games beyond 14 that our football student-athletes would play, nor would they support an extension of the weeks in a season," Beebe wrote. Cuban's plan does neither.
To make this work, Cuban probably would need to get Notre Dame on board. If Notre Dame is a potential participant, television networks will get excited. That could be an uphill climb. In a phone interview Wednesday, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said that on its surface, the concept doesn't seem like something in which the Fighting Irish would be interested. Among Swarbrick's concerns: having only a week to prepare to host a game or to arrange travel to a game and the possibility of playing a game on the second Saturday in December, which would force football preparations to collide with final exam preparations. "I'm not terribly interested in an extra game that puts you closer to finals," Swarbrick said.
The date issue might be Cuban's Scylla and Charybdis. If he opts for the first Saturday in December, his games would have to compete with conference championship games for eyeballs and television dollars. If he opts for the second Saturday, television executives would love the additional programming, but schools would hate the idea of playing during exam weeks. Also, if he chose the second Saturday, he would need the conferences that rule the BCS to agree to wait one week before setting their matchups.
So where is Cuban's impassioned defense of his plan? Offered the chance to discuss it, Cuban declined. He knows how he is perceived, and he doesn't want his lightning-rod status to overshadow a good idea. "He doesn't want to be perceived as fanning the flames here," Morris said. "We want to do what's best for college football. That sounds cheesy, but that's the truth." Morris offered a statement from Cuban to use in this column, but I declined. I e-mailed Morris to let him know I had no intention of using any canned quotes from one of the most quotable people on the planet. A few minutes later, an e-mail from Cuban appeared in my inbox. "I worked long and hard on that quote!!" Cuban protested. "I don't get much better than that."
Actually, he does. But Cuban took the prudent route here. He has an interesting, workable idea that must be approved by a notoriously skittish body of university presidents. So after they get done debating cream cheese, hopefully they'll get around to passing his proposal.