Pete Thamel: College football's next controversy: the playoff selection committee - Sports Illustrated

College football's next controversy: the playoff selection committee

Publish date:

A few years ago, at one of the annual Bowl Championship Series meetings, college football's leaders debated the idea of having a committee to determine the two teams that will play for the national title.

The idea has long been popular with some conference commissioners, who grew tired of the biased and unreliable polls. But at this particular meeting the idea died on the table when one commissioner asked who would make up the committee.

"You want me to make a list of people who are going to get their houses burned down?" said one person in the room, only half joking.

After a flurry of positive publicity and an outpouring of joy from fans after the decision to scrap the unpopular BCS in favor of a four-team playoff in June, there's been little mention of college football's next big controversy: Who will make up the committee that determines the four teams that will play for the national title starting in 2014?

"I don't know the exact way to set the committee," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "But I do know this: It's going to be one of the most important elements of the whole playoff system."

BCS executive director Bill Hancock said any talk of the committee at this point is conjecture, and that since a playoff was approvedit hasn't been formally discussed. College football's leaders won't tackle the topic until the television contract deals and bowl site selections are figured out over the next several months.

But none of the unresolved issues with the new playoff, including revenue sharing, will have anywhere near the impact that the committee does. Simply put: It will become the focal point of each and every college football season beginning in 2014.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott calls himself "a convert" to the notion of a selection committee, and its formation became one of the most heated topics in the series of meetings to determine the playoff. His initial reluctance underscores the inherent biases that will come with a committee

"Originally I said, 'Does the world really need another committee?'" Scott said. "It feels more of a throwback to the way things used to be done rather than the modern and transparent way with technology that we ought to be embracing."

Consider the choosing of the committee a high-stakes jury selection, with every candidate grilled and vetted for biases. Selection committee members are not expected to be paid, nor is it likely that their individual votes will be revealed when the teams are picked.

The number of members hasn't been determined yet, either, although it's likely to be in the range of 15 to 20. There are expected to be 11 representatives tied to the 10 conferences and independents, and then a half-dozen or so unaffiliated members. The committee will likely use many of the same concepts as the 10-member NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, of which Hancock is familiar from his decades with the NCAA. Numerous commissioners have been a part of the NCAA Tournament committee.

But there's a vast difference between picking 68 teams and four, especially considering that there are millions more at stake and boundless more passion involved with college football. The period of scrutiny between selection and games is also four weeks as opposed to a few days, meaning the decisions will be dissected endlessly.

"It will be one of the most prestigious assignments in sports, and one of the most scrutinized," Hancock said. "And the members will need to understand what they're getting into."

Scott joked that he's not volunteering for the job, as it's unlikely that any power conference commissioner could be accepted as unbiased considering the stakes. The importance of assembling a strong committee is obvious.

"I wouldn't say I'm worried, but I'm focused on it," Scott said. "It's going to be important."

Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said he's in favor of a selection committee, but he's worried about how it will work. "I think it's a lot better than what we have," he said. "But it's going to be daunting."

So who will be tasked with selecting the four teams? We're months away from real names being formally discussed. But Thompson suggested a few: former Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne, former Big East Commissioner John Marinatto, former San Diego State athletic director Jeff Schemmel and former Southern Miss athletic director Richard Giannini. The members not affiliated with leagues would ultimately become the most integral committee members.

But every candidate presents a potential bias. You think Texas fans or Big 12 officials would be happy with Byrne? Could Marinatto not hold a bias against the ACC? There are no perfect candidates. Perhaps you could bring on a few retired NFL front office folks who have scouted the college game extensively.

"You need someone who has a background in football, but you can't go the legends route," Thompson said. "They're not going to have the energy. I would lean toward recently retired guys."

Whatever happens, the one unanimous plea is for transparency. The BCS era was cloaked in mysterious computer polls, backroom deals for votes and the cronyism that's so pervasive in college sports.

"The important thing is that it's transparent and everyone sees where it's coming from, and it's not any one group or person determining that this is the crew that's going to be in there," Petersen said. "I think that was one of the things that was so frustrating about the BCS is that no one really understood how these numbers were coming. They kept saying, 'the computer.' Well, what do you mean?"

So as the BCS era comes to a merciful close after the 2013 season, it appears inevitable that another era of controversy looms. Just in a different form.

"A lot of people are going to say that they'd love to be on it," said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. "Be careful what you wish for. You're always going to make someone mad."