Never in collegiate football history has a team been snubbed as shabbily as Southern Methodist was last Saturday, when this year's bowl invitations were "officially" tendered. SMU isn't disappointed, and SMU isn't hurt. SMU is furious and bitter. And rightfully so.
The 9-1 Mustangs, who beat Arkansas 17-0 Saturday to remain at No. 7 in SI's ranking, could have been invited to any of four major bowls—the Sugar, Orange, Cotton or Fiesta—but, outrageously, they weren't. Truth be told, they weren't even seriously considered. Therefore SMU will play in the Sun Bowl in El Paso on Christmas Eve. With its $400,000 payout to each team, the Sun ranks near the bottom of the bowl hierarchy, above only the California, which pays $143,000. In all, nine teams ranked below SMU will take home more bowl bucks than the Mustangs.
It's not the money that irks the Mustangs, however, it's the principle. No wonder SMU Tight End Rickey Bolden blew up last week when it was clear his team was being passed over by the major bowls. "This team doesn't deserve this," said Bolden. "We're talking about getting seriously shafted."
Why wasn't SMU invited to a big bowl with megabucks? And, conversely, why will Georgia (ranked ninth), Michigan (11th), Ohio State (16th), Pitt (18th) and UCLA (unranked) all be playing on Jan. 2? Is the Mustangs' record deceiving? Are they really not all that good? Consider this: With a record of 30-2-1 over the last three years, SMU is the winningest team in the nation in that span. The two defeats were to Texas—by a total of five points. Consider also that last season the Mustangs beat Pitt in the Cotton Bowl and wound up No. 2 in the final polls. Consider as well that SMU has the best young running tandem in college football and that its defense, ranked second in the country, handed Arkansas its first shutout in 125 games. No, SMU can play and the bowl people know it. The Mustangs, like a number of other teams, have a different problem.
Howard David, senior vice-president of the Mizlou network, which with ESPN will telecast five bowls, puts it bluntly. SMU lacks "marquee value," says David. One Orange Bowl committee member even speaks of the "SMU syndrome" to describe teams that deserve major bowl bids but get passed over because they lack sufficient national appeal. "Can you name one player on SMU?" says the Orange Bowl man. "What kind of natural following or tradition does SMU have compared with, say, an Oklahoma or an Alabama? No one on the committee would admit it publicly, but the overriding concern when it comes to inviting teams is TV ratings."
In a matter of weeks this fall, Eric Dickerson, the finest rookie runner to enter the NFL since O.J. Simpson, became a full-fledged superstar. But for all that a lot of fans knew of Dickerson's superb SMU career, he could as well have come out of Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute. Likewise, how many people are aware that this year Mustang sophomore Reggie Dupard and freshman Jeff Atkins are among the nation's leaders in rushing and that both are averaging better than six yards a carry? In a driving rain on Saturday, Dupard gained 175 yards, including a 60-yard TD run, while Atkins rushed for 91 yards.
Fortunately, some good may come of the Great SMU Snub of 1983. It provides compelling evidence that a college football playoff system to determine a national champion should be instituted. Not discussed, not considered seriously, but instituted. No more excuses. The fans and the players may just be mad enough and involved enough to make it happen at last. The fans have been restive anyway this season because the Orange Bowl's contract with the Big Eight Conference and the Cotton Bowl's deal with the Southwest Conference prevent No. 1 Nebraska from meeting No. 2 Texas. Any system that keeps the best from meeting indicates the need for a new system.
No wonder that before facing Arkansas SMU Coach Bobby Collins asked in anguish, "Tell me, what have we got to do to get into a big bowl? Tell us and we'll do it. I try to explain it to my players, but it's hard because I don't understand it myself. To think they're going to be denied the chance to play in a major bowl because of politics and pressure from television people."
The heavy hand of TV was especially visible throughout this year's bowl-selection process. Pitt, for example, has become a reasonably sound team, but what are the Panthers doing in the Fiesta Bowl ahead of 10th-ranked Florida, Iowa (12th) and SMU? "We were just trying to get the best game," says Fiesta Bowl Executive Director Bruce Skinner. Baloney. Pitt is expected to deliver the huge Eastern television market for NBC. And why do you think the Liberty Bowl coveted a Notre Dame-Boston College matchup, even after the Irish had lost their last three games to finish at 6-5?
Is Notre Dame more deserving of a bowl than, say, 8-3 East Carolina, which missed beating Miami, Florida, and Florida State—all bowl teams—by a total of 13 points? In fact, the Pirates, who are ranked 19th, didn't receive a bid from any of the 16 bowls. Neither did Virginia Tech, which swamped Virginia 48-0 on Saturday to finish at 9-2.
The remedy? A playoff system to determine a national champion. The bowls, of course, are opposed. They say playoffs would make the season too long, that too many classes would be missed, that pro football already has all the best dates, and so on. Don't believe it. Don Ohlmeyer, formerly executive producer of NBC Sports, now running his own TV production company in New York City, says, "The time is absolutely right for college football to address itself to the public interest, which is playoffs."
Ohlmeyer points out that in 1960 college football was a better attraction than the pros, but now pro football gets around $400 million a year for television and the college game some $90 million. "A playoff would generate far more money," says Ohlmeyer. He also believes the colleges were wrong to restrict network TV appearances to six per team every two years. "If you give the public what it wants to see," he says, "it'll watch."
Ohlmeyer maintains that the current TV-bowl arrangement almost guarantees recruiting excesses. "In the pros," he says, "a team gets on television and gets the money whether it wins or loses. In college, a team has to win to get on TV, and it has to win to get in the bowls. If it doesn't, it doesn't get the money."
It would be nice if the NCAA itself would take charge and create a satisfactory playoff system. After all, that organization has done a grand job promoting and marketing its basketball championship. But the NCAA seems to have no stomach for this one, not wanting to offend old bowl friends. So it's up to the fans, the coaches and the players.
A number of prominent coaches have joined in the cry, including, most recently, Collins and Hayden Fry of Iowa. Fry is ticked off—and appropriately so—that the Fiesta opted for the Michigan-Ohio State loser over his 9-2 Hawkeyes, who beat the Fiesta-bound Buckeyes. "If we're better than the people in the Fiesta Bowl, that's the Fiesta Bowl's problem," says Fry. "One thing that hurt us is that people think of Michigan and Ohio State when they think of the Big Ten. It's going to take us a while to overcome that image of the poor boy on the block." There's that word again: image. Let's tear that page out of the college football talkbook.
Clearly, though, it's primarily image that's keeping SMU out of the Sugar Bowl, which it obviously deserves more than 9-2 Michigan, and out of the Fiesta, whose contestants, Pitt and 8-3 Ohio State, are inferior to the Mustangs. Even Sun Bowl Executive Director Tom Starr concedes, "Nobody said life was fair." True, but the treatment of SMU is cruel if not unusual, which is why SMU Athletic Director Bob Hitch says, "We need and want and deserve to be in a major bowl." At ABC, Charlie Lavery, vice-president for programming, says of the bowl system, "It doesn't work for anybody and what happens are embarrassing matchups." Even the always circumspect Big Ten commissioner, Wayne Duke, refers to the situation as the "bowl jungle."
While conventional wisdom says TV executives tell the bowls who's to play where, that's not 100% true. Ken Schanzer, executive vice-president of NBC Sports, denies meddling but says, "The bowls are solicitous of us. We are their network, and we are part of the family. So we are consulted." In 1977, ABC did increase its rights payment to the Sugar Bowl, which in turn raised its payout to Pitt from $800,000 to $900,000, to get the Panthers to New Orleans. A few weeks ago NBC sent a confidential memo to the Orange Bowl instructing the committee to take another hard look at Boston College, with an exciting quarterback in Doug Flutie and a huge potential viewing audience, as an opponent for Nebraska.
Still, such shenanigans aren't the norm, and there's nothing inherently evil in TV shelling out big bucks for the bowls. For example, NBC is paying the Rose $10.5 million for the rights to this year's game, more than twice last season's fee. That means UCLA and Illinois will each take home $5,250,000 to divvy up with the other members of their respective conferences. The Orange is getting $3.4 million from NBC and the Fiesta $1 million. ABC is spending $3 million for the Sugar Bowl rights, and CBS is parting with $3.5 million for the Cotton. So the television people pay their money, sell their commercials, and hope for ratings so they can do it all over again next year. Yet, as we see, while the system does well by the bowls, schools and television, the fans, players and the game itself don't fare so well. Perhaps Mickey Holmes, executive director of the Sugar Bowl, summarizes the situation best. "The best match possible doesn't necessarily mean the highest-ranked teams," he says. So Long Smoo.
The heart of the problem is that the bowls themselves lack integrity. Proof: Bowl reps meet periodically during the season to eat and drink and vow they will abide by the NCAA's prescribed signing date, which this fall occurred last Saturday. But nearly every bowl jumps the gun. Virtually all of this year's pairings were decided six days early.
The lid blew when the Cotton Bowl decided it wanted the Michigan-Ohio State winner. But Michigan nixed the deal because, says Wolverine Athletic Director Don Canham, "The Cotton Bowl showed very little interest in us over the years." While 15 bowl scouts were at the Michigan-Purdue game, the Cotton was absent. After being turned down by Michigan, the Cotton Bowl people panicked. At the same time Georgia, which had just lost to Sugar-bound Auburn, was panicking over where it could go. Bingo, two shotgun marriages: Michigan and Auburn in the Sugar and Georgia and Texas in the Cotton. After that, Coach Ray Perkins of Alabama bolted upright and considered the very real possibility his Tide could spend the holidays at home if he didn't move quickly. With the Sun Bowl panting, Perkins was pliable. So it's a second-rate Alabama team against a first-rate SMU outfit in El Paso. There's the injustice of it all in a nutshell. The Mustangs deserve a place in the sun, not the Sun. Let the playoffs come.
In the SMU dressing room after Saturday's game, everybody put on his party manners. The Sun Bowl reps smiled, Collins smiled—"We're excited about going to the Sun Bowl," he said—and the players hollered and smiled. Said Quarterback Lance McIlhenny, "Aw, we're just happy to go anywhere." Given the bowl mess, what else could he say?