Objection! Overruled?

Want a playoff? The very polite boss of the BCS begs to disagree
January 11, 2010

Bill Hancock is the nicest person I know. This is not a singular opinion. Bill Hancock is the nicest person many people know. Bill is the sort of guy who will take two hours to walk down a street because he's so busy talking to strangers. Bill was director of the NCAA men's basketball tournament for a long while, and he is the sort of guy who tells people no so kindly and regretfully that they leave apologizing to him.

Bill's son Will was killed on the Oklahoma State basketball plane that crashed in 2001—Will was the basketball sports information director—and Bill responded to the tragedy by riding his bicycle across America and writing a beautiful, heart-wrenching and funny book about his grief called Riding with the Blue Moth.

Like I say: Bill is the nicest person I know. So I have no idea why he just took on the worst job in America. "It's a good question, isn't it?" asks Bill, 59, who until November was a BCS administrator.

Bill Hancock's new job is executive director of the BCS. His main role is to get yelled at. It has surprised him—the fury people have. The angry newspaper columns, the anti-BCS message boards, the verbal beatings he has taken from talk-radio hosts. But he does not blame his attackers. "I understand that a lot of people want a college football playoff," he says. "But there are a lot of reasons why a playoff doesn't work. And people just don't want to hear it. They just say, 'Well, smart people could find a way to make it work.'"

Funny, I've thought that myself: Smart people should be able to find a way to make a football playoff work. But Bill and I are friends, we've known each other for 15 years, and we have been through a lot together. We walked on the Great Wall of China together during the Beijing Olympics. We went on a chocolate tour of Torino together (don't ask). So, over Mexican food, I tell him to make his pitch: Why shouldn't there be a playoff in college football?

He begins by saying that a playoff would kill the bowls. Many seem to think that the bowls could coexist with a playoff, but "if there's a playoff," Bill says, "that will be the focus. Most bowl executives believe a playoff would eventually kill the bowls, and I think that's probably right."

O.K., so maybe it would kill the bowls. Bill talks for a few minutes about the unique experience of those games—"The bowls are such a big part of the tradition of college football," he says—but then he stops and admits that he knows his argument doesn't get much traction. He seems to have noticed that I'm fading.

Next, Bill talks about how there is no playoff system that quite works. How many teams do you want in a playoff? Eight teams? Not enough.... There are 11 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences plus Notre Dame. If people want a playoff to make it fairer for teams like Boise State and TCU, you can't have an eight-team playoff.

O.K., make it 16 teams. Minimum. But that's four extra games. Do people really want to add four games to the college schedule? Do you really want national champions to play 17 games? Is that good for 18-to-22-year-old players who are trying (you would hope) to go to school and trying to stay healthy? And where would these games be played anyway? At neutral sites? No, fans are not going to travel week after week. At home sites? O.K. ... but is that fair?

And, for that matter, is 16 teams really enough to bring happiness to the playoff hounds? There are more than 100 football programs in Division I. "Everybody talks about the NFL," Bill says. "You know, 37.5% of NFL teams make the playoffs. To reach that level, we'd need a six-week, 45-team playoff. Is that what people really want?"

I suppose some people would want that, though I was thinking of a little four-team playoff at the end of bowl season. He nods. "O.K.," he says. "We have five undefeated teams this year. Who would you leave out of a four-team playoff?"

He points out that the BCS was put together to try to match up the best two teams. That's all. For decades college football did not even make the effort to do that. Bowl games cut their own deals. In 1984 Brigham Young won a national championship at the Holiday Bowl, beating an unranked 6--5 Michigan team. In 1991 Miami won its share of the national title by beating No. 11 Nebraska. It was bad enough that newspapers called them "mythical national championships."

"College football has the best season in all of sports," Bill says. "Every Saturday in Tuscaloosa or Austin or Norman or Columbus or Gainesville is like a playoff. It's what makes our sport so great. I don't know why anybody would want to mess with that."

I point out, though, that it seems unfair for undefeated teams like Boise State and TCU to get left out of the championship game. He nods but says, "Good teams get left out of playoffs too. Someone always gets left out."

He stops. I tell him that he did fine—but most people will still scream. Ripping the BCS is part of the joy of winter. He nods. "There is no perfect system," he says. "But we have undefeated Texas and undefeated Alabama playing for the national title. Isn't that pretty good?"

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Hancock eagerly—and nicely—makes his case: THERE SHOULDN'T BE A TOURNAMENT in college football.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY DARROW

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)