Mack Brown’s confused arguments (updated)

(Update: OK, after a lot of rest and such, I’ve figured out what Mack seems to have been trying to say, and have updated this post accordingly to give him some benefit of the doubt. Now that OU is the 2008 Big 12 South champion, the argument moves to whether the tie-breaker should be changed or next year. I’ll bet it will be, whether it “should” be or not. Updated again to fix an incorrect reference to “Texas Tech” that should have been to “Texas” regarding the SEC tie-breaker.)

I speak all year long, every year, about how valuable Jerry Palm’s CollegeBCS.com subscription site is for people who really love NCAA BCS-division football and want to know what’s going on. It would be cheating to reveal his analysis of what will probably happen later today (I’ll just say you shouldn’t be dejected), but this paragraph from last night says volumes:

Oklahoma has made their case. They beat Oklahoma St 61-41 and now it’s up to the voters. ESPN did all it could for Texas, giving Mack Brown a forum for a lengthy campaign speech in the second half. Kirk Herbstreit also stumped for them. We’ll see how much influence ESPN has.

The “lengthy campaign speech” came with 5:08 left in the third quarter of last night’s game, and if you have the game recorded, you can return to that spot and see if my transcript of what Mack Brown said is fair or not. The problem with Brown’s “campaigning” is that I cannot characterize his “arguments” as better than confused, and maybe as far as dishonest.

As we all know by now (can you believe that message here has been read more than 1700 times?), the BCS ranking today is the fifth-level tiebreaker for a divisional tie in the Big 12 Conference. It gets to that point because the first four levels of tie-breaker don’t resolve the issue at all. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit (whose man-love for Colt McCoy is starting to creep me out, honestly) asked Brown what he thought of using the BCS rankings as a fifth-level tie-breaker, with no one involved apparently realizing that the old Big 8 tie-breaker was the ranking in one of the plain old polls of the day:

Kirk—number one: it’s three really good football teams, with Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech, and somebody’s gonna be really disappointed tomorrow. There’ll be two teams that probably deserve to play in a championship that won’t get there. But it seems to me like, after looking at the SEC rule for a tie-breaker and the ACC rule for a tie-breaker, it’s pretty simple that if Oklahoma State wins, Tech would be in head-to-head with us, and since Tech is not in the mix if Oklahoma wins because it’s two highly-rated teams, we should be in head-to-head if Oklahoma wins tonight, regardless of the score.

OK. Putting aside the ridiculous notion that any three teams “deserve” a single spot for a championship (does Mack Brown think the NCAA basketball tournament unfair because the “best teams” sometimes lose their early round games?), Brown has pulled a colossal bait-and-switch on Herbstreit, who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Both of those conferences decided, as a matter of conference policy, that head-to-head records among the tied teams would be the first tie-breaker even in cases of three or more tied teams. The Big 12 chose this for two tied teams, but does not consider it at all if there are three or more teams tied. That’s because it makes no sense—you can only have a 3-way or greater tie if all the teams involved lost to each other in a round-robin fashion.

Brent Musberger had the same problem during last night’s broadcast, repeatedly saying he was “uncomfortable” with using BCS rankings as a tie-breaker. We’ll need to go back and check the Big 12 Charter and look for the part where keeping Musberger comfortable is listed as a conference priority. Besides, as you can see in the links we added above, both the SEC and ACC use BCS rankings as a very late tie-breaker as well. Does that make him uncomfortable?

Musberger didn’t seem to realize that the Big 12 chose its own tie-breaker rules, and that they weren’t imposed by the BCS or something. He even had ESPN’s stats people run the numbers to see who would win a tie-breaker if it was point differential against common opponents, and noted that OU would win it. He said he didn’t understand why that couldn’t be the rule, but if that’s true, it’s just a spectacular failure of imagination. Such a rule would encourage, if not require, good teams to run up the score against weaker conference opponents in case it was needed in a tie-breaker.

Anyway, back to Mack. There’s no evidence that he was ever, ever concerned about this in the 10-12 years this has been the rule, at least until his Longhorns lost to Texas Tech four weeks ago. And if OSU had won last night, such rules would have resolved the tie in favor of Texas Tech anyway. But since OU won last night, and all three tied teams lost to each other in round-robin fashion, it would not come into play at all even if the rule had been adopted!

Mack’s quick verbal slight said “Tech is not in the mix if Oklahoma wins because it’s two highly-rated teams,” but that’s the real bait-and-switch, and Herbstreit didn’t notice. Mack is apparently referring to the very last SEC three-way tie-breaking rule:

The tied team with the highest ranking in the Bowl Championship Series Standings following the last weekend of regular-season games shall be the divisional representative in the SEC Championship Game, unless the second of the tied teams is ranked within five-or-fewer places of the highest ranked tied team. In this case, the head-to-head results of the top two ranked tied teams shall determine the representative in the SEC Championship Game.

Did you catch that? In the penultimate BCS rankings on Sunday, Oklahoma finished #2, Texas #3, and Texas Tech #7. Under SEC rules, since Texas is “ranked within five-or-fewer places of the highest ranking tied team,” Tech would get tossed out of the tie and the winner would be the head-to-head winner of the Texas-OU game.

Isn’t it amazing how Mack has suddenly found religion for tie-breaking rules that would, in this one case only, decide it in his favor by throwing out the lowest-ranked team—the one that beat his team? That the BCS rankings should be used to throw out the lowest-ranked team but not to reward the highest-ranked team? Quite a tightrope he’s walking there!

So, in short, Mack Brown is saying that if the rules were different than what he’s always known that they are, Texas would and should win a tie-breaker by throwing out Tech’s equally impressive record. But it’s trivially easy to argue that you should win if the rules were different. The trick of competition, Mack, is to win with the rules as they are.

Musberger then asked Brown how he felt about Texas still being in the BCS National Championship hunt even if OU plays next week for the Big 12 championship, and here Mack kind of went off the rails again:

There’s no doubt. I do think the Big 12 will revisit this rule next spring, because head-to-head—if we talk about playoffs all the time, when you play head-to-head and it doesn’t count, it’s really hard to act like playoffs would make a difference. Our kids have played great. They are in the mix. You guys saw the Texas-Oklahoma game. It was a classic, but it was on a neutral field and we won the game! That’s where I would be coming from. Oklahoma’s a great team. And I think it’d be hard to try to explain to our kids next week why Missouri and Oklahoma are playing when we beat both of them.

First, head-to-head does count, or OU wouldn’t have a loss and be in the three-way tie. Second, do any of you have this vague memory (as do I) of Mack Brown arguing in 2003 or 2004 that Texas deserved a BCS berth even though his team lost the OU-Texas game?

But more importantly to me is that last sentence. The University of Texas is a major institution of higher learning with distinguished faculty and alumni throughout the world, including in communications. Walter Cronkite is a Texas alum, which is why he narrates the university’s PSA during conference games. The tie-breaker rules have been published forever, and are quite easy to understand.

If Mack really thinks it’s “hard” to explain why his team’s loss to Texas Tech means they might not play for the Big 12 championship (especially when one team in the championship was always going to be a North division team, whether Texas beat them or not), I think the University of Texas really needs to look at its continuing education program for tenured faculty like Professor Brown. It’s neither difficult to explain nor understand. If you want a clear path to the championship game, win all your games. Texas didn’t (nor did OU), and so we have resolution based on other factors.

See? And I’m not a tenured professor of anything, anywhere.

To wrap it up, Herbstreit asked Brown how it felt not to have any control over the process going forward—an odd question, since ESPN’s repeated choices on Thursday through Saturday to give massive ABC airtime to Brown to campaign for his case meant he had a lot more “control” than others involved did. Brown said:

I think the only thing that can come out of this good, Kirk, because, again, there’ll be two good teams not go[ing], is that hopefully everybody will revisit this system and not have kids not be able to get someplace when they’ve accomplished what they needed to on the field.

Well, again, no. “What they needed to [accomplish] on the field” was beating Texas Tech, and they didn’t do it. If they did, Brown’s statement would make sense. But they didn’t, so they’re in this situation. The subtext to Mack Brown’s argument is that OU shouldn’t be allowed to play for the Big 12 championship because Texas beat OU. Let’s be nice and presume that he doesn’t extend this to its logical conclusion, that a 2-9 Texas team (beating only OU and Missouri) deserves to play for the Big 12 championship because “we beat both of them,” and say that he really means that Texas deserves to go because Texas beat OU and has the same record as OU.

But that’s not what the rules say, and Brown knew that at the beginning of the season. His team did not “accomplishe what it needed to on the field” or he wouldn’t have to make such twisted arguments for the Longhorns.

There’s also this entire “neutral field” argument that doesn’t withstand scrutiny. He said in earlier interviews that he’d love to have played Texas Tech in Austin, implying that OU couldn’t have won that game in Lubbock. But Texas hosted OSU on October 25 and won by just four points, 28-24. OU played OSU in Stillwater and won by 20 points, 61-41. Why should anyone give credence to the “neutral field” argument when Texas won by a smaller margin at home against a ranked opponent than OU did at that same opponent’s home field?

I transcribed this to be sure I had it right—my impressions of Brown’s arguments from listening to them last night were that they were a lot more dishonest than I’ve presented them here. I think upon further listening that he probably meant to express the opinion that the Big 12 should use head-to-head tie-breakers even in 3-way or bigger ties, and I think that’s valid—but again, it would make absolutely no difference today. It would only have made a difference had Mack gotten his “magic tie-breaker” that dumps Tech from the mix for being lower ranked, but then ignoring that Texas is ranked lower than OU.

That’s the kind of argument that we would tend to think reflected poorly on the entire school if they came from someone speaking for the University of Oklahoma. And make no mistake, this disappoints me—I think everyone should make their best case, but I don’t think you should have to resort to sophistry to do it.

Brown and ESPN’s campaign paid major dividends in the ESPN (Coaches) poll, where OU’s lead dropped from 43 points to one point. But as Jerry Palm put it:

Texas won over voters this week and pulled virtually even in the polls. The Longhorns’ six point lead in the Harris poll is just slightly better than the Sooners’ one-point margin with the coaches’. But the BCS is designed to turn to the computers where there is no clear consensus among the voters, and those came up big for OU.

In particular, it appears that the fact that Oklahoma beat a quality opponent on the road was a big factor. The two ratings where the Sooners made their biggest move were Sagarin and Wolfe, the two that consider game location. Oklahoma passed Texas in both.

ESPN has responded by launching cowardly on-the-air attacks at Palm, falsely saying he participates in the polls (he does not), or that he runs one of the computer rankings (he does not, and has been quite vocal in opposition to the closed, unverifiable nature of five of the six computer rankings). They’re not going to let this go.