Playoff proponents don’t have it yet

Note: This is a personal rant, and represents only my opinions. These are not the opinions of OUBAA, OU, or the Band Department, none of whom employs me, and I speak for none of these groups or institutions. I speak only for myself. If your opinion differs and you’re an OUBAA member, log in, click on the “Discuss” link, and post your response. If you’re not a member, start your own blog and publish your opinion. Freedom is a wonderful thing.

Last night, I was reading Jerry Palm’s wonderful CollegeBCS site, and he recommended the new bok Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series. If you’ve heard me on this before, you know I’m an extreme skeptic of the playoff proposals, but Palm said this book was worth reading even if—no, especially if you’re opposed to a playoff or like the BCS.

So I fired up the ol’ iPad and downloaded the free preview from iBooks to read before bedtime last night. (This is one of those strange books where the electronic version costs more than the print version, $11 vs. $10, and that’s for both iBooks and Kindle.) All I got was the introduction and the first few pages of chapter 1, where they lay out their playoff proposal first to show they’re not just tearing down the BCS.

Given that, I freely admit I am at a disadvantage: the authors may explain their arguments comprehensively in the 180-or-so pages I did not read. They may justify some of their statements, they may present evidence. But from the introduction alone, the most charitable thing I can say is that they don’t have the case for a playoff yet. The first reaction is that they’re full of…Bevo droppings.

They start out by saying how corrupt the BCS is, how all the money goes to a few schools that systematically exclude others to preserve power, how the bowls are corrupt and costs schools more to play in than they get back, and all the usual arguments, with no proof (yet—I’ll admit that probably comes elsewhere in the book). Then we get to this lovely passage:

The outdated bowl system blocks progress with its white-knuckle grip on the sport. Forget the month of football nirvana a playoff would provide. Today, the schools lose, the fans lose, and the sport itself loses. Doesn’t matter, because the suits win, quite handsomely, and to defend the indefensible they resort to bad arguments, anything to quiet the din for a playoff.

“How would band members, cheerleaders, and other students make holiday plans knowing their team might play one, two, or three games on campus during the time they are normally home with their families?” BCS executive directory Bill Hancock asked.

Apparently, inconvenienced cheerleaders are a prime defense for the BCS. Such rationale comes from hubris as much as foolhardiness. The BCS treats college football fans like they’re stupid. It takes credit for the rise in the sport’s popularity, comparing today’s title game to the mess of split championships that preceded it. It’s like trying to say a busted calculator is good because it’s newer than an abacus.

You’ll note here that the authors do not bother to explain how Hancock’s argument is “stupid,” but rather assume it’s self-evident that a playoff is more important than “inconvenienced cheerleaders.”

Let’s leave that aside for a moment and go on to their proposal, the only one that Jerry Palm himself says would work: a 16-team playoff involving the champions of all 11 conferences (“even the lousy ones”), plus five at-large teams. This meets the author’s three goals, which they state must met or a playoff proposal is dead on arrival:

  1. It must be more profitable in every imaginable way for colleges and universities.

  2. It must protect, if not increase, the value of the regular season.

  3. It must take academics into consideration, if only so presidents can save face for hteir long-standing hypocrisy on this issue.

The proposal:

Our plan for Division I-A football: a sixteen-team playoff that provides automatic bids for all eleven conference champions and at-large slots for five remaining teams. Yes, all eleven conference champions, even the lousy ones, determined through traditional means: either the regular season or conference title games, which would continue unabated. While no one would argue that the Sun Belt champ is one of the top sixteen teams in the country, its presence is paramount to maintaining the integrity and relevancy of the regular season. It creates incentive for regular-season success.

The best teams earn the highest seeds and are rewarded with home games for the first three rounds. The championship game is held at a neutral site. The No. 1 seed doesn’t just get rewarded with the weakest opponent—in most cases the Sun Belt champion—but the ensuing rounds on its home field. Finish fifth and face a first-round battle against a No. 12 seed most likely from a power conference, then a second-round game on the road. The difference between first and fifth is significant.

By playing games on campus, the tournament would also include what is perhaps the best part of college football: its historic stadiums and game-day environments. There’s no good reason to conduct playoff games in sterlie, often-under-capacity crowds at municipal stadiums in far-off cities when the incomparable feeling of The Swamp in Gainesville, The Horseshoe in Columbus, or the Coliseum in Los Angeles beckons.

And at that point, you should realize that these guys are either full of Bevo’s excrement, or are first-class idiots, or simply haven’t thought through their argument.

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To the left here, you see a calendar of December 2010. Let’s apply this playoff format to this year, and assume for maximum “benefit” to the Sooners that they are the #1 seed in the playoffs. The Big XII championship, which the Sooners would have to have won, is on December 4.

Now, to be fully up-to-date on this argument, you need to be aware of the OU Fall 2010 Academic Calendar. It tells us that the final day of classes is Friday, December 10. That would mean the Sooners would host a first-round “playoff” game on Saturday, December 11—the first day of finals. Now I don’t care how you feel about alleged “hypocrisy” of university presidents or how much you think football is a business instead of a sport: OU will not host 85,000+ people on campus on a day when 17% of all final exams are scheduled, and they’re not going to recalculate the extensive finals schedule for 22,000 people (finals usually take longer than exams, so they’re not held at the same time as regular classes, as you remember) to do it in five days, or seven, or eight.

Why not? Presuming the Sooners win that game, the next game would be on December 18—the day after the dorms close for the semester. Since freshmen are all but required to live in the dorms, this is not a matter of a few “inconvenienced cheerleaders.” Even those students who live independently off-campus are making plans for the holiday, but those who live in the dorms must go home by this point. The University is not going to keep all the dorms and cafeterias open for four extra weeks to accommodate students who want to stay for football games that might happen. No matter how much money the authors think this would pour into the schools, it’s not enough to pay for that kind of extra housing and food.

But more than this, the last quoted passage betrays that the authors think of college football as a mini version of the NFL: you just pay the people to run the stadium and everything else takes care of itself. That’s not how college football has ever worked, nor how it works today. You can’t talk about “the incomparable feeling” of home stadiums without considering that at this time of year, half the student section (plus the band, plus the cheerleaders, plus the Ruf-Neks to drive the Schooner, plus uncountable other student non-player participants) simply would not be there. The Pride is not going to hold rehearsals for shows during finals or after classes end. This is not an “inconvenience” to band members, this is the difference between showing up and performing like the group that you are vs. going through the motions, or risking academic failure by adding more sports activities during and after finals.

If you can count by sevens, you can see that the third-round game would take place on Christmas Day. Oh, OK, they may say that’s a holiday so it’s moved to Monday, but is that really any better scheduling for thousands of OU students who live out-of-state—and who know they can see the game on TV even if they don’t show up? The “incomparable feeling” of home football games does not just happen because ESPN wants it. It’s based not just on traditions, but on the hard work of hundreds of people who would have no place to live in Norman during this alleged “easy” playoff time. If you hold the semi-finals and finals after the break, that puts them around January 8 or January 15, when January 18 is the start of the spring semester. The authors may like to think that major schools are going to completely rework the academic year to fit their proposed football playoff schedule, but I’m telling you that I just don’t see that happening. OU is a university first, and football is part of that. The university drives football, not the other way around. If you think otherwise, you’ve spent no time dealing with the mechanics of putting on a game.

And speaking of those atmospheres, there may not be much against holding playoff games in Gainesville, or Los Angeles, or Miami. In Columbus? On the first such playoff date there would have been last year (December 10, 2009), the high temperature in Columbus was 21°F, with a lot of 15°F, with winds averaging 18mph. It was about the same a week later; two weeks later they saw a relative heat wave with a high of 39°F and a low of 26°F. There is no indication of precipitation on those days, but had there been snow in the previous days, it would have still been all over the stadium.

On December 10, 2009, the high temperature in Eugene, OR (home of the Oregon Ducks) was 20°F and the low was 8°F. And in the home of the Broncos, the darling of the “kill the BCS” movement, teams playing on December 10, 2009 in Boise, ID would have found a high of 19°F, a low of 0°F, and snow 2.00 inches deep (in a month that had already seen 3.3 inches of snowfall). It was much better a week later, but that’s as much by random chance as anything. There’s a reason most bowl games take place in the south or in domed stadiums.

I don’t mean to say that a playoff can never work in college football, but proponents of this system are conveniently ignoring a huge set of problems, or writing them off as something trivial that the big pile of more alleged money (and keep in mind that the current ESPN BCS contract is worth less than the last FOX contract, casting serious doubt on the persistent argument that there’s a bunch of money there) could fix. The only way this kind of playoff could work is if the regular season schedule were shortened so that at least the first two rounds of playoff games were done by the second Saturday in December. (You could theoretically move the season up two weeks, but that would be starting in mid-August, in 100°F temperatures, and starting before the dorms open. That has all the same problems of playing too late into the year but with heat instead of cold, and still no place for students to live.)

But moreover, nearly every one of these polemics rails against the corruption of bowl games, conferences, the BCS, and so on, but they don’t attack the biggest problem: sportswriters. They’re the biggest ones arguing for a playoff because sportswriters want two things:

  1. They want the story to change every week so there’s always something new to write about. (ESPN has been promoting tonight’s OU-Missouri game as a chance for the #1 team to be knocked off for the third week in a row. The OU-Texas promotions were all about how Texas “must” win to get back on top. You may have noticed that ESPN is promoting tonight’s game as involving “#1” OU even though OU is #3 in ESPN’s own poll. They use whatever ranking makes the game seem more dramatic.) They want upsets, they want constant change.

  2. They want to control who plays for the championship without having any responsibility for it. You need no more evidence of this than the 2004 season, which ended with three undefeated teams (OU, USC, and Auburn). The BCS broke the tie by putting OU and USC in the championship game, and the AP (which had USC as #1) responded by demanding that the BCS stop using its poll to determine BCS rankings.

    At the time, AP voters made a lot of noise about not wanting to be “responsible” for who gets left out of the national championship, but you know what? When USC won its game, the AP presented its own national championship trophy to USC, and the AP continues to do so to the school at the top of its final poll every season. The sportswriters want the benefits of picking the teams (and five at-large teams would give them that), while not being held responsible for the consequences of their votes. The entire playoff debacle is a none-too-subtle attempt to shift any blame onto everyone else.

The arguments that “every other sport” has a tournament or an NCAA-recognized championship simply ignore the fact that football is bigger, and that matters. The NCAA basketball championship seats maybe 25,000 people, with maybe 120 student participants from each school (including all players, coaches, band and cheer people) traveling—all coming into a city that’s prepared for the event for a few years. The playoff games these authors propose would bring 80,000 to 100,000 people into a college campus, perhaps during finals, on no more than one week’s notice, perhaps in extremely inhospitable weather. This difference matters. You simply cannot pretend that it’s like basketball or the College World Series and expect anyone who’s been involved with a game to take you seriously.

The infuriating part is how these authors, and dozens like them, simply assume that all of college football happens once they wave their magic sportswriter wants and declare a game will be played on a given date in a given place. In the faster-paced TV world, the equivalent would be to be told that you have to do a live show in three hours, lasting 1-2 hours, with no pre-prepared material. They’d never go for that, but they never seem to think similar problems for other people are any kind of issue at all. This playoff schedule will not work.

Again, not having read the book, they may have attempted to address all these arguments. However, a book’s introduction usually lays out the arguments in short and promises proof later on. This book’s introduction starts with name-calling and proceeds to dismiss the massive scheduling problems as “inconvenienced cheerleaders,” just dripping with sarcasm. It’s difficult to assume the rest of the book is more rigorous or better argued. If you’d like to spend money understanding the BCS, I would recommend you spend $15 on a subscription to Jerry Palm’s CollegeBCS site. Even though he recommended the book, his extensive data and analysis make it far more useful than a book by three authors who, quite frankly, do not seem to understand how “the incomparable feeling” of college football actually happens.