The NFL's minor league?

The marketing firms and New York pundits who want a college football playoff system have one thing in common: They don't like or understand college football.



Allen Barra
September 22, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

Usually we get to December without hearing the noise for a college football playoff tournament, but where there's money there's noises. A Swiss marketing outfit has put up an offer of $2.4 billion for an eight-year plan, and there is talk in the press that Nike or Disney will see that and raise it half a bill.

And so the editorialists who flog college sports on Tuesday morning for being too greedy and too much like the pros are now writing on Friday about why college football should be more like the NFL and NBA and have a playoff.

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For instance: In last week's ESPN Magazine Peter Keating picks up the old argument again by reporting "a growing clamor for a college playoff." Keating quotes an executive from the Swiss firm as saying, "If the money's there, if the fans want it, if the athletes want it, why and for who are we keeping the current system?" Sounds nice doesn't it? Try this translation: "We're only trying to give the fans and the players what they want so why are the old farts who control this game trying to keep us from making some money?"

Now I'm left wondering how Keating and a guy from a Swiss firm have been hearing something I haven't. I'm not aware that any college football program ever has come out for a playoff system. I mean, I hear guys every year say they want to play for the national championship, but I've never heard them say, "We need a playoff system before the national championship can be determined." Nor have I heard a single college football fan say that they wanted a playoff system. I have heard fans grumble that their team got screwed in the bowl selection bids and that they would have had a shot at the national title if there had been a playoff system, but that's a different matter. I never heard a fan of a team that got a great bowl bid complain about the current system.

The people I do hear complaining about the system are invariably P.R. people from marketing firms and columnists from publications in Eastern and Northern cities where college football doesn't matter that much.

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The Playoff Boosters, you may have noticed, are almost never from South Bend, Ind.; or Tuscaloosa, Ala.; or Columbus, Ohio; or Lincoln, Neb. In fact, they are almost always from New York, where college football is the fourth or fifth or sixth most popular sport because there is no longer any major college football in New York. What this downplaying in the media capital has led to in recent years is a general lessening of interest in college football, which is more and more viewed by the national media as a mere appendage of the pro game, a -- let's go ahead and say it, why don't we? -- minor league for the NFL.

Which, of course, is what college football has for all intents and purposes become. The once charming difference in style and philosophy between, say, Ohio State's wing formation and Alabama's wishbone-triple option have been obliterated in the past couple of decades as everyone has strived to emulate the pro-style passing attack. Marginally skilled but interesting players -- i.e., the halfback who could pass, the quarterback who could run -- have all but become extinct because they can't be bred for the NFL. (That Virginia Tech's Michael Vick is being groomed for the Heisman Trophy this year is the exception that proves the rule.)

About 30 years ago Dan Jenkins noted that the most famous football player in America was always a college player, and if you think about it, up until the late '70s -- I'm thinking Roger Staubach, who was a national hero when he won the Heisman at Navy before turning pro and taking the Dallas Cowboys to five Super Bowls in the '70s -- this was true. Make a list of the most famous pro football players since then, and ask yourself how many you followed in college.

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But I digress. My point is not the quality of current players, but the state of college football itself. The game, as a whole, has gotten less complex, less interesting as it has come to be dominated by the pro game, and more and more fans of NFL football who don't follow college ball very closely see no reason at all why it shouldn't be just like the pro game.

Myself, I'm from Alabama, and I think what's wrong with pro football is that it's not enough like college football. The core of college football's appeal isn't national TV ratings and blockbuster games, it's in scores of local rivalries that keep traditions alive even in seasons when nothing else is at stake. Any Alabama fans I know would much rather finish 5-6 and beat Auburn than lose to Auburn and win the national championship. Playoffs -- and I include these stupid conference "championship" games in which teams that finished 8-3 in the regular season are given an undeserved chance to win a league title against a team that finished 10-1 or 11-0 -- don't add anything to that tradition. They may even detract from it by devaluing the importance of regular season games and even the bowls that were supposed to be a reward for the season.

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Critics of the current system say that polls and bowls are a popularity contest riddled with politics. But how would playoffs eliminate these politics? The same airheads would vote for the four or eight playoff spots as currently vote for the top 25, and they'd continue to vote for teams with gaudy won-lost records compiled with patsy schedules. Playoffs would just encourage more patsy schedules. It's hard enough to get two major powers to play each other anymore. Make playoffs the only goal and most schools will water their schedule down thinner than the plot of an Adam Sandler movie.

Playoff Boosters say that under the current system a lot of teams get rewarded for going 7-4. I say: Fine with me, if my team went 7-4. They say: There are too many bowl games. I say: Fine, if your team isn't playing, don't watch.

You still want a national championship in college football? OK, the game now played every Jan. 3 ought to suit you fine. If it doesn't, then by all means find a more sensible way of matching No. 1 and No. 2. Whatever you do, don't do what the NFL does and construct a system with round after dreary round of 9-7 vs. 8-7-1 teams and call it a national championship tournament. College football has and always has had the best playoff system ever: the regular season. Let's leave it that way.

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Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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