A brief and incomplete history of College Football Playoff Expansion Proposals
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
The biggest off the field story over the last few days remains Friday's decision to expand the College Football Playoff to 12 teams. There are still tons of unanswered questions, but on a high level, the decision represents a significant achievement. College football administrators found a way to reconcile competing interests among bowl executives, rival conferences and university leaders, all to unite around the common goal of making more money from TV.
Like basically everything else anybody ever fights about in college football, this is not new. By my count, college administrators and media executives have pushed for a playoff for over 70 years. These efforts usually stalled out, as competing interests among bowl executives, rival conferences and university leaders thwarted the goal of media executives in their quest to make more money from TV.
I doubt that this next College Football Playoff contract ends those squabbles for good. Even as the pile of money grows beyond the wildest dreams of even the most optimistic ABC man from the 1970s, I imagine there will always be a frustrated conference commissioner, a skeptical university president, and some dude in a teal blazer representing the historic Mega Vape Dot Com Boca Raton Bowl, all raising questions.
To demonstrate yet again that all fights and old fights in our glorious, and very stupid, sport, I've hit up the newspaper.com archives and my office library to create a brief, and incomplete, history of suits arguing over playoff money.
I can't squeeze everything into one 2,000ish word newsletter. But if you are interested in more details, might I recommend Keith Dunnavant's outstanding The Fifty-Year Seduction, Ronald A. Smith's Play-By-Play, and John Sayle Watterson's College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy. If I ever quit the newsletter business and teach a class on this stuff, those books would be required reading.
While I'm certain there are coaches, administrators and reporters who advocated for a true college football playoff prior to 1960, this was the first example I could find in the newspapers.com archives. Television revenues weren't anywhere close to what they are now back in the 1950s (although Penn and Notre Dame attracted enough interest in their TV rights to spook the rest of the NCAA into centralizing their TV package), so an argument to create a playoff in say, 1954, wouldn't look exactly like it does now.
April 3, 1960
Per Play-By-Play, ABC's Roone Areledge met with the NCAA Television Committee and told the committee that they would "waste an opportunity if they do not explore nationally the possibility of a bona fide playoff pattern during the last three weekends at football season's end to determine a legitimate champion." According to the book, the NCAA even created a Committee for the Advancement of Intercollegiate Football to "investigate the possibility of an eight-team NCAA championship at season's end."
Also in 1966, several college football coaches, including Michigan State's Duffy Daughtertly, pushed for an eight-team playoff that would have replaced the bowl system.
Nov 1, 1966, via the The Evening News of Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan
Walter Bryers, the executive director of the dang NCAA, told the AP that he believed a playoff "would be in the best interest of college football."
Feb 19, 1970, via the Beckley Post-Herald (WV)
According to Play-By-Play, a company named Management Television Services proposed a closed-circuit, televised football championship playoff. MTS proposed a "Poll Bowl", featuring the top teams across an average of newspaper rankings, which would air on pay-per-view. MTS also proposed playing this game before bowl games, to limit threats to that system. The NCAA Television Committee actually voted 8-4 in favor of creating the Poll Bowl, but the idea died in NCAA subcommittee hell.
Per SI, an NCAA subcommittee on Playoff Feasibility presented proposals for a two and four-team playoff. These proposals were never voted on.
Per Play-By-Play, the 1979 CFA meeting discussed a potential college football playoff, but with membership decidedly against it. Georgia head coach Vince Dooley was the most prominent member in favor, but "only five in a hundred CFA members supported it."
A few months after the Regents case ended the NCAA monopoly on television broadcasts, CFA head Chuck Neinas pushed for an eight-team playoff, per College Football. The original proposal called for an eight team playoff, including the champions of the five CFA leagues (Big 8, Southwest, ACC, WAC, SEC), along with two independents and two at-larges. But without the buy-in from non-CFA leagues (like the Big Ten and Pac-10), along with some coaches, the plan never moved further.
Per Play-By-Play, An NCAA subcommittee recommended a one-game playoff, after the Bowl Season, but before the Super Bowl. This proposal was voted down by the NCAA President's Commission, 98-13, with major schools like Ohio State, Nebraska and Alabama voting against. The 13 schools in favor were mostly smaller programs like Hawaii and Tulsa.
As the cost of running big-time athletic departments began to skyrocket, college administrators began to Revaluate the idea of a playoff. Per The Fifty-Year Seduction, several companies, including Nike, Disney, and QVC (yeah, the home shopping network) created various playoff proposals for NCAA members.
In an attempt to at least try to force a season-ending #1 vs #2 game, the Bowl Coalition debuts. The College Football Bowl Coalition, which included the ACC, SEC, Big 8, SWC, Big East and Notre Dame, attempted to pair the teams of the group to create a championship game. Without the Big Ten or the Pac-10, the group didn't have full national credibility, and when the SWC disbanded in 1995, so did the BC.
Even in 1994, that report showed that hosting a playoff would, in fact, make a lot of money.
The Bowl Alliance was born out of the Bowl Coalition, with a similar grouping of teams and similar mission. The Big Ten and Pac-10 remained outside the group. The BA eventually led to the BCS, which at least created a national championship game.
The Bowl Championship Series, or BCS, is established, at last giving college football a true national championship game, using metrics that changed every year because everybody hated them. This made media executives a lot of money, but not as much money as an actual college football playoff.
College Football Playoff finally debuts. Nobody ever argues about anything ever again
People immediately begin arguing for an expanded playoff
Why does all of this take so dang long?
Normally, "college athletic administrators will pick the thing that makes the most money" is a pretty reasonable predictive tool, and we've known since the 1960s that the thing that will make the most money is a playoff. The ink was barely dry on the original College Football Playoff proposal when most observers began predicting it would eventually expand. Why did it take so long for everybody to get to this point?
A bug, and a feature of big time college football is that nobody is in charge. Over the last hundred years, conference commissioners, athletic directors, coaches, university presidents, regents, politicians, rival broadcast executives, reporters and more have all squabbled over various fiefdoms in the industry.
Sometimes, that Balkanization is great. It leads to fun rivalries, different policies, and different philosophies. But some stuff, like picking who gets to play for a national title, really has to be figured out as a mass collective, and this sport has never been good at figuring that stuff out.
And to be fair to the college administrators, they're not alone. Broadcasters also benefited from a fragmented and inefficient system, since nobody wants to accidentally help a rival's broadcast inventory become more valuable. Other industry leaders benefited from the status quo as well.
I say all of this, because, well, college football is facing a ton of challenges right now that are even larger and potentially more transformative than college football playoff expansion. If it took them this long to figure out how to do something that most of them, deep down in their hearts, wanted to do...well...what does that say about the stuff they don't want to do?
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