Behind the BCS: How Boise State-TCU matchup was made possible
2009 Fiesta Bowl is landmark moment in 12-year history of BCS
Tulane president Scott Cowen helped fight for non-BCS schools
Utah and Boise State's previous BCS wins helped legitimize non-AQ schools
For the past three years, whether attending conferences with colleagues or simply walking through an airport, Boise State President Bob Kustra knows to expect an inevitable conversation.
"Whether I'm wearing a Boise State jacket or it says Boise State on my name tag, the next thing they want to talk about is that Oklahoma game," said Kustra. "It's amazing to me that one game has so thoroughly defined us."
On Monday night, the sixth-ranked Broncos return to the scene of their unforgettable 2007 Fiesta Bowl upset, only this time they'll be joined by a fellow BCS outsider, No. 3 TCU. It will be a landmark moment in the 12-year history of the BCS, the first time that two undefeated teams have met in a non-championship bowl and the first time that two teams from outside of the six automatic-qualifying conferences have received BCS berths in the same year.
"You probably think we have been waiting three weeks to get here," Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson said upon his team's arrival in the desert. "I've been waiting 12 years at TCU."
In opting for the unconventional matchup, Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker knows that he's defying a whole bunch of longstanding notions that he and his colleagues have held toward the sport's so-called mid-majors -- that TV viewers won't tune in, that their small fan bases won't travel, or that such teams are less "deserving" than their major-conference counterparts of one of the coveted $17.8 million BCS berths.
Under BCS qualification rules, TCU earned an automatic bid by finishing in the top 12 and higher than any other non-AQ team. After the Sugar Bowl replaced national championship participant Alabama with Florida, the Fiesta chose the Horned Frogs over Big Ten candidates Iowa and Penn State (both 10-2) to replace No. 2 Texas. The Orange Bowl then nabbed the Hawkeyes with the first at-large pick. When the Fiesta chose again, it opted for Boise State (which was not guaranteed a berth) over another undefeated team, Big East champion Cincinnati.
"Any TV 101 [expert] is going to tell you you're better off with Notre Dame, Texas or USC than you are with Boise State and TCU," said Junker. "We just felt TCU was absolutely the best team available. We were convinced they'd bring enough people and support us well. After that, it's based on who's left. Boise has a track record in terms of travel to our game and support and enthusiasm. They did very well [in 2007]. We feel great about having matched [BCS] No. 4 and 6 together."
Both schools sold out their 17,500-ticket allotment as soon as they went on sale and requested more, and Fox executives have expressed confidence that the game will garner a strong television rating.
Asked whether he could have envisioned staging such a game five years ago, back when the Fiesta reluctantly became the first BCS bowl to host such a team [Utah], Junker replied candidly: "We never sat down and said 'We'll never do that,' but no, I would not have expected thinking this way then."
But the landscape has changed dramatically and rapidly for schools like Boise State and TCU. In the first six seasons of the BCS [1998-2003], no non-AQ team participated in one of the bowls. During the six seasons since, there have been six. For that, they owe a debt of gratitude to an unlikely martyr.
In 1998 Scott Cowen was in his first year as the president of Tulane when the Green Wave, led by star quarterback Shaun King, went 11-0 in the regular season. At the time, teams from outside the "Big Six" conferences needed to finish in the Top 6 to play in one of the then four BCS bowls. The two at-large berths went to No. 4 Ohio State and No. 8 Florida. Tulane, ranked 10th, went to the Liberty Bowl.
"I remember asking the question, why aren't we playing in one of the big bowls, and being told, 'It's a new system. They have certain rules,'" said Cowen. "I was pretty upset, but I didn't know enough about the BCS back then."
Four years later, he had become well versed on the subject. With Tulane's athletic department plagued by a $7 million annual deficit, the school's board of trustees considered the drastic step of dropping the program to Division III and/or cutting football. Following a year-long review, the board ultimately voted in June 2003 to remain a Division I-A program. During the process, however, it conducted a study of the national collegiate landscape that revealed a rapidly widening financial gap between BCS and non-BCS conference programs.
"That led me to believe enough is enough," said Cowen, who vowed at the time to "get rid of the Bowl Championship Series."
Within a month of the board's decision, Cowen had launched the Presidential Coalition for Athletics Reform, asking his colleagues from the five conferences without an automatic BCS berth (the Mountain West, WAC, Conference USA, the MAC and Sun Belt) to join together in a fight to dismantle the system. His group launched a massive p.r. campaign, with Cowen writing a New York Times op-ed urging "my fellow university presidents to actively challenge the NCAA, the BCS and the current system of intercollegiate athletics in this country."
He would later testify that fall during both House and Senate committee hearings regarding potential BCS antitrust issues.
"[Cowen] took the ball and ran with it," said WAC commissioner Karl Benson. "He had a plan in place, he exercised some of his political connections. It was the Group of Five, for the first time, working together."
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