Despite string of scandals, college football just keeps churning along
BCS meetings took place amid cloud of scandal, but leaders aren't worried
Sport is gaining in popularity and networks are throwing money at leagues
If anything, a playoff is a more remote possibility now than three years ago
NEW ORLEANS -- Jim Delany had a flight to catch, but for the moment, he couldn't even make it off the fourth floor of the Windsor Court Hotel. As a group of reporters surrounded the Big Ten commissioner in front of an elevator bank and pestered him with questions -- about the Fiesta Bowl, BCS antitrust issues and Ohio State's NCAA case -- one elevator after another stopped, but remarkably each one was going up, not down.
That's pretty much how it is for college football these days. It's been one negative headline after another for much of the past year, and each one brings a new round of columns, blog posts and tweets suggesting the sport is imploding. Surely its leaders must be in full-on crisis mode, right?
And then 90,000 people show up for a spring game. Or Fox Sports Net pays the Big 12 more than $1 billion for the rights to show 13 years of Kansas State-Missouri games. And we're reminded that somehow, amid all its visible dents, the machine just keeps getting stronger.
"College football -- it's a tale of two cities. It's the best of times, it's the worst of times," said Dickens ... er, Delany. "The best of times are the interest, the quality of play. Ten to 12 years ago, there were five to six sports grouped together in fan [popularity] studies [behind the NFL], now college football is in a different place. [But] whenever you're successful you draw more attention, more scrutiny. You have flaws that get exposed from time to time.
"We've had a lot of that the past six months."
The BCS' annual meetings took place here this week amid a whole lot of discussion about one of those flaws. Thursday morning's closed-door session began with the commissioners listening in to a media teleconference in which NCAA President Mark Emmert announced his intent to beef up oversight of the 35 FBS bowls. While Emmert said those discussions began in January, it's no coincidence he announced them on the same morning a contingent of Fiesta Bowl officials met before an NCAA subcommittee that will decide whether the tarnished bowl should retain its operating license.
The Fiesta Bowl, which last month released a scathing 276-page report detailing political and financial misconduct under former CEO John Junker, is in the midst of a goodwill crusade, making its case both to a BCS task force in Chicago last weekend and to the NCAA's committee here Thursday about why it should maintain its status. While no decisions are expected until mid-May, officials from both groups sounded impressed by the bowl's mass restructuring of its organization in the wake of the scandal and an apparent pledge to increase its charitable givings.
"It's a little premature to speculate on where we would go, but a lot of their proposed changes were well received by the [NCAA] committee," said chairman Nick Carparelli, the Big East's associate commissioner.
At the end of the day, though, the average fan isn't overly interested in the nuances of the bowl licensing process. Certainly he or she would take notice if the Cotton Bowl suddenly replaced the Fiesta in next year's BCS lineup, but many were hoping, yet again, that this would be the straw that broke the BCS' back. If not that, then perhaps Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's threat of a forthcoming antitrust suit. Whatever it takes to finally bring about a playoff like the overwhelming majority of fans crave.
Not happening. Still.
If anything, the possibility seems more remote today than it did three years ago at these same meetings, when SEC commissioner Mike Slive formally proposed a plus-one plan. The phrase "plus-one" was barely mentioned over the course of three days here, and the word "playoff" only came up when someone was shooting it down (again).
"I don't understand how anybody thinks the court or legislators could issue a ruling that would require student athletes to participate in a certain format -- a playoff or something," said Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe. "If they refused, does the sheriff come and get them?"
What exactly did the commissioners do for three days here? Good question. One called the proceedings "boring." BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock began his daily recaps to the media with "I really don't have much to report." The most tangible change they discussed -- but one that won't be fully addressed for another year, and won't take affect for another three -- is shortening the window between the New Year's bowls and the National Championship Game.
"The later we're getting with the BCS championship game, it's problematic," said Beebe. "I don't know how exactly we address it ... but we have to explore all of that before the next round of the BCS, whatever form that takes."
So that's a step.
Otherwise, it's business as usual among college football's power brokers, which must seem mind numbing to their critics. But really, what's their incentive for change?
Some would assume it's money. How many times have we read over the past year that the commissioners are "leaving money on the table" by neglecting to adopt a playoff?
Yet over that same time, ESPN and Fox have been throwing obscene amounts of money at conferences and individual schools to show their regular-season games. The Pac-10 (soon to be Pac-12) is about to make a killing off its forthcoming rights deal, thanks to interest from Comcast/NBC.
The Pac-10 made about $28 million from the BCS last year. It's expected to net nearly 10 times that with its new deal. And the commissioners will tell you their revolutionary 1-2 game is a major reason for that.
"We never could have believed the regular season would have grown over the last 15 years the way it's grown, and I think that's due in part to the BCS," said Delany. "Obviously along the way there's been controversy, but if you look at the growth of the television, the growth of interest in conferences around the country, I think it's been a resounding success -- more successful than I ever thought."
Lately, the sport's controversies have moved beyond the BCS to various NCAA infractions cases -- with Delany's conference at the center of one of them. Last December, just weeks after criticizing the NCAA's decision to uphold Auburn star Cam Newton's eligibility despite his father's pay-for-play solicitation, the commissioner joined Ohio State in asking that five Buckeyes stars be allowed to defer their suspensions for receiving extra benefits in order to play in the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl.
Now, the Buckeyes' coach, Jim Tressel, is facing his own suspension -- and possible further punishment -- for covering up knowledge of his players' violations, and in a candid moment Thursday, Delany admitted he wished he could have a mulligan.
"If we had known what we know now, [Ohio State AD] Gene [Smith], myself, the NCAA all would have handled things differently," Delany said. "It wasn't a recruitment issue, it wasn't an agent issue, it was an extra-benefit issue that, to our knowledge, was isolated and confined. It was on that basis that I appealed on behalf of the school. I don't think anybody had the knowledge we have now."
The Tressel scandal has consumed college football for much of the past two months, but in Delany's world, it's just another fire to put out in between cashing Big Ten Network checks. And that's much the way the sport's leaders are treating the Fiesta Bowl issue.
On the day the Arizona game issued its report late last month, the BCS announced the formation of a task force (headed by Penn State President Graham Spanier), to decide whether the bowl should retain its exalted status. Now the NCAA has a task force (headed by Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman) to address bowl oversight in general. So if you're keeping track, the Fiesta Bowl is currently under review both by a task force and by an NCAA committee whose responsibilities are under review by another task force.
Next week there will there be a task force to assess the task forces.
According to two accounts, the interrogation in Chicago last weekend was "intense." Meanwhile, numerous high-profile administrators in attendance this week expressed genuine anger over the Fiesta Bowl's indiscretions. Publicly, however, they're spinning the positives.
"You can be sure there will be conversations about the relationship between the BCS and the bowl partners going forward," said Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott. "The whole process will cause a reflection and very healthy conversation to have."
Another fire extinguished.
At one point Wednesday, a reporter asked Beebe whether the BCS is "in a crisis." Mind you, he was asked this while standing in front of a long wall of windows looking out on a luxuriant pool at one of New Orleans' nicest hotels. If the BCS is in crisis, it sure hasn't affected its choice of lodging.
As the Fiesta Bowl's partner conference, Beebe's league has the most to lose if the game is abruptly scrapped (a possibility that still seems unlikely, though some sort of penalty seems certain).
"We're certainly under a lot of heat," Beebe said. "We've got to carefully analyze where we're going, but if you step out too far and make judgments at this time they're usually ones you regret later."
Beebe certainly knows a little something about rushed judgments. Remember that 12-day period last summer when the entire world thought his conference was on the brink of extinction? Ten months later, he somehow snagged a 350 percent increase for the Big 12's cable deal despite losing two teams.
And do you remember back in 2004 when undefeated Auburn was left out of the BCS championship game? It was that controversy that caused Slive to temporarily become the sport's leading advocate for a plus-one. Five straight national titles later, he's gone noticeably quiet.
"I don't see any more sentiment for a plus-one today than I did [three] years ago," Slive said. "People took a look at it that were involved in the decision-making process and decided not to pursue it, and that hasn't changed as far as I'm concerned."
Nope. Only two things have really changed in college football since 2008: more money, more scandals. Thanks to the former, the sport keeps weathering the latter. The elevator keeps rising to the penthouse floor and has yet to come back down.