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As it now stands, says Hansen, the rule on invitations is "completely unenforceable," and would be just as unenforceable if it were moved back to the last Saturday of the season. He decries the practice of coaches getting together privately to make matches, and the obvious rule-bending of the consenting parties. This year the Cotton Bowl bid was sealed a week before the deadline, which was six p.m. Nov. 17. At four that afternoon the Cotton Bowl representative stood up in the Nebraska dressing room and said, "If it were six o'clock this is what I'd say," and delivered the invitation. "Now," he continued, "if it were six, what would you say to me?" Nebraska said yes.
If the NCAA abdicates its role as mediator, however, the results would be chaos. Without restrictions, bowls would be scrambling for teams by the middle of the season. Realizing what is at stake—namely, the good health of college football—it does not seem so difficult a task for the NCAA to police an invitation date mutually satisfactory to bowls and colleges. Despite everything, the tendency in intercollegiate athletics is still to kiss and tell, and a bowl that violates a mutually agreed-on policy could, say, lose its sanction, and a team that accepts an invitation prior to the date could be banned from bowl participation for three years.
The major bowls offer, with the polls, and in the absence of a formal playoff, the only forum available for deciding a national championship. A game like Alabama-Notre Dame is a rarity; in the history of bowl competition there have been only eight previous matchups of unbeaten, untied teams. The polls are here to stay, stimulating interest not only before and after the season but sustaining it from week to week. They have a mystique all their own. Whole communities get excited when the local team cracks the top 20. Newspapers run banner headlines.
Parseghian and Penn State's Joe Paterno, among others, would prefer that the national championship be decided by a playoff. Unfortunately, no one has devised a system that would effectively work in the bowls. Bowl sponsors, naturally, are unanimously opposed to any lessening of their product. The Rose Bowl's Lathrop Leishman says, for example, he would "in no way want to be part of a system where we might end up as a semifinal game or worse."
The inequities of a playoff are plain enough to coaches like McKay and Bryant, who like the polls and favor the bowls. For one thing, says McKay, "We've already got enough games. The longer the season, the more susceptible we are to injuries. An injured team proves nothing." Neither would academicians buy another month of excuses from classes, he says.
But the main factor against playoff proposals is that there is no parity among leagues. The elite of college football does not drift around as it does in basketball, where it takes only three or four outstanding players to get a program into contention. It takes at least five times that in football. Conferences establish strength over a long period of time and the power is unequally distributed. Every team in the Big Eight can beat the best in the Ivy; every team in the Pac 8 can beat the champion of the Southern, etc., etc. Those patterns will not change overnight.
The bowls, for the present at least, are the best (and most profitable) answer; the bowls, together with every big athletic budget's favorite ally, the television tube. Like it or not, the bowls are in lock-step with the TV networks, the source of their greatest income, the leverage for their prestige. There is nothing wrong with this, and concessions that have been made (staggering the games so they do not conflict; switching the Orange and now the Sugar and Gator Bowls to night) have been in order. The networks shell out accordingly.
There is concern now, however, that ABC may have too much to say in the matter. Its clout, if not exercised, is nevertheless real. The changing of the Alabama-LSU game from Nov. 10 to a Nov. 22 television spot prematurely forced the Orange Bowl's hand on LSU. The Alabama-Notre Dame signing for what Chris Schenkel, in his enthusiasm, called "our Sugar Bowl" (not an inaccurate prejudice) smacked of an ABC maneuver. Orange Bowl President Bill Fields says there was feeling at the time that such was the case. Might ABC offer as bait possible TV games next fall ( NCAA policy allows a team to play as many as five regular-season games in two years)? Fields admits there was no evidence of tampering.
All agree, rather, that sports-oriented ABC has been especially good for college football. It is also true that the network has a responsibility to scrupulously guard itself against manipulating schedules or bowl games, and therefore ratings. Outrage is always just a breath away. One newsman was so exercised by the possibility that matches were being made outside NCAA jurisdiction that he called the NCAA office in Kansas City and charged, "The only reason you people haven't done anything about it is that you're afraid of Bear Bryant!"
Coaches, administrators, the NCAA, the TV networks, the bowls—they're really in this thing together. They have a chance to make the bowls the showcase of college football, the most meaningful way to top off a season, even to determine a national champion. Certainly the bowls do not have to preside over their own demise. One bowl official said recently, "If we keep getting dumped on, some of us might not think it too awful to offer our services to the pros." It is not impossible, not in The Era of the No-Show, when a pro fan would just as soon sit at home with his TV, that a Sugar Bowl, say, would take into its auspices the NFC championship game, and the Orange Bowl the AFC. Complete with all the pageantry.