The remedy? A playoff system to determine a national champion. The bowls, of course, are opposed. They say playoffs would make the season too long, that too many classes would be missed, that pro football already has all the best dates, and so on. Don't believe it. Don Ohlmeyer, formerly executive producer of NBC Sports, now running his own TV production company in New York City, says, "The time is absolutely right for college football to address itself to the public interest, which is playoffs."
Ohlmeyer points out that in 1960 college football was a better attraction than the pros, but now pro football gets around $400 million a year for television and the college game some $90 million. "A playoff would generate far more money," says Ohlmeyer. He also believes the colleges were wrong to restrict network TV appearances to six per team every two years. "If you give the public what it wants to see," he says, "it'll watch."
Ohlmeyer maintains that the current TV-bowl arrangement almost guarantees recruiting excesses. "In the pros," he says, "a team gets on television and gets the money whether it wins or loses. In college, a team has to win to get on TV, and it has to win to get in the bowls. If it doesn't, it doesn't get the money."
It would be nice if the NCAA itself would take charge and create a satisfactory playoff system. After all, that organization has done a grand job promoting and marketing its basketball championship. But the NCAA seems to have no stomach for this one, not wanting to offend old bowl friends. So it's up to the fans, the coaches and the players.
A number of prominent coaches have joined in the cry, including, most recently, Collins and Hayden Fry of Iowa. Fry is ticked off—and appropriately so—that the Fiesta opted for the Michigan-Ohio State loser over his 9-2 Hawkeyes, who beat the Fiesta-bound Buckeyes. "If we're better than the people in the Fiesta Bowl, that's the Fiesta Bowl's problem," says Fry. "One thing that hurt us is that people think of Michigan and Ohio State when they think of the Big Ten. It's going to take us a while to overcome that image of the poor boy on the block." There's that word again: image. Let's tear that page out of the college football talkbook.
Clearly, though, it's primarily image that's keeping SMU out of the Sugar Bowl, which it obviously deserves more than 9-2 Michigan, and out of the Fiesta, whose contestants, Pitt and 8-3 Ohio State, are inferior to the Mustangs. Even Sun Bowl Executive Director Tom Starr concedes, "Nobody said life was fair." True, but the treatment of SMU is cruel if not unusual, which is why SMU Athletic Director Bob Hitch says, "We need and want and deserve to be in a major bowl." At ABC, Charlie Lavery, vice-president for programming, says of the bowl system, "It doesn't work for anybody and what happens are embarrassing matchups." Even the always circumspect Big Ten commissioner, Wayne Duke, refers to the situation as the "bowl jungle."
While conventional wisdom says TV executives tell the bowls who's to play where, that's not 100% true. Ken Schanzer, executive vice-president of NBC Sports, denies meddling but says, "The bowls are solicitous of us. We are their network, and we are part of the family. So we are consulted." In 1977, ABC did increase its rights payment to the Sugar Bowl, which in turn raised its payout to Pitt from $800,000 to $900,000, to get the Panthers to New Orleans. A few weeks ago NBC sent a confidential memo to the Orange Bowl instructing the committee to take another hard look at Boston College, with an exciting quarterback in Doug Flutie and a huge potential viewing audience, as an opponent for Nebraska.
Still, such shenanigans aren't the norm, and there's nothing inherently evil in TV shelling out big bucks for the bowls. For example, NBC is paying the Rose $10.5 million for the rights to this year's game, more than twice last season's fee. That means UCLA and Illinois will each take home $5,250,000 to divvy up with the other members of their respective conferences. The Orange is getting $3.4 million from NBC and the Fiesta $1 million. ABC is spending $3 million for the Sugar Bowl rights, and CBS is parting with $3.5 million for the Cotton. So the television people pay their money, sell their commercials, and hope for ratings so they can do it all over again next year. Yet, as we see, while the system does well by the bowls, schools and television, the fans, players and the game itself don't fare so well. Perhaps Mickey Holmes, executive director of the Sugar Bowl, summarizes the situation best. "The best match possible doesn't necessarily mean the highest-ranked teams," he says. So Long Smoo.
The heart of the problem is that the bowls themselves lack integrity. Proof: Bowl reps meet periodically during the season to eat and drink and vow they will abide by the NCAA's prescribed signing date, which this fall occurred last Saturday. But nearly every bowl jumps the gun. Virtually all of this year's pairings were decided six days early.
The lid blew when the Cotton Bowl decided it wanted the Michigan-Ohio State winner. But Michigan nixed the deal because, says Wolverine Athletic Director Don Canham, "The Cotton Bowl showed very little interest in us over the years." While 15 bowl scouts were at the Michigan-Purdue game, the Cotton was absent. After being turned down by Michigan, the Cotton Bowl people panicked. At the same time Georgia, which had just lost to Sugar-bound Auburn, was panicking over where it could go. Bingo, two shotgun marriages: Michigan and Auburn in the Sugar and Georgia and Texas in the Cotton. After that, Coach Ray Perkins of Alabama bolted upright and considered the very real possibility his Tide could spend the holidays at home if he didn't move quickly. With the Sun Bowl panting, Perkins was pliable. So it's a second-rate Alabama team against a first-rate SMU outfit in El Paso. There's the injustice of it all in a nutshell. The Mustangs deserve a place in the sun, not the Sun. Let the playoffs come.