Selection committee up for debate

Originally Published: June 11, 2012
By Heather Dinich | ESPN.com

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith remembers watching multiple NCAA basketball games on his iPad in his car last year while his wife, Sheila, was driving. He watched games at home with her, on the road with her, and he remains grateful she is a former basketball player and loves the sport, too. The hours of basketball Smith had to watch while chairing the NCAA selection committee last year were immeasurable.

[+] EnlargeGene Smith
AP Photo/Michael ConroyGene Smith knows all too well the amount of time it takes to be educated enough to serve on a selection committee.

"No one truly understands it," he said.

It's a thankless task that BCS officials are considering for a college football playoff.

It's a job that some -- such as Duke athletic director Kevin White and Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity -- want no part of, and others -- such as former FSU coach Bobby Bowden and former Ohio State coach John Cooper -- have said they're ready to sign up for. The possibility of a selection committee to determine college football's top teams will likely be a hot topic this month when BCS officials meet to determine a playoff format. The first meeting is Wednesday in Chicago. The NCAA Division I Conference Commissioners Association will also meet in Chicago on June 19-20, and the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee will meet June 26 in Washington.

ACC commissioner John Swofford, whose league would prefer preference be given to conference champions in the selection process, said his BCS counterparts haven't gotten far enough in the discussions to know whether or not the other commissioners favor the idea of a selection committee. The first priority, he said, is determining the playoff format.

"I don't know that it's necessarily our first choice," Swofford said of a selection committee. "It's something that obviously is going to be considered. … I think that's something to be discussed and negotiated in terms of how the teams are picked. Certainly a committee will and should be part of that discussion and consideration."

The athletic directors and conference commissioners who have served on the selection committees for the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments have at least an inkling of how it might work for football, but there are far more questions than answers, and even the basketball gurus have varying opinions.

The NCAA men's basketball selection committee is comprised of 10 members who each have a vote -- six FBS and four FCS representatives -- which includes a mix of athletic directors and conference commissioners. It's also a numbers game, as RPI and strength of schedule are factored in, along with the eyeball test. Whether or not strength of schedule becomes a factor for college football will also be part of the debate. The NIT selection committee could also be a blueprint for football, as it is comprised of former coaches and longtime associates of the sport.

Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, who was the chairman of the NCAA men's basketball selection committee in 2006, when George Mason and several other mid-major teams were controversial picks, said a selection committee is not a good idea for college football.

"I don't think so," Littlepage said. "If there was merit for such a thing, that it in my opinion would only need to be a very limited number of people. You wouldn't need a committee of 10 people to put the four teams together in my view. It could be done by a group of experts far smaller than that. I think you could do it with four or five." Littlepage said "it's not as difficult a role" in picking the top four teams as it is determining the 37 at-large basketball teams.

"I just don't think it is as difficult to choose four teams compared with choosing 37 teams," he said. "There's much greater debate in my opinion."

The debate about whether or not a committee is the answer could extend beyond this month. If a four-team playoff format is chosen, the Big Ten has expressed strong support for a selection committee. The Pac-12 and Big East have not publicly advocated a specific format. The Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 have all advocated for a four-team model to be "the best four teams." But will there be a human element involved in choosing them? Will the polls and computers continue to do the talking? Or will it be a compromise of both?

[+] EnlargeNebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman
AP Photo/Nati HarnikHarvey Perlman and the Big Ten have been the biggest advocates of a selection committee in determining the BCS.

"I understand a lot of people trust human beings more than they do computers," Swofford said. "The concern that I would have is finding people who are unbiased and don't come in with any preconceived perceptions and notions about various teams. I'm not opposed to a committee. My guess is we can come to an agreement on how to do that. It may be a combination. You just want to take as much subjectivity out of it as possible and yet you want people who understand the game and can truly pick one team from another."

The Big Ten has taken a similar stance. Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman said recently on a Big Ten teleconference that the conference chancellors and presidents would be "comfortable" with a selection committee -- as long as everyone came to terms with what guidelines it operated under.

"I think there was little disagreement that the polls and certainly the computer polls are not sufficiently transparent and people don't respect them as much as they could," Perlman said. "They can't take into account a variety of circumstances, so I think we would feel comfortable with a selection committee, but even if you move to a selection committee, I think there are issues about what instructions they're under with regard to how they choose who the best four teams are. We didn't resolve that at this point."

Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who spent the majority of his coaching career in the SEC at Tennessee and Mississippi, said it's impossible to eliminate bias.

"I think a formula is better than a committee," he said. "You can't take the bias out of the committee. I've been a part of small committees. Strong committeemen get done what they want done, generally."

The selection committee members for men's and women's basketball are asked to leave the room when the discussion turns to either their team, or in the case of commissioners, their conference.

Regardless, McGarity, Georgia's athletic director, said the selection process will be a "no-win" situation.

"This is something -- regardless of whether it's by committee or computers -- first of all it's going to be a monumental task," McGarity said. "It's a totally different level of scrutiny [from the NCAA men's basketball tournament]. Whether it's a human element or a computer element, at the end of the day, you're going to have an argument either way. You're kind of in a no-win situation regardless of what you do, but what every institution will want to know is, what are the ground rules? I'm focused less on how the process is selected and more on how do we react to it?"

At Ohio State, Smith said there would certainly be plenty of reaction from fans about which teams a committee would choose for the final slots.

"The difficulty will be similar [to the men's basketball tournament] because each year is different," Smith said. "But usually, there's going to be one or two teams that may be clear to everyone that they're the two best teams in the country. I think the challenge will be in comparing those teams that are Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 for the last two slots. It's going to be difficult in that regard."

Considering all of the varying opinions on the topic, choosing a committee might be as difficult as choosing the teams.