Blowing up the BCS

College football's two most powerful men aren't done arguing over a playoff

Updated: June 14, 2012, 3:47 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN The Magazine

tkManny Flores/CSM/AP ImagesIf you ask Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, Alabama would've been a worthier BCS champ had it won the SEC.

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ON JUNE 13 in Chicago, college football's 11 FBS conference commissioners and Notre Dame's athletic director will put the final touches on plans for a playoff. The meeting will be monumental for what it represents: the biggest shift in college football since the NCAA split into Divisions I, II and III in 1973. But the scene inside a conference room at the Hilton Chicago O'Hare Airport hotel won't be much different from any other BCS meeting over the past decade. The executives will take their seats around a table -- and at opposite ends of it will likely be the two most powerful among them: Jim Delany of the Big Ten and Mike Slive of the SEC.

Forget Michigan-Ohio State or Alabama-Auburn. This is the fiercest rivalry in college football. And the symbolism of the seating plan is hard to deny. Throughout the playoff battle, no one has had more at stake than these two. After the ink has dried, it's unlikely they will completely agree on the resolution.

Slive and Delany are similar in many ways, from their law degrees to their buttoned-down demeanors to both growing up outside their conference's domain. But their agendas and methods are as far apart as their places at the table. Delany represents the richest league in the country, one that prides itself on its pristine academic institutions. Slive represents the most dominant league in the country, one that prides itself on being the best at football. With the current BCS system in its death throes and a playoff about to be born, these two men are doing all they can to protect their brands.

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Fredrik BrodenFinally, a playoff. But the power struggle in college football is far from over.

"Jim Delany is one of the most competitive people I've ever met," says one industry insider familiar with the negotiations. "He sees the world in simple terms: You're either helping the Big Ten or hurting it."

The 64-year-old Delany has earned his reputation as an aggressive and abrasive commissioner in 23 years at the helm of the Big Ten. Slive, 71, has taken a more soft-spoken and diplomatic approach in his 10 years with the SEC. "Don't be fooled by Slive's grandfatherly demeanor," says the source. "These guys have been at it for a while. They remind me of Bowden and Paterno. I don't see one retiring until the other does."

Their contrasts will be obvious as they hammer out the many details that remain: how the four playoff teams will be selected, when and where the semifinals and championship game will be played and what becomes of the existing bowl system. Not to mention how to divvy up a TV deal projected to be worth from $400 million to $500 million annually. (ESPN currently pays about $160 million to broadcast five BCS games.) According to people who have been on the inside, Delany likes to drive the discussions, constantly challenging other commissioners with follow-up questions. Slive, meanwhile, is always taking notes, waiting for the moments when his words will mean the most. Those who work with them acknowledge there is a mutual respect but concede that each sees the other as an obstacle. Neither man plans a move without the other in mind.


SINCE APRIL, WHEN this latest push for a playoff began at BCS meetings in Hollywood, Fla., Delany has described the ongoing debate as "candid, cordial and collegial." Still, it's clear that a line was drawn in the Florida sand. Slive criticized other leagues for trying to "gerrymander" the playoff field, and Florida president Bernie Machen said the Big Ten needs to "realize the world is going in a different direction." Delany fired his own shot, saying, "I don't have a lot of regard for that team," seeming to refer to Alabama, which won the 2011 BCS title without having to play in the SEC championship game. Delany later denied he was calling out the Crimson Tide.

Other commissioners, like the Pac-12's Larry Scott and the Big 12's Bob Bowlsby, have quietly lined up behind Delany and Slive, respectively. The Pac-12 wants to preserve its matchup with the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl; the Big 12 recently negotiated a similar postseason marriage with the SEC. These aligned interests have served only to consolidate Delany's and Slive's positions of power. "The quickest way to solve the debate would be to stick Jim and Mike in a room and tell them, 'Let us know when you've got it figured out,' " says a source. "At this point, it's about which one is willing to come to the middle."

From the beginning of the talks, Slive (and by extension Bowlsby) wanted the nation's top four teams to be selected for the playoff, whether those teams won their conference championships or not. And why wouldn't he? The SEC has won six straight BCS titles and has had two teams ranked in the top four in three of the past six seasons. "This is not a tournament," Slive says. "This is trying to figure out who the best teams are and let them play for the national championship."

This is not a tournament. This is trying to figure out who the best teams are and let them play for the national championship.

-- SEC commissioner Mike Slive

Slive, the son of a butcher from Utica, N.Y., was instilled with a work ethic that led him to Dartmouth and later earned him a law degree at Virginia and a Master of Laws at Georgetown. He was an assistant AD at Dartmouth for two years but felt he was wasting his law degrees and began practicing in New Hampshire. Ultimately, the pull of college athletics was too strong. During the early 1980s, he was an assistant commissioner in the Pac-10, then the AD at Cornell. By the mid-'80s he was back in law, this time representing schools facing NCAA sanctions. In 1991, Slive became commissioner of the newly created Great Midwest Conference, and then four years later he ran its successor, Conference USA.

In 2002, the thought of a Yankee running the SEC seemed akin to the Vatican naming a Protestant pope. But Slive's broad experience made him the ideal replacement for former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer (the man credited with creating the BCS that Slive is about to help blow up). Slive began repairing the SEC's reputation as a rogue league by persuading school presidents and ADs to hold their coaches more accountable for rules violations, implementing educational reforms and setting up compliance workshops.

"I think because of his law background, he's very conscious of making sure that no stone is left unturned," says former Georgia coach and AD Vince Dooley. Slive is also conscious of his constituents, a conference with the most rabid fan bases in the country. The SEC wants its national championships.

Throughout the process, however, Delany has focused on preserving the Big Ten's coffers -- and the Rose Bowl. "I'm sure the Rose Bowl isn't the end-all for everybody," says Delany. "But it's really important to us. It's a big part of the Big Ten culture and the Big Ten brand. It's the Midwest and West Coast."

That's why in April, Delany lobbied for semifinal games to be hosted on the campuses of the higher-ranked teams instead of in the BCS bowls. He wanted to ensure that the Rose Bowl would feature a Big Ten and Pac-12 matchup as often as possible. But he also wanted to subject Southern teams to the possibility of playoff games in the cold-weather Midwest. "From a competitive, fairness standpoint, I like it," Delany says. "You earned it on the field and played it on the field. That's the way it's done in the NFL."

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David Stluka/AP ImagesWisconsin won the Big Ten's inaugural title game, but the Badgers likely would've been left out of a playoff.

But Delany quickly backtracked once a consensus emerged that the current BCS bowls would be host sites. On June 4, Delany made a second concession that appeared to shift the balance of power completely. After weeks of favoring a hybrid model that would include the three highest-ranked conference champions plus a potential wild-card team, Delany said unequivocally that if a playoff is inevitable, then the "best four teams" should be in. No mention of conference champions, only that the current human and computer polls should be replaced by a committee similar to the one that sets the field for college basketball's March Madness.

A former point guard who played in two Final Fours for Dean Smith at North Carolina, Delany is used to controlling his environment. His early jobs, as a lawyer for the North Carolina Department of Justice and later as an enforcement representative for the NCAA, taught him to stay on the offensive. But his stint as commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference, which had three programs depart during his tenure in the 1980s, taught him to solidify his base. In 1991, just two years after arriving at the Big Ten, Delany set off a wave of expansion with the addition of Penn State. He remained in front by welcoming Nebraska during the latest rounds of realignment.

In 2007, the conference launched the Big Ten Network, the first cable channel to reach 30 million homes in 30 days. In just five years, subscriptions have spiked to an estimated 50 million homes. This year, every Big Ten member except Nebraska will receive about $7.2 million in shared revenue from the network. (Overall, those 11 schools will receive $24.6 million from TV contracts and NCAA tournament revenue, about $4.5 million more than what SEC schools will receive in 2012.)

"I think Jim's an unbelievable visionary," says Michigan State AD Mark Hollis. "I think he has an ability to look 10 years ahead of most anybody else in the business."

But when it comes to a playoff, Delany has been late to the conversation.

During the 2005 congressional investigation into whether the BCS system restricted access of teams from non-BCS conferences, Delany told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee: "Once you start a playoff, there is always a No. 3 team that feels left out. If you have a four-team, you will then have a fifth team. If you have an eight-team, you will have a ninth team. This is played out over and over and over again. Once it is given, it can never be taken away, and it tends to grow in a way that it is not controllable."

The congressional probe was in response to teams like Utah and Boise State not being rewarded properly by the BCS, but Slive had also started to send playoff signals after the SEC's undefeated Auburn team was denied a shot at the 2004 BCS title game.

Less than three years after Delany spoke before Congress, Slive and ACC commissioner John Swofford presented a plus-one model, matching the top two teams in the country in a national championship game following the BCS bowls. Delany shook his head in disagreement -- and heads around the table nodded along with him.

In 2012, those same heads were mostly shaking no when Delany trumpeted "home-field advantage" and "hybrid model." While the SEC has gained leverage during what Slive describes as its golden age, the Big Ten has lost footing as it endures one of its most regrettable stretches. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign in May 2011 for lying to the NCAA and hiding rules violations by his players. (Delany asked the NCAA to keep the accused Buckeyes eligible for the 2011 Sugar Bowl, only to have OSU's victory later vacated.) Then Penn State fired Joe Paterno after former assistant Jerry Sandusky was accused of sexually assaulting young boys. That pall has followed Delany into these playoff negotiations. Once entrenched, he must now react rather than set the tone.

"I think people change, times change and tastes change," says Slive, once again playing the part of humble grandfather. But don't be fooled. Slive has been waiting for this moment.

The final hours of negotiations in Chicago will be an intense, old-school tug-of-war because this debate cuts deeper than a playoff. Whatever format is presented to the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee on June 26 in Washington, these two men at opposite ends of the table will have done everything they could to make sure their conferences will thrive. And like any heavyweight bout, there will be mutual respect, just no love lost.

"People say that there will be give and take," Slive says. "But that's not for today. We have a position."

Everyone does. And that won't change, even if college football's postseason does.

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