Commentary

One more hurdle 'til a playoff

Originally Published: June 25, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

After years of hope and months of work, the proponents of a college football playoff are one meeting away from rejoicing. The only obstacle left is the approval of three college administrators, two lawyers, a dentist, an engineer, a geographer, a political scientist, an economist, a priest and an architect.

[+] EnlargeCharles W. Steger
AP Photo/Jacquelyn MartinVirginia Tech president Charles W. Steger leads the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee.

That is not the membership of the Ann Arbor Rotary Club, even if it sounds like it. That is the membership of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, and doesn't it just warm your heart cockles to know that the sport is in their hands? The committee, led by Virginia Tech president Charles W. Steger -- he's the architect -- will meet in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to consider the recommendation by the FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick to conclude the FBS college football season with a four-team seeded playoff.

While the committee is not supposed to be a rubber stamp, the possibility that the decision will not be ratified hasn't come up in conversation, polite or otherwise. That could be because the presidents have been involved in the decision since SEC commissioner Mike Slive brought it up for debate last January.

Or it could be because the committee will serve as a rubber stamp.

The committee has the last say as a reminder to one and all that this is college football. University presidents reasserted control of their athletic departments two decades ago, when the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics goaded, cajoled and otherwise humiliated the NCAA membership into making sure that presidents ran the show.

"If the university is not itself a model of ethical behavior," the commission wrote in its 1991 report, "why should we expect such behavior from students or from the larger society?"

The commission also wrote in clear language that "intercollegiate athletics must reflect the values of the university. Where the realities of intercollegiate competition challenge those values, the university must prevail."

Putting the presidents in charge of college football is a good idea in theory, as is flossing. In reality, the future of college football rests in the hands of 12 men who may or may not believe that a spread offense is putting mayonnaise on a bagel.

The commissioners didn't assemble these presidents because of their collective football expertise. Each man represents one of the 11 FBS conferences, plus the Rev. John I. Jenkins of Notre Dame (yeah, he's the priest).

University presidents are facilitators. Anyone who can get a faculty to row in the same direction can practice the art of diplomacy. But the commissioners have assembled the consensus and brought it to the presidents, bow already tied around it. What is there for the committee to oversee?

It may come as some solace to learn that university presidents are asked every single day to make important decisions on matters outside of their disciplines. When the University of Idaho announced a capital campaign in April that will fund a $50 million Integrated Research Innovations Center, nobody complained that president M. Duane Nellis is a geographer by trade.

On the other hand, that's a computer lab. This is the national by-god championship, and the committee had better make the right decision.

[+] EnlargeHarvey Perlman
AP Photo/Nati HarnikCould Harvey Perlman throw a wrench into the mix? The Nebraska president has pushed for a plus-one model.

It is assumed that the best decision for the committee to make is to ratify the consensus of the commissioners, to provide college football the playoff it needs. However, as recently as 2009, the Knight Commission co-chairs, Maryland chancellor William E. Kirwan and SMU president R. Gerald Turner, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in which they warned that a playoff would not solve the ills of the football arms race.

(And if you don't think this playoff is up for a vote at least in part because of the money it will bring, God bless.)

Kirwan and Turner also cited a survey of FBS university presidents released by the Knight Commission earlier that year in which the presidents said "they have limited power to make substantive change acting alone."

So, we have to ask: Could the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee be made up of 12 Angry Men? What if the committee votes no?

One option would be to keep the BCS, which few are advocating. Another option would be the plus-one, which compared to the playoff is pretty much a distinction without a difference. Except that Nebraska president Harvey Perlman -- he's one of the lawyers on the committee -- has pushed hard for it.

The fact is, if the committee votes no on a playoff, it will be the biggest upset since Boise State beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The presidents will meet. They will discuss. And they will vote in the playoff. Whether this is an abrogation of presidential oversight or the reality of a side of higher education in which coaches are paid $5 million per year depends on the eye of the beholder.

So a priest, an architect and a dentist walk into a meeting …

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com