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Wednesday, April 30, 2014
How to say 'I recuse myself'?

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

The College Football Playoff selection committee wants us to believe that its process for choosing the participants for the sport's new four-team playoff will be both objective and transparent.

In building a 13-member selection committee, college football's power brokers assembled a former U.S. secretary of state, a recently retired superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, a former U.S. congressman, a former Big East commissioner, and a retired sports writer -- the kind of people with impeccable credentials.

After all, who's really going to question Condoleezza Rice's integrity or former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne's football knowledge?

But when the selection committee revealed its recusal policy for discussing and ranking teams on Wednesday, it fell far short of being bulletproof. Instead of removing any shadow of doubt or potential conflicts of interest, it presented a recusal policy with more holes than Georgia's secondary.

The selection committee's recusal policy prevents members from voting or discussing a particular team: "If a committee member or an immediate family member, e.g., spouse, sibling or a child, (a) is compensated by a school, (b) provides professional services for a school or (c) is on the coaching staff or administrative staff at a school or is a football student-athlete at a school, that member will be recused. Such compensation shall include not only direct employment, but also current paid consulting arrangements, deferred compensation (e.g., contract payments continuing after employment has ended) or other benefits."

So basically, a committee member can stay in the room, make the case for a particular school and include it on his or her ballot as long as he or she is not currently employed or receiving compensation from a school and doesn't have a direct family member coaching, working or playing football at a school.

Really, the only thing the recusal policy does is prevent the committee's five current athletic directors -- Arkansas' Jeff Long, Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez, USC's Pat Haden, West Virginia's Oliver Luck and Clemson's Dan Radakovich -- from discussing or waving the flag for their current schools. Rice, the only woman on the committee, who served as President George W. Bush's national security adviser from 2001 to 2005 and secretary of state from 2005 to 2009, also can't discuss Stanford, where she's a professor of political science and has been on the faculty since 1981.

Other than that, everybody can talk about any team. At the very least, the recusal policy should have included committee members not discussing or voting for their alma maters or schools where they have coached.

I understand if the recusal policy went too far, there would be no one left in the room to discuss whether Michigan or Texas was more deserving. And I'm certainly not saying the committee members can't and won't overlook past allegiances to have an objective, thorough and fair discussion and selection process. But try telling that to Alabama fans the first time the Crimson Tide are left out of the four-team playoff.

The recusal policy leaves a perception with fans that the selection process might not be as objective as we originally thought, which isn't a good thing. Consider the endless possibilities:

• Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese can discuss and vote for Boston College, Miami, Pitt, Syracuse or Virginia Tech, teams that fled the Big East for the ACC, leading to his beloved conference's ultimate demise.

• Long, the chairman of the selection committee, might ultimately be able to vote on whether Louisville will make the four-team playoff. The Cardinals are coached by Bobby Petrino, whom Long fired at Arkansas after the coach infamously wrecked his motorcycle, which his mistress was riding along with him.

• Tyrone Willingham, a former Stanford football coach and currently a volunteer women's golf coach at the school, can vote for the Cardinal because the university isn't paying him. Willingham can also discuss, vote and rank Notre Dame and Washington, which fired him after less-than-spectacular tenures.

• Osborne, who guided Nebraska to three national championships and 13 conference titles in 25 seasons, can make the case for the Cornhuskers. Less than two years ago, he would have been ineligible to discuss Nebraska because he was still the school's athletic director.

• Former NFL quarterback Archie Manning can vote for and discuss Ole Miss, where he and his son Eli played quarterback, and Tennessee, where his son Peyton was an All-American.

• Luck can discuss and vote for Stanford, where his son Andrew was an All-American quarterback.

Again, we should believe the committee will make ultimately make fair and objective decisions. It's the perception that something might be afoot that will lead to message-board and water-cooler conspiracies. The recusal policy also sets a dangerous precedent. What if former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden were to be named to the committee? In the bottom of his heart, could Bowden really select Miami over the Seminoles? Or would former Texas coach Mack Brown choose Oklahoma over the Longhorns if everything else was equal?

We might be better off naming Harvey Updyke to the committee.

The committee's executive director, Bill Hancock, who had guarded the recusal policy like a national security secret, said it is very similar to the policy used by the NCAA men's and women's basketball committees, which determine at-large bids and seedings. But the men's basketball committee's 10 members, who are selecting a 68-team field, are prevented from discussing teams in their respective conferences. That isn't the case with the football committee. 

Once the football debate begins, Alvarez will be able to help decide whether Big Ten rivals like Michigan and Ohio State will be included in the four-team playoff. Haden might be forced to determine whether Oregon or UCLA will be selected. While a member might be less inclined to include a conference rival, it would mean a financial windfall for his league and ultimately his or her school.

When the committee members were announced in October, Hancock called their task "one of the hardest jobs in sports."

The committee members just made it a lot harder on themselves. 

If they have one saving grace, however, it's that we'll never know their decisions because their ballots will be kept secret.