J. KARL MILLER: Football is only a game

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:55 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is one of the mantras by which I have essayed to live.

Accordingly, I fail to see the logic, let alone any urgency, in reconstructing the manner in which the No. 1 NCAA, Division 1-A football team is selected. Over the years, college football's No. 1 has been chosen by a number of methods and rankings, none of which has satisfied everyone; however, the disappointment/dissatisfaction at the ultimate selection has rarely lasted any more than a month at best.

For example, from 1869 to 1882, selection was done by the National Championship Foundation, from 1883 to 1935 by the Helms Foundation and from 1936 to the present by The Associated Press. From 1958 to 1990, United Press International also chose a champion, as did the Coaches (CNN/ESPN/USA Today) from 1991 to 2004, USA Today and Harris Interactive from 2005 to present and the Bowl Championship Series from 1998 to the present.

Since 1998, the Bowl Championship Series has conducted a National Championship game between its top two computer ranked teams, a system that has proven satisfactory only to the two opponents so selected. The rest of the polling organizations provide their own rankings of the Division 1-A teams at the season's end.

The resultant dissatisfaction has instigated outcries from the sports media (led by ESPN) and the fans for a playoff system to determine the NCAA Division 1-A top dog.  Joining this discourse have been conference representatives, university officials, coaches and government officials. In 2008, President Barack Obama called for a playoff system while Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch threatened congressional hearings when the University of Utah was not selected as a Bowl Championship Series representative.

Playoff proponents argue that the national championships are decided by coaches and media polling, versus head to head, on-field competition. Opponents point out that the playoff format would detract from the importance of the regular season games and the natural conference rivalries. They lament that early season losses would doom their title hopes.

And some of the university presidents, faculty and administrators offer the usually ignored factor that participation in a playoff system would conflict with student-athletes' studies, examinations and other academic requirements. Let us face facts.  Intercollegiate sports are an important part of the overall university experience, but equating being No. 1 in football or any other sport as more important than student academics equals the tail wagging the dog.

Proposals for the playoff system have ranged from selecting the best of 16, eight and four teams for a playoff series. Although polling indicates the fans' preference is for 16 teams, the latest Bowl Championship Series proposal appears to be locked in at four teams. Several issues remain to be ironed out, including whether to begin after the Bowl series or to include the Bowl games in the counting.

All things considered, the notion of having a football playoff competition to determine who is No. 1 or that we even need such a competition is nonsense. It is easier to justify tournaments in such activities as basketball and volleyball as they can be finished relatively quickly and in baseball and softball as they are played after school is out for the summer.

However, football has already passed the saturation point, with teams now playing up to 13 games before the bowl committee selections are made. The addition of anywhere from four to eight contests adds that much more incidence of serious injury and detracts from students' academics — which, after all, is the ultimate reason for the university's existence. Finally, human nature being human, few will be satisfied with the formula selected.

In my troglodyte's opinion, the best of college football was seen when there were but five or six major bowl games, three different "senior" bowls and the No. 1 team selected by the AP and UPI. No, it was not perfect, and it did not please everyone — but, hey, football was fun. After all, it is only a game, and a game is supposed to be fun. 

This obsession with aspiring to be No. 1 at all costs has led to the recruitment of athletes who have neither the desire nor the ability to seek higher education. The last time I looked, the purpose of college was education — not a stepping stone to professional sports. Also, when recruiting the next athletic phenom, one must realize that a young man who can't stay out of serious trouble in high school can hardly be expected to enter sainthood when he matriculates to a university.

Finally, a quiz: Who are the two Division 1 NCAA football teams with the most consensus national titles? No, it is not Notre Dame, nor Alabama nor Ohio State. Instead, it is Princeton with 28 and Yale with 27.

As one can see, the relative importance of "being No. 1" is vastly overrated.  The proposed Bowl Championship Series playoffs are rife with unintended consequences and will satisfy no one other than those who operate TV sports networks.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at Questions? Contact news editor Laura Johnston.

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Bob Brandon June 20, 2012 | 7:00 a.m.

The Colonel is spot on: "The proposed Bowl Championship Series playoffs are rife with unintended consequences and will satisfy no one other than those who operate TV sports networks."

In the biggest possible scheme of things, big business sports - collegiate or professional (which is to say "professional" and professional) are so much bread and circuses for their fevered supporters. Plenty of schools now recruit - especially - young men who have neither the desire or ability to be good students but yet have entertainment potential as athletes. Nothing good has come of this.

The sad thing is that the majority of universities who pander to college athletics, athletes, and their supporters are much better schools apart from their athletic departments. The titanic struggle over institutional priorities and goals as a result of big business sports weakens their obligations to their students, their faculties, and their communities.

One slight quibble: "moral turpitude" is actually a bad thing. Moral turpitude IS the problem...

(Report Comment)
Tex Noel June 20, 2012 | 2:53 p.m.

Please note: Champions from 1869-1882, National Championship Foundation and 1883-1935 Helms are retroactive polls--(conducted years after the games were played).

NCF had its first official selection in 1980; while Helms was earlier in 1941.

United Press International absorbed the old United Press No.1s 1950-57 and is considered a part of the UPI champions.
The Harris Interactive is one of the worse systems we have out there voting for #1.

A study has been made that one of the earlist seasons for naming a #1 team in college football was in 1876.

(Report Comment)
Harry Plumer June 20, 2012 | 4:56 p.m.

"And some of the university presidents, faculty and administrators offer the usually ignored factor that participation in a playoff system would conflict with student-athletes' studies, examinations and other academic requirements."

I don't believe this is true, since proposed playoff games would take place over schools' winter breaks.

In addition, the amount of teams that would play more games than previous seasons (in the four-team playoff scenario), is two out of 124.

The only teams that play 13 regular season games in the current system are those that play in conference championship games (10), and those who play non-conference games at Hawaii (2 each year, normally).

I don't necessarily disagree that the old style (play the bowls, then vote) is the best way of doing things, but progress moves forward not back, and once the conference commissioners took a step away from that, the only direction to go is forward.

Plus, as fans, a Final Four for football would be fantastic. I'd be glued to my TV (and I know I'm not the only one) regardless of who was playing.

(Report Comment)

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