With college football in position for takeoff and bound for the 2008 season, the debate of the NCAA adopting a post-season playoff versus protecting the bowl games takes flight again. Fans across America will write to newspapers, call radio stations and e-mail anyone who will listen and express their views. Proponents of a playoff ardently believe the time has come for the NCAA to wise up and implement a single elimination tournament of four, eight or even 16 teams. Supporters of bowl games argue that, while not perfect, the current system determines a national champion at least as effectively as a playoff would, and provides a holiday tradition that millions of fans have enjoyed for more than a century.
Organizers of San Diego’s two bowl games back the latter argument. This position is supported by several points.
Perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of maintaining the status quo is that college football already has a playoff. It’s called the regular season! Jump ahead to September 13th. If you’re a fanatic, it’s probably already circled on your calendar. The 2nd-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes board a plane and fly to Los Angeles to take on the 4th-ranked USC Trojans. The winner continues on with high hopes of a national championship. The loser? Well, they better not lose again; and they better hope other powerhouses fall to defeat somewhere along their paths to bowl season. “I really question the wisdom of a playoff,” said Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osbourne. “The regular season is the playoff… every game is important. You can’t really take a Saturday off.” Now I enjoy college basketball as much as anyone. I certainly make it a point to get home and sit in front of the television with a sandwich and soda for the best rivalry in the country, Duke vs. North Carolina. But, other than bragging rights, does the outcome really mean anything? More than likely they’ll both be getting high seeds in the 65-team NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens.
Of the several arguments in favor of the playoff, I find it interesting that not one mentions what should be considered the most critical asset of college football, the student-athlete. Approximately 6,800 players, 13,500 band members and 1,250 cheerleaders from 68 universities will enjoy bowl experiences that will create memories to last a lifetime. Kansas Head Coach Mark Mangino agrees, “I think the bowls are unique to college football. I don’t care how many Bowl games you play or are coaching, they’re all special. Those are memories that the players will have forever.” Consider the lessons the Texas Longhorns received when they boarded an active U.S. Navy warship and mixed with Sailors and Marines defending our country. Or think of the Navy Midshipmen who lifted the spirits of sick children and their families at Ronald McDonald House. Bowls are much more than just a football game.
Moreover, 34 of the teams (or around 3,400 players) will go home as Bowl Champions. In college basketball, with the exception of the tournament winner, each and every team ends their season with a disappointing, and sometimes humiliating loss. “Every bowl game is a meaningful experience for student athletes,” remarked Dr. John Peterson, President of the University of Tennessee. “It’s what it should be. And at the end of the year you don’t say only one team feels good about itself.” Let’s recap this point, football rewards team’s achievements for the entire season. And as exciting as March Madness is, basketball rewards that one team that gets got for six straight games.
And think of the communities hosting the bowls. Last year bowl organizations, most being of the non-profit variety, garnered more than $1.7 billion in aggregate economic benefit for their regions. Several hundred thousand fans pack their bags and follow their team to Pasadena, Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego, Tampa or any of the other 28 communities to cheer on their teams. They stay in hotels, dine in restaurants, shop in stores, enjoy the local attractions and spend millions of dollars! Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano once said, “The economic impact that these games and the Fiesta Bowl Festival bring our state is remarkable.”
And no, bowl games and playoffs cannot coexist. As we all heard growing up, “Money doesn’t grow on trees!” Let’s create a hypothetical situation. Let’s say your (insert school here) are ranked 4th in the country and enter an eight-team playoff. Their quarterfinal game is in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl. If they win, they’re on to Tampa’s Outback Bowl for the semi-final. They win that one and they’re off to the National Championship in Miami’s Orange Bowl. So now you’re sitting around with your friends in your middle-class two bedroom condo in Anytown, USA pondering what to do. Do you spend your dough on a quarterfinal game? Or do you pass and wait for a semi-final matchup or better yet, the championship game? The bowl games will suffer. Most, if not all bowl games cannot survive without fans filling the stadiums and hotels that they serve.
And evidenced by impressive numbers of television viewers, and huge numbers of fans attending the games, bowls are as popular as ever. Yes, I bet even you graduates out there tune in or better yet, travel to watch your alma mater do battle in the post-season!
Convinced yet that bowl games are what’s best for college football? Probably not. It’s a debate that will live on for years to come. And in reality it’s good for what I consider the greatest sport in the world. But c’mon… let’s stop the nonsense and celebrate a system that has existed since the first Rose Bowl January 1st, 1902.