As we near the end of college football’s Bowl Madness, culminating this week with the national title clash between the University of Texas Longhorns and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, the striking thing is what people are talking about. Sure, there’s some chatter about I-formations and the spread option, but the real excitement is off the field. And most of it involves crazed coaches.
Just last week, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach was fired after he was accused of locking a student-athlete in an equipment shed because the player complained about a concussion; the University of Tennessee used co-eds to entice high school recruits; Mark Mangino, the consensus national coach of the year at Kansas two years ago, resigned amid allegations that he mistreated his players—he reportedly told a former player, whose younger brother was once shot in the arm as a child in St. Louis, that “if you don't shut up, I'm going to send you back to St. Louis so you can get shot with your homies”; and the University of Southern California’s star tailback is under investigation because a booster allegedly loaned him a Range Rover, which the player regularly drove to practice. (Leach’s defenders say Texas Tech administrators exaggerated the incident and fired him so it wouldn’t have to pay the coach a $800,000 bonus; Mangino denied any wrongdoing and reached a settlement with the University of Kansas, which dropped its investigation into Mangino’s physical and mental abuse of players.)
For more than a hundred years, college football has been a delightful combination of pageantry and impurity, but this season has been particularly crass. So it seems fitting the week will end with yet another uniquely American absurdity: the BCS Championship game, sponsored by Citi, which received $20 billion from taxpayers in TARP bailout money but refuses to disclose the amount it pays for a “media buy” as a BCS title sponsor. Even so, the company may not get its money’s worth. There are a chorus of football fans—a generally impassioned lot—who view the contest with growing apathy. According to a recent poll from Quinnipiac University, 63 percent of Americans who identify themselves as college football fans want to junk the current Bowl Championship Series (BCS) to pick a national champion and replace it with a playoff system like the NCAA basketball tournament. (Even President Obama weighed in last year, saying the current system of deciding a champion is flawed.)
Until almost two decades ago, the top team was decided by polls of coaches and sportswriters. It was a lousy way to choose a national champ, but it never pretended to be more than what it was. In the mid-1990s, fans finally demanded a true playoff system. Then the most prestigious conferences and their national broadcast partners did an end-around run by bundling lucrative bowl games with broadcast rights—ESPN has agreed to pay $125 million a year to broadcast the Orange, Fiesta and Sugar bowls from 2011-2014, and the BCS National Championship game through 2013. In most sports, teams play games throughout a season and their records determine their chances of participating in a post-season tournament, but in the BCS a mathematical formula (subjective polls of writers and coaches, computer rankings, the teams' records, and a strength-of-schedule index) determines the top teams. Eleven college conferences participate in Division One football, but of those only six are guaranteed spots in the four BCS games at the conclusion of the year. (Notre Dame - which is unaffiliated with any conference but is a popular team - still receives $1.4 million from the BCS annually, and can participate in a BCS bowl if it is rated high enough in the BCS ranking system.) The ten teams selected for bowl games include the conference champion from each of the six BCS conferences plus four others. Each participating conference in the final game receives an additional $18.5 million.