Coaches Gone Wild

The BCS football championship game is this week. But all the action is off the field.

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.

All of this money, which is controlled by the select few, has corrupted college football, turning one of our most sacred athletic rituals into something that most people can’t even understand. The machinations of determining a champion are so convoluted that it seems, to average fans, that the fix is in. The BCS system also makes it impossible for smaller schools to compete for the crown—both Northeastern and Hofstra universities folded their football teams last season, citing rising costs and a lack of interest. Meantime, the pressure on BCS college coaches, usually the highest paid university employees, takes a toll: Urban Meyer, Florida’s coach who won last season’s national title, was hospitalized last month after suffering chest pains brought on by panic attacks.

To help bring an end to the BCS, Joe Barton, a Texas Republican in the House of Representatives, introduced a bill that passed a subcommittee in December. The legislation would have about as much effect as a safety blitz against a well-timed screen pass; it merely prevents the BCS from calling its title game a “national championship game” unless it is the result of a playoff system. “It's like communism, you can't fix it,” Barton has said. While this bill is silly, there is plenty of worry among the universities that make up the beleaguered BCS. They recently hired Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, to improve their image with unhappy fans.

Like everyone else, from presidents to peons, I’ve watched bowl games since I was a kid and I enjoy being saturated with college football for a week or so. For almost a century, starting in the 1920s when all the large college football stadiums started being built, college football has been about big money and big drama. But football has a deeper meaning to us than mere entertainment. From the time of Theodore Roosevelt, college football has been seen as a maker of men (Roosevelt loved the game, believing the “rough, manly” sport created a better nation, but forewarned that the game should not degenerate into the “sole end of one’s existence.”) The BCS has eroded one of the great American sports, creating an atmosphere in which coaches go wild, underdogs have no shot, and corporate interests rule the game, ruining the very ideal of sport: fairness. A playoff system might bring it all back to some sort of semi-reality.

So when the Texas or Alabama players hold up the $30,000 Waterford Crystal football trophy and call themselves champions on Thursday night, millions of people will watch, and many will see right through it.