In 1969, a first-year president used the power of his office to meddle in college football, striking a lasting blow against fairness, competition, and Joe Paterno.
It was on December 6 of that year that Richard Nixon, who fancied himself a pigskin man but understood little about the collegiate variation of the game, traveled to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where the homestanding Razorbacks were to entertain the Texas Longhorns, with the Southwest Conference championship and a berth in the January 1 Cotton Bowl on the line. When Texas pulled out a come-from-behind 15-14 win, Nixon marched to the victors’ locker room, where he summarily declared the ‘Horns national champions and presented Coach Darrell Royalwith a commemorative plaque.
The president got what he wanted out of the ploy: Half of all television sets in the country had been tuned to “The Game of the Century,” so tens of millions of Americans saw their leader bathed in the imagery of a quintessentially American pastime. But it was a manifestly unjust declaration: Hundreds of miles to the north, Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions were completing their second straight perfect season.
Because of the silliness of college football’s bowl tie-in rules, the Lions wouldn’t get to play Texas – instead, they’d meet Missouri in the Orange Bowl. Shouldn’t both teams at least play their bowl games before a champion was crowned, Penn State fans asked. After Nixon’s move, it didn’t matter. Penn State went on to win the Orange Bowl (and Texas the Cotton), but history records the Longhorns as the sole champion of the 1969 season. Years later, Paterno would ask: “How could Nixon know so much about college football in 1969 and so little about Watergate in 1974?”
Appalling as it was, Nixon’s meddling wasn’t the biggest crime in ’69. The real problem was (and, 39 years later, still is) college football’s uniquely subjective method for determining its champion, a maddening system that exposes the game to the kind of mindless interference that Nixon exercised.
In 1969, the official national championship was awarded in early January by a vote of sportswriters. After the previous month’s spectacle in Fayetteville, though, their hands were tied and they merely rubber-stamped Nixon’s decree. Most casual viewers had already seen Texas celebrate its "national title": Who were a bunch of ink-stained hacks to hand it to someone else?
Today, of course, the system is more superficially complex. A mix of human polls and computer ratings used to generate the B.C.S. rankings and the top two teams at the end of the year play for the national title. But it’s just as anti-democratic: If more than two teams finish undefeated, someone gets left out. Or if there’s a rash of one-loss teams at the top, multiple deserving teams are snubbed. In every other college sport, championships are earned. But in Division I-A college football, they are bestowed – often based on rationale just as dubious as Nixon’s all those years ago.
None of Nixon’s successors – not even onetime Michigan lineman/linebacker Gerald Ford – saw fit to play a similarly activist role in college football, instead contenting themselves to welcome each year to the White House whatever team has been anointed by sportswriters or the B.C.S. computers as the “national champion.”
Until now, that is.
In his first televised interview since his election, Barack Obama told Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes on Sunday night that he would “throw [his] weight around a little bit” in order to bring about a college football tournament.
“If you’ve got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season, and many of them have one loss or two losses, there’s no clear, decisive winner,” the president-elect said. “We should be creating a playoff system.
“I don’t know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this,” he continued. “So I’m going to throw my weight around a little bit.”
His comment echoes one made in his final pre-election interview, when Obama told ESPN’s Chris Berman that the one improvement in the sports world he’d most like to see is the creation of an eight-team college football playoff. Not surprisingly, though, Obama is already meeting resistance from the powerful forces of complacency who’ve fought the tournament idea since ’69, when, thanks to Penn State’s plight, it began gaining popular support.
“I look forward to talking with him and explaining to him that it’s not in the best interest of the academic integrity of our institutions,” Gordon Gee, Ohio State’s chancellor, told The New York Times on Sunday.
Like every defense of the status quo, Gee’s argument rings hollow. Under the current system, more than half of all teams qualify for a postseason bowl game. (Major conference schools can still be eligible even if they go 2-6 in their leagues.) Even though their regular seasons generally end in late November, all of these teams are allowed to continue practicing until their bowl games, which are generally in the last week of December. A tournament – something already held in the lower (and more academically oriented) divisions of college football – wouldn’t change much: The few teams who qualify would continue to practice in December and would also play an extra game or two.
Gee’s response, along with the other familiar arguments against a playoff, is really just a rationalization. The way the system now works, major conference commissioners and major university presidents create their own lucrative deals with all of the bowl games and the television networks who want to cover them. Fox, for instance, currently pays $82.5 million per year just for the rights to the five marquee B.C.S. bowls (there are about 30 bowls overall). Each major conference is guaranteed a certain number of bowl teams, and each bowl pays out a fixed amount of money to each participating team (between $300,000 on the low end and $17 million for B.C.S. games last year). Those teams then take a cut of that money for themselves and spread the rest around to their conference brethren. Under this system, Gee and the other big boys are enormously powerful. Under a playoff, they’d be bit players.
To be fair, not every college president is as obstinate as Gee – especially those whose teams have been on the receiving end of a B.C.S. injustice. Georgia’s Michael Adams, for instance, used to read from the same anti-playoff talking points as Gee. Then he watched in 2007 as the regular season yielded a host of teams with virtually indistinguishable résumés. Ohio State (11-1) and LSU (11-2) were selected to play for the national championship; Georgia (11-1) was left out.
“This year’s experience with the B.C.S. forces me to the conclusion that the current system has lost public confidence and simply does not work,” Adams finally admitted.
But Adams and his allies are a powerless minority. Earlier this year, he was brusquely dismissed when he asked the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors to consider an eight-team playoff. Sadly, this all suggests that Obama, if he does pursue the matter, won’t have nearly the impact that Nixon had 39 years ago.
Back then, Nixon was working in concert with the Gordon Gees of the college football world. Executives at ABC, which had the broadcast rights to the Arkansas-Texas game, had a clear interest in inflating the contest’s significance. In fact, the network actually worked with both schools to reschedule it during the season, when it became clear that both teams were national contenders, moving it from mid-October to the Saturday after the regular season ended. ABC also arranged for Nixon to attend, knowing that his presence would ratchet up the game’s importance. In the end, ABC got its 50-share, Nixon got his photo op, and Arkansas and Texas got their moment in the sun. The deal worked for everyone – except Penn State.
Obama, by contrast, is placing himself in opposition to the game’s mightiest forces. And even though he will be president, his power will only be symbolic. The big college presidents and the big conference commissioners will still hold all the cards. Sure, they’ll give him a more polite hearing than Michael Adams received, but the result will be no different. College football will still be stuck with a system that only Tricky Dick could love.