Saturday, August 5, 2006

Tradition & Change

Change is basically the act of exchanging one set of circumstances for another, while tradition is continuing with a way of doing things over a long period of time. College football has both in abundance, and I would argue that their dichotomy makes for a unique set of circumstances that other sports don’t have to consider as much as college football does. In addition to fairness, tradition is the second major hurdle to implementing a playoff.

Tradition is more of a factor in college football than with any other team sport in the U.S. We're talking about school & university traditions, bowl traditions, gameday traditions, stadium traditions, team traditions, etc. These rituals give college football a solid identity, and many of these traditions will never change no matter what happens. At the same time, certain changes occur in college football much more frequently than in other sports, particularly in reference to the national championship issue. This combination of some firmly held traditions and some ever-changing elements makes for tricky waters to navigate when discussing a college football national championship. But we’ll try.

Many people use the fact that college football’s three lower divisions have playoffs as an argument in favor of change, but I’d say that it’s just as much an argument in favor of tradition. For Divisions I-AA, II, and III, a playoff IS the tradition. They’ve been holding playoffs to determine their national champions for over 30 years. For many of those years, they’ve even been holding their championship games at the same location every year. (Let’s put it another way – back when they started holding playoffs, the NCAA Basketball Tournament, March Madness as it was to become, only consisted of 25 teams.) While D.I-A was switching from the Pre-Polls definition to the Polls Definition to the BCS Definition (and then changing the BCS at a relatively breakneck pace), the other college football divisions were holding their playoffs, building years of tradition. Even though those playoffs might not be as fair as the ones in other sports, people have had a long time to get used to them and the tradition factor far outweighs the fairness factor. (It also helps that the third relevant factor, money, doesn’t have nearly the impact in these lower divisions as it does in D.I-A. But more about that in the next section...)

There are two major categories of traditions that playoff implementation must overcome:

The Bowls

I would argue that the bowls are the biggest single obstacle to implementing a playoff. Why? Because they’re the prime example of the power of tradition in college football. They’ve been around longer than most any other sporting tradition, not only in college football but in any sport. They were around decades before the NCAA, before helmets, before the forward pass, and before the vast majority of people associated with the sport today were born. Getting rid of the bowls in favor of a playoff? It’s never going to happen. Ever. They’re too big, too powerful, and too seeped in history. The bowls are here to stay, and any playoff scenario is going to have to incorporate them somehow. That doesn’t mean that the bowls don’t evolve as well – they do. Yes they’ve changed, but those changes have resulted in a strengthening of their position of power. Maybe not for some of the newer, or more commercialized bowls, but certainly for the older, bigger ones.

Perhaps the entities with the most power in the Bowl issue are the Big Ten, the Pac Ten, and the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl, the epitome of bowl tradition, is the oldest bowl by far, the only bowl to match up the champions of two BCS leagues, has it’s own, separate television contract and consistently gets the highest TV ratings of any bowl (with the exception of the national championship game some years). When it was decided to implement the BCS in the late 1990’s, the coordinators knew that the only way they would succeed and be considered legitimate is if they roped in the Rose Bowl. And even though the Rose Bowl begrudgingly agreed to be a part of the BCS starting in 1998, according to many it hasn’t worked out too well for them. They’ve had to deviate from their Big Ten vs Pac Ten match-up on numerous occasions, something that hasn’t sat too well with traditionalists. And though they’ve hosted two national championship games (and a third game in 2003 which had the impact of splitting the championship), if they had stuck with their traditional Big Ten vs Pac Ten match-up their game would have had an impact on a majority of the national championship discussions in the past nine years. (The BCS Guru has a solid post here on this situation.) As a result, the importance of the Rose Bowl game to college football on an annual basis has declined. The BCS needs the Rose Bowl much more than the Rose Bowl needs the BCS, and I can’t imagine the coordinators in Pasadena agreeing to any new system which chips away at even more of their power and tradition, especially since they’ve been burned by the BCS on more than one occasion. Any new solution to the post-season is going to have to work around or with the big bowls, and I’d say that as the Rose Bowl goes, the other bowls will go too.

Many people have suggested turning the bowls into the playoff, but I’d argue that the impact to the tradition of the bowls in that situation would still be too significant for them to agree to. Many of the “solutions” are a 4, 8, or 16 team playoff with the lesser bowls being used for the first rounds and the major bowls being used for the semi-finals and championship game. But this would mean that teams would play in more that one bowl game, something that goes against the hundred year history of bowls and shakes its very roots.

Bowl games were originally designed to give successful teams an opportunity to play a bonus game at the end of the year and their fans an opportunity to vacation someplace warm for a week and see their favorite team play somewhere and someone different. It’s still a special thing to “go bowling”, and teams (and fans) often make a whole week out of their bowl trip. Playing in more than one bowl game would undoubtedly dilute the whole experience and minimize the importance of the bowls themselves. That isn’t to say that other things haven’t already diluted the bowl season in general (having more than 25 of them, stretching them out over a full month, and can anyone say “Poulan Weedeater Bowl”?). But the core reasons for and tradition of each bowls as a one-time, unique and special event for a team is still intact. I would say that there’s more of a chance of adding games after the bowls as the BCS did with the National Championship game in 2007 than formatting the bowls to fit a playoff formula. But this brings up our second traditional issue.


Even though scheduling extra games past the bowls might lessen the impact on the traditional bowls themselves, it creates multiple scheduling problems, as do other already-enacted or proposed changes.

Part of the tradition of college football was that the bowl season built up to New Year’s Day when the Rose Bowl and other major bowl games were played. This has been changed by the BCS, and not for the better. Bowl season used to coincide exactly with the holiday season, which worked out well for a number of reasons. First, it became part of the identity of the holiday season in the U.S. People have extra days off from work, spend time with family and friends, and put an end to the previous year. After the New Year’s Day bowl games, everything in people’s lives (and college football) started anew, metaphorically if not in actuality. Shifting the end date of college football to a week later has devalued the overall experience because it lasts a little too long, like eating too much candy, or a three-and-a-half hour movie, or reading all these sections (now that I check my word count...).

Second, teams themselves lose their punch too. In a sport where situations and teams change on a weekly basis, having to wait 6 weeks after the regular season has ended to play in a bowl game obviously has a negative impact on a team. There’s simply too much of a gap, and a team that finishes in November isn’t going to be the same team that plays in the second week of January. (This situation can also be included in the “fairness” argument.)

Third, getting too late into January forces college football to compete with the NFL playoff race too, a battle which the NFL is always going to win.

Scheduling before the bowls during the regular season is an issue too. Two of the reasons that the lower divisions are able to hold playoffs are because they play fewer regular season games and because they start their playoffs in mid-November. D.I-A teams just fought for the right to play 12 games a season instead of 11 – do you really think they’re going to be willing to give that extra game (and revenue) up? Hardly likely, though possible I guess. But losing that extra game or two and shifting the whole season to end by early November? That’s even less likely, especially when you consider that conferences hold their traditional rivalry games and championships in late November/early December. So any playoff system is going to have to work around those issues too.

Lots of people cite missed class time for the “student athletes” as a reason for not expanding the schedule as well, though I’m less inclined to. With all of the other factors such as pushing the bowls more into January, adding a 12th game, low graduation rates, and many cases of academic dishonesty by universities on the part of athletes, it’s hard to believe that administrators really do have their athletes’ academic best interests in mind. It’s true that they have to find a balance between athletic and academic success, and to argue that grades are just as important as wins when most evidence points to the contrary is simply unreasonable. The missed class time argument is one that lets administrators save face and “prove” that they care about academics, but I highly doubt academics would stand in the way of most changes that could be made to the system.

Fairness < Top > Money

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