It didn’t take long.
After Georgia did pretty much whatever it wanted in a 41-10 win over Hawaii on Tuesday night, you just knew that people were going to start saying that Hawaii didn’t deserve to be in a BCS game. I haven’t seen entire columns dedicated to the subject yet, although I’m sure they’re coming. But we’re already seeing little comments sprinkled in here & there, such as in this Boston Globe piece:
After their win over Illinois, which like Hawaii was not worthy of a BCS bowl, the Trojans were feeling confident.
And of course there’s the usual sniper shots aimed at Hawaii coming from the blog & message board world. That’s no surprise. Unfortunately, those who share this sentiment have fallen victim to the greatest fallacy in college football: that “deserve” has anything to do with the BCS. The BCS isn’t about competition. It isn’t about matching up the best teams to produce the most entertaining games. It is about one thing and one thing only: money. No, this isn’t going to be one of those cynical, oh-noes-there’s-money-in-college-football sermons. We all know that college football is a business, and I don’t lament that. I’m just putting Hawaii’s Sugar Bowl bid in the right perspective.
The BCS is the result of an evolutionary process that began in 1990. Colorado and Georgia Tech shared the national championship that year, as the Buffaloes were #1 in the AP Poll while Tech sat atop the Coaches’ Poll. The situation repeated itself the following year, as Washington and Miami each went undefeated and claimed a #1 spot in one of the two major polls. With two consecutive years of a split national championship, there was significant demand among college football fans for a way to determine a “true” national champion and end the phenomenon of split titles. Where there’s demand, there’s a business opportunity. The ACC, Big East, SEC, SWC, and Big 8 conferences, along with Notre Dame and 6 bowl games, looked to capitalize on that opportunity by forming the Bowl Coalition. The basic premise of the Bowl Coalition was that creating a #1 vs. #2 matchup in the Cotton, Orange, Fiesta, or Sugar Bowls would be a cash bonanza, as demand for the game would drive television money through the roof. (The Rose Bowl, along with the Pac 10 and Big 10, chose not to be involved and instead elected to maintain their traditional affiliations). The way the Bowl Coalition worked was that three conferences– the SEC, SWC, and Big 8– would maintain their traditional bowl tie-ins, sending their respective champions to the Sugar, Cotton, and Orange Bowls. If the champion of one of those three conferences was ranked in #1 or #2, their affiliated bowl would host the championship game. If both #1 and #2 were out of the SEC, SWC, or Big 8, then the team ranked #1 would play in their conference’s affiliated bowl, and the #2 team would be released from their traditional game to play the #1 team. If neither #1 or #2 was from one of those three conferences, then the championship game would be played in the Fiesta Bowl. The remaining slots for Bowl Coalition games would be filled by the ACC champ, Big East Champ, runners-up from the five coalition conferences, and Notre Dame. The third-place team from the SEC would go to the Gator Bowl.
The Bowl Coalition lasted for 3 years, ending in 1994. In its place came the Bowl Alliance. The premise of the Bowl Alliance was the same, but the rules were adjusted from those of the Bowl Coalition. The major rules changes were that the traditional affiliations between conference champions and bowl games were dissolved, the Gator and John Hancock (Sun) Bowls were no longer affiliated (leaving only the Cotton, Orange, and Sugar Bowls), and two at-large bids were available to teams that met certain eligibility requirements. The at-large bids were possible because of the demise of the Southwest Conference, and because Notre Dame was no longer guaranteed a spot (thanks to a 6-4-1 season in 1994). The Rose Bowl, Big 10 and Pac 10 were still not involved. The Bowl Alliance could not produce a consensus national champion in 1997 thanks to Michigan’s undefeated season and subsequent Rose Bowl berth, which precluded a matchup with the country’s other undefeated team that year, Nebraska. Both teams won their bowl games and shared the national championship, with Michigan atop the AP Poll and Nebraska taking the Coaches’ Poll. It became obvious that without the inclusion of the Big 10 and Pac 10, the legitimacy of the Bowl Alliance “championship game,” and by extension its television value, was in doubt. A solution needed to be reached in order to maintain the game’s appeal. The members of the Bowl Alliance made concessions to the Rose Bowl, allowing it to keep its own television contract and maintain its Pac 10-Big 10 matchup in years that neither conference’s champion is ranked #1 or #2. With that, the Rose Bowl, Pac 10, and Big 10 entered the fold, and the Bowl Championship Series was born.
The BCS consolidated the Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta Bowls into one television package. The BCS Championship Game was added to this package after that game’s creation. Combining these games meant that one television network would be able to control the broadcasting rights for all of the major bowl games– a very valuable proposition. The combined value of the BCS games was more than the sum of its parts, allowing these games to give payouts far greater than ever before. But the rules were such that even if there was a demand for a team outside of the BCS conferences, it was far more difficult for that team to qualify for a BCS game and get access to this money. Under the old rules, a non-BCS conference school had to finish in the top 6 of the BCS standings to get an automatic berth. That is a much higher ranking than several BCS conference champions have had. The revenue created by the BCS was distributed amongst conferences that make up roughly half of all Division I-A teams. That isn’t necessarily bad in itself; that’s just capitalism. But structuring the system to ensure that bowl money is consolidated among a privileged group regardless of their performance is unfair. The BCS was essentially a monopoly, tolerated under the guise that it was all for the sake of creating a national championship matchup.
One look at the BCS rules and it’s obvious that the system has little to do with finding a champion and everything to do with money. The rules only make sense if you understand that. If the BCS was just about finding a national champion, then there wouldn’t be a need for the standings to matter beyond the #1 and #2 teams. After the top two teams were selected for the championship game, the rest of the bowls would be able to pick whatever team they wanted regardless of BCS ranking. The BCS isn’t about setting up good games to watch, either; if that was the case, then you’d just take the top 10 in the BCS standings and have them play 1 vs. 2, 3 vs. 4, 5 vs. 6, etc. And why do you think that no conference is allowed to put more than 2 teams into the BCS? It’s so money is distrubited more or less evenly between BCS conferences, with no one conference hogging it all. If good football was the BCS’s motivation, then it would be no problem to have, say, 3 Big 12 teams in BCS games if they were the best teams available. For that matter, if the goal is to create the best matchups, then why even have automatic bids? Was Pitt one of the best teams available in 2004? They played in the Fiesta Bowl as Big East champions, but Navy actually finished ahead of them in both polls. How about a 4-loss Florida State team going to the Sugar Bowl as ACC champions in 2002 while Texas (10-2), Kansas State (10-2), and Notre Dame (10-2) were left out of the BCS? Or 1998, where 8-3 Syracuse won the Big East and got an Orange Bowl bid ahead of higher-ranked Arizona (11-1), Tulane (11-0), Air Force (11-1), Kansas State (11-1), and Georgia Tech (9-2)? Did they earn these BCS berths by virtue of their conference championship? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean that an 8-3 or 9-4 conference champ makes for a better game than undefeated Tulane or 11-1 Arizona. Pitt, Florida State, and Syracuse got those spots because the Big East and the ACC expect to get their share of the pie.
It’s this monopoly that Tulane University president Scott Cowen sought to break when he organized non-BCS university presidents into the Presidential Coalition for Athletics Reform in 2003. Cowen’s organization focused on two main issues; the first being access to and distribution of BCS money, and the second being the impact of negative perception that comes with being branded as a “non-BCS” school. Cowen’s organization met with BCS conference officials in 2004, and the result was the BCS system that we have in place today; a fifth BCS game and more accessibility for conferences outside of the 6 automatic qualifiers. Which brings us back to Hawaii.
The overwhelming concern of non-BCS schools was that the domination of bowl money by BCS members would create a de facto subdivision within Division I-A. BCS schools were generating enormous amounts of money and investing it in themselves, starting a sort of arms race of facilities, recruiting budgets, and coaches’ salaries. It’s a race in which schools on the outside of the BCS cash stream cannot compete. There might not be two better schools to illustrate this divide than Hawaii and Georgia. Take a look at Georgia’s football locker room. Heck, forget football… Take a look at what Georgia has for women’s basketball. Now compare that to this article in the Honolulu Advertiser in which Colt Brennan makes a plea for soap– soap–for Hawaii’s football locker room. Or consider each school’s recruiting budget. At Georgia, it’s half a million dollars. At Hawaii, June Jones couldn’t even afford to take trips to the mainland with his $50,000 recruiting budget— one-tenth of Georgia’s. Of course, not every team outside of the BCS conferences is in the quite the same financial situation as Hawaii. But they really aren’t that far from it.
And that’s the point. People are going to say that Hawaii didn’t deserve to be in the Sugar Bowl because they weren’t nearly as good as Georgia. Of course they weren’t. They weren’t supposed to be. Non-BCS schools didn’t get increased access to BCS bowls because they are good. They got increased access to the BCS to help them get good. Or at least to help them buy some damn soap. Now that’s not to say that there aren’t any teams outside of the BCS good enough to match up with the Georgias of the world. Non-BCS schools have still won more BCS bowl games than the ACC has. But with the enormous gap in resources between the automatic qualifiers and the outsiders, that success rate won’t last forever. The BCS generates about $100 million annually which gets divided between all I-A institutions. In most years, the BCS conferences get $91 million of it. Controlling that much of the money pie each year by rule virtually ensures that the BCS conferences will remain on top forever. I know what you’re thinking; they would always be the top conferences anyway, right? Maybe, maybe not. What if the BCS system was implemented 30 years ago? The Big East and Big 12 wouldn’t exist, the Southwest Conference would still be a powerhouse, Miami and Virginia Tech would probably be in Conference USA, and the Fiesta Bowl would still be a glorified Arizona State home game. Change did happen when schools and conferences competed on equal footing, but with non-BCS conferences only getting 9% of the money to split between themselves, it’s hard to imagine anything other than the status quo. Under the new BCS contract, an additional 9% is given to the non-BCS conferences when one of their teams play in a BCS game. That won’t be enough to turn the WAC into the Pac 10, but with a little bit of innovation, some of those schools can stretch their dollars enough that they can at least find ways to compete with the big boys once in a while. Who knows? With the estimated $3.5-4 million that Hawaii is expected to receive from their Sugar Bowl appearance, maybe they could afford soap and shampoo.
As a fan, I was thrilled to see Hawaii in a BCS game. I wanted to see how they stacked up. Sure, Georgia could have played some 2 or 3-loss BCS team and perhaps gotten a better game out of them. Big deal. We see games like that every single year. It would usually be a more evenly matched game, but it would rarely be a better story. I hate seeing the little guy putting together a dream season only to be left wondering “what if” at the end of the season. I guess people just don’t like rooting for the underdog anymore. Besides, going into this year there have been 10 BCS bowl games that resulted in blowouts of 20 points or more, including losses by teams like Oklahoma, Ohio State, Iowa, and Nebraska. Were those teams undeserving of a spot in the BCS? Good games are no guarantee when you put big names in a bowl game.
If you’re a Navy fan, you should root like hell for teams like Hawaii to get a BCS berth. If Navy ever does the impossible and gets to a BCS game of its own, the Mids’ schedule is probably going to look a lot like the Warriors’. People will be talking about about whether or not Navy deserves to be there, too. Pray that we one day get a chance to defend a Navy spot in the Orange Bowl.