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Men who control college football eyeing plus-one for their own legacy


Instead of being remembered as a poacher of programs, Mike Slive can build a positive legacy. (Getty Images)  
Instead of being remembered as a poacher of programs, Mike Slive can build a positive legacy. (Getty Images)  

The money for a college football playoff was always there. In 1993, Disney proposed an eight-day college football "festival" that would have included a playoff. Twelve years ago, a former University of Oklahoma wrestler was the point man for a Swiss marketing firm offering $3 billion over eight years.

The game's power brokers barely blinked before rejecting both. If a past criticism of the current BCS commissioners was leaving money on the table, what's left to curse this year if they finally take it? When the playoff model they're supposedly assembling goes out to bid later this year -- ESPN has an exclusive 30-day negotiating window with the BCS commissioners -- there will be other hungry networks wanting a piece, or all, of it.

And given the history of such negotiations, it wouldn't be the first time a network overpaid for a property. The money will be insane. But it always was. We've already told you projections of $500 million a year or higher. But the money at this point will be more or less collateral profit from a war raging inside the consciences of those power brokers.

In short, the Group of 12 BCS commissioners -- 11, plus Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick -- is largely reacting to public opinion. Congratulations, John Q. Punt, Pass and Kick. You have won. "Occupy the BCS" has worked. These commissioners are human. No one likes to be told they stink all the time. As a plus-one takes shape before our eyes, the Group of 12 has realized college football has never been more popular, despite their most heinous acts.

This is a group that thought nothing of reorganizing conferences while ripping up some of the game's most treasured traditions in the process. This is a group that couldn't keep its own house clean, especially at Southern California, Ohio State, Miami and Penn State.

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And yet the game thrived despite them.

They would like to remove that last qualifier. Know how I know? They left the door to their meeting room ajar for a bit this week during those meetings in Dallas. Pardon the hell out of me if I looked. There, scrawled in magic marker on paper hung on the wall, were six bullet points to observe during the discussions.

Third on the list mentioned "public acceptance" of a new postseason model. I can't remember those two words ever being mentioned together since the BCS debuted in 1998. The Diligent Dozen understands its duty in shepherding the nation's second-most popular sport through its most sensitive time.

They know we're all watching. They also want to feel good about themselves when they're done. They are listening to you, these middle-aged (and older) commissioners. They are hearing you, me and everyone who ever criticized the BCS.

They know there are massive holes in the system that can't be explained away. They are sick of addressing some new unintended consequence with some new computer formula or poll. Money they got. They want to be able to look at that commissioner staring back at them in the mirror without feeling some sort of guilt.

"I think each of us understands a kind of a responsibility to keep the growth going," the Big Ten's Jim Delany said this week.

They have to know how there were chuckles when they hired George W's former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, to "promote" the BCS. And how did that go? The job description turned into one of more crisis management. The BCS went on the offensive, launching a Twitter account to trumpet its virtues. It turned out to be a receptacle for anti-BCS invective of all forms.

Deep down, they have to realize this now. They are owning it within the deliberations you are seeing. When they talk about protecting the regular season, they mean it. They never want to see Ohio State-Michigan be for playoff seeding.

They see how the nation wakes up after the Super Bowl in February to pay attention to college basketball. There's just too much hoops content out there that doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot until March.

Sure, they've made plenty of money for their leagues starting networks, signing new TV deals and snatching teams. But that's local news. What they're doing now is national, and lasting -- maybe everlasting. They are not administrative carpetbaggers. They are stewards with a duty.

As for the money, the commissioners know they would be wise to let that 30-day window expire and watch others join the auction. All of them would be desperate to be the official network for something that has never been tried at this level and would be wildly successful -- a playoff.

Let's call it what it would be: a college football Super Bowl.

Delany had a fitting label for how we got to this point.

Fans can't get over the "live theater" aspect of the sport.

Good comparison. There's a reason Broadway tickets are through the Fiddler on the Roof. People will always pay top dollar for a good show. Nowhere else do you get the star running back proposing to a cheerleader. Or wonder what kind of socks the quarterback is wearing.

For the commissioners, this is their redemption, these playoff deliberations. Whatever they decide, this will be a large part of their legacy. SEC commissioner Mike Slive is 71 and says he wants to go a couple more years before making a career decision. Delany is 63. His pride is palpable when he says 15 years from now Big Ten schools will have earned between $4 billion and $5 billion in rights fees and profits from the Big Ten Network alone.

Karl Benson is 60. He has a daughter in college that he absolutely adores. The man has not gotten rich as the commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference, but he wants to see this through, too, before he retires. Hopefully his new job as the Sun Belt commissioner starting July 1 allows him to start cultivating a new underdog.

"I often asked, who is the next Boise State?" he said of the WAC's finest football phenomenon last week. "With my Sun Belt hat on, why not someone from the Sun Belt?"

They came out of those Dallas meetings this week spouting platitudes about an early "view from 30,000 feet" and "thoughtful discussions." Sounds mundane, but that is the distinct impression I got. They didn't move the ball much, but punting at this point is not an option. These guys realize they hold the game in their hands. If they fumble, there's no bench to retreat to. History will judge them.

No system is perfect. Right now we would all settle for more credible. There is speculation the Group of 12 could sign a long-term deal to address concerns over "bracket creep." That would keep the playoff at four teams -- at least for a long while. It seems inevitable that once we cross this barrier, an eight- or 16-team playoff can't be far off.

But by the then, the men who laid the foundation will be retired, their legacies established, their consciences clear. They will be able to look at themselves in that mirror. They didn't do it for the money. They listened to you, me and everyone else.

They did it to make the game better.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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