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Senior College Football Columnist

Considering their track record, don't expect presidents to get playoff right

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It didn't hit home until Larry Scott reminded us last week that the presidents really would ultimately decide on college football's first major-college football playoff.

"They'll have options," the Pac-12's commissioner said in Chicago, "plural."

So the future of the nation's second-most popular sport will be decided by academics descending from their high-minded thrones to take a multiple-choice test: Four-team playoff or some hybrid thereof. There will be choices also on revenue distribution and access.

This, folks, looks like a test they will flunk with flying colors.

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Football is not the presidents' specialty. Judging from recent scandals, neither is running a major university, but let's stick to the game for the moment. The next round of commissioner playoff mud-wrestling over the subject continues Wednesday in Chicago. The BCS presidential oversight committee will take up the matter, perhaps for final approval, June 26 in Washington, D.C.

The commissioners haven't really deviated from the script. I checked their statements from previous meetings. The presidents won't necessarily be handed a model to consider. Most likely they'll be given a lump of clay to shape into the "right" model for a playoff.

That gives me a sick, lump-of-clay feeling in my stomach. You may have noticed the major-college presidents -- as a whole -- have not distinguished themselves in running collegiate sports. Certainly not since they were handed the keys to the collegiate Corvette in 1984. That year the Presidents Commission was established to set -- in the NCAA's words -- "an agenda for the association."

Some agenda. Three years later, SMU was handed the death penalty. A quarter century later, the words "clustering," "runner," and "third party" are key phrases in the cheating-to-English dictionary. Basketball recruiting is so polluted it needs a sump pump. Football purity is barely hanging on.

The NCAA recently hired a beefy former Indianapolis homicide cop to head up a new football enforcement division. Don't think that Bill Benjamin's background and intimidating presence had nothing to do with his hiring. If that isn't enough, the NCAA is also considering using private detectives.

Yes, blaming the presidents is a blanket statement, but not a hasty one. They've had almost three decades to clean up their games. Maybe it's an impossible task, but this is a duty they have embraced with both hubris and hypocrisy.

They are charged with overseeing this country's largest amateur sports undertaking this side of the Olympics. In the last decade, the NCAA board has appointed two former college CEOs (Myles Brand, Mark Emmert) as the association's president. Now, look what the college CEOs have as their legacy during that same time period: USC, Miami, Ohio State, Penn State, North Carolina, now homes of some of the most heinous scandals in history.

Do we really need to go over this again? North Carolina's previously sterling academic rep has been gashed. Ohio State's Gordon Gee has become a national punch line, a cartoon character in a bowtie. Until earlier this month, Alabama had essentially been on probation (between basketball and football) since 1995.

Emmert's August presidential summit got reform rolling at an unprecedented rate. That is, if you trust the judgment of Donna Shalala (Miami), Holden Thorp (North Carolina), Graham Spanier (formerly of Penn State) and Gee. What do all those CEOs have in common? Crippling scandals under their watch and invitations to be among the 50 presidents invited to that reform summit.

Anyone else getting a mixed message?

"Cheating," Emmert has emphasized, "will not be tolerated."

Except that it is, too often. We've yet to reach that magic place where the reward to play by the rules outweighs the risk. USC, for example, looks like it is coming out the other side of those Reggie Bush penalties as a renewed national power. The same for Ohio State post-Tressel.

Where's the downside?

The eternal struggle continues between a profitable collegiate business model and higher education when it comes to athletics. Never mind winning the struggle, major college CEOs have barely addressed the dichotomy. Coaches' salaries are spiraling out of control. Check that inflated price on your game ticket. You're paying for those salaries and facilities.

Primarily, presidents are in charge of billion-dollar enterprises that chase research, grants, professors and enrollment. As part of the job, they happen to also oversee athletic programs that chase recruits, coaches and titles -- sometimes without restraint.

Spanier once told me that athletics amounted to 2 percent of his budget, but took up 10 percent of his time. Apparently he didn't spend enough time on that niggling 2 percent. He finds himself out of a job in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.

And Spanier was one of the good ones, maybe the best. No matter what your opinion of his involvement in the Sandusky affair, hope for reform should have been diminished everywhere when Spanier left Penn State. Not only did higher education lose a brilliant mind, the BCS also lost the chairman of its oversight committee.

All due respect, but I don't trust the presidents this month and neither should you. In the business world, the oversight committees that approved the BCS in the last few cycles would have been fired. The fact that the system needed presidential oversight at all should have been a warning. As a reminder, this is what the BCS has given us:

  Nebraska, Oklahoma and Alabama in BCS title games. Nebraska in 2001 and Alabama in 2011 didn't win their divisions. Nebraska's slot in the 2002 title game was particularly heinous since it was coming off a 62-36 loss to eventual Big 12 champ Colorado. Oklahoma lost the Big 12 title game in 2003 by four touchdowns, remained No. 1 in the BCS, and played for the national championship.

To varying degrees, a few people had a problem with all three scenarios.

  Louisville and Boise State in the wrong place in the 2010 final standings. It took CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm to discover the mistake.

  The invention of the term "unintended consequences".

A playoff isn't going to get rid of all those consequences. In fact, there is a whole set of issues to go along with a four-team playoff. But there are ways to make it more legitimate.

Maryland chancellor Bill Kirwan and SMU president Gerald Turner are co-chairs of the reform-minded Knight Commission. They have suggested a playoff revenue split based on graduation rates. It will never happen. This issue is largely being decided by stakeholders (code word: commissioners) whose power is derived from market size, bowl appearances and top 25 rankings. APR has no chance.

In that business world, CEOs are ultimately responsible for the performance of their company. In college football, these presidents have approved a flawed structure. The modern BCS is on them. That means the next playoff discussion isn't necessarily headed for closure. The presidents could approve everything at the June 26 BCS meeting. Or not. These multiple-choice tests can be a witch.

Back to that sick feeling in my stomach. The coming lump of clay has no chance with presidents as the artisans. Yes, lumping the overseers of the lump together because they've had plenty of time to get college athletics right.

And, for the most part, failed.


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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