With the introduction of the new College Football Playoff selection committee this week, we're one step closer to the end of the BCS era. But of course there is this final season of it -- of curious formulas, the coaches poll and the Harris Poll. This week I caught up with one of the voters in the Harris Poll, former Sports Illustrated writer John Walters, who actually spends many Saturdays working at a New York steakhouse as a waiter. I asked Walters about how he handles that and also being a part of the BCS process; his thoughts on whether the sport is actually moving to a better system and how media coverage has evolved.
Q: How long have you voted in the Harris Poll?
Walters: This is second year.
Q: How did your involvement with the poll come about?
Walters: They contacted me before last season. I'm not sure why.
Q: What made you want to be a part of the BCS process?
Walters: While I acknowledge that the bowl system per se is flawed and tinged with corruption -- no secret -- I believe that the endeavor to place the two best teams in a championship game is pure. And I've never thought of the BCS championship game as the "postseason." The entire season is the postseason. It is what makes college football unique and magical. I am proud to play a small role in helping put the two most worthy teams on the field and I take that duty seriously.
Q: Has being involved in the BCS process changed the way you watch and think about college football?
Walters: No, but it has provoked me to ask myself -- and others -- more questions. For instance, why does any voter -- AP or Harris -- use the preseason AP rankings as a template once the actual season has begun. Why does anyone base his vote on anything other than performance on the field THIS SEASON?
Q: As someone who has been a part of the media for two decades, how do you think the coverage of the sport has changed, and what, if any, impact do you think that has had on the polling process evaluating college football teams?
Walters: Coverage is far more cynical. Obviously, it's more adversarial as well. When I began I could meet a player for lunch or go talk to him at his off-campus apartment because the SIDs trusted me. Plus, there were fewer outlets covering the sport. Contrast that with Oklahoma State's recent dictum that it will no longer permit one-on-one interviews with players as a result of SI's recent expose on the Cowboy program.
Q: You covered the sport for a long time at SI and have since worked for several other entities and now you often ID yourself on Twitter as a waiter at a fancy steakhouse. How do you answer people who may be skeptical about your role in the Harris system since on some weekends you're tied up at a restaurant and can't watch many games on Saturday to evaluate college football teams?
Walters: First, I am able to watch as many games as any reporter covering a single game in a press box. Also, I DVR games. I tune in to ESPN's "College Football Final," which is an excellent show. I pore over stats and stories. Finally, I enjoy challenging anyone to take me on in terms of big games and number of games I've witnessed in person over the past 30-plus years.
Before I even covered the sport professionally, I saw Arizona State upset No. 1 USC -- arguably the best football roster ever fielded -- in 1979, the Marcus Dupree Fiesta Bowl, and the 1988 Penn State-Miami Fiesta Bowl, which was one of the great landscape-shifting games in the sport's history.
Q: How has your perspective changed from working at a major media brand (SI) to now being independent and writing your own blog (www.mediumhappy.com)?
Walters: I am FAR, FAR happier, in the first place. I watch and read stuff from ESPN, SI and even your site, and knowing many of the writers/on-air talent personally, I see how they have to measure their opinions. Some do so without even realizing it. I admire fearless and candid writers and on-air talent. Not reckless, fearless. I watch too many people whom I've known too long who don't write or say publicly what they truly feel, because they are afraid of jeopardizing their status.
Q: What role does Twitter play in how you view the merits of college football teams?
Walters: I say this all the time: Twitter is to the internet what the internet was to the computer. Its effect as an invention is still widely under-appreciated. As far as assessing an individual football team, I don't know how much Twitter helps. But Twitter is the world's best conduit of information -- some of it even accurate information -- and in that regard it never hurts.
Q: This is the final year of the BCS. Is the sport moving to a better system or worse and why?
Walters: Worse. I stress that this is an opinion and that there is no objective truth here.
First, I prefer the idea that every game, every week, matters. What the "Death to the BCS" crowd fails to appreciate is how difficult it is for an undefeated team to keep winning as the season moves into its final month. The pressure builds, the motivation for the opponent, even a subpar one, is tremendous (see, Oklahoma State at Iowa State, 2011).
The "Death to the BCS" crowd, I find, is populated by a lot of media who are actually bigger college basketball fans. They love March Madness and consciously or unconsciously want to create one for football, too. Where I find them disingenuous, or just plain illogical, is that they point to the corruption in bowl games to illustrate the flaw in the BCS system and then say that we need a better system that crowns a true champion.
My counter-argument is this: the NCAA basketball final rarely showcases the two best teams over the course of a season. It does showcase a pair of teams who, over the course of a 35-game plus season, put together a five-game win streak. The BCS Championship Game, at worst, showcases two of the three or four best teams in the land.
You want to make the argument that it doesn't give an undefeated MAC team a chance to win the championship? I've got news for you: That MAC team still doesn't play in a 4-team playoff and, moreover, it's NOT one of the four best teams.
Finally, that MAC school and its similar non-AQ brethren could break off and form a league for schools their size, but they choose not to because they covet the TV money. So I'm not about to weep for them.
Q: The subject of who is deserving to be on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee has come up a lot of late. Who would be your ideal top five candidates and why?
Walters: Great question. Besides me? :)
I'd trust Rece Davis at ESPN. I'd trust the man who sets the spreads for college football at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas -- and I'm not even joking. I'd trust you, Bruce. I'd trust Pat Haden, the athletic director at USC, who is a former college and NFL quarterback, a Rhodes Scholar, and a highly successful equities partner. Just a brilliant and decent guy. And I'd trust Charles Davis, the Fox analyst who played at the University of Tennessee.
I realize that a few of those names are friends of mine (the MGM Grand guy, of course!), but I do know these people and their integrity is not in question. I want knowledgeable people who are passionate about the sport and who are as unbiased as is humanly possible.