CHICAGO -- It's here downtown somewhere. The mind fades but it was definitely in a luxury hotel. A ballroom comes to mind. A press conference. That summer day 15 years ago a 68-year old man conducted it, explaining to us the new look of college football.
Roy Kramer wasn't so much informing the media of that new look but proudly announcing the birth of his baby -- the BCS. Age has been kind to the wise, respected Kramer. Not so for his controversial system. The Bowl Championship Series enters its final season in 2013 with Kramer, the former SEC commissioner, still crackling with energy and wisdom at age 83.
The BCS? Sort of limping to the finish line. Back then Kramer had convinced everyone that it was -- if not the best thing -- at least the next thing. He convinced the Big Ten and Pac-10 to give up the exclusivity of the Rose Bowl. He appeased the coaches, allowing the American Football Coaches Association to give their automatic No. 1 vote to that BCS title game winner in their final poll.
So much has happened in the past 15 years. The Simpsons didn't age. Rock 'n' Roll died. Reality TV took off. The housing market crashed.
And the BCS slowly, fitfully, agonizingly got us to this place in college football history. At the end of its run, we are at the brink of a playoff (beginning in 2014) with a clear line of demarcation having been drawn. No one says it was right or can adequately explain it.
Schools that probably never thought they'd be playing in the big time have marked their place like lye lining the field. Hello, Boise State, Utah and TCU. Schools that had never played in a major bowl in their history by 1998 have the BCS to thank for getting the behind the velvet rope. But the likes of Cincinnati, Hawaii and Northern Illinois might find that brass ring coated with WD 40.
More than anything else, the BCS served to remind us there is a non-BCS, an underclass, the unwashed. That may be the lasting legacy of the system that enters its 16th and final year in 2013. The BCS served to create a caste system developed like no other. Call it football segregation.
Vanderbilt's James Franklin is the first coach in the program's history since 1952 to have (for now) a winning record. Yet, his school shares in the same BCS riches as SEC brethren Alabama. Meanwhile, BYU has appeared in as many bowls games (31) as Notre Dame, winning as many national championships as the Irish since 1984 (one). Yet one of their few similarities these days is the fact both programs are independent.
You're either in or you're out and recent comments have indicated that "out" means it's not long until those non-BCS programs are non-entities. At the bottom of FBS, programs seemingly play big-time football just to say they play big-time football. If the BCS seemed restrictive, the new College Football Playoff means those schools have even a smaller chance to play for it all.
In their wisdom, college football's power brokers have systematically eliminated the Cinderella factor in the sport. Not that there was much of one before the BCS. For all the buzz Boise State created these last few years, it never played for a national championship. Hawaii brought 25,000 fans to New Orleans a few years ago for the Sugar Bowl. The odds of Hawaii ever getting back to New Orleans -- the bowl is now owned by the Big 12 and SEC -- are slim.
No matter how neutral, the new selection committee in '14 will have to subjectively consider a one-loss LSU is more deserving of such a berth than an undefeated Hawaii.
Meanwhile, those BCS programs live to play at the highest level of the game based on such nebulous terms as ratings, market share and footprint. In essence, Michigan at 6-6 is much more desirable than an undefeated Fresno State.
The power commissioners -- modern Caesars -- are pronouncing sentence, thumbs up or thumbs down on those have-nots. Such was the case when the Big 12 admitted West Virginia instead of Louisville before 2012. In some small way, West Virginia's football history, tradition and demographics nosed out Louisville's. Never mind that the Mountaineers were 23 years removed from the most successful 10-year run in their history or were traveling almost 1,000 miles to their nearest Big 12 opponent. (Louisville was able to find a BCS home in the ACC beginning next season.)
Boise State has played in more BCS bowls than seven Big Ten teams since 2006 but was one of those left behind in the new world order. So were Cincinnati and Connecticut, unfortunate victims of demographics and the Big East's football reputation. Never mind those schools combined for three of the past five Big East BCS bids.
But all you need to know about that accomplishment is that both the BCS and Big East soon will no longer exist.
Fair? As fair as any market-driven business. And unless you've been napping, the entire industry has been market-driven for decades. Division I football subdivided in 1978, the same year the College Football Association formed as a negotiating arm to the major networks. Cable boomed and the game took off. The business model itself subdivided. Conferences, then even schools, negotiated their own first-tier rights.
The BCS never promised to revolutionize but it certainly did change the look of the neighborhood. That College Football Playoff created in the past two years further limits the access of the bottom 60 or so schools. The non-BCS conferences -- American, Conference USA, MAC, Sun Belt and Mountain West beginning in 2014 -- have been further marginalized.
The BCS never promised to revolutionize, but its masters probably never intended for it to antagonize. We both watched more but we also paid more for our cable. Games start at 9 a.m. in the West and go to past midnight in the East. Games are played almost every night of the week. The new playoff era promises that at least one team will probably play 14 games, two less than an NFL regular season.
Somewhere in there is a debate about player safety.
Marshall McLuhan told us the medium is the message. Lee Corso told us the message is scripted and read off a teleprompter. In the middle of it, we figured out genuine reality is best left unscripted. The Bachelorette in prime time has nothing on Purdue-Michigan State at noon ET on the Big Ten Network.
Kramer couldn't have known the true impact on this wonderful game when he stood at podium 15 summers ago. The second-best TV entity in history -- second only to the NFL -- was about to be born. But isn't the charm of college football its diversity, its parity? The MAC could knock off a Big Ten team at least once a season. Doug Flutie could heave one to beat Miami.
In this new era, the BCS, its commissioners, the networks and the consultants have responded with a resounding, "No." The game prospered either despite the BCS or because of it. Pick one. It doesn't matter at this point.
It's up to the fan to decide. In 1998, there was dialup. Today, the lack of high-speed connectivity is being blamed for an overall attendance dip, however slight. The most concern is over students who are staying away, basically, because they can't text. And if those students don't go to games, they don't get that emotional attachment to Dear Ol' State U.
And if the passion is lacking in the moment, so is the giving from those alums decades later.
The game never has been healthier. It's never been better. But when they write about this playoff era, will they talk about the game peaking or will they talk about the Caesars screwing it up?
The answer might be as hard to find as that downtown Chicago hotel.