Proponents of Division I college football playoff system have strong ally in President-elect Obama


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Barack Obama has scored impressive victories in recent months. First he overcame a favored Hillary Clinton in the summer to win the Democratic Party nomination for president. Then he defeated American hero John McCain this month to be elected this country's 44th president.

Having vanquished Clinton and McCain, two formidable opponents, it's hard to believe anyone could stand in the path of what Obama wants. But in comments last week, the hugely popular president-elect set himself up for a fall.

On the CBS show "60 Minutes," in response to a question from Steve Kroft, he took on the powers of college football. He challenged university presidents, who have the ultimate authority in college athletics, to set up a playoff system in Division I football. In effect, he was asking them to act in the best interest of the fans of the game and for the athletes who play the game.

Has the man lost his mind?

He is expecting these people to cede power and possibly curb some revenue flows. Not gonna happen.

Here's what Obama said:

"I think any sensible person would say that, if you've got a bunch of teams who play throughout the season and many of them have one loss or two losses, there's no clear, decisive winner, that we should be creating a playoff system. Eight teams, that would be three rounds to determine a national champion. It would -- it would add three extra weeks to the season. You could trim back on the regular season. I don't know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this. So I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit. I think it's the right thing to do."

The president-elect clearly doesn't understand the problem because he thinks he's dealing with "sensible" people. If these people were "sensible," they long ago would have ushered in a playoff system. It's done on every level of the college game. It's done in every other college sport.

But the presidents don't want to change what they have. Neither do the conference commissioners, who currently control the lucrative Bowl Championship Series, which is used to determine the national champion in a one-game playoff.

No one could dispute that a playoff -- Obama says eight teams, we say 16 -- is the fairest way of determining a champion. Proponents of the current system suggest, though, that a playoff would diminish the importance of the regular season.

That oft-repeated mantra is nonsense. There's nothing bigger in college sports than the NCAA basketball tournament, but rather than creating a diminished interest in the regular season, it has created a stronger interest. Four or five times a season, Pitt plays a game that its fan base deems absolutely vital to the success of the season and there is a frenzy of interest.

The absolutely meaningless Big East basketball tournament, nothing more than a made-for-television event, has people in a high level of excitement, as do similar tournaments all over the country.

So spare me, please, the notion that the regular season would become meaningless with a playoff. In fact, it would become more meaningful.

So why haven't the university presidents long ago done what Obama is suggesting? Two words: Power, greed.

No one likes to give up power. If there was a playoff, the six major conferences would lose control of the BCS. They have a say on which teams play in the BCS games, and the six major conferences get top priority. They also control the money. ESPN just signed a deal to carry the BCS games for four years for $125 million annually.

A playoff, with all teams having an equal chance of entry, would be controlled by the NCAA, as are all other post-season events.

The real shame of all this is how the presidents have allowed their teams and their athletes to become little more than programming for ESPN and other networks. The once-lofty goals of collegiate athletics have been trampled by a rush to money.

Wonder why Pitt has played games on Friday night, in direct competition with high school football? Not because it wants to, but because ESPN needs programming Friday night. Do what ESPN says or be held in a less favorable light by that powerful network.

The president-elect has said he's going to use some of the muscle of his office to bring about a playoff. Truth be known, on a list of priorities facing him, a college playoff system would be near or at the bottom. He might never get to it. For his sake, we hope he doesn't.

He's facing a losing battle. Sadly, greed almost always tramples what's right.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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