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The road to the BCS has been a long one

By Richard Billingsley
Special to

Few things have been more controversial in sports than the National Championship in college football. Over the years the cries of "We're No. 1" have rang far and wide, from the Golden Dome to the Tiger Den, from the Coliseum to the Swamp, from Death Valley to Happy Valley and everywhere in between.

For over 130 years, the giants of the gridiron have plowed their way through rigorous, sometimes undefeated seasons, only to have another team, hundreds, or even thousands of miles away, make the same claims of national supremacy.

Unfortunately, none of those cries were legitimately substantiated. Perhaps if the NCAA had addressed this issue upon its foundation in 1906, we could have avoided all the debate and conflict over split national championships. Instead, historically, we have had national championships recorded by sportswriters, coaches, math polls, magazines, newspapers.... seemingly there was no end.

Playoffs have been debated for years among fans and the media alike. NCAA feasibility studies have been done, and yet, nothing has transpired but talk. Why? Take your pick: It's too complicated, too much red tape, too many people and groups involved, too controversial and lack of proper format. No format has been devised that protects the structure of the bowls and the integrity of the regular season, which is the backbone of college football. Valuable time was passing and nothing was being done to remedy the situation.

Enter Roy Kramer, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. Kramer has been called everything from Robin Hood to Darth Vader, and that's putting it mildly, but the fact is he did something about the situation. Love him or hate him, give credit where credit is due -- the man recognized a great need, and the total lack of movement towards a solution, so he took it upon himself to do something about it. It took a miracle to accomplish what he did, and Kramer was probably the only man in college football who was innovative, authoritative and powerful enough to accomplish the task.

The BCS has been accused of blocking a college football playoff. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, we may be closer to a playoff now because of the BCS. The institution of the Bowl Championship Series may be exactly what we need to eventually ease into a playoff format at some point in the future. At least with this format in place, fans will be able to get used to a structure that uses the bowls to match the No. 1 vs No. 2 teams.

The history of the BCS
Kramer's mission was to bring college football what it had lacked for over a century, a bonafide national champion. Don't think for one minute that it was an easy task, or that there was a quick solution. Instead, it involved a long process that began in 1992 with the formation of the Bowl Coalition and still evolves today in the ever perfecting BCS.

Until I met Kramer in the fall of 1999 at a meeting of the Nashville Sports Council, I had no idea he possessed such a depth of love and passion for college football. In the meeting he explained the details of how difficult it was to bring the necessary factions together to create the Bowl Coalition, the Bowl Alliance, and eventually the BCS. Bringing the bowls together was the pivotal point in the process, and the most challenging. Bowl games have been a valuable part of college football since the early 1900s. From the glorious pageantry, festive atmospheres and classic clashes, college football's richest tradition was born. When Michigan defeated Stanford 49-0 on Jan. 1, 1902 in the first Rose Bowl, no one had any idea the impact that was being made on our beloved sport. Thirty-three years later, in 1935, the Orange Bowl, and Sugar Bowl joined the "Granddaddy Rose" and the list has since grown to 26 Bowl Games.

But remember, these bowls were fierce competitors over the years, many times vying for the same teams, and trying to match the perfect combination that would fill the stands and captivate TV audiences around the country. As a result, conference ties were formed, deals were made far in advance of the close of the regular season, (many times secretly), and yes, as the old saying goes, the deals were made in "smoke filled back rooms." These committee's were not about to give up their independence or undermine their ability to get a jump on their greatest competitor, yet this was the gap that absolutely had to be bridged -- and Kramer did it. In 1992, the Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Fiesta, Gator, and the Hancock Bowls (traditionally the Sun Bowl ) came together to form the Bowl Coalition in union with the ACC, Big East, Big 8, Southwest Conference, Southeastern Conference, and Notre Dame.

The Bowl Coalition
The goal of the Bowl Coalition was to be able to match the highest-rated teams available from the pool of participating teams while keeping regional and traditional ties in place. Therefore, the Coalition allowed the Orange Bowl to hold its tie to the Big 8, the Cotton to the SWC, and the Sugar to the SEC, but allowed the Bowls to be flexible in choosing high-ranked opponents from the ACC, Big East and Notre Dame.

The concept of Bowls working together in harmony to create the best match up possible was a dramatic departure from the selection process that had dominate college football for almost a century. The Coalition was an immediate success, matching No. 1 Miami (Fla.) and No. 2 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, where the Crimson Tide posted a 34-13 win for the national championship. In 1993, No. 3 Florida St. beat No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl 18-16 for its first national title. In 1994, No. 1 Nebraska beat No. 3 Miami 24-17 and won its first national championship since Bob Devaney was at the helm in 1971. At this point, however, the Big Ten, Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl were not participating so no true national champion could be determined without them. Consequently, Kramer's work went on.

The Bowl Alliance
Three years later, in 1995, the Coalition evolved into the Bowl Alliance, a slimmed down version of Bowls including only the Fiesta, Orange, and Sugar -- but with one major twist, a rotation which guaranteed No. 1 vs No. 2 unless the Big Ten or Pac-10 held one, or both of those slots in the final AP poll. Taking the initiative of giving up conference ties was another huge step forward for the bowls. The benefits from the tremendous exposure of matching the No. 1 vs No. 2 teams in the nation, howver, far outweighed any negatives.

The rotation was intriguing because it would ultimately would allow all of the participating bowls to have their turn in the spotlight. In 1995, the Alliance matched No. 1 Nebraska against No. 2 Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, where the Cornhuskers claimed their second consecutive national championship with a 62-24 win over the Gators. Already, in just four tries, the Coalition and Alliance had been able to accomplish twice what the AP had only been able to accomplish eight times in 56 years. That is match the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in a bowl game. In 1996, No. 3 Florida beat No. 1 Florida State 52-20 in a rematch of their regular season finale won by the Seminoles 24-21.

The final piece of the long awaited puzzle fell into place after the 1997 season when the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl realized the benefits of the Alliance and joined the fold. This came after No. 1 Michigan was denied a unanimous national championship in a split vote with Nebraska, who was awarded the No. 1 slot in the coaches poll after beating No. 3 Tennessee 42-17. Bring on the BCS.

The Bowl Championship Series
With every major conference and all of the major Bowls on board for the first time in history, college football was assured of finally being able to match the top two teams in the nation every year. The outstanding question then became how do we determine the top two teams? Enter Charles Bloom. Bloom is the director of media relations for the SEC and is generally known as the mastermind behind the formula itself. According to Bloom, the initial objective was to simply combine the AP and coaches polls, but several key sportswriters nixed the idea stating "we want to report the news, not create it."

As a result, Kramer and Bloom spent substantial time formulating goals and ultimately concluded a more objective system needed to be instituted. After all, the AP and coaches polls were very subject to personal bias. That's not to say they are, but they can be. Realizing the only purely objective source is one that is 100 percent computer generated, their attention turned towards investigating math polls. The criteria used was that the poll had to be nationally known and accessible by the public. Jeff Sagarin of USA Today, The New York Times, and Anderson/Hester of The Seattle Times were chosen to join the AP and coaches polls in the decision making process.

The first BCS Championship was won by Tennessee in 1998 as the No. 1 Volunteers squeaked by No. 2 Florida St. 23-16 in the Fiesta Bowl. The computer polls were expanded in 1999 to ensure that their influence was not extensive. The NCAA was consulted and myself, (Billingsley), the Dunkel Index, Herman Matthews of Scripps Howard News, David Rothman, and Kenneth Massey were brought on board as the panel was expanded to 8 polls.

A decision was also made to rotate the BCS Chairmanship among the participating league Commissioners. John Swofford from the ACC took the helm for the 2000 and 2001 seasons, and Kevin Weiberg of the Big 12 is scheduled replace Swofford in 2002. The Bowl rotation carried the championship to the Sugar Bowl in 1999 where No. 1 Florida St. rolled over unbeaten No. 2 Virginia Tech 46-29. Last season, the Orange Bowl welcomed No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 Florida St. where the Sooner defense overwhelmed the Seminoles 13- 2. The 2001 lineup of computer polls was altered in the offseason as the Dunkel Index, and the New York Times were replaced by Peter Wolfe and Wes Colley. This year the Rose Bowl will host the national championship game.

BCS Pollster Richard Billingsley is a college football historian and author. His complete Rankings are available at

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