The first time that college sports leaders ever seriously considered a playoff of some type came in Hollywood, Florida, at a set of spring meetings back in 2008. “One of the most interesting meetings that ever took place,” former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese recalled by phone on Thursday.
There was so much concern that presidents would reject the idea of postseason expansion from the BCS, they used the verbiage "Plus One" instead of the dirty word “Playoff.” Just over a decade ago, college sports leaders were afraid of saying the word “Playoff” out loud.
Then-SEC commissioner Mike Slive and then-ACC commissioner John Swofford were pushing hard for a plus-one model, which was really just a four-team playoff. There was heavy resistance from the Big Ten and then-Pac-10, which wanted to protect the Rose Bowl. The Big 12 wasn’t on board either.
“I’m sitting there, and everyone is staring at me,” Tranghese said, still animated telling the story all these years later. “I said, ‘I will vote against anything that involves a computer. I’m not voting for anything that involves a computer.
“Then the story comes out that I blocked the playoff. The vote was meaningless, it wasn’t binding. There was no way that the Big Ten and the Pac-12 were going to play. There was no way.”
When the announcement by the College Football Playoff came on Thursday that it's focusing on an expanded 12-team model for the sport’s postseason that could begin as early as the 2023 season, the focus immediately went to the details of byes, scheduling and automatic qualifiers.
But in the grand scope of college football’s century-and-a-half existence, it’s stunning that less than 15 years after the word “playoff” couldn’t even be uttered by the sports’ leaders that the field is poised to triple to 12 in the near future. All the white-knuckle arguments about the sanctity of the regular season, the academic concerns and preserving the bowl system are now part of the sport’s collective amnesia.
College football’s postseason has gone from a Yugo to a Bugatti, from a moped to a Millennium Falcon, from Southwest to NASA. The sport only agreed to the initial version of the College Football Playoff in June of 2012 and is only seven seasons into the initial 12-year television contract.
What was initially viewed as incremental progress is on the cusp of tripling in size. And we didn’t get here without plenty of pain. Remember the Harris Poll? The Massey Ratings? The Colley Matrix? There’s a Wikipedia page nearly as long as the Old Testament about BCS controversies.
Tranghese provided the history lesson on Thursday afternoon. If the other commissioners had voted for the plus-one, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen wouldn’t have participated.
“Jim and Tom weren’t going to play,” he said. “Those were unbelievable meetings back then. Their leagues were not going to play.”
Slive got so mad at Tranghese for voting against the plus-one that he didn’t speak with him for two months. “Mike went and told someone how I stopped the playoff,” Tranghese said. “I got killed [publicly]. I mean really killed.”
Fast-forward to the CFP press conference call on Thursday, and there were no death threats. It was a harmonic singing of Kumbaya, with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, ND AD Jack Swarbrick, Craig Thompson of the Mountain West and the Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby all tripping over themselves to compliment each other on the two-year process to get to the notion of 12 teams. (Basically, an eight-team model would have limited the at-large bids for leagues like the SEC, so 12 became the compromise and allowed for the Group of Five to get a bid.)
Everyone wins. There’s more access, more money and, in theory, more buzz at the end of the regular season. Swarbrick pointed out that more than 78% of the playoff opportunities have gone to five teams. So let’s hop into the Bugatti.
Sankey was at the meetings in 2008 and laughed at the memory of reporters crammed on a couch and occasionally chasing commissioners to the restroom during breaks.
Amid his trip down memory lane, he pointed out how much things have changed with the postseason. He pointed out the “brand impact” being negligible toward a league if it was left out of a two-team title-game structure. That’s changed radically now that it’s four, as he referenced the Pac-12 without mentioning it specifically. “We've had a part of the country not involved generally,” Sankey said, hinting at the West Coast.
He added: “Will there be detractors? Will there be criticism? Absolutely, but we were charged with leading a conversation, and we know that not everything is going to be perfect or ideal, and we'll continue to work to see if we can have the kind of college football postseason that builds meaning into the regular season, determines a clear national champion and provides a lot of opportunity and excitement in between.”
That’s a lot different than the hangdog look on the face of his old boss, Slive, when the plus-one got shot down back in 2008. The biggest controversy that appears to loom from this decision to go to 12 will be the degree in which the bowls should be included. That’s a bit different than the heat Tranghese got back in the day, the endless empty rhetoric from the BCS about the postseason and the entrenched stances of the Big Ten and Pac-10.
Even when the Big Ten and Pac-12 came around, they hijacked the first version of the College Football Playoff with a Rose Bowl contract that filibustered New Year’s Day and undercut the success of the first iteration of the event. Old grudges die hard.
The biggest mystery about the 12-team model remains what the television contract will look like. Can the CFP somehow tease in another television network to jack up the price? Or will ESPN continue to dominate the playoff postseason landscape solo, as its contract indicates it should be able to. That’s the thorniest part remaining — How many billions will this be worth? (The earliest this can be formalized is September.)
For all the talk about student-athlete experience, the “sanctity” of the bowls and collaboration on Thursday, Tranghese summed up exactly why the playoff has expanded as if suddenly in a time warp. He quoted some wisdom from his old boss, the late great Dave Gavitt.
“Just follow the money,” Tranghese said, “and you’re going to find out what’s going to happen.”
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