It was almost a throwaway line, a statement made partly in jest, but eerily foretelling.
The men behind the Bowl Championship Series had just revealed that, try as they might, the college football postseason was no closer to change and probably never would be. The faces and body language around the big table full of the sport's power brokers told the story of months of fruitless heavy lifting.
Big 12 commissioner Dan Bebee pushed back from the table, with last week's annual BCS meetings almost done, exhaled and summed up where college football is — and how far it still has to go.
"Things change," Bebee said, "when you have funerals or retirements."
Rarely has a statement been more dead-on. No pun intended.
Forget about choosing sides; that doesn't make sense at this point. College football will stay with the controversial BCS championship format through the 2013 season and maybe much longer.
But for those who want change — a playoff, a mini-playoff, a plus-one championship game — there is hope, but it is years away. And getting there will require navigating a maze of twists and turns that could make even the most ardent supporters weary from the fight. The components and scenarios are there but may never align.
The reality is this argument goes nowhere without a consensus from the 11 conference commissioners. There are three camps within the group: those interested in change (SEC, ACC), those against it (Pac-10, Big Ten, Big East) and those who could be swayed (Big 12, five non-BCS conferences).
"You never say never," says Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen. "But I can't envision a scenario where things would change."
But if you look at it this way, here's how things could change:
Hansen, 70, begins his 25th season as Pac-10 commissioner this fall and most certainly will retire by 2013 — and likely much sooner. Any new commissioner will be proactive in trying to improve the conference's standing and reputation east of the Rocky Mountains. Any postseason playoff — or whatever you want to call it — would dramatically improve the Pac-10's stature. It is a regional conference that needs a more national mindset.
Jim Delany, the sport's most powerful commissioner, is locked in. But those close to him believe he could be tempted by the athletic director job at North Carolina, his alma mater. The job is huge — a challenging and successful 28-sport program that could intrigue Delany — and current A.D. Dick Baddour is close to retiring.
It was only five months ago that the Big East, on BCS probation of sorts after being raided by the ACC earlier this decade, had its status renewed as an automatic qualifier for the series championship. In other words, the Big East is not in a position of power and would follow momentum.
Bebee was very clear that the league's university presidents don't want "any type of NFL-style playoff." But Bebee, like SEC commissioner Mike Slive, has the temperament and persuasive personality to sell a system. If Slive could do it within the SEC — a league that has won three of the past five BCS championships and benefited from BCS controversy each time — Bebee can do the same in the Big 12, which patterns itself after the SEC.
How could these guys not be happy with the current setup? Hawaii received $4 million for playing in a BCS bowl. USC, meanwhile, got $1.8 million for playing in the Rose Bowl as part of the Pac-10 revenue-sharing plan. Still, there would be little resistance from the "Group of Five" because even if a playoff might mean less access, it would bring potential for significantly more money.
"I don't know if you can say it will never happen," Delany says. "It will be for future people —commissioners, athletic directors, presidents — to decide where this is headed."
Those talks probably won't begin until 2011, well after the series is into its second television contract with FOX. That contract will be completed after the 2013 season, the same year ABC/ ESPN's current contract with the Rose Bowl ends. Only then, the dynamics could be completely different: New leadership at the commissioner level and three network television companies (FOX, ABC/ESPN, CBS) driving up the cost of the product.
"It's on the table now," Slive says. "Everyone knows it's there. It's a marathon, not a sprint."
A race — a debate — that may never end.
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