College Football Playoffs: Four Decades Of Arguments And The Rise Of The Tampa Spartans

SCOTTSDALE AZ - JANUARY 07: The coaches trophy is displayed during Media Day for the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game at the JW Marriott Camelback Inn on January 7 2011 in Scottsdale Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

I've mentioned this before, but in 2008's War As They Knew It, a book admired by critics and hilariously abhorred by two different fanbases who claimed bias, axes-to-grind, etc., Michael Rosenberg took a look at the relationship between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, Ohio State and Michigan, and each respective university and their hardcore football coaches. General arguments of overall quality aside, the book does a solid job of laying out certain themes. The one that stuck with me the most, however, came from a throwaway line. College football's higher-ups were debating (and shooting down) the idea of a playoff as early as the mid-1970s. Michigan athletic director Don Canham, one of the most powerful of the powers-that-be of the time, was one of the leading anti-playoff forces.

Fourth-ranked Michigan was headed to Pasadena to play No. 13 Washington. If the Wolverines won, they had a chance at the national title … as long as No. 9 Ohio State beat No. 3 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and No. 5 Notre Dame beat No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, and No. 6 Arkansas beat No. 2 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

This was how college football had operated for years -- there was no system for producing a clear national champion. But the clamor for a playoff was increasing. The Football News told fans that if they wanted a playoff, they should write to the three most powerful men in college football: Walter Byers, the executive director of the NCAA; Roone Arledge, the president of ABC sports; and [Michigan athletic director] Don Canham.

Canham was not interested in a playoff. He didn't want to extend the season, and he thought the automatic Rose Bowl bid gave the Big Ten a huge advantage over other conferences. But the Football News was right: if Canhan had wanted a playoff, he was one of the few men who could help create one.

This was in 1977. Six years earlier, the same debate was taking place. And, as depressing as it may be, the arguments haven't changed in the 41 years since. People who don't currently have a seat at the table preach equality, fairness, and "every other damn sport has a damn playoff." Meanwhile, people who are quite comfortable with the current arrangement stress classroom time and exams, the grind of a long season, and those glorious bowls.

Arguing About College Football In 1971

In the 1971 piece to which Mandel linked (PDF), a Have-Not (William A. Miller, Faculty Athletics Representative of "North Texas State University") argued for a playoff while a Have (Tennessee athletic director Bob Woodruff) took the tut-tutting side of the argument. The discussion is so familiar that you might get vertigo reading it.

First, Miller.

There has been some talk of a few "super" schools bolting the NCAA and forming a new super alliance. How many would this be. No one knows for sure, but I would suspect it would be the same 12 to 15 schools that appear on national television each year.

Now, he said this during an era in which conferences didn't have television contracts and only the biggest games were televised at all. But the "Haves versus Have-Nots" nature of college football was exactly the same then as now. About a decade later, Division I football split into two subdivisions (1-A and 1-AA), but obviously 1-A featured a few more than 12-15 teams. Today, we're hearing the same discussion. Are the power schools going to break off and form a new subdivision? (I'm guessing that if that does happen, it will be a lot like it was then -- quite a few years after the discussion begins, and with quite a few more teams than originally conceived.)

Football is the only major intercollegiate sport that does not produce a true national champion. There is no way to settle the dilemma of who is champion with our present set up in the NCAA. A national play-off system, similar to the one utilized in basketball, is needed in order to crown a legitimate champion.

True then as it is true now. Though I very much enjoy the "similar to the one utilized in basketball" line. It wasn't March Madness™ in 1971, and one gets the impression that swaths of the country were rather unfamiliar with how the basketball tournament operated, being that a) it wasn't highly televised, b) it didn't feature as many teams, and c) UCLA won it every year.

Miller, representing a team attempting in vain to carve out a sturdy niche in the Missouri Valley conference*, proposed something that is seen as outlandish to some today (and is still seen by others as a dream scenario: a 16-team tournament.

* Missouri Valley membership in the early-1970s: Drake, Louisville, Memphis (State), New Mexico State, North Texas (State), Tulsa, West Texas State, and Wichita State. Of those eight teams, one dropped football (Wichita State), one won a BCS bowl in 2006 (Louisville), two are battling it out in Conference USA (Tulsa, Memphis), one more will be joining them soon (North Texas), one dropped to FCS (Drake), one dropped to Division II (West Texas A&M) … and one is New Mexico State.

Schools designated "major" by the NCAA would be eligible to participate for the championship either through their conferences or as an independent.

The winners of the recognized major conferences--Ivy, Southeast, Southern, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast, Mid-American, Big Eight, Western Athletic, Southwest, Missouri Valley, Pacific Coast Athletic--would be joined by four major independents in a first round 16 game play-off.

These first games would be scheduled on a regional basis, thus cutting down travel expense and building upon natural rivalries.

Sites and dates would have to be worked out and the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals could all be concluded by January 1. Already existing bowl sites could be used on a regional and rotating basis. The championship game would then take on the same importance as the pros' Super Bowl game.

This is notable for any number of reasons. Here are three:

1. Even 41 years later, in a time where unprecedented progress is being made toward a playoff, we're still only talking about a four-team bracket.

2. That list of "major conferences" is HILARIOUS. But we'll come back to that.

3. Younger fans may not totally realize how much heft independents once carried in college football.

Here is your list of independents in 1972: Air Force, Army, Boston College, Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Colgate, Dayton, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Holy Cross, Houston, Idaho, Marshall, Miami, Navy, Northern Illinois, Notre Dame, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, South Carolina, Southern Illinois, Southern Miss, Syracuse, Tampa, Temple, Tulane, UT-Arlington, Utah State, Villanova, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Xavier.

Of those 33 teams, 13 are now in what we currently know as BCS conferences (14 if we squeeze Notre Dame in), and two others will be soon. Six teams on this list (Notre Dame, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech) have won national titles in the last 40 years, while a few others (West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Syracuse) have come close. Independents were enough of a force that Miller was willing to give a full quarter of the bracket to them.

4. "The championship game would then take on the same importance as the pros' Super Bowl game." Again, in 1971 it wasn't The Super Bowl™ yet. It was a "Super Bowl game."

Fairness, check. Only sport without a playoff, check. Incorporate a "settle it on the field" somewhere in there, and Miller would have nailed all of the talking points of today's pro-playoff crowd. Woodruff, meanwhile, would check off most of the anti-playoff canards.

First, here at the University of Tennessee there would be a very serious conflict in the academic area should our team be fortunate enough to qualify. Because of our fall quarter final examination schedule, it would require special examinations schedules for us to be able to work more than one football game in during the holiday period of mid-December through the first of January.

Seven years later, the inaugural Division 1-AA tournament would take place, with Florida A&M winning two playoff games and the national title. Three years after that, this playoff would expand to eight teams. The next year, 12. Four years later, 16. Evidently 1-AA teams did not share the same finals schedule.

(And yes, this slippery slope of bracket crawl is one of the most legitimate anti-playoff arguments I know of. I don't want a four-loss champion any more than anybody else, and I love that college football comes as close as any sport to the "champion" being the best team of the entire season, not just the last few games of the season. I'm still okay with the thought of a playoff, but I have always considered this very much a legitimate concern.)

The severity of regular season schedules would have to be taken into consideration; an 8-2 team playing a strong schedule might be better than a 10-0 team playing a weak schedule, but it would be an impossible thing to prove.

Honestly, in 1971 this may have been a semi-legitimate point. It's not like computer rankings existed to any major degree. Participants in a system less automatic than Miller's 16-team proposal would have been voted in by either a committee or the AP, which is a bit terrifying.

It would seem to me that it would be most difficult to reduce the number of teams eligible for a national championship to eight by arbitrary action.

But it was okay to pick a single national champion by arbitrary action.

And yet, because of the time involved, the play-off field could not be any larger than eight.

WON'T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THESE STUDENTS' FINAL EXAM SCHEDULES??

We might end up with a national champion that was no more deserving of the title than the so-called mythical champions now selected by wire service polls.

And we finish a series of semi-flimsy arguments with what may be the most incredibly ridiculous conclusion in the history of college football. Because a different No. 9 team possibly should have been selected, the champion, the winner of three straight games over Top 10-12 (at worst) competition would be just as illegitimate as the "mythical champions" of the day. Oh my god. To the extent that I understand anti-playoff sentiment, it just completely goes out the door with statements like this.

There seems to me to be no doubt that the play-offs would work a hardship on our old friends, the bowls. A national championship series would undoubtedly take the edge off these traditional games, to the extent that many of them would die from lack of interest. The bowls have done too much for college football to be repaid in that manner.

I am as big a bowl proponent as anyone you will find. I love them, and I watch them all. And this argument still amazes me. Granted, the landscape was different in 1971. Like the Major League Baseball all-star game, bowls were televised exhibitions at a time when television air time was at a minimum. A bowl might then have been the only time you could see a certain team on television all season. It is at least feasible how somebody could get away with saying "The bowls have done too much for college football to be repaid in that manner" in 1971. But still. Then as now, there were a million ways for bowls to survive a playoff.

Finally the biggest unscheduled factor against the playoff is the need for sectionalism, so that alumni and friends of College Team A will argue and believe with great pride and devotion that their team which had a great record was just as good as, if not superior to, another great College Team B in another conference.

Why Tennesseans by the thousands will argue that the Vols' great 1938 team would have defeated the Rose Bowl team, also Notre Dame and the Sugar Bowl Champions alike.

I am sure glad we didn't find out because I played on that team and, as a player I know one post season game is enough!

Mind: blown. Apparently the best part of being a fan in 1971 was that you could make no-proof assertions about your team's quality without worrying about being proven wrong? Really? It's better to fantasize about maybe having beaten the eventual national champion than to actually get a chance to beat them? Really? I mean … really? Tennessee fans would prefer to believe that their 1938 team would have beaten Notre Dame, but they wouldn't have actually wanted to prove it? Really?

Really?

I am a sentimental, often change-fearing college football fan. I am all for a playoff as long as it doesn't ruin postseason bowl opportunities for 7-5 teams. I love that bowls exist -- it is a bit of socialism (everybody gets a bowl!) in an oligarchy-driven sport -- and I want them to always exist. And I still read Woodruff's arguments with an incredulous eye.

The 1972 College Football Playoffs

I am endlessly fascinated by what-ifs. It's what happens when you grow up rooting for Missouri, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Portland Trailblazers and the Miami Dolphins in the 1980s. What-ifs are all I have. But I am a professional at them. Hell, we have a section for them at Rock M Nation. I have written them for SBN. I worshiped Back To The Future II for a number of years. (Okay, I still do.) I live for alternate reality.

It probably makes perfect sense, then, that the first thing I wanted to do upon reading Miller's proposal above was to sketch out how a "12 conference champions and four independents" playoff would have taken shape in 1972.

Conference Champions
ACC: North Carolina (6-0) | Runner-up: N.C. State (4-1-1)
Big 8: Oklahoma (6-1) | Runner-up: Nebraska (5-1-1)
Big Ten: Ohio State (7-1) | Runner-up: Michigan (7-1)
Ivy: Dartmouth (5-1-1) | Runner-up: Yale (5-2)
MAC: Kent State (4-1) | Runner-up: Bowling Green (3-1-1)
Missouri Valley: Louisville (4-1) | Runners-up: Drake (4-1), West Texas State (4-1)
Pac-8: USC (7-0) | Runner-up: UCLA (5-2)
PCAA: San Diego State (4-0) | Runner-up: Pacific (3-1)
SEC: Alabama (7-1) | Runners-up: Auburn (6-1), LSU (4-1-1)
Southern: East Carolina (6-0) | Runner-up: Richmond (5-1)
SWC: Texas (7-0) | Runners-up: Texas Tech (4-3), SMU (4-3)
WAC: Arizona State (5-1) | Runners-up: BYU (5-2), Utah (5-2)

(It is amazing to think that, as late as the 1970s, the Ivy League was considered "major football," even though they played almost no other Division I teams. Dartmouth's schedule in 1972: New Hampshire, at Holy Cross, Princeton, Brown, at Harvard, at Yale, Columbia, at Cornell, at Penn. They played nine games, seven against Ivy opponents and two against local small schools. Cornell and Princeton played Rutgers … and that was just about it. But they were still "major" enough to have gotten into a proposed 1972 playoff.)

So what about the independents? At the end of the regular season, three indies were ranked in the AP Top 20: No. 5 Penn State (10-1), No. 12 Notre Dame (8-2) and No. 18 West Virginia (8-3). Computer rankings didn't exist, and we have no idea who else was receiving votes, but there is a very good possibility that the fourth independent team selected would have been the 9-2 Tampa Spartans, who would go on to defeat MAC champion Kent State in the Tangerine Bowl.

Okay, so we've got our 16 teams. The field neglects to include No. 6 Auburn (SEC runners-up by a half-game), No. 8 Michigan (Big Ten runners-up), No. 9 Nebraska (Big 8 runners-up), No. 10 LSU or No. 11 Tennessee, but with automatic bids in place (for non-independents), everybody knows what they are getting into.

If we seed the top eight teams, then pair them with the most geography-friendly matchups from the other eight, we get something like this:

FIRST ROUND
San Diego State (10-1) at No. 1 USC (11-0)
No. 18 West Virginia (8-3) at No. 15 Arizona State (9-2)

Tampa (9-2) at No. 4 Alabama (10-1)
Dartmouth (7-1-1) at No. 5 Penn State (10-1)

Kent State (6-4-1) at No. 3 Ohio State (9-1)
East Carolina (9-2) at No. 7 Texas (9-1)

No. 17 Louisville (9-1) at No. 2 Oklahoma (10-1)
No. 16 North Carolina (10-1) at No. 12 Notre Dame (8-2)

So if all the home teams win, you get second-round matchups like this, either in bowls or at home sites:

No. 1 USC (12-0) vs. No. 15 Arizona State (10-2)
No. 4 Alabama (11-1) vs. No. 5 Penn State (11-1)
No. 3 Ohio State (10-1) vs. No. 7 Texas (10-1)
No. 2 Oklahoma (11-1) vs. No. 12 Notre Dame (9-2)

There is television-friendly, and there is television-friendly.

So some questions emerge from this exercise.

1. If playoffs were instituted beginning in 1972, how would that have impacted television contracts? As we know, in 1984 the Supreme Court argued the case of NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma.

In 1981, petitioner National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) adopted a plan for the televising of college football games of its member institutions for the 1982-1985 seasons. The plan recites that it is intended to reduce the adverse effect of live television upon football game attendance. The plan limits the total amount of televised intercollegiate football games and the number of games that any one college may televise, and no member of the NCAA is permitted to make any sale of television rights except in accordance with the plan. […]

Respondent Universities, in addition to being NCAA members, are members of the College Football Association (CFA), which was originally organized to promote the interests of major football-playing colleges within the NCAA structure, but whose members eventually claimed that they should have a greater voice in the formulation of football television policy than they had in the NCAA. The CFA accordingly negotiated a contract with the National Broadcasting Co. that would have allowed a more liberal number of television appearances for each college and would have increased the revenues realized by CFA members.

In response, the NCAA announced that it would take disciplinary action against any CFA member that complied with the CFA-NBC contract. Respondents then commenced an action in Federal District Court, which, after an extended trial, held that the controls exercised by the NCAA over the televising of college football games violated § 1 of the Sherman Act, and accordingly granted injunctive relief.

The court found that competition in the relevant market -- defined as "live college football television" -- had been restrained in three ways: (1) the NCAA fixed the price for particular telecasts; (2) its exclusive network contracts were tantamount to a group boycott of all other potential broadcasters and its threat of sanctions against its members constituted a threatened boycott of potential competitors; and (3) its plan placed an artificial limit on the production of televised college football.

The Court of Appeals agreed that the Sherman Act had been violated, holding that the NCAA's television plan constituted illegal per se price-fixing, and that, even if it were not per se illegal, its anticompetitive limitation on price and output was not offset by any procompetitive justifications sufficient to save the plan, even when the totality of the circumstances was examined.

The changes that were forced upon the NCAA and its TV arrangements then, eventually led to the conference realignment drama we are experiencing now. With the added interest and revenue of a college football playoff, complete with potential matchups like Alabama-Penn State, Ohio State-Texas, Oklahoma-Notre Dame, USC-Alabama and Ohio State-Oklahoma in its very first year, would changes have taken place a decade earlier? And would they have been the same?

2. Even if the money is encouraging, do superconferences take hold if automatic bids are tied to conference titles and, therefore, there is less incentive to joining some giant, powerful conference?

3. Would more major conference powers have gone independent? It's clear from this exercise that four independents may have been too many. Granted, in other years the fourth team would have been Florida State, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Miami, etc., instead of Tampa. But with Tampa getting included and Michigan and Nebraska looking in from the outside, it's pretty clear that either the bids would have changed (two independents and two at-large bids?), or some big-time programs would have considered going independent. And if you have even MORE power programs outside of the conference structure, do you have the same rush into conferences that we saw in the 1990s, when the pool of independents basically dried up to Notre Dame and service academies?

4. How do playoffs change the 1-A and 1-AA subdivisions? If the Southern Conference, Missouri Valley, etc., get annual playoff money (and said money is as significant as it would seem to have been, even then), does that change which teams elect to move down to 1-AA in the late-1970s and early-1980s? Of the 1972 Southern Conference roster, only East Carolina stayed at 1-A, while Richmond, William & Mary, The Citadel, Davidson, VMI, Furman and Appalachian State moved down. In the Missouri Valley, Louisville, Memphis, Tulsa and New Mexico State stayed up, while Drake, West Texas State, Wichita State and North Texas moved down (UNT eventually moved back up). Is it worth taking more financial risk at the top level if playoff money is involved?

5. Tampa? Really?

The Rise Of The Tampa Spartans

Miller's piece does include one passage that suggests a key, elemental difference between football in 1972 and football in 2012: money.

A forthcoming recommendation from a segment within the NCAA to limit football scholarships and aid athletes on a need basis only, could, at best, be a partial solution to financial problems; possibly some schools would benefit, some obviously would not.

Recent statements by numerous outstanding coaches in major universities throughout the land attest to the fact that institutions that they represent would not welcome limited scholarships based upon financial need.

In 1971, Michigan, Alabama, USC, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and other power programs had plenty of money. Many others did not. The issues were bad enough that, as mentioned above, the idea of need-only scholarships was tossed around. Now, things are far from perfect in 2012. If the pay-for-play rules are established, and schools are required to give even just $2,000 per year to student-athletes, we could see quite a few schools electing to either move down a level or disband quite a few athletic programs. But it probably goes without saying that the money is better now than it was then.

Which brings us to the University of Tampa. Led by future Miami Dolphin and San Francisco 49er Freddie Solomon, future No. 1 draft pick (an Sloth) John Matuszak, and future Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff, and coached by future Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, the Tampa Spartans went 10-2 in 1972, taking out Miami and Vanderbilt and winning the Tangerine Bowl. The Simple Rating System at sports-reference.com ranked them just 47th in 1972, but at 9-2, with no other independents but Utah State winning even eight games, it is quite conceivable that they would have become the fourth independent selected for the 1972 playoffs. They would have almost certainly drawn someone like Alabama, Texas or Oklahoma in the first round, and they would have almost certainly gone home after just one game, but would a spot in the playoffs have kept Bruce around (he left for Iowa State after 1972)? The Cyclones, after all, were never, ever going to sniff out a playoff bid in the loaded Big 8. Would a playoff bid have resulted in recruiting that allowed them to avoid a tumble to 8-3 in 1973 and 6-5 in 1974? And more importantly, would a playoff bid have helped to provide enough financial backing that they wouldn't have had to disband the program in 1975?

While it was not known at the time, the University of Tampa played its last game on November 30, 1974. The Spartans defeated FAMU 35-10 before 21,564 fans at Tampa Stadium and finished their final season 6-5.

The football program was in major debt. In 1975, University President B.D. Owens reported that over the last three years $755,000 was taken out the endowment fund to support the football program. If reserves continued to be depleted, the school would become bankrupt or have to become part of the state system. Ownes stated that the elimination of football was "Vital to the institution's fiscal health."

On February 12, 1975, the finance committee recommended dropping the football program. Two weeks later, the Board of Trustees agreed with a 16-9 vote. To this date, there are some which have never forgiven the University of Tampa's trustees for dropping the football program. There were even stories that President Owens was forced to carry a weapon for protection.

Timing is everything. As I mentioned a few days ago, SMU and San Diego State don't get called up to the Big East five years ago. Missouri isn't getting an SEC bid ten years ago. With a playoff in place in 1971, it is at least slightly possible that the football balance of power in the state of Florida comes to look completely different. If there is a successful Tampa program pulling in decent Florida-area recruits in the mid-1970s, does Bobby Bowden's Florida State program ascend as high, or for as long? Does Howard Schnellenberger's magic work with Miami in 1983? (And if it doesn't, does what we know as The U ever come into existence?) College football's Butterfly Effect can take us in so many different directions. And for that reason, it really is the ultimate sport for What-If obsessives like me.

College football's powers-that-be have never been interested in a playoff. Even now, they aren't unanimously sold on the idea and seem to be pursuing even a four-team playoff out of obligation as much as motivation. But I have to thank Stewart Mandel for passing this link along. It is enlightening, educational and a what-ifer's dream.

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