The Quest for a Champion Part I: The Road to the Coalition

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

"The Rocket Ismail has done it again! Touchdown, Notre Dame!"

Dick Enberg's words hardly began to resonate through the television speakers when Bill Walsh ripped the hearts out of Notre Dame fans nationwide.

"I see a flag, Dick. I see a flag."

Indeed he did. Rocket Ismail's breathtaking run to the endzone would be called back and the rest was history. Colorado would survive the Orange Bowl, just like they had survived Missouri with a fifth down, Stanford with a last second touchdown, Tennessee with a tie, Washington with more late game heroics, as well as a gauntlet of a Big 8 Season including #22 Oklahoma and #2 Nebraska, and now they would be crowned AP National Champions despite a tough-luck loss to Illinois early in the season. Sure, it took a few acts of incredible luck, and one really sad moment for the Fighting Irish, but the Buffs would have a trophy for their case.

But the story here wasn't just about Colorado. It wasn't even about the heartbroken Irish faithful. No, there was another team and set of fans absolutely crushed by that little yellow flag in the Orange Bowl. An undefeated team at that, and a team that had just finished off destroying Nebraska with two fourth quarter touchdowns in the Citrus Bowl -- Georgia Tech. Going into bowl season, the Yellow Jackets knew the stakes - win by a lot and hope that the AP and Coaches #1 Colorado Buffaloes lose or tie - and did everything asked of them. Surely the voters wouldn't give a championship to a team that had not only tied once that season, but had also lost outright to Illinois. As many would soon find out, dissent on what made a Champion would soon come to light. With a comparison record of 11-1-1 and 11-0-1, the Coaches decided the undefeated Yellow Jackets, somewhat bereft of the toughness of schedule the Buffs had, were Champions and we had ourselves a bonafide conversation that would end up being one of the first major sparks in a bonfire of activity across all of College Football.

The Times They Were A Changing

Think of 1991 as the initial flash point of where we are today. Before BTN, SECN, Whatever it is the Pac 12 has, LHN, and really ESPNU, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday games, and the monstrosity that is the College Football media machine, Notre Dame made a move that would make fans of everyone not Fighting Irish, a little mad. What was that? Notre Dame broke free of its ties to the larger College Football Association - the entity deciding TV deals at the time, and signed exclusively with NBC. It was unprecedented and it provided more dominoes to fall. in fact, consider the following events:

  • Big East forms stealing Miami, Rutgers, Temple, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia from their respective conference affiliations
  • Big Ten announces the addition of Penn State moving east for the first time and planting seeds for media rights superiority
  • Notre Dame goes to NBC and will reap the benefits for pretty much always
  • SEC goes to CBS in a pretty ridiculous deal at the time
  • SEC gets geared up for their own expansion into the twelve team territory with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina forming the first Championship Game for a D1 conference
  • SWC essentially dies and sets the seeds for the Big XII
The landscape of College Football was changing. You think expansion was crazy lately? This was even more incredible because it was unprecedented to see conference go after conference. Gone were the old independents - with the exception of Notre Dame and Florida State - and more importantly, the money train was being set. Conference Commissioners were part Car Salesman, part Shrewd Businessmen, part Negotiators, and part pirates. They realized that there was money to be made for their respective brands, and they would not let anything take that away. Remember this. I've said it before, and I'll probably say it again, Wu-Tang knew the score, Cash Rules Everything Around Me. Things were getting pretty hot and bothered up in here.

College Football as a sport itself was also creating the perfect crucible for a change as well. Remember, we are trying to see how the National Championship would be a catalyst for change from this point on. In 1991, there would be a second split National Championship in two years. Miami would finish their inaugural run through the Big East as co-champions, undefeated, and would cap their season with an evisceration of Nebraska. On the other side of the United States, Washington was making waste of the Pac 10 and would finish their undefeated season with a big win over Michigan. With no real discernible difference between the teams, the AP would choose Miami, the Coaches would choose Washington, and fans would start to grumble about who was champion. This last part is important, though. The time was right to introduce a new solution - one where media could bid on a better product, and one where the rich could get a little bit richer.

In 1992, the first iteration of a solution would start to emerge - the Bowl Coalition. Five of the power conference signed on with the Big East, Big Eight, ACC, SEC, and SWC. Notre Dame also had earned their spot at the table, and the idea of giving fans what they wanted became a rallying cry for the commissioners. Imagine a system where they could sell #1 vs #2. How about #1 vs #2 AND #3 vs #4? The possibilities were endless and with the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, Cotton, Gator, John Hancock, and Blockbuster Bowls all joining in the party, the dollar signs were in every one of these guys' eyes. More importantly, the fans were hooked. 1990 and 1991 couldn't happen again, right? Heck, the closeness of 1989 was out of question now. We would finally have an actual champion on the field, we'll be able to puff out our chest about who was best, and we'd spend all of our money on the merchandise that said so.

Except, there was kind of a problem. The Rose Bowl participants liked going to the Rose Bowl. They always made money, TV dollars, and tourism bucks. The Big Ten and the Pac 10 decided they would not be a part of this 'Coalition'. So long as the Big Ten and Pac 10 weren't in the conversations for champion, then no problem, but that's not how this works. Even before it started, this solution was fated to fail miserably.

But we'll get to that in a bit.. As it stood, we had our first claims to declaring an outright Champion. Gone were the days of split titles, disputed national champions, and fans, media conglomerates, conferences, and the like were all pretty happy about their situations. Nothing could go wrong, but it did. We all know the coalition would only last three years, even though it matched 1 vs 2 twice and 1 vs 3 the other year. Why change a system that was working? What would be the reason for making it even more nuanced?

Tomorrow we will look at what exactly happened and as a spoiler, well, the Big Ten was about to get really good and that was going to mess everything up. Delany was going to hold out, and the incentive to do otherwise proved to be his ultimate bargaining chip. Seventeen years later, he would be in a similar situation. HIstory, as it usually does, would teach us a lot about how things worked. We were on our way to a completely different landscape, but most of us didn't know -- or at least we didn't care. Football was awesome. Championships were even more awesome. This whole thing was perfect, you know, except it wasn't.
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