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The Quest For a Champion Part II: The National Championship Become Less Mythical

Kevin C. Cox

"Another one of those moments in sports that could grow into legend. A real live chance to produce a College Football Champion without a vote." Keith Jackson

It had been many years in the making, but the stage was set for the game that would end all games. No more arguing over who was really champion, no more splits, no more fan debate. The Bowl Coalition was a very real, very tangible thing, and fans everywhere were excited. On January 1, 1993, a game would decide the National Champion. It didn't get much better than that.

Going into the Sugar Bowl, the prohibitive favorites were the Miami Hurricanes, winners of 29 in a row, the National Champion four times in nine years, and a school hungry to win a back-to-back championship for the first time since Bear Bryant had led the school across from them back in 1978-79. Of course, this Alabama team, led by Coach Gene Stallings, was less a juggernaut but just as much a contender. The Crimson Tide were 12-0, and winners of the inaugural SEC Championship Game. History would be made that night no matter what happened.

Yes, this Sugar Bowl was a match made in heaven. Or more precisely, this was a match made out of media deals and conference power. For all intent and purpose, the Bowl Coalition had worked. The media attention and newly minted College Football personalities were on their best that year, which only helped to give the new Bowl Coalition more momentum. Whether it was Miami players openly taunting the Crimson Tide, the storyline of Coach Stallings and his chance to escape the shadow of Bear Bryant, or the story of a Miami Mascot getting shot in the French Quarter only to still suit up for the game, we were all entranced by the narratives as much as the schools playing the game. A new era of college football was upon us. There was no turning back. It didn't matter who won the game - and for the record, Alabama won in somewhat of a surprising upset - because in most everyone's mind, we all won that night.

The National Championship is Inherently Flawed

Before we go too deep into what went right and wrong with the Bowl Coalition, I find it important to take a step back and look at the history of the National Championship system. College Football has a very long history of disagreeing with itself about who was the most deserving champion and even from the very beginning we have argued over who is best. Our desire to know and proclaim one team led to the National Championship Foundation - the one that started this entire mess - to retroactively crown champions, going all the way back to 1869. Our subjective nature plus our inherent fandom created a monster.

There was the Helms Foundation who started in 1936 who retroactively named champions from 1883-1935. Next came a mathematical ranking system - the Dickinson System - created by Frank Dickinson, a man who was just trying to rank Big Nine (B1G) teams originally. His method would be widely considered the system of choice from 1926-1940. In 1936 the AP started ranking teams and awarding year-end National Championships, and to this day they are arguably the most recognized award winner out there. Its modern-day counterpart, the Coaches Poll, was started in 1958 as the United Press International (UPI) Poll. Throw into the mix the FWAA, Sporting News, and the National Football Foundation, and you quickly realize that there are probably too many organizations giving championships away. Of course, can you really blame any of them for trying? There were completely legitimate reasons for this mess in the first place.

Considering that there have been a dizzying amount of teams in College Football with very little overlap in play and a distinct regional bias, you can conjecture that the National Championship was more of a designation given to the most easily recognized team, not necessarily the most deserving. Schools could legitimately claim titles based on which method gave more emphasis to the values they felt important. Were bowls more important than the regular season? Were some conferences better than others? The idea of Mythical National Champion wasn't so much of a lame meme, but more of a way to make sense of the chaos that was the deciding systems.

Understanding this, it was no wonder that fans were relieved to have an actual system in place to give credibility to the National Championship process. Unfortunately, that solution was motivated more by money than by fan satisfaction, despite what representatives everywhere would tell you. On that note, quickly go back to our talk about 1992 in our Road to the Coalition piece. Do you remember how the SEC, Big Ten, and Big East were suddenly picking off the important pieces in College Football? Do you also remember how this was motivated by Notre Dame and its new television deal, the SEC and its new television deal, and the Big Ten and its pending television deal? Those things are important and should always be mentioned when thinking about how things happened.

The Bowl Coalition was Probably Dead on Arrival

The Bowl Coalition was a success by almost all of its original metrics. In 1992, #1 Miami played #2 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. In 1993, #1 Florida State played #2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. In 1994, #1 Nebraska played #3 Miami in the Orange Bowl. We will get to why 1994 was a mess in a moment, but for the sake of argument, let's talk about why that matchup was still what the Coalition was going for. Previous to the Bowl Coalition, the problem was that you were matching up teams who had no business playing each other because of conference tie-ins. As we noted in our Big Ten excursion last week, these tie-ins were historical in nature, and they probably gave rise to the real business of football we see today, but with TV booming, networks wanted interesting games. Fans at home now mattered as much as fans in the stands.

With that in mind, think about how legitimately revolutionary the Coalition was. The SEC, Big 8, SWC, ACC, Big East, and Notre Dame agreed to send their champions to each of the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, Cotton, Gator, and John Hancock Bowls. The caveat would be that the #1 team in the nation got to choose which of these bowls they wanted to go to and would then 'host' the #2 team. Even if that team was from a conference that was not tied to the #1 team's chosen bowl, they would play, and that would be the championship game as the Coaches agreed to award their portion of the National Champion to the winner of the Bowl Coalition. The conference would then send its runner up to the conference's tie-in bowl, and Notre Dame was guaranteed a bowl spot because they were Notre Dame. It was complicated enough, but not really too complicated, and it was the first system to use a combined polling number - mashing the coaches and AP poll together.

So, with a goal to have better matchups and more compelling television, one cannot help but believe that this was extremely successful. Miami and Florida Sate were the prohibitive champions and by all accounts the system worked, nobody was sad, and fans everywhere won by paying absurd amounts of money to see games be played. Then there was 1994.

The Year It All Went Wrong

1994 was a toxic mess for College Football as a whole. After tweaking the system to make sure that there would be no split National Championships, the major hole left in the Coalition was the lack of buy-in from the Rose Bowl and its participants. What would have been three years in a row of #1 vs. #2 was turned into fodder for years of fans to argue about who was really champion. And really, all of football got screwed in that deal, but it didn't necessarily go down for the reasons that one would think. It had nothing to do with one conference being afraid of another, it had nothing to do with either team trying to avoid the other. In fact, it probably had nothing to do with anything football-related.

Remember when we discussed the C.R.E.A.M. principle earlier this series? You know, the one about cash ruling everything? That card plays here. Many people complain about the Big Ten holding Penn State out of the Orange Bowl that year, and the blame does seem to rest on this silly notion of tradition that the conference trumpeted. However, that was not the only part in play here. The Rose Bowl was a lucrative get for the Big Ten, and while history probably played a part in this deal, the exclusive media deal the two participating conferences - the Big Ten and Pac 10 - received to play in the flashiest of destinations was too much to let go of. This was not a bargaining chip, this was an identity marker - something with actual value. This was not worth negotiating for, and for the most part, the Big Ten was right in that decision.

Of course, realignment and its sticky web of integration made this a little less cut and dry. With the addition of Penn State - one of the best free agent pickups in the realignment battle, the Big Ten had more politics to play than ever. How do you get a school to see how not playing for a championship is as great as playing for a championship? How can you talk them into the benefits of the Rose Bowl? How do you break them of their independence? Joe Paterno's team was great in 1994, and the fact that they had to settle for the Rose Bowl seemed like it would be the straw that broke the camel's back for Nittany Lion fans everywhere. Their team would miss out on playing Nebraska on the big stage, and the emotional favorites would get the sympathy of voters everywhere. It was disgusting, but the powers-that-be understood that this was still the better play. Stick to your guns, gain the cachet you needed for negotiations, and lean in.

The Big Ten was making money even without having to bargain its way into the Bowl Coalition. They had no incentive outside of fan pressure, and honestly fans have never been the motivating factor in these decisions. As such, Jim Delany's crews were happy with the status quo, and so was everyone else. Change wasn't necessarily just over the horizon despite Penn State getting shut out of a claim to the title. Even when Nebraska won the Bowl Coalition championship game that cemented them as both an emotional and legitimate favorite to be the sole National Champion, it would be difficult to claim that the outcome was the direct precursor to change. No, it had to be something more than that.

The bigger story had nothing to do with either Nebraska and its Championship or Penn State and its lack of trophy. It did, however, have everything to do with declining ratings and by default, a hiccup in the money-making machine. What do I mean? Well, let's look at the other matchups in the Bowl Coalition that year: #7 FSU vs. #5 Florida in the Sugar, #4 Colorado vs. Unranked Notre Dame in the Fiesta, #21 USC vs. Unranked Texas Tech, #17 Virginia Tech vs. Unranked Tennessee, #19 North Carolina vs. Unranked Texas. Only two games featured ranked opponents. There was a fear rising among Coalition supporters that there was not enough guarantee for ranked teams to play each other, and even though the Orange Bowl still was a great matchup, there needed to be more movement in favor of ranked meetings. These TV ad revenues would be monstrous so long as the games were interesting, but there needed to be an impetus for change. Conveniently, the narrative has had the Nebraska-Penn State debacle to lean on and as the format evolved, the lack of a decisive champion would prove to be the biggest deal of all.

So what did College Football learn from all of this? Nothing really. In fact, as we move forward, we're going to see that money as a motivator always has holes. We were always moving towards a playoff model in College Football because that is where the money is, but the players involved needed both an excuse and an incentive. Excuses come in all forms and fashion, and one of the best chess players in the game - Jim Delany - would prove to be an expert in planning his moves years in advance. He, along with the other Conference Commissioners, were the real power brokers of the game now and the word of the day would turn out to be profit. No one would be forced into a system they didn't approve of, and the real watermark of the National Championship became this - it's only important if we say it's important. As we have found out, this would prove to change everything again.

In our next journey to find out more about the National Championship and its shaping of Modern College Football, we will be taking another B1G sidestep. In all of this mess surrounding Penn State and soon Michigan, where was Jim Delany's head? Was he really concerned about tradition, or were there other motivators on his radar that he could foresee? Answering these questions will give us a clearer picture on what happened in 1994 and what would go on to happen in 1997.