Politics & Government

Small schools press Congress for shot at football championship

WASHINGTON — Schools such as Idaho's Boise State University deserve a crack at the big money involved in football bowl games, the college's athletic director on Friday told a congressional committee examining how teams are picked to play for the national championship.

The panel also is looking at how money is divvied up by the Bowl Championship Series, which is used to determine the nation's top college football team each year. There is no playoff at the top level of college football.

Boise State's football program has had a better record than any other team in the country over the past decade, noted Gene Bleymaier, the school's athletic director. Yet the Broncos never have had the opportunity to play in a national championship game because there's no real playoff system, he told a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"How many more years do we need to go undefeated before we get a chance?" he asked.

Underdog Boise State in 2007 defeated Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl in what's now considered one of the classics of college football. The win by an undefeated team from a non-BCS conference against a football powerhouse only underscored concerns that the championship process is flawed — and that it is biased against strong teams from non-BCS conferences in weak media markets.

The Broncos have finished their regular season undefeated three times since 2004 but have played in only one big-money BCS bowl game.

Even President Barack Obama has weighed in on the issue, saying in January that he thought there should be playoffs to determine the country's top college football team.

"People in the championship game should be there because they have beaten everyone else," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the author of legislation that would prohibit the BCS from declaring a national champion. Under the current system, Barton said, it's a deceptive trade practice and a violation of truth in advertising laws.

Barton, who also held hearings on the issue in 2005, when Republicans led the House of Representatives, suggested that the BCS was so flawed at determining a national champion college football team that it should change its name.

"Just drop the C and call it the BS system," Barton said. "It's not about determining the championship on the field."

Craig Thompson, the commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, introduced to the committee an alternative playoff proposal that its league had developed. In 2008, the University of Utah, a Mountain West school, had the best record in major college football, yet like Boise State the year before, it was shut out of the championship game.

"Utah was eliminated this past season not by a team, but by the BCS system," he said.

The chairman of the Atlantic Coast Conference, John Swofford, argued, however, that performance on the field during the regular season does determine who makes it to the big five BCS bowls. All of that is factored into the polls and computer formulas that determine who will play in the big games, he said.

"I don't think anyone would argue this point: College football has the best regular season, because that's our playoff," he said. "Every game is basically a playoff in the regular season."

Proponents of the existing bowl system say they fear a playoff system would end the existing holiday bowl game schedule. Those games generate an estimated $1 billion in economic activity at bowl games in 29 communities across the country, said Derrick Fox, the president of the Valero Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas.

"We don't put on games, we put on events," Fox said. "Fans make the bowl experience a holiday experience, spending up to a week in the community, supporting pre- and post-Christmas business in hotels, restaurants and visitor attractions. And this doesn't even take into account events such as the Tournament of Roses Parade or other events, centered around the game itself."

The hearing was held on a Friday when the House was out of session, and the three House members who attended — Barton, Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, and Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill. — were quick to note that their discussion was not taking them away from some of their more pressing tasks.

That said, it's an important matter with millions at stake for higher education, said Rush, the subcommittee's chairman. "This is indeed about money," he said, "and it's about money at taxpayer-funded colleges and universities."

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