Roy Kramer, the founder of the Bowl Championship Series, is 88 years old, has seven great-grandchildren and lives happily retired in a lakeside home in central Tennessee. Still, he occasionally reflects on his much-maligned and now-defunct creation.
It happened again last December, when the College Football Playoff selection committee produced a championship game between two teams from the same conference, an outcome that sent Kramer chuckling. And if you don’t know why, then you’ve forgotten the uproar the BCS caused in 2011, when it pitted LSU and Alabama against each other in an all-SEC rematch to decide the national title. “People always said, ‘If you had a playoff that two teams from the same conference playing would never happen!’” Kramer laughs.
O.K., so it’s not exactly the same. Georgia and Alabama won semifinals to advance from a four-team field selected by a committee, not ordained by a formula that balanced human polls with computer rankings. But the result still amuses the man whose own postseason system was marked for demolition in June 2012, five months after the Crimson Tide bludgeoned the Tigers on that January night in the New Orleans Superdome.
Twenty years after the formula’s first season, it’s still up for debate to what extent Alabama 21, LSU 0 really did take down the BCS. Many fans, coaches and even some administrators point to the game as a tipping point that toppled the system, the final straw that forced decision-makers to bring about a change. For instance, Kramer says, “I’m not sure we wouldn’t still have the BCS” if not for that game.
Some saw that moment as a case of coincidental timing and considered it inevitable that eventually change would come to a system so ridiculed and disparaged for less glaringly unentertaining outcomes.
“LSU-Bama was more of the cherry on the cake than the cause,” said Jim Delany, the Big Ten commissioner who was heavily involved in the change to the College Football Playoff. “It’s sort of like the Berlin Wall coming down. It came down for a lot of reasons. The LSU-Bama game shouldn’t be under-mentioned, but I’m not sure it mattered if it had two teams from different conferences. The BCS was doomed. It had run its course.”
Still, that game lives on as a final confluence of controversies: selecting a team that didn’t win its own division (Alabama), leaving out a conference champion with the same record (11–1 Big 12 champion Oklahoma State) and producing a snoozefest of a title that reprised a regular season game that, with its 15 total points scored, was derided in some corners as a snoozefest in its own right.
“If Oklahoma State would have played LSU in that game,” SEC Network analyst Booger McFarland says, “we still have the BCS.”
Inside the home of former Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters is a dusty box containing dozens of notebooks filled with alternative playoff proposals, all of them discussed years ago in meetings of the most powerful people in college football: the 10 FBS conference commissioners.
There was a four-team model with on-campus semifinals, an eight-team bracket and another proposal that left the BCS unchanged. In the early weeks of 2012 as the Tide celebrated their title, the FBS commissioners began the first real steps of change, splitting off into four groups, each tasked with developing and solving problems with four playoff models. “We started with over 100 [proposals],” says Waters, now the executive of the Football Bowl Association. “We got stuff in the mail daily. You should have seen the things people came up with.”
The talk of changing to a playoff system started long before LSU-Alabama. Mike Slive, the longtime SEC commissioner who passed away in May, pushed for change as early as 2005 after Auburn went undefeated in 2004 but was blocked out of the top two by USC and Oklahoma. During a commissioners meeting in 2008 in Florida, Slive brought the debate to a vote: keep the BCS, or create a playoff?
Karl Benson, then the Mountain West Conference commissioner, remembers Slive’s language. “The ‘P’ word,” Benson recalls. “We’re not going to talk about the playoffs. We’ll refer to it as the ‘P’ word.”
Slive and Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford were in the playoff corner. The other four power conference commissioners were in the other: the Big Ten and Pac-10 because of their ties to the Rose Bowl, and the Big East and Big 12 for other reasons. Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese balked at Slive’s plan to use the BCS formula to choose the four playoff teams, pushing for the implementation of a human element. Tranghese says his wishes were met with a demand: We’ve got to vote now!
Pressed into committing, Tranghese voted against the playoff. A decade later, he serves on the CFP selection committee. “I took more crap for voting against that than you can imagine. It was represented that I stopped the playoff.”
The playoff discussions intensified in the new decade; a 2011 meeting of commissioners in New Orleans at the Windsor Court grew so “intense,” Waters says, that dinner that night turned into pro-playoff commissioners lobbying pro-BCS commissioners all the way through dessert. During another meeting in Colorado, discussions about a playoff had overwhelmed the proceedings to a point that Waters admits he “threw a temper tantrum,” pounding on a table to get the group to move on to other issues that impacted college football.
“I started talking about other things, and commissioners started walking out of the room to make phone calls,” Waters laughs.
This was a turbulent time for the BCS, bringing on what Delany refers to as “BCS fatigue.” In 2011, the Fiesta Bowl was embroiled by scandal with the revelation of a scheme of improprieties landed bowl CEO John Junker in prison for eight months. In 2009, the PlayoffPAC, a DC-based political action committee headed by attorney Matt Sanderson, began exposing BCS bowls for an assortment of lavish spending and lobbying payments. In 2010, the book Death to the BCS, written by Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan, detailed more problems, and an SI poll around that time found that 90% of college football fans opposed the system.
Commissioners for three of the six power conferences transitioned out over a two-year span starting in spring of 2009; before that, Kevin White, who voted with the commissioners as Notre Dame’s athletic director, had stepped down in 2008. It also hadn’t helped that the BCS formula had changed in six of the system’s first seven years, something Delany admits created uncertainty.
“The change in leadership plus the combination of criticism, it was going to change,” Delany says. “Players changed and perspectives changed, and there’s an openness to new ideas.”
Bill Hancock, who became the executive director of the BCS in 2009 and currently oversees the playoff, entered the LSU-Alabama game knowing change was near. “Because the contracts were four years in duration, what to do in the future was always not far from anyone’s mind,” he says.
That brings us back to the small-group sessions among commissioners. Waters remembers discussing his model–a four-team playoff with semifinals on campus—with his other group mates, Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick and then-Big East commissioner Jack Marinatto, at Marinatto’s office in New York City during the Big East basketball tournament.
“We worked three days on a plan and brought it back to the group, as did the other groups,” Waters says. “That’s how the whole thing materialized.”
Kramer is convinced that one game had a bigger impact on the ultimate fate of the BCS than any other—and no, it wasn’t LSU-Alabama. “The Iowa State–Oklahoma State game was the defining game,” Kramer says.
Undefeated and on a path to face LSU in the 2011 championship game, the Cowboys traveled to Iowa State on a Friday night as a four-touchdown favorite and lost in double overtime, 37–31. Oklahoma State throttled rival Oklahoma in its regular season finale, but the human polls kept Alabama at No. 2, outweighing the computer rankings, which had Oklahoma State in the second title game spot. The disagreement created the slimmest margin between No. 2 and No. 3 ranked teams in BCS history: .9419 for Alabama, .9333 for Oklahoma State.
Six years later, most believe the BCS got the two best teams in the nation correct that year, even those who had been critical of the format that once snubbed their own teams.
“I was at that [LSU-Alabama] game. I remember being so impressed with those two teams. I really believed they were the best two teams in the nation,” says former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, whose 2001 Ducks went 11–1 but ended up fourth in the BCS rankings. “Maybe not the most deserving, but the best. I thought the BCS, for the most part, got it right. Alabama winning that game lends credence to the decision.”
Hancock believes that had the playoff committee existed in 2011, it would have ranked the teams in the same order: LSU (13–0), Alabama (11–1), Oklahoma State (11–1) and Stanford (11–1). He remembers seeing the results from the computer and human polls arrive in his inbox that Sunday. Even before the formula spit out the final averages, he knew the Crimson Tide had the edge and anticipated the controversy that would follow.
Matt Sanderson, the leader of the political action committee that had been a thorn in the BCS’s side for two years, celebrated the chaos. Sanderson, a Utah fan, started PlayoffPAC after the undefeated Utes were left out of the 2008 championship game and then went on to beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl 31–17. His group exposed what he termed as a “favor factory” in which bowl executives wined and dined the same school administrators that they eventually invited to their games, punching a hole in the integrity of the BCS. But, he says, “I’m not delusional. The single biggest factor in the change to the playoff was LSU-Alabama.”
The game impacted the future of Les Miles just as much, as the former LSU coach himself admits. He thinks the Tigers would have beaten Oklahoma State in the title, and that he might still be the coach if they had. LSU had escaped Tuscaloosa with a 9–6 overtime victory during the regular season, but Alabama’s title-game romp began its current seven-game winning streak in the rivalry, the first five of those coming with Miles on the LSU sideline. Miles was fired in September 2016, one month into his 12th season. “Oklahoma State could have played in that game and changed the course of history in my mind,” he says. “I enjoyed Mike Gundy and am happy the success they’re having [at Oklahoma State], but I’m betting they don’t stop us and I’m betting our pass rush is unstoppable. I think we’re going to win that game. I just do.”
A second national title for Miles in four years would have boosted LSU’s recruiting haul, the coach says, to further “stay in a competitive heap with the guy [Saban] doing the best job in college right now.” That’s why Miles hates to admits the fact that the BCS did get it right in 2011. “Alabama was easily the second-best team in the country,” he says.
His biggest regret in a coaching career that spans nearly four decades remains his team’s preparation leading up to the rematch. He wishes he had better motivated his players to play a team that they’d already beat. “The head coach, me, did a poor job,” he says.
The Tigers’ offense famously crossed midfield into Alabama territory only once, and Alabama converted five field goals and scored a late touchdown to secure the victory. The game posted one of the lowest TV ratings for a BCS championship game (14.0). “The game was unwatchable,” says Paul Finebaum, the longtime Alabama radio host whose show now runs on SEC Network, “and [the commissioners] met the next few weeks and changed history.”
Former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe was against the playoff back in 2008 when Slive conducted the first straw poll, and he’s still against it 10 years later. “It’s the wrong thing to do,” says Beebe, now a consultant. “I’m not saying there’s no value to a playoff, but on the other side, I felt it didn’t outweigh the consideration for the welfare of the student-athletes.”
The potential expansion of a playoff once instituted was another reason some commissioners originally voted against it, and that concern has been validated: Just four years into the four-team model, high-profile campaigns to tack on more teams have grabbed headlines each winter.
“There’s a group of the public that wants to see a 64-team bracket,” Delany says. “They can’t get enough of it.”
An eight- or six-team playoff appears somewhat inevitable—however the commissioners want to spin it, Wetzel says, “It’s about more money.”
Kramer, who remains proud of his creation, warns of any more expansion, citing the NCAA basketball tournament’s bubble as a cautionary tale: “If you pick eight, the ninth and 10th teams are going to be upset. The farther down you go, the more teams look alike.”
But building an eight-team playoff couldn’t happen without establishing the current four-team model first. “You didn’t see the basketball tournament go from eight to 64 teams,” Delany says. “You need to evolve.” And the four-team playoff, several commissioners agree, is not possible without the BCS. “History will look back at the BCS and nod its head and say, That was a good thing for college football,” Hancock says. “We wouldn’t have the playoff without it.”
The BCS did its job, they say: Not only did it evolve into a playoff, but it created a new buzz around the game, even when that buzz came in the form of outrage. Delany credits Kramer with bringing the heads of the sport together in agreeing to the system. “One of the reasons we tried to create the BCS was to expand the national interest in college football. It did that,” Kramer says. “You had people in Alabama concerned about whether Oklahoma State was winning or losing. You created a more national fan base across the country.”