Let’s roll down Thad Matta’s impressive resume’ before we get to the gritty stuff:
· Tied with the legendary Fred Taylor with 297 wins at Ohio State.
· Has coached the Buckeyes to 20 or more wins in 11 consecutive seasons.
· Five Big Ten regular season titles and four Big Ten tournament titles.
· A NCAA Tournament finals appearance in 2006-07 and an NIT championship the following season.
· A 297-92 record at Ohio State – an impressive .763 winning percentage.
· An overall nice guy, good recruiter at a so-called “football school” and a great representative of the university.
I'll start by saying that Andy Geiger's decision to hire Matta when Bob Knight wanted the job in the summer of 2004 was a sound decision.
Now some Matta backers will scream bloody murder and come at me with butcher knives for saying this, but it’s been my constant feeling all along during this 22-9 season (11-7 in the Big Ten) that Matta’s program at Ohio State has peaked.
The future is not as bright as the 11-year past. And the bottom line: These Buckeyes will not advance very deep in next week’s NCAA Tournament – nor any NCAA tournament in the future for that matter.
In fact, this team, projected to be a eighth or ninth-seed, is a good bet to play only one game and head back to Columbus with their heads hanging low.
“It’s March,” Matta explained Sunday. “Crazy things can happen.”
He was referring to the next three weeks, of course, not the hapless 24-point loss to Wisconsin. Yes, it would be downright crazy if the Buckeyes went on any sort of roll this March, much less advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, the Big Ten Tournament comes first, but that hardly matters in the big scheme of things.
I have heard some in the media say Matta did one of his best coaching jobs this season, bringing along five notable freshmen to blend with seniors Amir Williams, Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson and Trey McDonald.
On the contrary, I would argue this is one of his worst coaching jobs of his career. Those four seniors mentioned above all regressed. And they capped off their careers with their collectively worst performance and effort in the Buckeyes’ embarrassing 72-48 loss to Wisconsin in their final home appearance.
Think about it: Did Williams improve over his four years? Scott? Thompson? McDonald?
What about Lenzelle Smith Jr. a year ago?
Heck, even the beloved Aaron Craft had a sub-par senior season and his shooting numbers regressed.
I always believed a sign of good coaching is how much a freshman improves through his senior season. There are far too many cases within Ohio State basketball where players just didn’t make gigantic leaps in performance over those four years.
I’ll go ahead and say it: I think many Buckeyes and Buckeye teams have underachieved recently.
Unlike in Taylor’s days (1958-74), today’s scheduling practices make it awful easy for a coach at a major program to roll up 20 wins in a season. Consider that this season’s team finished 9-7 in the Big Ten and still won 22 games – by beating UMass-Lowell, Sacred Heart, Campbell, Morehead State, James Madison, Colgate, High Point, North Carolina A&T, Miami of Ohio and Wright State all in Columbus. Bonus points if you can even tell me what state High Point is in. But that’s 10 automatic wins by any critic’s admission.
And that’s been the norm for Ohio State scheduling over the past decade.
The Buckeyes played only 10 road games this season, losing six, with wins over Big Ten-bottom feeders Northwestern, Rutgers, Penn State and Minnesota.
When you group Matta’s 11 teams at Ohio State, I have noticed a few disturbing trends. For one, he never develops enough depth to make a run in the NCAA tournament, where two games are always played within three days. The great coaches of recent years such as Dean Smith, Rick Pitino, Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, and even John Calipari have made it a habit of playing their benches a ton of minutes in those November and December games so that an eight-, nine- and 10-man rotation can be used come tournament time. The refusal to do so has been one of Matta’s greatest flaws.
It’s been well-known that Matta has never been an x-and-o genius on the court: Assistant Jeff Boals coaches the defense and Greg Paulus handles the offense, much like a football staff breaks down responsibilities. And Matta’s teams have always been near the top of the Big Ten in team defensive statistics, but in other categories, they have been lacking – especially free-throw percentage.
They have ranked 11th, 11th, seventh, seventh and eighth in the Big Ten in the past five seasons in free-throw percentage and never ranked in the top-five in his 11 seasons, bottoming out at a horrible 67.3 this season. Just think of the wins that were turned into losses by an inability to step to the line and knock down the freebies: As just one example, the Buckeyes were 5-of-13 in a three-point loss at Michigan State.
And for some odd reason, Matta decided to start this season in a 2-3 zone, which was a disaster (ugly losses at Louisville and North Carolina) until he realized it and switched to a man defense for Big Ten play.
I will admit this: The NCAA’s “one-and-done” rule has hurt Matta’s program more than any other school but Kentucky. Think of what may have happened over the past 11 seasons had Daequan Cook, Michael Conley, Greg Oden Jr., B.J. Mullens, Kosta Koufos, Evan Turner, LaQuinton Ross, DeShaun Thomas, Jared Sullinger fulfilled their eligibility.
You would like to think that the Cook, Conley and Oden teams would have won at least one national title since they had advanced to the finals and lost to Florida before each leaving after their freshmen seasons.
But remember this: During that run to the NCAA Final, Xavier had the Buckeyes beaten in the final seconds of the second round, but missed a crucial free throw with nine seconds remaining that would have sealed the game. Instead, Ron Lewis drained a three-pointer at the buzzer and the Buckeyes rolled in overtime.
Otherwise, the in-state Musketeers would have been added to this list …
Siena, Tennessee, Kentucky, Wichita State, and Dayton ...
The Buckeyes were heavily favored over all five, dating back to 2009, and were upset in the NCAA Tournament in the first, third, third, fourth and first rounds, respectively.
It may not be an upset next week, given the Buckeyes likely won’t be favored in their first round matchup with whomever, but don’t be surprised if this team goes down quickly – and without much of a fight.
And as far as the future and the big picture, the team’s best player, D’Angelo Russell, is a sure bet to head to the NBA since he will be assured of being a lottery pick. If you care to examine next season’s expected roster and starting lineup, it’s not a reason for optimism, even though Matta has three ESPN Top 100 recruits committed.
You just have to wonder how many more early NCAA exits Matta, who is only 47 and has had a chronic back problem since he was 15 years old, can endure. (He is forced to walk with a bad limp).
Given his resume’, he would never be a candidate to be fired unless he broke an NCAA rule (remember Jim Tressel and Jim O’Brien were about as secure as coaches can get at one time until they stepped on the NCAA’s toes and rulebook).
However, it sure wouldn’t disappoint me if someday soon Matta decides to walk away from coaching and focus on his health, either.
Because like his aching back, it’s just too obvious that the better days of Ohio State basketball are behind him.
Last Updated (Monday, 09 March 2015 18:48)
DALLAS, Texas – One night in February of 2012, Urban Meyer relaxed in the lobby of the fancy La Playa Resort in Naples, Florida. Barely three months into a new job, a football coach who already had won two national championships elsewhere had just put his first recruiting class to bed for Ohio State and now he was to greet and meet Buckeye alumni in Southwest Florida for the first time.
He was overdue, but before he entered the ballroom, he leaned forward on a sofa and grew nostalgic as he defined the dream job he had taken. He thought back to 1986 when then-Buckeyes Coach Earle Bruce gave the unproven 24-year-old a non-paying gig as a graduate assistant coach. His eyes gleamed as he spoke of those days, of the traditions he learned and cherished, almost to the point of getting misty:
“That was the first I saw what the pageantry of college football was supposed to be like. I saw what locker rooms were supposed to look like. I saw how a team was supposed to practice during the week and play on Saturdays. It is when I learned of the Captain’s Breakfast, Senior Tackle, the singing of the fight song. I learned them and how important they were in my time at Ohio State.
“It also was when I got the chance to meet Coach Hayes. I went over to the old ROTC building where he had an office and met him. Then we were at a recruiting dinner at the Scarlet and Gray golf course later and he was sitting there in his wheelchair and wasn’t doing very well at the time. There was about of line of 30 people to shake his hand and my wife Shelley, said, ‘Let’s go meet him.’
` I said, ‘I will bring you over to his office sometime’ … and I still regret that to this day, because he died the next spring.
I have been extremely busy since I was hired on November 28, 2011, but I have had time to reflect that I am in a position Woody Hayes once held. I have had a portrait of him in my home or office for a long time. When I think of his teams, I think of one word: “toughness.” When I think of him, I think of how he had a sincere interest in his players off the field. His players graduated. He was very demanding on and off the field, but he made his players better people. Those are all things I strive for as a coach.
Since I was hired, I had the chance to walk across campus a couple of times and see Mirror Lake and the Oval. It is truly an amazing campus. It has changed a lot since I was here the first time. And so far, my time has been even better than I thought it would be. The potential is here for greatness.”
Well, it’s now official: Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes reached greatness together Monday night.
Following an undefeated 2012 season that went nowhere due to stunning NCAA sanctions, and a near-miss in 2013, it took less than three years for Meyer to get the Buckeyes back to the top of the college football world.
They will go down in history, winning the inaugural College Football Playoff Championship by blasting Oregon 42-20 at AT&T Stadium in front of a predominately delirious crowd of 85,689 made up mostly of Buckeye fans – as well as what surely was a massive television audience across the world.
And when it was over, even Meyer couldn’t quite believe the magnitude of the accomplishment.
“To bring a national title to the great state of Ohio,” he said, pausing to wipe his forehead, “it’s almost surreal.”
It certainly is.
Against all odds. Just pick a cliché’.
This is an Ohio State team that lost a Heisman Trophy candidate in August when Braxton Miller re-injured his right shoulder. A team that fell flat in the home-opener for the first time since 1978 by losing 35-21 to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6. A team that appeared to be an afterthought to even compete for a Big Ten Championship, let alone reach something like this. A team that later lost its original No. 2 quarterback, J.T. Barrett, who had set numerous school and Big Ten records in guiding it to an 11-1 season. A team that resorted to a third-string quarterback to lead them as underdogs over Wisconsin, SEC power and No. 1 seed Alabama and finally, Oregon and its Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.
“This team wasn’t supposed to do this,” Meyer admitted. “I thought we could win a bunch of games this season and then a year later, go make a run at it. But this team fought through adversity and got stronger and stronger and stronger. This is a great team. I’ve watched football for a long time and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Take Monday’s game as a microcosm of this season. The Buckeyes (14-1) committed four turnovers to none for the Pac-12 Champion Ducks – and still won by three touchdowns. You don’t need to know X and Os, my friends, to realize that is unheard of in today’s game of college football.
“Don’t want to get overdramatic,” Meyer said, “but that’s incredible.”
Although this is where Meyer – and probably thousands of Ohio State fans – envisioned the Buckeyes would be someday when he was hired after a one-year layoff from coaching, they probably didn’t know when exactly.
The extremely gifted, driven coach who always seems to get the max out of his teams and players got the Buckeyes to the top of the mountain in his third year. He’s only 50, in his prime, and seems to have balanced his family and professional life perfectly since coming home to Ohio – something he admitted he never did at the University of Florida.
“It’s extremely impressive, what he’s done and I said that coming in,” Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich said. “Whatever those adjectives are or descriptions … an icon, a Hall of Famer and Ohio State is a tremendous program with a very proud tradition -- and he’s just added to it.”
Now the one-time baseball player from Ashtabula has captured three national championships (one at the expense of Ohio State), joining his idol Hayes, and the Buckeyes have six overall, not counting those magazine or pre-bowl wire titles in 1961 and ‘70.
How much more will the numbers grow in the coming years?
Will he build the type of dynasty Alabama’s enjoyed recently and win multiple titles? Can the Buckeyes become the prettiest girl at the ball year in and year out and enjoy the type of envy the Crimson Tide enjoyed when they won three titles in five seasons recently?
I am here to tell you, that not only are the other 13 Big Ten coaches scared to death of the thought that this too-big-to-fail program is just getting rolling, but so is the once-mighty SEC, especially since the Crimson Tide was one large stepping stone here to Dallas.
Now that anyone wants to get greedy right now. The inaugural College Football Playoff Trophy hasn’t yet had the Buckeyes sweat and lip prints wiped off yet -- before it will be placed in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. However, you would have to be crazy not to think this may just be the first of a few championships to come. With his recruiting machine rolling, the next five or six years may provide a few more ticket-tape parades down High Street in Columbus come January.
And who’s complaining?
This state deserves all the sports celebrations it can get its greedy fingers on.
Northeast Ohio has suffered for 50 years of ineptitude since the Browns won an NFL title in 1964. The Indians, only two outs away in 1997, aren’t close and may never be again the way market size parallels Major League Baseball success. And as far as Lebron returning to the Cavs, how’s that turning out so far?
Southwest Ohio …. well the Queen City doesn’t care much for the Buckeyes anyway. But then again, the Buckeyes don’t need Cincinnati, either.
As far as the other 98 percent of the great state, it has been awash in the tradition and pride of Ohio State Buckeyes football, dating to the days when Chic Harley ran wild at old Ohio Field on North High, prompting university leaders to build the now-famed Ohio Stadium in the shape of a horseshoe in 1922 to accommodate the overflow crowds.
There is no major football program that has ever been one game from so many championships. Not Notre Dame. Not Alabama. Not USC. Look it up. Even when the Buckeyes came close to others (1969, ’70, ’73, ’75, ’79, ’96, ’99, 2006 and ’07), there’s no denying they have always been the state’s pride and joy, from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. This could have gone down the same way Monday night in Texas.
But this time, the pride and joy became euphoria for only the sixth time in 125 years.
Here’s some advice, Buckeye fans: Drown in it.
… For days, weeks even, before even thinking of recruiting, what Jim Harbaugh is doing up North, or the quarterback situation for spring practice.
Now etched in stone in the record books, the 2014 college football season will be forever colored in shades of Scarlet and Gray.
And the native son who brought it home may just be getting started at the place he truly belongs.
Last Updated (Thursday, 15 January 2015 12:41)
DALLAS, Texas – History, in football as in life in general, sometimes has a way of repeating itself. If we don’t learn from it, scholars say, we are doomed to repeat it.
Many Ohio State football fans probably aren’t old enough to remember the 1968 team, but if those players from yesteryear could talk to today’s Buckeyes, they would urge them to seize the moment in Monday’s inaugural College Football Playoff Championship Game – because it may never come again.
You see, 46 years ago, things were much the same entering that Rose Bowl as they are today.
Woody Hayes had a very young team, made up mostly of extremely talented kids only a year ago of high school who became Buckeye legends. Names like Tatum, Kern, Stillwagon, Provost, Zelina, Brockington, Sensibaugh and Anderson … known as the “Super Sophomores.”
After each big win down the stretch this season, against Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Alabama, and ignited by huge plays and performances from a sophomore or a junior or even a redshirt freshman, Urban Meyer has repeatedly said the past two months: “The future is bright at Ohio State” … or ….“I really thought we were about a year away from being ready for the big stage.”
Woody Hayes probably thought the same thing back in ’68.
On the other side of the ball in Pasadena almost a half-century ago stood the USC Trojans, more mature age-wise and probably physically as well. Although USC was ranked No. 2 and Ohio State No. 1, the Trojans still were a slight favorite in the Rose Bowl, probably because of their experience edge as well as the fact Rose Bowls are played in their own backyard, so to speak.
During a team trip to Disneyland along with USC just days before the matchup, Kern figured his Buckeyes may be in trouble.
“I remember thinking they were the San Diego Chargers,” he recalled. “I mean, they were huge! We were undersized on the line of scrimmage and I remember wondering what would happen during the game.”
USC was loaded with seniors, especially Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson, who had rushed for 1,880 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Monday, another West Coast team from the same conference, Oregon, a six-point favorite to defeat Ohio State, will start seven seniors and nine juniors. Marcus Mariota, also the reigning Heisman winner and regarded as the greatest player in Oregon history, is a redshirt junior making his 41st career start.
The contrast to these relatively young Buckeyes is undeniable. Cardale Jones, a redshirt sophomore, will be making his third career start at quarterback. Tailback Zeke Elliott, who has blossomed down the stretch with 220 yards against Wisconsin and 230 against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, is a sophomore. Next season, it is likely the Buckeyes will return as many as 15 starters.
“We’ve been younger than most of the teams on our schedule,” Meyer admitted. “That’s why I thought we may not be fully ready to compete for a national championship this season.”
So the parallels are there to Ohio State’s fourth national championship season, a year in which Richard Nixon was in the Oval Office and Vietnam War protests dominated campuses across the country.
A year earlier, the 1967 Buckeyes would have been a lot better than their 6-3 record (losses to Arizona, Purdue and Illinois) and surely a Big Ten contender if not for one simple NCAA rule – freshmen were not eligible (until 1972). The fact is, during practices that fall, the varsity had trouble competing with a group of freshman that coaches labeled “The Baby Bucks.”
“’The Baby Bucks’ kicked the varsity’s butt in practice every day,” Brockington said recently. “We could have played with anybody, even as freshmen.”
By the time camp was completed the following August, many of those now-Sophomores had supplanted the upperclassmen in the starting lineup.
The ’68 Buckeyes opened the season ranked No. 11, beat SMU by two touchdowns and Oregon by eight points but quickly jumped to No. 2 after shutting out top-ranked Purdue 13-0 at Ohio Stadium to start 3-0.
The Ohio State coaching staff, by the way, was a who’s who of future head coaches: George Chaump (offensive coordinator), Earle Bruce (offensive line), Hugh Hindman (who later became OSU athletic director), Lou Holtz (defensive backs), Rudy Hubbard (future longtime Florida A&M head coach), Bill Mallory (future Miami of Ohio and Indiana head coach), and Woody’s most-trusted assistant, Esco Sarkkinen, in his 23 season at Ohio State.
It was likely one of the greatest staffs in college football history.
Soon after the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes dusted off rival Michigan 50-14, a few hours later, the No. 1-ranked Trojans tied Notre Dame 21-21. The Rose matchup was still set, but the teams would switch rankings.
Hayes took no chances on what the weather would be New Year’s Day in Pasadena. As the Buckeyes practiced in December in French Field House next to St. John Arena, they sweated their you-know-whats off.
“Woody turned up those heaters,” fullback Jim Otis said. “I remember it being so hot in there that we could hardly breathe – and it was snowing outside. Ask anybody on that team and they will remember the heat. Woody turned out to be right on that one – it was 90 degrees on game day in Pasadena.”
By the time New Year’s Day rolled around in Pasadena, it was hot alright. As the Buckeyes warmed up on the Rose Bowl grass, Otis told Rex Kern, “I am sweating so bad … these jerseys are too hot.”
“We had always practiced in those fish-net jerseys in camp but weren’t supposed to wear them in a game,” Kern explained. “We happened to have them in the locker room. Many players wore those fish-nets that day in the Rose Bowl, and it was the first time Ohio State had ever used them (in a game).”
In the coming years, the tear-away, fish-nets then became a staple of the Buckeyes’ uniforms during warm-weather games, until the NCAA outlawed them later on.
The build-up for the game was simply electric. it was only the second time the Rose Bowl had hosted a No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup and the build-up for the game lasted weeks. Nixon and Bob Hope attended the game and both later became good friends of Hayes.
The game didn’t start well at all for Ohio State. With the Buckeyes trailing 3-0, Simpson ripped off the type of run that made him famous. Starting left from his own 20, he was trapped near the sidelines. He cut back to the right, hit the sideline and out-ran the secondary for an 80-yard touchdown that made it 10-0 with 6:38 remaining in the first half.
These days, Holtz loves to tell the story of Hayes’ biting question after Simpson ripped off that run.
“How could you let him run 80 yards like that?” Hayes screamed over the headset.
“Coach,” Holtz said, “that’s all the yards he needed.”
Of course, that surely is a Holtz-ism. Knowing Woody Hayes, no assistant coach, let alone a first-year, 31-year-old unknown assistant, would dare utter such a comment to the man who already had won two national titles and five Big Ten titles and ruled with staff with an iron first. But it always gets a good laugh.
At halftime, tied 10-10, the Ohio State defensive coaches decided to play more man coverage in the secondary and crowd the line of scrimmage to slow down Simpson. If USC quarterback Steve Sogge, a pedestrian passer at best, could beat them deep, so be it.
It worked. Simpson never had another break away run as Kern hit two touchdown passes to give the Buckeyes a commanding 27-10 lead.
“I knew if we could take him away, we would win the game,” safety Ted Provost said. “Mark Stier covered O.J. all over the field.”
Wherever Simpson went in the second half, Stier went. He followed him on draws, screens, passing situations and the famed Student Body Left and Right. By the end of the game, Simpson knew every grass-stain on the number 54 in white very well.
“We just shut them down,” Stier a senior linebacker on the team. “(O.J.) went down just like everybody else – he wasn’t exactly hard to tackle.”
By the time the game was over, Simpson had his yards – 171 but 80 came on that one touchdown. The Buckeyes had forced five turnovers and the 27-16 win earned Hayes his third consensus national title. And they had Simpson’s respect.
Soon after the game ended, he limped into the Buckeyes’ locker room, paused until the celebration died down and stated: “You are the best f----- football team I have ever seen! You deserved to win. Congratulations!”
“I never saw that before or since,” Stier said. “It was very classy.”
Twenty-five years later, the Juice would find his own troubles in nearby Brentwood, Calif., and today spends his time in a state prison outside Las Vegas.
After the game, Hayes directed his players: “Look around this room. Remember your teammates. This is the last team this team will be meeting together. Remember what it took to achieve the ultimate – the teamwork, preparation, hard work, dedication and perseverance. Keep those lessons and they will help you in whatever you do in life.”
“I always remembered those words,” said Dirk Worden, a linebacker and tri-captain of the ’68 team. “He was right.”
Hayes didn’t start working immediately on 1969, as today’s coaches do in recruiting, etc. – he flew to Vietnam soon after the game to pick up the morale of U.S. troops.
Kern would be named the Most Valuable Player, but found something more important to life’s happiness. He met the Rose Bowl queen that week and later married her. All these years later, Nancy and Rex Kern are still living in wedded bliss in Southern California.
“We had beaten USC, won the national championship and I met my wife,” he said recently. “I won’t forget that Rose Bowl.”
And as Worden indicated, his words rang true. Many players from that ’68 team are still very close, exchanging calls and texts and emails as they advance into their late 60s. On the 20th reunion of the Rose Bowl, they got together and contributed $1.2 million in an endowment to their alma mater in the name of their beloved head coach.
As for the coaches, of course, the legendary Hayes has been gone more than 27 years now. Holtz, who just turned 78, will soon retire from ESPN. Bruce became head coach at Ohio State 1979-87 and still lives in Columbus, offering radio commentary before and after Buckeye games.
The Super Sophs never won another national championship. Ranked No. 1 throughout 1969 and labeled by many as the best team in college football history, they were shocked as juniors 24-12 at Michigan in Bo Schembechler’s first OSU-Michigan game as head coach, before being upset by Stanford in the Rose Bowl as seniors.
They finished 27-2, with those two losses costing them three consecutive national titles.
“I’ll never get over the loss to the school up north in ’69,” Kern said. “It will haunt me forever. I know we could have gone undefeated in three years and won three national championships. We were that close.”
If anything, it is a history lesson for today’s young Buckeyes: Seize the championship moment Monday night, because it may never come again – no matter how bright the immediate future appears.
In June of 2012 when the four-team College Football Playoff system was announced, effectively putting an end to the unpopular Bowl Championship Series, the clamoring began instantly.
“Four teams? That’s all?” the critics asked.
Here’s just a sampling of comments from some notable college administrators within the past year.
Retiring Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds: “I'm kind of an eight-team person. I think there will be a lot of conversation about the fifth team that didn't get in or the 11-1 team that didn't get in because somebody's 12-0 that maybe wasn't quite as good as the 11-1 team. If you take eight, then you don't really have that. The ninth team has got a concern. But it's not really like the fifth team.”
Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly: “I don’t know that four is where we’re going to finish this thing. I think it’s a great entry into where we want to go. Moving forward, I think the focus will be on whether it’s eight or 16 [teams] or whatever the number is.”
You remember the TV show “Eight is Enough”? …. Well, it was only natural that four wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the masses, used to NFL playoff games that stretch three weeks before another week off and then a Super Bowl.
Even a recent ESPN poll of the 103 FBS coaches reported that 44 percent were in favor of expanding to eight teams. Of course, they may have an ulterior motive, knowing more playoff games means more revenue which means higher coaching salaries.
And the all-powerful networks and advertisers have gotten a glimpse at the mega-TV ratings from the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl – the first-ever playoff games held -- last week, the clamoring to expand surely will grow in the coming years.
ESPN for one, which antied up a remarkable $7.3 billion in a 12-year contract to televise all playoff games, has to be tickled green with the initial ratings. It is estimated that 28.2 viewers tuned into the Rose Bowl and 28.3 for the following Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day. So you know the suits in Bristol, Conn., have to be pondering what four more playoff games annually would do for their coffers.
Once the ratings were announced, Business Insider reported this week: “Of course, as with any successful project, these ratings almost certainly mean the playoff will expand, whether to six teams (with the top two teams earning a bye) or eight teams. If three games is worth $7.3 billion to ESPN and the college programs, just think how much seven games would be worth.”
And if you think fans can’t wait to watch Monday night’s game at AT&T Stadium, the suits at ESPN and the advertisers can’t wait to wake up Tuesday and salivate over the overnight ratings.
Even President Obama put in his two cents, on The Herd with Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio earlier this month. “Expanding to four] was the right thing to do," he said, "and I suspect it'll end up being eight teams, and that'll be just about right.”
Just about right for whom, is the question.
Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer addressed the issue Tuesday, saying the NCAA-mandated 85 scholarship limit per school would need to be increased if the playoff field was increased. As it this season, the two teams in the College Football Playoff, Ohio State and Oregon, will play an unprecedented 15 games each.
"You can't do that," Meyer said of possible expansion. "You better give us 110 scholarships then ... when [it moved to] 85 scholarships there were 12 games. Now there's 15 and the last three they added aren't against smaller [schools]. They're heavyweight prizefights. Our last four games will be against Michigan, Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and now Oregon. Those are big-time, physical football games. The Alabama game alone was a sledgehammer of a fight.”
If Meyer had to imagine playing two more games at this stage of the season, well…he couldn’t.
“Hard to imagine,” he said.
I am here to tell you that any expansion from four teams won’t work smoothly, other than to satisfy the all-mighty TV network (ESPN) and put more billions into the pockets of NCAA officials.
On so many levels.
For so many reasons.
As it is, the four-team playoff simply added another game – the championship game. The Sugar and Rose Bowls were conducted as they always have been, with teams arriving a week early and enjoying the typical, daily bowl festivities.
The championship game in Dallas, however, has been conducted more like an NFL playoff game at a neutral site, with teams arriving only three days early. There are few festivities involving the teams, other than a one-hour media day Saturday for each team. In other words, this is all business.
The logistics alone for adding four more teams to comprise an eight-team playoff also has several major glitches.
When would the first round of four games be held? It’s just a fact that most major universities hold final exams anywhere from Dec. 1-20 each year. And that would be the exact period of which first-round games would be played, unless the playoff stretched to mid-January, when the new semester/quarter has already begun at every university around the country.
Then there’s the neutral-site issue.
The fears that BCS proponents had when moving to the four-team playoff was adding one game per participant fan base. Would one team’s fan base being able to support two post-season games in a neutral site each season?
The Rose Bowl proved it couldn’t.
Since Florida State had played in the Rose a year earlier, and with Seminole fans not known as having a huge travel contingent to begin with, the fans who wanted to see them play this post-season seemed to be hoping they would win the Rose Bowl and then show up for the championship game in Dallas.
During the final days leading up to New Year’s Day, you could find end-zone Rose Bowl tickets on-line for as low as a decent bottle of wine, or about $20.
Sugar Bowl ticket prices, however, held much stronger because of the two fan bases involved. They were selling for slightly above face value at game. But both host cities -- New Orleans and the greater Los Angeles area -- took a hit because of the playoff. Alabama fans – who could drive to New Orleans -- didn’t flood into town until New Year’s Eve and even as late as the day of the game, saving their spending money for the expected trip to Dallas. (And as far as hotel nights, it was a given to playoff organizers that fans wouldn’t arrive as early or stay as long in the host city).
Hence, both Tide fans and Seminole fans were burned, as their teams were eliminated.
Now can you imagine if the system added one more game each for these fans to support? This issue was touched when Meyer and Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith pushed the NCAA to provide travel money for players’ parents and guardians, since they had to spend for two successive road trips. (The NCAA announced on Tuesday that $3,000 would be reimbursed to each players’ family for championship game travel).
Then there’s the attendance issue: How would the seats be filled at the major stadiums involved with the playoff?
As I mentioned, the Rose and Sugar tickets were much softer than in past years. Therefore, an eight-team playoff would be almost impossible to hold without the entire first round being played in home stadiums sometime in December.
Which brings us to the fairness issue, the critics claim.
Can you imagine the Florida Gators or Florida State Seminoles playing at Ohio Stadium (if the Buckeyes were a high enough seed to host a game) as the snowflakes fell in 20-degree temperatures in mid-December?
And what about the bowls?
If the playoff were expanded to eight teams, it would be a death-knell for the bowl system, many believe. And let’s face it, bowl games and their traditions are unique to and have been great to college football as well as local communities, dating back more than a century to the first Rose Bowl. Ask many former college football players about their favorite moments as a student-athlete, and they will tell you it was a week of sun, fun and camaraderie with their teammates at a bowl site.
All these issues seem to be moot for the real decision-makers, at least for the moment.
The executives of the playoff committee, the Big-Five Conference commissioners and the university presidents – have said repeatedly that the playoff will remain at four teams for at least the length of the 12-year contract. Of course, all contracts can be amended.
"It's a four-team tournament for 12 years," College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock said. "There hasn't been any discussion in our group about expanding."
I have some insight into Hancock’s beliefs here. I worked for him when he was the BCS commissioner, writing op-ed pieces and press releases promoting the BCS. Many of those assignments were to detail the problems with an eight-team or 16-team playoff system. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.
At times, Hancock and I often discussed the public interest in college football and how its foundation was the strength and importance of the regular season, unlike the NFL (where a 7-8-1 team made the playoffs this season) or the NBA. There is little doubt that every game added to a playoff diminishes the importance of those September and October games.
For example, if Penn State had held on to upset Ohio State in State College, Pa., during that October double-overtime game, the Buckeyes wouldn’t be here today. Ditto for Oregon’s seven-point escape over lowly Washington State way back in September.
As it turned out, one slip-up per team was OK, even the Buckeyes likely made the field by their chinny-chin-chin. But two losses? Nobody wants a two-loss national champion, as we had with LSU in the 2007 season.
"Regular-season football is the best thing we have going for us in college athletics," Hancock said. "Nobody wants to erode that. There is a tipping point, beyond which the postseason would begin to draw life out of the regular season. Nobody knows what that tipping point is, but it's not four. We know that. It could be eight, and it could be 16.”
Massive TV ratings or not, here’s hoping we don’t get to it.