NCAA, College Football, the BCS, and Education: Are they connected?

The time of year is upon us once again.  It’s not Thanksgiving or Christmas, but the time for predictions and conversations about who is the best college football team.  Every year these discussions forge unlikely coalitions and start or escalate feuds among family and friends.  Of course the BCS portion of the debate has only been around since 1998.  Before the creation of the BCS, we had the Bowl Alliance which ran from 1995 to 98 after it replaced the Bowl Coalition which had run from 1992-95.  Before that, the polls determined the champion.  Regardless of method, few seem satisfied or reached agreement year to year.  For example, in 1984, BYU became the national champ after its victory in the Holiday Bowl over a 6 and 5 University of Michigan team.  Since then, national champs have always been from one of the “major” conferences.  On more than 10 occasions, there were split championships with the 2 major polls choosing different teams.  Occurrences of this split took place in the years 1954, 1957, 1965, 1970, 1973, 1974, 1978, 1990, 1991, 1997, and even with the BCS in 2003.

The game then (at least in some recollections):

College football has changed over the years.  Famed sports writer Grantland Rice created a mythical image with his description of Notre Dame versus Army on 18 October 1924:  “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.”  For some today, the game apparently seems to be on the level of the apocalypse, but for others perhaps the more light-hearted depiction by Andy Griffith in 1953 is applicable.  Most are probably are probably like me and within those diverse boundaries.

The game now (at least in some perceptions)

Today college football, at least the NCAA Division I FBS version, is an enormous marketing and financial quagmire allegedly focused on 85+ “student-athletes” per school who are compensated with financial assistance (most at this level full scholarships) to attend their respective university.  The basic guidelines of Division I Athletics for this season can be read in a mere 430 pages.

What was once an extracurricular activity has morphed into a business.

Have we reached the tipping point yet?

Some will argue that the football team has become the university with the academic and research components being relegated to extracurricular activities.   Despondently, that assessment has a seemingly increasing degree of validity as evidenced in both budgeting and promotional priorities.   Likewise, the argument that student-athletes are exploited as they generate revenue for the NCAA, corporate sponsors, and others but not for themselves as amateur athletes is often heard.  Sadly, for some players that may be accurate.  Let us not forget, however, that regardless of sport, the vast majority of individuals receiving athletic scholarships use that financial assistance in the same manner of other students to obtain an education and to try and earn a degree.  For those students, their images and name recognition carry no immediate monetary value.  They will never achieve the professional level in their athletic sports, but will become professionals as a result of the academic and research components of their respective schools.

Who is the champion?

Even though championships have always been sought in athletics, as noted earlier, Division I Football does not have a “March Madness” as basketball or College World Series as baseball.  There are no tournaments or playoffs as in other sports or even as the smaller colleges and universities in lower divisions have for their collegiate football.  We have had all these aforementioned systems, and will see new “4 team playoff structure” replacing the current BCS in 2014-15.

The Bowl Championship Series (BCS)

BCS Selections History

BCS Bowls History

Perhaps even more so than prior systems, the BCS is an example of simultaneous triumph and tragedy with its complexity and intense secrecy behind computer programming data.  No study has been made to my knowledge, but I suspect that it is easier to obtain agreements on Capitol Hill between political parties than to find agreements on which teams should be ranked 1 and 2 or even 3 and 4 whether using computers or human polls.  Sure, there will be agreement if your team is chosen or loud voices of disapproval if your team is the one left out, but otherwise prepare to debate.

I find the current BCS system twisted with so many secret variables and ways for the system to indulge itself and gorge on those who either care not or do not have the time or training to turn the mountains into plains.  Historically, it strikes a similarity to the old sharecroppers’ contracts, literacy tests following the disenfranchisement constitutions, or fine print of current credit or wireless contracts, where the person writing the documents or at the service desk has the power to determine its interpretation.  These videos we produced last year are definitely not technological wonders from a viewing perspective.  Actually, I would turn away from the graphical aspects to create a timey radio aspect.  If you take the time to listen, however, they are some of the simplest and clearest explanations of the different BCS components.

BCS Process Simplified Part 1

BCS and Human Polls Simplified

BCS computers Simplified.mp4

BCS Strength of Schedule.mp4

BCS Conclusion.mp4

BCS Title 2011: Should there be a Rematch

Video critiques aside (I did play a part so please direct any and all criticisms at me), I would like to offer  kudos to a group of elementary students and retirees for the graphical ideas, and to another senior citizen in age, but a child at heart, a teenager in activity, and always a hardheaded and wise veteran and shrimp boat captain, who has always provided me with a pat on the back or a kick in rear (most often) depending upon what he “reckoned I could use” at the time, for working with the kids and providing much of the commentary.  I’ll always see cinematic genius in the clips not from the finished product, but from the interactions of multiple generations listening and learning from each other in the process.  Also it is nice to watch the innocence of a child bring the gentleness from inside a “tough ole goat” (per self description) to the outside for all to see.  (Note to self that my reminding him of that fact results in a kick in the rear).

Some personal thoughts

Admittedly, I am a huge sports fan, but in many ways I think too much attention is placed on the importance of athletics in society.  There are some negative stereotypes and publicity about college athletes, but I give the majority of these men and women credit.  I have been blessed in my own personal experiences with student-athletes.  I’ve taught quite a few who eventually played in the NFL, NBA, WNBA, and MLB as well as others who played in the CFL, European basketball leagues, or remained in the minor leagues in baseball.  Of course, I’ve taught more who never played after college, but used their scholarships to earn degrees and are now working in a vast array of careers.

Student-athlete myth and reality

Contrary to the opinion of some, one commonality from my experiences was that those who were “stars” in the conference for their athletic prowess and made it professionally rarely if ever missed class, met assignment deadlines, and were respectful to their classmates and to me.  It was those who never made it to that “star level” athletically, but who expected to receive special treatment for being an athlete who did the poorest in the classroom.  That is the common thread within the performances of student-athletes and any other type of student.  The individual and fundamentals remain the determining factors.

Learning from a student

It was years ago, but I’ll always remember the words of another young country boy on the baseball team back when I first began teaching my own lecture sections as a graduate student.  I was only 5 years older than him, and outside of physical size, he and I were very similar in our upbringings amongst crops and being influenced so much by our grandparents’ generation.  This young man was a whiz with numbers but struggled with writing.  I still regard him as one of the hardest working students I ever encountered in my teaching history, and he and I shared his pride for earning a high “B” grade in that history section.  One of his classmates and teammates, said why bother, you won’t make an “A,” and you’re just wasting time talking with the teacher because you will make more money in your first year than he probably will in his lifetime.  That young man quietly said, I won’t be able to throw a baseball 95 mph forever, and once I can’t, I want to be able to do something I like just like Mr. R.  He doesn’t treat me any differently because I can throw a baseball, and I’m not treating him or anyone else differently because they aren’t 6’4’’ and 225.  Rotator cuff injuries kept his MLB career short, but he received his degree in winter session classes while still playing ball, returned to his family farm and became a teacher and coach at a neighboring small rural high school.

Unfortunately, I do not know what became of his classmate following his college career but hopefully it has been as productive as the “star.”  I guess just like everything else if you don’t slide toward one extreme or the other, the opportunities created by college athletics and the lessons learned through both participation and observation can indeed make the world a little better in my opinion.  In the end does being champion matter as much as the lessons learned and experiences encountered along the path?  Of course that question will most likely wait till the conclusion of the BCS debate.