The debate about whether or not the NCAA should stage a Division I-A college football playoff is about as old as Joe Paterno's tinted, Coke-bottle glasses.
While such discussions have been raging for years, mostly hypothetical in nature, a new wrinkle in the longstanding, controversial issue has materialized in recent months.It's a big wrinkle, too -- big as in $3 billion big. It's spokesman Jim Wheeler, who has been crisscrossing the country this year lobbying for the NCAA to scrap the current bowl system in favor of a 16-team football tournament that would decide a legitimate champion and provide a mind-boggling windfall, to the tune of $3.006 billion over eight years, for all Division I-A football institutions.
So who is Jim Wheeler, and how can he parade those bold promises and astronomical figures in front of the nation's athletic directors, conference commissioners and university presidents?
Wheeler, a 30-something University of Oklahoma graduate and former Sooner wrestler, is the vice president of International Sports and Leisure, a global marketing corporation based in Lucerne, Switzerland. Among the ISL's current client base includes the women's World Cup soccer and pro tennis' ATP Tour.
Established by the founders of adidas athletics equipment, ISL is a privately held mega-company laden with vast capital and vast resources.
The firm is guaranteeing $3.006 billion to Division I-A football schools over eight years in exchange for the right to promote and put on a college football playoff. That would mean $300 million a year into the coffers of the 112 Division I programs. Their total bowl take now is about $135 million.
Wheeler knows his proposal is far from being a done deal and even if the offer were accepted by the NCAA, a football playoff is several years away from being implemented. "So far, I've just stirred the waters," Wheeler told the Deseret News this week.
Yet ISL has caught the attention of numerous athletic administration officials. ISL's proposal would do much more than crown an undisputed champion every year (like every other NCAA sport). It would also create a more level fiscal playing field for all Division I programs.
Indeed, ISL's plan would help mitigate the financial problems faced by many schools that are cutting men's sports to start up women's teams to comply with Title IX guidelines -- such as what BYU did earlier this year when it decided to drop men's gymnastics and wrestling.
By the same token, the NCAA itself is struggling financially. It recently lost a $54 million lawsuit in a restricted-earnings case. Of course, NCAA schools are forced to foot the bill for those losses.
Therefore, even though the ISL plan may sound too good to be true, plenty of ADs are buying into it.
"It's tough to argue with," said outgoing BYU athletic director Rondo Fehlberg. He, along with Utah's Chris Hill and six other Mountain West Conference athletic directors, listened to Wheeler's presentation at the league's inaugural meetings in April.
"I was impressed by the proposal," Hill said.
Wheeler is in the process of visiting all the conferences to pitch ISL's proposal. The MWC seems to be solidly in favor of the plan he is placing on the table. The league is "100 percent" behind it, Fehlberg said.
"The way I understand (the proposal), it would be a good thing for our league," he added. "The MWC would support a playoff proposal, subject to our presidents' ratification. The situation we're in, not just as a conference but as the NCAA, almost requires us to look very carefully at an NCAA playoff."
Powerful conglomerates like Nike and Disney have floated similar playoff propoals before, but theirs didn't promise this type of monetary largess. ISL hasn't detailed how it would be able to pay $300 million a year, but it is presumed that much of that would come from television dollars, sponsorships and merchandise sales. And given its resources overseas, ISL would likely sell TV rights through pay-per-view packages throughout the world, especially Asia, Australia and Europe, where American football is becoming more popular.
Wheeler says his company has already secured a bank line-of-credit for $3 billion. "The money is already there."
Under the plan, conference champions and at-large selections would be able to compete for the national championship, similar to the NCAA basketball tournament. The first two rounds of the 16-team playoff would begin at home sites in mid-December and go through New Year's Day. The major bowls would remain intact by playing host to the semifinals and championship game in mid-January. Other bowls would perform a role similar to college basketball's NIT for schools that do not qualify for the playoffs.
Wheeler won't say much more about the proposal, however. He won't say who he's approached about it. He's keeping much of the plan under wraps, at least publicly, while he meets with the NCAA movers and shakers, like ADs, conference commisioners and university presidents, and won't be making public all the details about the playoff idea until later this fall, he said.
How is his message being received? "From the feedback I've had," he said, "I'm encouraged to continue."
For many athletic administrators and college football fans, Wheeler's words are welcome. The current bowl structure, including BCS computer rankings, is confusing and, some say, unfair and downright un-American. As it stands now the big six conferences (Pac-10, Big 10, Big 12, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big East) are an exclusive fraternity, all affiliated with the Bowl Championship Series, which delivers hundreds of millions of dollars to their member schools every year. The four BCS bowls -- the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta -- pay out a combined $46.8 million, all of which remains in the hands of the six major conferences. The Pac-10, for instance, took in $16.4 million and the SEC received $53.1 million in 1998.
Then there are conferences like the MWC and Western Athletic Conference, which are basically shunned by the BCS and must settle for lower-tier and lower-paying bowls. Last season, the final for the 16-team WAC, the WAC had four bowl teams and earned $3.6 million.
This inequity has not gone unnoticed.
"A college football playoff is going to have to happen," Hill said. "We're not anti-bowls. Our conference feels that a playoff is where the future of college football lies. We need to have an open mind."
"Bowls have been good for college football," Fehlberg said. "But the money has gotten so big, I can't see how the NCAA can stay out of (going to a playoff) in good conscience."
Of course, school presidents, who make up the NCAA governing body, decide such matters and they don't seem to be eager to embrace a playoff. They have studied playoff models for years. As recently as last July, a motion to revisit the playoff issue was struck down.
By grabbing Wheeler's plan, the NCAA would relinquish control of college football's postseason party to a middle man in ISL, which the presidents might be loath to do. Besides, change is difficult when a system that is lucrative for a select few is in place. Some of those schools will likely resist the revolutionary change Wheeler is championing.
Even if the playoff system were adopted, the ealiest it could begin is 2002, when the BCS contract runs out with the Big East, SEC, ACC and Big 12. The BCS commitment with the Big 10 and Pac-10, meanwhile, extends through 2006.
BCS director Roy Kramer said earlier this week he is not completely opposed to a playoff format. In the same breath, he added that a firm based in Switzerland is not the one to do it. Nor does Kramer believe college football should be competing head-to-head against the National Football League in mid-December.
Plus, he said, a playoff would destroy the game's tradition and history. "College football is built on the regular season," Kramer explained. "Tennessee-Alabama, Georgia-Florida, Florida-Florida State, USC-Notre Dame, Michigan-Ohio State -- that's the guts of college football, the backbone. If you put your eggs in the playoff basket, we deflate this."
Other playoff opponents have argued over the years that the college football season is already too long and that student-athletes' academic pursuits would suffer (although those same opponents don't seem to have a problem with the NCAA basketball tournament).
On the other hand, playoff proponents say the current system is broken and is in dire need of fixing. They point to the fact Division I-AA as well as Divisions II and III successfully utilize a playoff format. They worry that the bowl structure is crumbling, what with declining attendance rates and plummeting TV ratings. Not to mention a glut of bowls with little national interest (there were 22 in 1998-99, featuring 44 teams).
Don't even get proponents started on the injustice they feel is inherent in the current bowl system. The design of the BCS is to set up a one-versus-two, winner-take-all, national championship game. After that, the other major bowls then have their pick of the remaining teams to play in their games.
Last season, unbeaten Tulane was left out of the BCS mix, to the surprise of exactly no one. And remember the plight of Kansas State (a Big 12 school, no less)? The Wildcats' only defeat prior to the bowls came in double overtime in the Big 12 championship game. They went from being ranked No. 3 and on the brink of playing for a national title to being relegated to the Alamo Bowl.
Closer to home, BYU fans will never forget that their Cougars went 13-1 in 1996 when they were denied admittance into the then-Bowl Alliance.
But the bottom line in the decision regarding Jim Wheeler and ISL very well could be the bottom line. Money.
"The upside outweighs the downside with the revenue potential and exposure," Fehlberg said. "In the end, the size of potential revenue will be difficult to fight against."
Will Wheeler's plan eventually become a big part of the college football landscape? "It has a chance," Fehlberg said.
The debate rages on.