SAN DIEGO — Out of one of the hundreds of mundane committee meetings taking place here Tuesday in conjunction with the annual National Collegiate Athletic Assn. convention came a flurry of excited speculation over a routine plan for a routine study.
Because the subject of the proposed study is a national collegiate football championship playoff.
While sportswriters yelled "Stop the presses!" and bowl representatives predicted the death of college football as we know it, and network TV representatives started punching pocket calculators while warning about the saturation of the marketplace, Purdue Athletic Director George King, chairman of the postseason football committee that had caused the uproar, pleaded for perspective.
King explained that no actual steps had been taken toward establishing a national championship playoff in football, primarily because the committee had no authority to make such a move. His committee had simply appointed a subcommittee to do a study--the second in three years--so that a playoff could be discussed further at their meeting April 8-10.
And then if the committee decided to recommend to the NCAA Council that it back a football championship, the Council would have to put it to a vote of the NCAA membership, probably at the 1988 convention.
Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds, who will chair the study committee, and who took part in the last study that went nowhere, said that, in his opinion, the mood of this convention suggests that the championship would not be voted in, anyway.
So why would anyone want to initiate this study now?
Well, the excitement over the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship, between Penn State and University of Miami, had something to do with it, along with the fact that by moving from New Year's Day to Jan. 2 to get the TV money to make the game possible, the Fiesta Bowl showed that it is possible to tamper, at least a little bit, with the sacred bowl tradition.
No one wants to tamper with the bowl setup too much. Dodds was quick to point out that bowl games put about $41 million into the institutions.
But the Fiesta Bowl was such a success, indicating that the public interest is so high for that kind of a matchup, the idea keeps coming up, year after year. Influential coaches such as Penn State's Joe Paterno like the idea and keep it alive.
King said: "Because of the interest in the Fiesta Bowl this year, the numbers, the ratings, whatever, and the fact that the athletic directors (in their national association) have a committee working in that direction, our committee felt it was our responsibility to look into it."
King agreed with Dodds that the public has a keen interest in a national championship, adding that if his committee decides that it is not a good idea, at least he will be armed with facts for arguing why it is not a good idea.
Mickey Holmes, executive director of the Sugar Bowl, predicted that a national championship would cause bowl games to "go the way of the dinosaur." And Steve Lynch, secretary-treasurer of the Orange Bowl, said that it would "cripple college football as we know it."
Donn Bernstein, director of college sports for ABC-TV, said that, as a football fan, he'd love to see a national championship. But he was adamant about proceeding with caution because of the already-saturated TV market.
He also had some doubts about whether the membership of the NCAA would go for the idea. He was armed with some figures scrawled on the back of an envelope. "These are the results of a poll that we (ABC) took Nov. 24-29 on a written ballot to the chief executive officers of 105 Division I schools. We asked "Do you favor in some form a football playoff system?" Of the 105 responses, 36 said yes, 61 said no, 2 abstained and 2 did not respond."
That reflects the mood that Dodds mentioned--that the chancellors and presidents seem to be favoring cutbacks. There are resolutions to be discussed at this convention concerning cutbacks in coaching staffs, scholarships, recruiting periods and seasons.
Most are favored for cost-cutting reasons, so if there were money to be made on a playoff, that might sway opinions. But Bernstein is not so sure that there would be money to be made.
In some years, when the winner of one major bowl games finishes ranked No. 1 in one poll and the winner of another major bowl finishes ranked No. 1 in the other poll, then the plan being discussed here to have an NCAA selection committee name two teams for a playoff later in January would, indeed, be a major game worth a major television contract.
But what if the game between two No. 1-ranked teams or between a consensus No. 1 and a consensus No. 2 is played in a bowl game? What do you do two weeks later?
Dodds suggested that the NCAA's computer rankings, which consider strength of schedule and margins of victory, would come into play.
Bernstein said: "Will the public buy that? You have to consider the interest and the perception of the public. Just because you call a game a national championship, does that make it a national championship?
"This is not a gimme. It's not a chip shot. This year, there was a legitimate national championship game, and it was worth, ballpark figure, $5 million. Sure, and we tried to get it. When there is a national championship matchup, it's a hell of an event. I understand the reason for all the excitement.
"But what happens if it's not really there? You can't just anoint a game a national championship and assume that, therefore, it's worth millions of dollars.
"I think we have to be cautious here and think about what the marketplace will bear."
The test passed: NCAA officials are pleased with the results of their drug-testing program. Tracy Dodds' story, Page 8.